Avalokiteshvara, often referred to as the “Bodhisattva of Compassion,” is a revered figure in Mahayana Buddhism. But who is this figure, and why is she such a significant part of Buddhist philosophy and culture?
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, you might be wondering, “Who or what is a bodhisattva?” A bodhisattva is basically an enlightened being who, instead of passing into Nirvana, chooses to remain in the human realm to help others achieve enlightenment. They are, in essence, the embodiment of altruism.
Whether depicted in majestic form or in humble guise, Avalokiteshvara embodies the ideal of the bodhisattva, who dedicates his or her life to the welfare of all sentient beings. His teachings and practices offer a path of transformation and liberation that is accessible to all, regardless of background or belief. Through his teachings and practices, we can learn to cultivate a heart of boundless compassion and discover our own true nature as beings of wisdom and love.
Who is Avalokiteshvara?
Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva emblematic of compassion. The term “bodhisattva” translates to “one who has the essence of enlightenment“. In the Mahayana tradition, bodhisattvas are beings who have attained a high degree of spiritual development but delay their own final enlightenment to assist others on the path. Avalokiteshvara, as the bodhisattva of compassion, exemplifies this altruistic ideal.
The name “Avalokiteshvara” is derived from the Sanskrit language and can be interpreted in multiple ways, each providing insight into the bodhisattva’s role. One interpretation, “The Lord Who Looks Down”, signifies his attentive care towards the suffering of sentient beings. Another interpretation, “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World”, underscores his commitment to respond to calls for help from those in distress.
The iconography of Avalokiteshvara varies greatly across different cultures and regions, reflecting diverse local influences. In Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, Avalokiteshvara is known as Chenrezig and is often depicted with multiple arms, each representing a different aspect of compassion. According to Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is considered to be a manifestation of Chenrezig, reinforcing the vital role of compassion in this spiritual leadership position.
In East Asian Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is known as Guanyin (in Chinese) or Kannon (in Japanese) and is often portrayed in a female form. This gender transformation is emblematic of the bodhisattva’s boundless compassion, which transcends conventional gender distinctions.
As a figure of universal empathy, Avalokiteshvara manifests in various forms across cultures, symbolizing the diverse ways in which compassion can be understood and practiced. This ubiquitous bodhisattva thus represents the principle that compassion is a fundamental and universal facet of human spirituality.
Story of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
According to Buddhist lore, Avalokiteshvara was once a bodhisattva named Sadaparibhuta, who was intent on becoming a Buddha but was held back by his great compassion for all sentient beings.
One day, while meditating on a mountaintop, Sadaparibhuta heard the cries of suffering beings in the world below. Moved by their pain, he vowed to liberate them all from their suffering. As he made this vow, his body shattered into a thousand pieces.
However, Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, appeared before Sadaparibhuta and said, “Do not despair, Sadaparibhuta. Your vow of compassion is noble, and I will help you achieve it.” Amitabha Buddha then reassembled Sadaparibhuta’s body and gave him eleven heads and a thousand arms, each with a hand holding a different weapon or symbol.
With this new form, Sadaparibhuta became known as Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. He is depicted in Buddhist iconography as a figure with multiple heads and arms, with his primary hands clasped in prayer at his heart.
In Mahayana Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is revered as one of the most important bodhisattvas, and his mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” is widely recited by Buddhists around the world as a means of invoking his compassionate presence.
Throughout Buddhist history, there have been many stories and legends about Avalokiteshvara’s miraculous interventions on behalf of suffering beings. Some of the most famous include his rescue of sailors from a sinking ship, his healing of the sick and afflicted, and his ability to calm storms and other natural disasters.
Overall, the story of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is a testament to the power of compassion and the potential for all beings to become enlightened and alleviate the suffering of others.
Characteristics and symbols
Avalokiteshvara’s symbolic representation in Buddhist iconography varies widely across different cultures, each reflecting unique interpretations of the bodhisattva’s compassion and benevolence. However, certain characteristics and symbols are often associated with him:
- Multiple arms: A common depiction of Avalokiteshvara, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, features him with multiple arms, sometimes reaching up to a thousand. Each arm signifies his ability to reach out to the multitude of sentient beings in need, while the multiple hands often hold different items, each having their own symbolic meaning.
- The lotus: Avalokiteshvara is frequently depicted with a lotus flower, a profound symbol in Buddhism. The lotus, which blooms beautifully even in murky waters, signifies spiritual purity and enlightenment amid worldly suffering—a fitting symbol for Avalokiteshvara’s role as the bodhisattva of compassion amidst suffering.
- White-robed figure: Avalokiteshvara is often depicted as a white-robed figure, symbolizing his/her purity and wisdom.
- The wish-fulfilling jewel: This is a gem that fulfills one’s desires and is a symbol of Buddha’s teachings, which are believed to fulfill spiritual needs. Avalokiteshvara is often depicted holding this jewel, signifying his role in providing spiritual guidance.
- Eye on palms: In some depictions, Avalokiteshvara has an eye inscribed on the palm of each hand. This symbolizes his compassionate watchfulness over the world’s suffering.
- The rosary: Avalokiteshvara is sometimes portrayed with a rosary, symbolizing continuous prayer and the cycle of existence.
- Gender transformation: Particularly in East Asian cultures, Avalokiteshvara is depicted in a female form, known as Guanyin or Kannon. This transformation symbolizes the transcendence of conventional gender binaries, signifying that compassion and benevolence are universal virtues.
- The water flask: In his Guanyin form, Avalokiteshvara is often depicted with a water flask, from which she pours the “water of compassion” to relieve the suffering of sentient beings.
These attributes of Avalokiteshvara not only reflect his role as a compassionate bodhisattva but also provide a symbolic and accessible path for Buddhist practitioners to engage with and emulate these virtues in their own spiritual journey.
Meaning of the name “Avalokiteshvara”
The name Avalokiteshvara breaks down into two parts — “Avalokita,” which means “observed,” and “Ishvara,” which means “lord” or “ruler.” So, the term Avalokiteshvara translates roughly as “The Lord Who Observes.”
Therefore, the name Avalokiteshvara can be translated as “the Lord who Observes,” “the God who perceives,” or “the One who hears the cries of the world.” This name reflects the bodhisattva’s ability to see and understand the suffering of all beings and to respond with compassion.
In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara is called “Self-Reflection” based on her practice. When she looked deeply into herself, she realized that five aggregates had no intrinsic nature and were all temporary, she was free from all suffering. The name Avalokiteshvara reminds us of the importance of compassion and the Buddhist ideal of working towards the liberation of all sentient beings.
The Gender of Avalokiteshvara
As you may know, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have undergone many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood, with each incarnation taking on a different character, which can be male or female.
In certain regions such as China, Vietnam, and Japan, Avalokiteshvara is commonly portrayed in female form, with a beautiful face, compassionate eyes that gaze upon the world, and a gentle smile expressing satisfaction when helping beings are free from suffering. However, in Tibet where Tantric Buddhism is prevalent, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is sometimes depicted in male form.
According to Buddhist scholars, Bodhisattvas are not historical figures like Shakyamuni Buddha and can appear in any form to represent the noble qualities that Buddhism embodies. It is common to come across Bodhisattva statues that look fierce or angry, which symbolizes their strong determination to help sentient beings or protect the Dharma from evil forces.
Avalokiteshvara depicted in female form can better represent great virtue and compassion than in the male aspect. Additionally, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is often considered the mother of the world, and because she is always present when someone needs help, she is even more suited for the image of a gentle and compassionate woman. Therefore, the gender of Avalokiteshvara is not seen as a fixed characteristic but rather a manifestation of the bodhisattva’s compassion and skillful means.
Miraculous powers of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is often associated with many miraculous powers in Buddhist tradition. These powers are believed to arise from the bodhisattva’s profound compassion and wisdom, as well as his or her ability to transform reality.
Some of the miraculous powers associated with Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva include:
- The power of hearing: Avalokiteshvara is believed to be able to hear the cries of all beings in the world and respond to them with compassion.
- The power of transformation: Avalokiteshvara is said to have the ability to transform himself or herself into any form necessary to help beings in need.
- The power of healing: Avalokiteshvara is often invoked for healing purposes, as he or she is believed to have the power to heal physical and mental illnesses.
- The power of protection: Avalokiteshvara is also invoked for protection from harm, as he or she is believed to have the power to protect beings from danger and negative influences.
- The power of purification: Avalokiteshvara is said to have the power to purify negative karma and help beings progress on their spiritual path towards enlightenment.
These miraculous powers are not seen as magical abilities, but rather as expressions of the bodhisattva’s compassion and skillful means. They remind us of the power of compassion and the importance of cultivating this quality in ourselves as we strive to help all beings attain liberation from suffering.
Mantras, often described as powerful combinations of syllables or phrases, play a significant role in various Buddhist practices. These mantras are chanted in meditation, ritual ceremonies, or daily practice, as a means of focusing the mind and invoking the energy of the deity or concept they represent. Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is associated with several mantras across various traditions.
- Om Mani Padme Hum: This is arguably the most well-known mantra associated with Avalokiteshvara. Often translated as “The Jewel is in the Lotus,” this mantra carries profound symbolism. The “jewel” can be seen as the enlightened mind or the wisdom of Buddha, while the “lotus” can represent the world of suffering. This mantra, therefore, underscores the concept that wisdom and compassion—represented by Avalokiteshvara—are inherent in the world’s suffering and can be accessed to alleviate it.
- Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa: This mantra is widely used in Chinese Buddhism. It translates to “Salutations to the most compassionate and merciful Bodhisattva Guan Yin.” It is chanted to seek Guan Yin’s blessings and protection.
- Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha: In Tibetan Buddhism, this is the mantra of Tara, who is considered to be a female manifestation of Avalokiteshvara. It is invoked for protection, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve enlightenment.
LotusBuddhas also reminds you that, these mantras are not only a tribute to Avalokiteshvara’s virtues but also an instrument for practitioners to cultivate those virtues within themselves.
Three major festivals of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
When worshiping Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva at home, Buddhists need to know the days of her worship. Those are the dates:
- February 19 of the lunar calendar: Birthday.
- June 19 of the lunar calendar: The day of attaining Buddhahood.
- September 19 of the lunar calendar: The day of ordination to become a monk.
These 3 days correspond to 3 important milestones of Avalokiteshvara, it is necessary to celebrate to always remember the spiritual journey of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. From there, follow her example to practice and help others.
How to worship Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva at home
Worshipping Avalokiteshvara at home involves creating a suitable space, maintaining a regular practice, and cultivating a mindset of compassion and mindfulness.
- Creating a sacred space: Start by designating a quiet and clean space in your home for worship. This could be a small table or shelf that can be dedicated as an altar. This space should be kept clean and uncluttered.
- Setting up the altar: On this altar, you might place an image or statue of Avalokiteshvara. This can be accompanied by other items symbolizing the bodhisattva’s qualities, such as a lotus flower or a representation of a wish-fulfilling jewel. Many people also include offerings, such as candles, incense, fresh flowers, or clean water, symbolizing respect and devotion.
- Regular practice: Decide on a regular practice that suits your schedule and capacity. This could be a daily practice at a particular time, or it could be more frequent. Regularity is key in maintaining a spiritual practice.
- Chanting mantras: The mantra associated with Avalokiteshvara, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” can be chanted as part of the practice. Chanting this mantra while focusing on its meaning can help cultivate a compassionate mindset. You may also choose to use a mala, or prayer beads, to count repetitions of the mantra.
- Meditation: Practicing meditation, focusing on Avalokiteshvara and his qualities of infinite compassion, can be another key aspect of worship. You can visualize the bodhisattva, imagine his compassionate nature, and try to cultivate these qualities within yourself.
- Reading scriptures: Reading and reflecting upon scriptures that feature Avalokiteshvara can deepen your understanding and connection. The Heart Sutra or the Lotus Sutra, which have important passages about Avalokiteshvara, could be included in your practice.
- Cultivating compassion: Finally, worshipping Avalokiteshvara involves not just the activities at your home altar, but also your actions in the world. Actively striving to embody compassion in your interactions with others is an essential aspect of this practice.
Remember, the goal of worshipping Avalokiteshvara at home isn’t to seek external rewards but to cultivate an internal transformation towards greater compassion and understanding. As such, the sincerity of your practice is more important than getting every detail right.