Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Is there such a thing as a Buddhist saint?

Nearly all of the Mahayana denominations look to embodiments of holiness for guidance, inspiration, and even the occasional miracle. Japanese Buddhists call some of these figures shonin, an honorific designation bestowed especially on patriarchs and founders of lineages and denominations. A group called the “Eighteen Lohans” (lohan is derived from the Sanskrit term arhat) are set apart from the Buddha’s earliest disciples as uniquely sacred because of their unselfish commitment to spreading the Dharma rather than retiring into peaceful solitude. Theravada tradition still uses the term arhat (“worthy one”) to refer to a living embodiment of sanctity and wisdom. But the arhat remains an ethical model only, and a rather distant ideal at that. Mahayana teaching sees the Bodhisattva as the ultimate in human potential. Some even confer the title on living individuals, such as the Dalai Lama. Bodhisattvas not only model spiritual perfection, but function as mediators as well. As emissaries of the various Buddhas, they exercise saving power and make comforting grace available to all who ask.


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