Home » Letters » Are All Buddhas, Bodhisattvas & Gods The Same?

[1] Buddhas, Bodhisattvas & Gods

By definition, gods are spiritually lesser than Bodhisattvas, who are lesser than Buddhas. The average god has more positive karma than the average human due to past good done, while Bodhisattvas can be anyone training to guide one and all to Buddhahood, which is the attainment of True Happiness with the perfection of compassion and wisdom. (Arhats are those who attained self-liberation through the Buddha’s teachings.) Usually, the term ‘Bodhisattva’ is reserved for great Bodhisattvas like Guan(shi)yin (Avalokiteshvara) Bodhisattva instead of ordinary beginner or average Bodhisattvas. Buddhism does not subscribe to belief in any creator God, while the Buddha did clearly explain the origin of such a belief.

[2] Great Compassion Mantra

To understand more about possible correlations of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and gods, let us look at the Great Compassion Mantra (大悲咒), which some erroneously assume to contain all Buddhas’ names. With other embedded teachings such as salutations and instructions, the mantra (a string of sacred syllables summarising the Buddha’s teachings) contains the names of 84 possible manifestations of Guanyin Bodhisattva. This is just a sampling, as the great Bodhisattva, having immeasurable compassionate skilful means, can have boundless manifestations. Since there are countless Buddhas, it is impossible to list every one of them in the mantra. For example, more than 10,000 Buddhas’ names were taught in the ‘The Sutra Spoken By The Buddha On 10,000 Buddhas’ Names’ (佛说万佛名经).

[3] 84(000) Manifestations Of Guanyin Bodhisattva

In a sense, the 84 manifestations are an expanded list of the 33 manifestations listed in ‘The Universal Door Chapter Of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva.’ (观世音菩萨普门品: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2014/05/the-universal-door-of-guanyin-bodhisattva-3rd-run) As a summary, Guanyin Bodhisattva, being with perfect meritorious virtues, can manifest as any person (enlightened or seemingly unenlightened), event (e.g. supernormal and natural phenomena like the sound of falling leaves for spiritually awakening someone) or even thing. The Bodhisattva can manifest as Arhats, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, gods and even demons – so long as the form is deemed the most skilfully appropriate in the moment.

[4] Not All Are Guanyin Bodhisattva

Although Guanyin Bodhisattva can manifest as a particular being at times, it does not mean that any or every being is her manifestation all the time. For example, we know that we are not the Bodhisattva, which is why we practise to emulate her. We all have Buddha-nature similar to Guanyin Bodhisattva, but we have not realised its true and total potential yet, only occasionally in sync with and expressing the heart of compassion. This is why we should never mistaken ourselves to be equivalent to the Bodhisattva. To assume any god, human or whosoever come across to be a perfect representation of Guanyin Bodhisattva, or any other Bodhisattva or Buddha is to make the severe mistake of thinking ‘anything goes’. There are also strict rules given by the Buddha, to avoid confusion, on how true Bodhisattvas should and should not manifest.

[5] Perfect Compassion

Some beginners lacking adequate study of the Buddha’s teachings think all gods, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are one and the same, with no need to differentiate them individually. This misunderstanding arises from thinking that they all embody and express similar compassion (goodness) and wisdom (truth). Any proficient student of religions would know that there are very different core concepts when it comes to different religions. Similarities seen are often on surface only. For example, perfect Buddhist compassion encompasses all sentient beings great and small, including animals and hell-beings, while many god-centric faiths see animals as ‘God-given’ foods and hell-beings as forever condemned and hopeless.

[6] Perfect Wisdom

Perfect wisdom (Prajna Paramita) as taught by the Buddha is uniquely found in its entirety only in Buddhism. If a Buddhist neglects the need to learn more about the nature of perfect compassion and wisdom, while superficially conflating various religions’ concepts, one will never advance towards the realisation of perfect compassion and wisdom. In short, one can never become a Buddha, a supreme ‘Teacher Of Humans & Gods’, among others. That the Buddha’s teachings are unique is exactly why we choose to take refuge in them, to be Buddhists. If one goes around insisting all religions are totally the same, not only is one not promoting religious harmony, one does injustice to each religion misrepresented.

[7] Guanyin Bodhisattva As Buddha

Back to the Great Compassionate Mantra, although it does not contain the individual names of all Buddhas, in essence it does. This is so as Guanyin Bodhisattva herself is an ancient Buddha (古佛) named ‘Tathagata Of Brightness Of The True Dharma’ (正法明如来), who chose to, out of great compassion, re-manifest as a Bodhisattva on the brink of Buddhahood to exemplify perfect compassionate activity to guide all beings to Buddhahood. As she is a Bodhisattva in name but a Buddha in essence, being one with the universal body of all Buddhas (Dharmakaya), she can thus manifest perfectly as any enlightened being. The Great Compassion Mantra also contains an embedded name of the Dharmakaya.

[8] The Name Of Amituofo

Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) also has an embedded name in the mantra. That said, mindfulness of Amituofo name, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra (Amituojing), is equivalent in effect, of being mindful of all Buddhas, as all Buddhas urge us to be mindful of Amituofo, while they are all mindfully protective of those who are mindful of Amituofo. This is a great skilful means to help us focus in our spiritual practice. Therefore, for those who find the Great Compassion Mantra difficult to memorise due to length, and difficult to practise due to the mind straying off easily, also due to length, they can simply focus on wholehearted mindfulness of Amituofo’s name to reach his Pure Land, especially when on the deathbed. (The Great Compassion Mantra can also guide beings to Pure Land.)

[9] Amituofo As Dharmakaya

Amituofo, being a Buddha, is of course of the Dharmakaya too. His name is reflected as the 89th Buddha in the ’88 Buddhas’ Great Repentance Text’ (八十八佛大忏悔文) – ‘[Homage to (and refuge in)] the Dharma realm’s Treasury Body Amita[bha/us] Buddha’ ([南无]法界藏身阿弥陀佛). This reminds us that Amituofo represents the Dharmakaya, especially since the root words of his name ‘Amita’ means ‘Immeasurable’, which means he also represents immeasurable Buddhas. Guanyin Bodhisattva can manifest as and represent Amituofo because she is already a Buddha. Also, being fully spiritually aligned, it is fitting that she does so to assist Amituofo to guide beings to his Pure Land, appearing as him when appropriate.

[10] Amituofo As An Unsurpassable Mantra

Although the Great Compassion Mantra does not contain individual names of all Buddhas, in spirit it does contain all their compassion, which is why it is called the Great Compassion Mantra. That said, in ‘The Sutra Spoken By The Buddha On The Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra Of Amita Buddha’ (佛说阿弥陀佛根本秘密神咒经), the Buddha also taught that Amituofo’s name is an unsurpassable (supreme) mantra (dharani) that contains all teachings that lead to Buddhahood. Amituofo’s name thus serves as a summation of all Buddhas and their teachings, just as other Buddhists mantras do in an interconnected way.

[11] Amituofo As A Specific Name

To summarise, we must have clear understanding of the Buddha’s unique teachings. If we assume they are the same as any other teaching, the pure Dharma becomes corrupted within our minds and when they misrepresented, thus failing to truly benefit oneself and others. As Buddhists, we should stick to mindfulness of the names and/or mantras of Buddhas and/or Bodhisattvas; and not the random name of any foreign god not advocated. Although Guanyin Bodhisattva can manifest as some gods when appropriate, one cannot reach Amituofo’s Pure Land through mindfulness of gods with delusion over what they stand for, while lacking the specific Three Provisions of right Faith, Aspiration and Practice.

[12] Amituofo As Focus

Especially relevant on the deathbed, as taught in the ‘Section On Mahasthamaprapta [Dashizhi] Bodhisattva’s Perfect Penetration With Mindfulness Of Buddha’ (大势至菩萨念佛圆通章), it is stated that – ‘If sentient beings’ minds recollect the Buddha [Amitabha; Amituofo], and are mindful of the Buddha, now or in the future, they will definitely see the Buddha.’ (若众生心,忆佛念佛,现前当来,必定见佛。) Being mindful of Amituofo’s name wholeheartedly, he will definitely manifest to receive and guide us to his Pure Land.

Being mindful of Guanyin (or Dashizhi) Bodhisattva wholeheartedly, she too will definitely manifest to bridge us to Amituofo’s Pure Land too, as long as the Three Provisions are adequate. Likewise applies to other Bodhisattvas with similar vows to do so. However, mindfulness of one of them will do for focus, with Amituofo being the most direct for reaching his Pure Land. This should not be confused with other religious practices, which might include prayers to gods (who might not exist) to reach heavens (which might not exist), not reaching where liberation is guaranteed.

Related Courses

The Universal Door Chapter Of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva
http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2014/05/the-universal-door-of-guanyin-bodhisattva-3rd-run
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http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2014/05/the-48-great-vows-of-amituofo-boundless-blessings-for-this-life-the-next-4th-run

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