Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Eight Great Bodhisattvas (Main Page)

Bodhisattva Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Description (below)
- Sutra Literature, Narrative
- Tantra Literature
- Four Holy Mountains of China
- Sukhavati Pureland
- Sixteen Great Bodhisattvas
- Bodhisattvas & Tantras
- Masterworks
- Confusions: Peaceful Appearance
- Others...

- Eight Great Bodhisattvas
- Bodhisattva: Three Definitions
- Garland of Jewels: The Eight Great Bodhisattvas (Book Review)

Eight Great Bodhisattva:
- Akashagarbha: Womb of Space Sutra
- Avalokiteshvara: Heart Sutra, Lotus of the Good Law Sutra
- Kshitigarbha: Earth Store Sutra
- Maitreya: mentioned in the Sutras as the next buddha
- Manjushri: Vimalakirti-nirdesha, Flower Garland, Prajnaparamita Sutras
- Nivarana-vishkhambhin
- Samantabhadra: Lotus of the Good Law Sutra, Flower Garland Sutra
- Vajrapani: Early Sutras

Sets Of Eight Great Bodhisattvas:
- Rinjung Lhantab
- Set 1 (Mongolian Pantheon)
- Sculpture Set 2 (Roerich Museum)
- Set 3 (300 Icons)
- Group of Sets 4 (Palpung Composition re-constructed set)
- Group of Sets 5 (Kham, Tibet)
- Sculpture Set (AMNH)
- Kham Style
- Others...

Bodhisattva (Tibetan: jang chub sem pa. English: heroic aspirant to enlightenment): idealized beings in the appearance of youthful and beautiful heavenly gods, richly attired in silks and jewels. They can be male or female and they represent the principal students of Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha Buddha and others, according to the Mahayana Sutras of Northern Buddhism. There are many bodhisattvas mentioned in the Sutras but the most famous and most commonly represented in art are the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. (See the full definition of the term Bodhisattva).

In 10th-13th century India there were several praises (stotra) composed by scholars and devotees glorifying the deeds of their favourite bodhisattva from Sutra literature. Tibetan tradition follows these various praises with four bodhisattva in particular being regarded as the most important; Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani and Maitreya.

Depictions of the eight bodhisattva are most often non-iconic and follow the artistic traditions of the time, art school, or choices of the artist. Non-iconic means they do not have fixed body colours, postures or hand attributes. Later traditions began to combine Tantric iconography with the non-iconic imagery of the Mahayana Sutra Bodhisattvas. For example Manjushri would be depicted as orange in colour and holding a sword in a variety of relaxed postures. Avalokiteshvara would be white in colour and holding a white lotus flower.

The first three bodhisattva also came to hold important positions in the early Tantras of the Kriya Classification and as a group are called the Three Lords of the Families, or Three Bodhisattva Lords (Tibetan: rig sum gon po). In this role the three take on fixed iconographic appearances as described in the specific Tantra literature.

Jeff Watt 8-2008 [updated 9-2017]


Garland of Jewels: The Eight Great Bodhisattvas, by Jamgon Mipham. Translated by Yeshe Gyamtso. KTD Publications, 2008. (Based on the text of Zhuchen Tsultrim Rinchen, 1697-1774).