The Celestial Boddhisattvas: Buddhist Deities?

In the past articles we said that the Mahayana vision of the universe expanded dramatically. It wasn’t anymore just a group of monks imitating the ideal of Siddharta Gautama, but began to imagine themselves as actors on a drama that was really cosmic in scope. The Mahayana begins to imagine a universe that is not populated just by human boddhisattvas, people like you and me, but also by celestial boddhisattvas and Buddhas that have infinitely greater power than we have.

The “Buddhist Deities”

These celestial boddhisattvas have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods. These are advanced practitioners, you might said, of the boddhisattva path, who have passed through the ten stages and achieved extraordinary superhuman powers.

These powers make it possible for celestial boddhisattvas to reside in the heavens, hence the name celestial. These powers also make it possible for them to function as the Buddhist equivalents of the Hindu gods, because here they are still operating under the traditional world view of India.

Buddhists insist, though, that these great boddhisattvas have gone so far from the Hindu gods in their power and in their understanding of reality, that is it not appropriate to think of them as being gods at all.

What we do then? We call the celestial boddhisattvas “Buddhist deities”, or call them simply celestial boddhisattvas to distinguish them from the Hindu gods.

How are they like?

What I’d like to do here is give you some indication of what these celestial boddhisattvas are like and how people are related to them in the practice of Mahayana devotion. There are many, as the world view of the Mahayana expanded, it became populated by celestial boddhisattvas. Some of them appear only in a few instances in Mahayana literature, but there are a few great celestial boddhisattvas that are worth mentioning.

Avalokiteśvara: The Lord of Compassion

The first one is Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara’s name is probably the most complicated name that we will mention. It is made of two parts, the word īśvara that means “lord”, and the word avalokita, that means “to look down”. The image that you have of Avalokiteśvara is a great celestial embodiment of compassion, standing up there in the heavens, and looking down on the people in this world.

Often in the text you read about Avalokiteśvara’s tears, as he sees the suffering of the people in this world.

In the Lotus Sutra, Avalokiteśvara is described as being a deity who takes on all sorts of different forms in order to manifest compassion to people in this world, specially to people who call on his name.

This idea of invoking the compassion of Avalokiteśvara often is involved in the simple practice of calling on the name of the deity himself. This simple practice actually leads us into the heart of the Mahayana. I sometimes think that the most basic form of religious practice, specially in theistic religious tradition, is simply to call on the name of the deity.

This basic expression of human piety in the face of the divine now makes its appearance in the Mahayana tradition for the first time.

This article is part of the series about Mahayana Devotion.

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