Dharma Rain - Dharma School Manual
Our Five Main Dharmic Themes
Theme #2: Bodhisattvas
Bodhisattvas are traditional personified images representing various archetypes
of enlightened activity, each with their own particular emphasis and style.
They are described as beings who are almost fully enlightened buddhas, but
who choose to remain in the world to help other beings. They symbolize great
wisdom and spiritual attainment coupled with complete selflessness and generosity.
Images of bodhisattvas are frequently found on Buddhist altars, where they
remind us of our highest aspirations. Bodhisattvas are not like Catholic
saints in that they are not supposed to have been real historical individuals.
However, at times, people — both children and adults — find inspiration
or take solace in envisioning bodhisattvas as having a very real presence
in their lives. The founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, attributed his survival
through a storm on the sea of Japan to Kanzeon’s benevolent assistance.
An excellent source of information on bodhisattvas is Taigen Leighton’s
Faces of Compassion.
Using bodhisattva imagery to teach children is particularly easy because
the bodhisattvas provide rich imagery and many examples of compassionate,
and generous behavior. Most of the bodhisattvas have fascinating and colorful
stories and legends associated with them, and the iconography alone contains
great teaching. After leading a class focused on a description of a bodhisattva,
teachers will find material for subsequent classes by telling stories of real
people who embodied similar aspects, or may even find or make up stories in
which the bodhisattva plays a role. Throughout the ages the genders of the
Bodhisattvas have changed or been ambiguous, so teachers of the boys’ and
girls’ grade school groups tend to choose images and genders that their
kids can relate to. For example, the girls love the beautiful Japanese image
of the feminine Kanzeon, while the boys enjoy the masculine Vajrayana image
of Avalokiteshvara (the same Bodhisattva of compassion), who has eleven heads
and a thousand arms.
Manjushri (or Monju) is the bodhisattva of wisdom and is typically found
on the central altar in Zen meditation halls. Sometimes he is shown carrying
sword of wisdom, which can cut through delusions. He rides a lion or similar
beast, which he tamed through the use of wisdom rather than force (so he carries
no whip or reins). Manjushri’s wisdom is deep spiritual wisdom, not just
knowledge about all kinds of things. Leighton suggests (in Faces of Compassion)
that modern expressions of the Manjushri archetype include Einstein, Gloria
Steinem and Winston Churchill.
Kanzeon (also known as Avalokiteshvara, Kannon and Kuan Yin) is the bodhisattva
of compassion. As mentioned earlier, this bodhisattva has been portrayed as
both male and female. Kanzeon means “observer of the sounds of the world.” In
many cases she is portrayed as being ready (and able) to respond in an instant
with whatever is needed, which is why Avalokiteshvara is portrayed as having
a thousand arms – often with an eye in the palm of each hand. Even more
compelling, however, is the image of this bodhisattva as always present, always
listening and watching. One legend says that Avalokiteshvara once had only
one head, but he observed so much suffering in the world that his head blew
up. The gods put him back together, but this time with eleven heads so he could
face every direction at once. Leighton names the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa
as obvious modern examples of this archetype.
Samantabhadra (or Fugen) is the bodhisattva of loving activity. He is portrayed
riding an elephant, a creature of great strength, faithfulness and ability.
He symbolizes a third essential aspect of practice (along with wisdom and compassion):
skill in means, or effectiveness in putting theory into practice. He is energetic
and effective, though he always remains grounded in wisdom and compassion for
all sentient beings. In a modern setting, this bodhisattva can be pictured
as working for long-term change; Leighton associates Mahatma Gandhi, Martin
Luther King and Rachel Carson with this archetype.
Jizo (or Kshitigarbha) is a bodhisattva of protection, particularly for children,
women, and travelers. He has made a vow to be present for all suffering beings,
no matter where they are – particularly if they are in very difficult,
hellish circumstances. He is portrayed as a bald-headed monk, often with a
traveler’s staff. He is a simpatico figure, which may explain why, in
Japan, Jizo statues are often chosen as memorial markers for children who have
died. Leighton names Elie Wiesel, Toni Morrison and Thich Nhat Hanh as modern
exemplars of the Jizo archetype.
A less well-known figure, Fudo, makes it on our bodhisattva list. He is one
of those associated Buddhist deities that has come to us through the ages,
and has a special place in our lineage. Images of Fudo are especially intriguing
to the boys; he is a sturdy, muscular character with an immensely fierce expression.
Two sharp teeth stick out from between his lips; one points up and the other
points down. His hands are clenched into fists — one of them around a
rope, which is for binding delusions, and the other around a sword, which is
for cutting through and thus ending the delusions. He is surrounded by flames
that reach up above his head because he is standing on a rock in hell. His
vow is to stay put until all the beings there are freed. In this his concern
is not unlike Jizo’s, but his approach is notably different. One modern
exemplar of this archetype that springs to mind is Malcolm X.
Other traditional Buddhist figures can be included in the Bodhisattva category
with little confusion on the part of the children. These include Shakyamuni
Buddha (focusing on his tireless teaching career or on his “previous
lives” as a bodhisattva), Prajnaparamita (the archetype of non-discriminating
wisdom, who is the “mother” of all buddhas), Vimalakirti (a famous
and accomplished lay student of the Buddha), Maitreya (the buddha yet to come
to this world), Tara (a female Vajrayana deity who is related to Avalokiteshvara),
and Hotei (the well-known fat, laughing “buddha” often portrayed
in statues, who was a Chinese monk).