Are there Buddhist saints?

Lots of them. Every Buddhist tradition has its saints, though they aren’t canonized in any official way as they are in Catholicism. Basically, people who are considered saints in Buddhism are sages who became fully enlightened and are renowned for their holiness and compassion.

The earliest Buddhist saints were the enlightened monastics in the Buddha’s own community. Known as arahants (in Pali, the language of some of the earliest Buddhist texts) or arhats (in Sanskrit), they were contemporaries of the Buddha and followed his teachings. Many went on to teach others. Two of the most prominent disciples were Sariputra, renowned for his wisdom, and Maudgalyayana, famous for his psychic powers; in artistic representations they are frequently depicted flanking the Buddha.

As Buddhism spread across Asia, the traditions that evolved developed their own saints. Bodhidharma was a Chinese monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century CE and is believed to have brought Chan Buddhism from India to China. He is revered as a saint in Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian Buddhist schools. Dogen Zenji is another: a 13th-century master who introduced Zen (Chan) to Japan with its emphasis on sitting meditation, he was a prolific writer and is one of Zen’s most revered teachers.

Tibetan Buddhism, too, has its own array of saints, with legends telling of their extraordinary lives and the miracles they worked in order to demonstrate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings. Many of these figures, including Milarepa, Je Tsongkhapa, and Padmasambhava, who lived during the Middle Ages and feature in Tibetan Buddhist artworks, are invoked and visualized—as models of the enlightened mind—in a practice known as guru yoga (union with the teacher).

There are latter-day Buddhist saints as well, such as Ajahn Mun Buridhatta Thera (1870­­­–1949), a Thai meditation master who founded a Buddhist lineage known as the Thai Forest Tradition. His student Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo (1907­­–1961) was a great breath meditation teacher and is also considered a saint by many contemporary Buddhists in the Theravada tradition. In the Tibetan tradition, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–1991) is one of many 20th-century saints. Khyentse Rinpoche is revered for his thorough embodiment of the teachings and for being a terton (someone who reveals the location of secret teachings), and for his nonsectarian activity as a lineage holder in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.


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