Can you describe an angel? What images come to mind? Most readers will be able to conjure an image of an angel because the concept of an angel, or angels, or a host of angels – is so familiar in our culture. What does an angel look like? What can angels do? What is their function? How do we interact with angels?
Huge in Presence….Sparkling Splendor…Visions of Light…and Power… Golden Halo and beautiful Wings……Celestial Instruments…sometimes Swords…Such are the dreams of artists and writers describing the magnificence and glory of angels.
We use the term, “angel” in modern idioms to describe certain actions, or persons – like “angels of mercy” or “guardian angels”. We describe singers’ voices as “angelic”. We use “angel” as a term of endearment, “My darling angel”. If angels have certain characteristics in our imagination what are they? What is your image of an angel? More importantly, what is your idea of the function of angels?
Images of angels are familiar to us from the artworks and literature across many cultures. They are essential figures in several religious traditions. We in the West are familiar with angels portrayed in the Western religions derived from Moses and Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Angels play a central role in all these religions. They can be messengers from God, protective guardians or devastating swords of vengeance. They sometimes appear as beings of blinding light, and sometimes as inconspicuous and anonymous human beings.
The Jewish tradition is full of angels. In many passages from the Hebrew Bible, angels are utilized as messengers; indeed, there is no specific Hebrew equivalent for the English word “angel”, relying instead on the Hebrew word for “messenger.” Angels seem to have the appearance of ordinary humans; they are typically men and (unlike seraphim, which are celestial beings), have no wings. In addition to their roles as messengers angels act as healers, teachers, purifiers, and warriors of good against evil. The Hebrew Bible reports that angels appeared to Moses, Joshua, and numerous other figures.
Christianity in all its forms acknowledges angels, both from the Hebrew traditions embodied in the Old Testament and in the story of the life of Jesus. An angel acts as God’s agent to announce the conception of Jesus to Mary. Angels herald the birth of the “savior”, and guide and accompany the “three Magi” from Persia to Bethlehem. Christian theology proposes an elaborate hierarchy of angels, from Seraphim, Cherubim and Ophanim to Archangels and Fallen Angels. They are divine messengers, divine protectors, and companions on the path of life and death. Think about a “Guardian Angel” or an “Angel of Death”, and describe what that looks like in your imagination. In Christian iconography angels are presented as glorious winged beings of light, startling in their shining radiance, whose appearance marks a significant transition in the life of a person or of the world. Christian writers have long sought to describe this image in many languages.
For Islam, the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) is a central figure, for it is Jibril who reveals the Quran to Mohammed. Angels are heavenly beings mentioned many times in the Quran and hadith. Unlike humans or jinn, they have no free will and therefore can do only what God orders them to do. An example of a task they carry out is testing individuals by granting them abundant wealth and curing their illness. Believing in angels is one of the six Articles of Faith in Islam. Just as humans are made of clay, angels are made of light.
The angels of ancient philosophies still persist in modern conceptions. For Zarathustrans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Nordic Vikings, and etc., angelic beings are a prominent and important part of the known histories left by these civilizations. They are also familiar to the modern day descendants of these cultures. Modern culture extols images of angels as a kind of “group consciousness” or “shared mythic image” to persuade or entice people.
In Buddhism, Hinduism, and some New Age philosophies, we find the idea of “devas”. Supernatural beings are devatā “deity” and devaputra (Pāli: devaputta) “son of the gods”. Deva is the Sanskrit word for deity, its related feminine term is devi. In modern Hinduism, it can be loosely interpreted as any benevolent supernatural being. The devas in Hinduism, also called Suras, are often juxtaposed to the Asuras, their demonic half brothers.
From a human perspective, devas share the characteristic of being invisible to the physical human eye, except by those who those humans who have cultivated an extrasensory power by which one can see beings from other planes. Their voices can also be heard by those who have cultivated a similar power of the ear.
These divine forces act in the service of humans. Transforming lustful desires to wisdom and compassion, or protecting the Bodhisattvas who spread the Buddha’s teachings, they act in much the same way as the “angelic function” of other philosophies.
However, Buddhism, as a human-centered philosophy, has a rather nuanced conception of this idea of angels; which is that of the Bodhisattva. The term “bodhisatta” (Pāli language) was used by the Buddha in the Pāli canon to refer to himself both in his previous lives and as a young man in his current life, prior to his enlightenment, in the period during which he was working towards his own liberation. When, during his discourses, he recounts his experiences as a young aspirant, he regularly uses the phrase “When I was an unenlightened bodhisatta…” The term therefore connotes a being who is “bound for enlightenment”, in other words, a person whose aim is to become fully enlightened.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva vows to work for the relief and liberation of all sentient beings. This can be done by cultivating moral and spiritual perfection, to be placed in the service of others. In particular, Bodhisattvas promise to practice the “six perfections” of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom in order to fulfill their bodhisattva aim of attaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows. With these vows, one makes the promise to work for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings .
Over centuries, Buddhist societies adopted the ideal of the Bodhisattva to describe “other-than-natural” beings that appear as saviors or guides. Statues and images of Bodhisattvas, often closely resembling the Western ideal of angels or saints (halos for example), are worshiped alongside images of the Buddha. People across the Buddhist world of China, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan pray to angel-like statues and images of Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin (Guānshìyīn (Ch. 觀世音), Kannon (観音), Gwan-eum (관음),) for mercy and protection. Bodhisattva Kuan-yin is, in Sanskrit, Avalokiteśvara – perceiver of the world’s sounds –who first appears in the Lotus Sutra.
Why do we tend to see angels and devas and Bodhisattvas as “supernatural” beings? Is it because we cannot recognize the divinity of all life – the Buddha nature within all phenomena? If we were fully aware of the divinity in every aspect of life, could we not recognize angels and Bodhisattvas everywhere?
Theses angels, devas, and Bodhisattvas are acknowledged to have a protective and merciful function. In other words, their actions define them. Their actions to preserve and protect us, to guide our path, to serve our mission in life, prove their existence. We can look to the actions of angels and Bodhisattvas to examine their role in our world.
It is more accurate to say that angelic actions are what define “angels” and “Bodhisattvas”. Those actions must be manifestations of their function. If we look for angelic functions in our lives, we can see them everywhere.
Think of the wonderful perfection of the human body’s immune system. Consider the function of the microbes and bacteria and other foreign bodies which inhabit our inner organs in immeasurably vast multitudes; which digest our food and respond to any irregularities in their environment, our bodies. They even play a crucial role in helping women to conceive. Aren’t these the angels of the body?
Think of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere which sustains our breath, and consider the myriad plants and life forms which release oxygen into that atmosphere. Aren’t these the angels of our environment? They act in an enormous coordinated ecosystem to make our existence possible. Think of the function of the sun, of the moon’s influence over the human menstruation and birth cycle, and of the balance of gravitation that keeps our earth spinning in orbit on a precisely correct path. Aren’t these the “angelic” functions of our natural world – of our solar system and cosmos – the precision of which boggles the mind? They are essential to our existence.
For human angels, think of those who devote themselves to science, or to teaching; or writing; who work tirelessly to improve our understanding and teach it to others. Are these not the guiding and teaching angels of our world? Think of all those who heal and care for others as doctors and nurses, caretakers, therapists, etc., and see the healing and caring function of angels at work. Consider those who respond to humanitarian crises, sometimes risking their own lives to save others. Think of all those who serve others, in a myriad of different ways, and see their dedication to helping others as exemplifying the Bodhisattva vow – their actions proving the existence of human “angelic” natures.
The Lotus Sutra, considered by many to be the culmination of the Buddhist teachings, describes what other traditions might imagine as a “host of angels”. The Lotus Sutra introduces the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, who appear in the “Emerging From the Earth” (15th) Chapter. They emerge from the quaking earth, at the same instant, a multitude of immeasurable millions of bodhisattvas, each leading a retinue “equal to the sands of 60,000 Ganges Rivers”. This is how the Sutra describes these “angels”:
“The bodies of these Bodhisattvas were all golden in hue, with the thirty-two features and an immeasurable brightness…Such were they, then, immeasurable, boundless, beyond anything that can be known through calculation, simile or parable.
Huge in body, with great transcendental powers,
Unfathomable in wisdom,
Firm in their intent and thought,
With the power of great perseverance,
The kind living beings delight to see-
…His body will be very pure,
like pure lapis lazuli-
living beings will all delight to see it.
And it will be like a pure bright mirror
in which forms and shapes are all reflected.
The bodhisattva in his pure body
will see all that is in the world;
he alone will see brightly
what is not visible to others.”
The Buddha reveals his own immortality in the Lotus Sutra through his identification with the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. He has trained and taught them for eons since the remote past. In preparation for their mission of saving the living beings of this earth in our current evil and polluted age, the “saha world”, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth make a vow to undertake all manner of sufferings and challenges as emissaries of the Thus Come One (Buddha). They tell others about the Mystic Law (Dharma) and show actual proof of its greatness. This is the honorable status they enjoy. They are, in effect, emanations of the Buddha and of the Mystic Law.
Who are these angelic Bodhisattvas of the Earth today? For those who follow the Lotus Sutra and practice its teachings, these Bodhisattvas are alive and functioning within the saha world. They are known to us, and we see them striving to fulfill their vow to lead all living beings to enlightenment. These Bodhisattvas of the Earth,
“…are clever at difficult questions and answers, their minds know no fear. They have firmly cultivated persevering minds, upright in dignity and virtue.”
Simply put, they are those among us that are experts at conducting dialogue; men and women who, fearing no one, resolutely fight against those evil powers that seek to trample upon the people; whose hearts and lives shine and overflow with human magnetism that powerfully draws people to them.
Living today, each of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth is “a treasure among persons”. They are treasures of the community, the nation, and the world. This is just how precious and respectable they are. They have the mettle to staunchly protect the Dharma, and the bodhisattva spirit to encourage others and try to assuage the pain in their lives. They respect their environment and all people, and try to lead them to happiness and harmony.
If the function of angels, devas, and Bodhisattvas proves their existence, then can we see that function all around us? The Bodhisattva function is manifest in the teaching, healing, encouraging, and awakening of all beings. This awakening to the unity and divinity of all phenomena is itself a manifestation of the angelic Bodhisattva in all of us.
All things are expressions of Creation, the Dharma Law, and the Buddha nature within. Angels are our images, our imaginings, of the manifestation of that nature, with halos, wings and radiating light; eternally guiding and defending messengers of the Divine. More than that, they are us. They are our most perfect interactions with our own divinity.