Are there saints in Buddhism? If so, who are they and how are they recognized?
The term “saint” is more commonly associated with holy persons in Catholicism, but there are certainly saints in Buddhism. But because Buddhism is not centrally organized, as is Catholicism, there is no official sanctioning body to designate sainthood in the various schools of Buddhism.
But there are many sages, masters, and wonder-workers, both historical and contemporary, who are referred to as Buddhist saints. And each Buddhist tradition and country has its own set who are recognized not by an official process of canonization but through popular recognition of their attainments. What they all have shared, according to the hagiography and lore grown up around their lives, are the universal spiritual virtues of extraordinary humanity–including love, compassion, morality, generosity, and selflessness–and extraordinary “otherness”–that is, wisdom and access to a transcendental, non-dual perspective. In Buddhist terms, they are often referred to as bodhisattvas or “selfless spiritual awakeners.”
The earliest example of Buddhist saints were the arhats (“liberated sages” in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts), the enlightened disciples of the Buddha who had completed their spiritual path. The tradition began with the Buddha’s two principle disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, who are often represented in Buddhist art as standing on either side of the seated Buddha. Sariputra was known for his extraordinary wisdom and discernment, and Maudgalyayana was renowned for his psychic powers and abilities. In the intervening millennia, holy men and women who were masters with remarkable sagacity and powers in keeping with the first arhats, have been recognized as what we in the West would call saints.
Even the Buddha performed miracles, such as when he filled the sky with myriad perfect replicas of himself during a debate with a Hindu miracle worker. But the Buddha always taught that miracles and supernatural powers were the showy side effects of spiritual development, and should not be used or displayed except to further the faith of doubters or to help those in dire need.
In the later Tantric tradition of India and Tibet, beginning in the first centuries after Jesus’ time and spanning a period of 1,500 years, ascetics who have come to be known as the mahasiddhas (realized and accomplished masters), lived saintly lives distinguished by magical powers. The best known lived during the Middle Ages, and have been sanctified as the 84 Mahasiddhas. What marked them, apart from their enlightenment, was that they came from wildly divergent backgrounds and social classes and used unorthodox methods to show that supreme liberation can take many and sundry forms. The adept Tandhepa, for one, started out as a compulsive gambler who lost all his money but became enlightened when he grasped the notion that the universe was as empty was his pockets.
Even today, there are teachers in the Tibetan tradition who fall into the mahasiddha category. I have had the extreme good fortune of meeting and studying with some of them, such as my late root guru, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, who was clairvoyant and a miracleworker, and the greatest lama I have ever met.lojong, which means “mind training” or “attitude adjustment,” techniques to Tibet, stressing the awakening of “buddha-mind” (bodhicitta) in both ethical living and contemplative life.
And then there is the 12th-century saint Milarepa, Tibet’s greatest yogi, poet, and miracleworker who could reportedly fly as well as keep himself warm while wearing nothing but a cotton robe. He also reportedly turned green from decades of ascetic Himalayan cavedwelling, subsisting mainly on boiled wild nettle soup,sd which lent him his fabled hue. One of Milarepa’s contemporaries was Machik Labdron, the only female founder of an extant Tibetan Buddhist practice lineage, Chod (literally “cutting,” which refers to ego cutting through radical meditation practices). The two preeminent 14th-century scholar and yogi saints Longchenpa and Tsongkhapa remain among the most highly venerated Tibetan sages today. In the same category is Atisha, the 11th-century Indian abbot who brought the
One of my personal favorites is the 15th-century sage and renaissance man Thangton Gyalpo, known as the “Master of the Mountain Wilderness.” In addition to being a yogi, alchemist, and meditation master who reputedly lived to the age of 125, he was also an engineer who invented a process for refining iron ore and designed and built iron chain-link bridges that still span valleys and chasms throughout Tibet. As a lama, he disseminated his own visionary revelations on how to practice Tantric meditations of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Love and Compassion, which were taught to me by the Lama Kalu Rinpoche and are still widely practiced today.Amitabha) school; Nichirin, father of the eponymous Nichiren sect or Lotus School School in 13th-century in Japan; and Fuji-san, the living head of the Nichiren today.
As I mentioned, each Buddhist tradition has its own set of saints, holy persons, and spiritual exemplars. One of the most prominent of saints in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism is the sixth-century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, who founded the Zen or Ch’an school in China. In the 13th century, Dogen Zenji helped bring Zen from China to Japan, and widely disseminated it through his lucid, poetic teachings, writings, and with the establishment of monastic traditions; he remains that country’s greatest religious personality. Others in Japan who are considered extraordinarily masterful and loving sages include Kukai (Kobo Daishi), 774-835, who was the founder of the Tantric Vajrayana “Shingon” sect and opened the first school for peasant children in Japan; Shinran, the 12th-century founder of the Japanese Pure Land (
In the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, the notion of sainthood is not so readily embraced–most practitioners look to the historical arhats as exemplars, and there is no tradition in Theravada such as that of the mahasiddhas. But some lineages have developed cults around the relics of such great masters as Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro, a great Thai adept and monk in the Forest tradition. Moreover, there are countless stories of great Theravadin monks and teachers performing miracles, healings, and mind reading. But they are not canonized in the way that, say, saints in Tibetan culture have been.
I still feel somewhat skeptical about miracles, though I have witnessed events for which there is no other explanation. Once, in the early 1980s, my guru, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, performed longevity empowerments for my French monk-brother’s father, who was in the final stages of cancer, and he remarkably enough lived another 10 years. My friend’s father was not a believer but was converted to faith during the years when this miraculous healing became obvious. The 16th Karmapa also healed a Tibetan lady I knew in Gangtok, Sikkim, in a similar fashion; on another occasion in the 1960s, at the consecration of his newly rebuilt monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim, the Karmapa also reportedly raised a large flagpole, using telekinesis.
Tibetan Buddhist history is peppered with historical saints. One was the Indian adept Shantideva, who in the eighth century C.E. wrote the classic Mahayana Buddhist text “Entering the Bodhisattva Path of Enlightenment” (Bodhicharyavatara). Still widely used as a teaching text in Tibetan Buddhism, it is a guide for beginners and lay students to developing the aspiration to free all sentient beings. Another, Padma Sambhava, whose name means “Lotus-Born” and refers to the legend of his birth from a lotus blossom, is said to have walked from India in the eighth century to help found Buddhism in Tibet and create its Dzogchen tradition.kuding, at his funeral in Nepal in the late 1980s. I was among the witnesses, along with one of my most doubtful friends, who came away with a very different attitude!
Throughout the Buddhist world, the cremated remains of enlightened beings are said to leave extraordinary relics, and many can be seen in reliquaries at monasteries and temples in Asia and the West. Extraordinary events often occur at their cremations and funerals, too. The late Dzogchen master Dudjom Rinpoche displayed countless rainbows around his embalmed remains, known as
The Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh are among the most saintly Buddhist sages we have today.The 14-year-old Gyalwa Karmapa, who escaped from Tibet to India in January, is one to watch, too. They say that if you chant his name-mantra, “karmapa Khyenno,” you will generate auspicious karma, increase your spiritual aspirations and devotion, and meet him in this lifetime (I’m sure that this is true). By chanting their mantras and invoking their presence, Tibetans pray to Buddhist saints for blessings, inspiration, and guidance–a graceful, devotional practice known as guru yoga.