There are immeasurable number of Bodhisattvas in Buddhism, however, in Buddhist sutras and in stories, some of the most known and popular Bodhisattvas are Avalokitesvara, Ksitigarbha, Samantabhadra, Manjushri, and Maitreya. Each Bodhisattva has a particular topic, or lesson, to teach us in the various sutras they’re in. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion teaches us about the power of compassion, patience, faith in ourselves, and equanimity. Maitreya is the honored future Buddha, he teaches us that we’re all capable of becoming a Buddha with practice, dedication, and determination.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva: Probably the most popular Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is depicted as both male and female with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes who embodies the great compassion of all Buddhas, and is known as the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. His name literally translating as “Lord who looks down,” or more notably known “the hearer of the cries”; the cries being of sentient beings who need his help.
Avalokitesvara has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in difficult times and has postponed his own Buddhahood until all sentient beings have reached Nirvana. Avalokitesvara is associated with many sutras and mantras including the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Great Compassion Mantra, and the six-syllable mantra.
Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra is dedicated to Avalokitesvara. A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitesvara are described, including female manifestations, all to suit the minds of various beings. For example, if a monk is about to attain some enlightenment, Avalokitesvara will appear to him as a monk. If a person needs a Buddha, Pratyekabuddha, a nun, or an ordinary person, Avalokitesvara will appear to them in those forms to help guide them to Enlightenment.
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva: Ksitigarbha is known for his sacred vow to free all sentient beings from hell until they are emptied. His name is usually translated as “Earth Treasure” or “Earth Store.” He is usually depicted as a monk with a halo around his shaved head, a staff to force open the gates of hell, and a wish-fulfilling jewel to light up the darkness.
Ksitigarbha is one of the four principal bodhisattvas in East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. The others are Samantabhadra, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara.
Manjushri Bodhisattva: Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom and is the oldest and most significant Bodhisattva in Mahayana literature. In his fundamental form he sits on a lotus holding a double-edged flaming sword (to cut through illusion) in his right hand and a blooming lotus that supports the manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra (to revealing the transcendent wisdom of Buddha’s teaching) in the left hand.
Manjushri first appears in Buddhist literature in Mahayana sutras, in particular the Lotus Sutra, the Flower Ornament Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra as as well as the Prajna Paramamita Sutras. Manjushri is associated with ordinary intelligence and mental acuity as well as transcendent Wisdom.
Maitreya Bodhisattva: Maitreya is the honored future Buddha who currently resides in the Tusita heaven; a heaven where all Bodhisattvas, even Shakyamuni Buddha, reside before their rebirth on earth to become Buddhas. He is also known to Westerners as the “fat Buddha,” “happy Buddha,” or “laughing Buddha.”
While practising as a bodhisattva, he specialized in the meditation on great love. He not only taught this path to others, but meditated on it continuously himself. He would often station himself at the gates of a city and contemplate on loving kindness. So powerful was his meditation that people coming and going through the gates, if they would pass close enough to touch his feet, would themselves receive the realisation of great love. This greatly pleased all the exalted beings of the ten directions. The Tathagatas rejoiced in his actions and predicted that in his future lives, as a Bodhisattva and as a Buddha, he would be known by the name “Love” (Maitreya). This is how he received his name.
He is recognized by wearing a small stupa in his headdress. His attributes may vary, and he may hold a vase or a wheel (cakra) placed on lotus flowers. A scarf is always tied around his waist. Sometimes an antelope skin covers his left shoulder. He often forms a triad with Sakyamuni and Avalokitesvara.
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva: Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, Universal Worthy, is often depicted riding a white elephant while holding a lotus in the right hand and a sutra in the left hand. Along with Sakyamuni Buddha and Manjushri Bodhisattva, Samantabhadra forms the trinity in Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, Samantabhadra is associated with meditation and Buddhist practice/action.
In the Āvataṃsaka-sūtra, the Buddha states that Samantabhadra Bodhisattva made ten great vows in his path to full Buddhahood. which are the basis of a Bodhisattva:
To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas.
To praise the Thus Come One-Tathagata.
To make abundant offerings (generosity).
To repent misdeeds and evil karmas.
To rejoice in others’ merits and virtues.
To request the Buddhas to continue teaching.
To request the Buddhas to remain in the world.
To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
To accommodate and benefit all living beings.
To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.
The ten vows have become a common practice in East Asian Buddhism, particularly the tenth vow, which many Buddhists traditionally dedicate their merit to all beings during Buddhist services.