Buddhism includes a wide array of divine beings that are venerated in various ritual and popular contexts. Initially they included mainly Indian figures such as vedic devas and yakshas, but later came to include other Asian spirits and local gods. They range from enlightened Buddhas to regional spirits adopted by Buddhists or practiced on the margins of the religion. Notably, Buddhism lacks a supreme creator deity however.
Buddhists later also came to incorporate aspects from countries such as China and Japan into their pantheons. As such, it includes many aspects taken from other mythologies of those cultures. For example, Saraswati is a Hindu Deva from Gandhara and the kami are considered to be local, Japanese bodhisattvas by many Japanese Buddhists.
A Buddha is a being who is fully awakened, and has fully comprehended the Four Noble Truths. In the Theravada tradition, while there is a list of acknowledged past Buddhas, the historical Buddha Sakyamuni is the only Buddha of our current era and is generally not seen as accessible or as existing in some higher plane of existence. Mahayana Buddhists however venerate several Buddhas, including Maitreya and Amitābha, who are seen as beings of great wisdom and power who preside over pure lands that one can travel to after death.
In Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana), there are five primary Buddhas: Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitābha, and Amoghasiddhi. Each is associated with a different consort, direction, aggregate (or, aspect of the personality), emotion, element, color, symbol, and mount. Other Buddhas besides these five include Bhaisajyaguru (the Buddha of medicine) and Nageshvara Raja (the king of the Nāgas).
There is also the idea of the Adi-Buddha, the "first Buddha" to attain Buddhahood. Variously named as Vajradhara, Samantabhadra and Vairocana, the first Buddha is also associated with the concept of Dharmakaya.
Buddhist Tantra also includes several female Buddhas, such as Tara, the most popular female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism, who comes in many forms and colors. Other female Buddha figures include Vajrayogini, Nairatmya, and Kurukullā.
In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is any being that has aroused bodhicitta (mind of awakening) and is thus working towards full Buddhahood. Bodhisattvas who are seen as powerful and highly advanced are also venerated in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. The most popular bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara also known as Guanyin (Japanese: Kannon) in East Asia, known as the bodhisattva of compassion.
In Theravada Buddhism, bodhisatta is a term used mainly for Sakyamuni Buddha before his awakening. It is also commonly believed that the future Buddha, Maitreya (Pali: Metteya) currently resides in Tavatimsa Heaven, and this figure is one of the few bodhisattvas who have a prominent place in Theravada.
The Wisdom Kings (Vidyārāja) are beings that are venerated in East Asian Buddhism and in Vajrayana Buddhism. They are often depicted with an aggressive or fierce appearance which symbolizes their power to get rid of negative forces. They are therefore an expression of the Buddha's compassion.
In East Asian Buddhism, The Five Wisdom Kings are often seen as emanations of the Buddhas. These five are:
The Yidam, or Ishta-devata, is a personal meditation deity. The Sanskrit word iṣṭadevatā or iṣṭadevaḥ is defined by V. S. Apte as "a favorite god, one's tutelary deity." Though this term is used in many popular books on Buddhist Tantra, the term işţadevatā has not been attested in any Buddhist tantric text in Sanskrit. The unrelated Tibetan version of the term, possibly of entirely native origin, is yi-dam is said to be a contraction of Tib. yid-kyi-dam-tshig, meaning "samaya of mind"- in other words, the state of being indestructibly bonded with the inherently pure and liberated nature of mind.
The Ishta-devata of Hinduism is an aspect of God for personal worship. In Buddhism, a Yidam is a manifestation of enlightenment and may take the form of Sambhogakāya Buddhas, tantric deities such as Dakinis, bodhisattvas, Dharma protectors (Dharmapalas) or other historical figures such as past gurus or religious leaders.
While some of these deities have a hideous and fierce appearance, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces. The ferocious appearance of these deities is used to instill fear in evil spirits which threaten the Dharma.
Devas are divine beings, though they are not all necessarily wise or on the Buddhist path and hence not final objects of refuge. They have very long lives which have much less suffering than humans, but are not immortal or immune from suffering. Some devas have no physical form and exist in the formless realms. None of the devas are creator gods, since Buddhism generally does not have a creator deity. They are also neither omniscient nor are they omnipotent, and so their knowledge and power is limited.
The Asuras, sometimes translated as Titans or Demigods, are often depicted as enemies of the Devas and fighting them in wars. They are said to have been defeated by the Devas, led by Sakra, king of the gods. They are often seen as being led by strong passions, such as hatred and greed.
Māra (literally meaning "death") refers to either a specific being, or to a class of beings, who are depicted as being antagonistic to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. As lord of the desire realm, Māra is depicted as working to keep beings under his control.
These are the lowest level of divinity. The name refers to the Four Heavenly Kings (Cāturmahārāja) who rule over this world along with the assemblage or multitude (kāyika) of beings that dwell there.
The Four Heavenly Kings are the leaders of various beings who reside here:
- Dhṛtarāṣṭra - Guardian of the East. Leader of the gandharvas and piśācas.
- Virūḍhaka - Guardian of the South. Leader of the kumbhāṇḍas and pretas.
- Virūpākṣa - Guardian of the West. Leader of the nāgas and pūtanas.
- Vaiśravaṇa - Guardian of the North. Leader of the yakṣas and rākṣasas.
The Yaksha are a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, who are caretakers of the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots. Having been worshipped in India since before the Vedic period, Hinduism adopted the worship of Yakshas like Kuber. Later their worship was adopted by Buddhism. In Jainism Yakshas were worshipped as Shasana Devatas from the beginning.
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- Nathaniel DeWitt Garson; Penetrating the Secret Essence Tantra: Context and Philosophy in the Mahayoga System of rNying-ma Tantra, page 43
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- ""The function of the Yidam is one of the profound mysteries of the Vajrayana... Especially during the first years of practice the Yidam is of immense importance. Yidam is the Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit word Istadeva-the indwelling deity; but, where the Hindus take the Istadeva for an actual deity who has been invited to dwell in the devotee's heart, the Yidams of Tantric Buddhism are in fact the emanations of the adepts own mind. "The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide to the Theory, Purpose, and Techniques of Tantric Meditation by John Blofeld. Penguin:1992
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