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Deities in Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism insists that Siddhartha Gautama was very definitely a human being, who achieved a final nirvana and died never to be reborn. When a Theravada devotee makes an offering to an image of the Buddha, this is not the act of divine worship but a means to gain karmic merit and to be reminded of the Buddha’s virtues, which one should strive to cultivate.

However, this does not mean that Buddhism has nothing resembling the deities of, for example, ancient Indian tradition. In the Mahayana tradition, those who progress to the highest stages of the path to buddha-hood— the bodhisattvas (“buddhas-to-be,” or “future buddhas”)—are said to accumulate such power from their many works of compassion and wisdom that they acquire the ability to act in a quasidivine manner. These extraordinary figures are known as “celestial bodhisattvas.” They can intervene miraculously in this world, and can even create heavenly realms where people may be reborn into bliss for reasons that depend as much on the compassion of the bodhisattvas as on the merit of the individual worshipper.

At the end of their careers as bodhisattvas they become “celestial buddhas” and attain even more remarkable powers. But many bodhisattvas deliberately postpone their buddha-hood in order to assist ordinary devotees on the path to nirvana.

The concepts of the celestial bodhisattva buddha made it possible for Mahayana Buddhism to develop an elaborate “pantheon” of deities. One of the most important is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (“Lord Who Looks Down”), who has been called the personification of the compassionate gaze of the Buddha. Avalokiteshvara’s compassion is invoked by pronouncing the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

In Indian Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara became associated with a female bodhisattva called Tara, who embodied the feminine side of his compassion. In China, where Avalokiteshvara is worshipped under the name Guanyin, the bodhisattva’s male and female identities became compounded, and Guanyin came to be worshipped mainly in female form. Tibetans feel a special kinship with Avalokiteshvara (in Tibetan, Spyan-rasgzigs, or Chenrezig). They claim that he has taken a vow to protect the nation of Tibet and is manifested in the person of every Dalai Lama.

Important celestial bodhisattvas also include Maitreya, the “buddha of the future age,” who will be the next bodhisattva to enter the world to become a buddha. Like Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya is said to rescue people in danger: in China, where he is called Mile Fo, messianic movements have at times proclaimed his imminent arrival and the transformation of society on Buddhist lines. Other celestial bodhisattvas are Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and Kshitigarbha, the consoler of the dead and protector of travelers, pilgrims, and children.

The best known celestial buddha is Amitabha (“Infinite Light”), who is said to have established a paradise, the “Pure Land,” on becoming a buddha. Anyone who chanted his name with faith, especially at the moment of death, would be reborn in the Pure Land and come face to face with Amitabha himself. Amitabha Buddha had a great impact in China and Japan, where he is called Amituo Fo and Amida Butsu respectively (fo and butsu = buddha). Indeed, during the Kamakura era (1185—1333CE), Amida became one of the most important elements in Japanese Buddhist life. The great reformer Shinran (1173—1263) made a radical claim about reliance on the grace of Amida rather than on one’s own efforts.

Other important gods include the physician-buddha Bhaishajyaguru (“Teacher of Healing”) and the “Sun Buddha” Vairochana (“Radiant”), the central buddha in many Tantric mandalas. He is identified with the sun and was important in the acculturation of Buddhism to Japan, where the sun goddess heads the Shinto pantheon.