There is a false dichotomy in Buddhism that we might fall for, when it comes to wondering if the great Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas) are real or not. Are they tangible individuals or merely archetypal expressions, being embodiments of precious qualities? For example, is Guanyin Bodhisattva an enlightened personality with great compassion, or is (s)he just a personification of all Buddhas’ collective and thus perfect compassion? Well, she is both. She has complete compassion exactly because she is the living representation of omnibenevolence for all beings.
The question is not how do we know this answer is right, but how should you personally know if this is so, for the proof of the pudding is in your eating, your tasting of it; not anyone else’s. In other words, we need to keep an open heart and open mind, to give room to the possibility that the countless miraculous accounts of devoted Buddhists throughout millennia, who have experienced her blessings are mostly true; since they are seldom diagnosed to suffer from hallucination and such, while they did practise mindfulness of Guanyin Bodhisattva most sincerely.
Of course, skeptical ones would propose that it is a trick of autosuggestion, that some seem to have connected to her. But till there is more proof to show how each of the faithful should be a non-believer, the burden of proof always lies more with the skeptics, who usually also refuse to practise accordingly for similar connection. It would somewhat be a case of a narrow-minded and water-dreading non-swimmer, who simply concludes that since swimming ‘cannot’ be enjoyable, all swimmers are out of their minds, even when they are experienced experts masterful of swimming.
While the intellectually inclined might think it is arbitrary, whether to think of the great Bodhisattvas as existent or not, since it is the essential qualities they stand for that matters more, this is only semi-appropriate. Of course, for the faithfully inclined, the great Bodhisattvas’ existence is beyond doubt. Again, there is a false dichotomy here – of the head versus the heart. The truth is, for Buddhahood (supreme enlightenment) to be realised, we need to marry reason and emotion, while nurturing them to be the best they can be, e.g. to become perfect wisdom and compassion.
It is thus of utmost importance to acknowledge the existence of great Bodhisattvas – for two key reasons. First, to clearly see the awesome spiritual state of great Bodhisattvas as ideal to us and attainable by us at the same time. Without having feasible and reachable model examples to inspire us with their compassionate motivations and wise conduct, and for us to emulate, how would we become Bodhisattvas, or even Bodhisattva-like? For instance, as we do not see Spider-man as a real man, we will not even think we can ever scale walls like him, much more skyscrapers.
Second, is to realise that the inconceivably altruistic and supernormal support of great Bodhisattvas is available to us on our Bodhisattva path towards Buddhahood. As recorded in the Lotus Sutra near its conclusion, in its beloved 25th chapter on ‘The Universal Door Of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva’, the wide scope of Guanyin Bodhisattva’s enlightened capabilities and activities are clearly stated as they are, not as metaphors, or Sakyamuni Buddha, being the most skilful teacher, would clearly ‘decode’ any ‘hidden’ meanings for us. Surely, he expects no guessing games.
If we are not mindful of the above rationale for seeing the nature of great Bodhisattvas in a balanced way, not only will be miss having a spiritual benchmark of attainment credible to us, we will also miss the spiritual and physical support that is often crucial to help us advance steadily. In short, we will fall short of our potential and goal. We might assume that since the great Bodhisattvas only represent an idealistic vision, walking the Bodhisattva path is like chasing the unreachable sun on land, ultimately futile. The good news is that Buddhahood is within everyone’s reach.
Guanyin Bodhisattva is also featured in numerous sutras, in person holding conversations with others, as heard by the audience, witnessed by Buddha(s) too. If a hardcore skeptic wonders how true these scriptures are, the question to ask in turn is which other real or fictitious character has ever been featured elsewhere, to exhibit greater enlightened qualities, who is capable of inspiring millions in the same manner? Just as Buddhas must inspire many to reach the ultimate goal of Buddhahood, Bodhisattvas must inspire us to walk the Bodhisattva path to this goal!
It is also in the Lotus Sutra, which was taught to a wide variety of many beings due to its great and universal importance to all, that countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the past, present and future were mentioned. Such majestically mind-boggling, but more importantly mind-expanding scenarios described thus remind us of the wonderful possibilities of joining their assemblies, of becoming great Bodhisattvas and Buddhas too. So, yes, the great Bodhisattvas (and ancient Buddhas) in the sutras are very real, while they stand for reality too. They are as real as WE can get.