Buddha” means “Awakened One” in Sanskrit; in Mahayana Buddhism, there are countless awakened beings—such as Amitabha—in addition to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who lived in India during the 5th century BCE. “Bodhisattva” is a being (sattva) who strives to attain awakening (bodhi) for the sake of all. A “mahasattva bodhisattva” like Avalokiteshvara is a “great being” or superlative representative of this class. Despite being closely linked, buddhas and bodhisattvas can be distinguished conceptually and iconographically. As Kamata and Shaw write: “Mahasattva Bodhisattvas inhabit the upper reaches of the path to enlightenment, including full awakening. The role of a Buddha is to manifest enlightenment itself, while the ministry of a Bodhisattva is to personify a given virtue or enlightened quality and engage in a more specialized mission to liberate beings in a selected way and elected environments.” (Circle of Bliss, 176.)

The labeled images below demonstrate how attributes, garments, and gestures help distinguish Buddha Amitabha from Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Buddha Amitabha Image: Vajra Publications



Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Image: Vajra Publications


Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), China, Tang dynasty; bronze with gilding; Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.250a-b.

Labeling composed and designed by Liqiao Li