Compassion

  • 2017

    Avalokitesvara and the Tibetan Contemplation of Compassion

    Karen M. Andrews

    May 31, 1993
    Tibetan Contemplative Traditions

    Who is Avalokitesvara? What is his place in Buddhist doctrine and history? Why is he important in Tibetan Buddhism? What is his function in Tibetan Buddhism? What does he do? What are the philosophical explanations of his existence? How is he used in contemplative practice?


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    Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is one of the most important and popular Buddhist dieties. Although he originally was conceived of in a Mahayana context, he has been worshipped under different names and in different shapes in nearly every form of Buddhism in every country Buddhism has entered.

    Avalokitesvara first appears in Indian Buddhism. He is originally mentioned as one of a number of bodhisattvas. These bodhisattvas are personifications of various attributes of the Buddha. Avalokitesvara is the personification of compassion. The development of a Buddhist doctrine of bodhisattvas is more or less contemporaneous with the development of brahmanic deity worship. Either the same societal forces led to both developments, or the bodhisattva doctrine was a response to the rival movement of brahmanic deity worship. The bodhisattva doctrine may have appeared as early as the second century B.C.E.

    Originally, bodhisattvas were considered to be less important than buddhas. Buddhas, of course, are completely enlightened beings, whereas bodhisattvas are beings who are on the verge of being completely enlightened. Bodhisattvas originally appear as attendants of the buddhas. Texts speak of there being vast numbers of bodhisattvas. A few of the bodhisattvas are more important than others. Avalokitesvara does not appear in the earliest texts about bodhisattvas. However, after a while he becomes one of the important bodhisattvas. By the second century C.E., in the larger Sukhavativyuha, Avalokitesvara is described along with Mahasthamaprapta as one of the two bodhisattvas in Sukhavati, the pure land of the Buddha Amitayus. The two of them are described as the source of the light that illumines the pure land. They also teach the devotees of Amitayus, adapting their techniques to the understanding of the listeners.

    Avalokitesvara's prominence changed as the doctrinal position of Mahayana Buddhism changed. In Mahayana, compassion and wisdom are seen as being the two most important qualities a person can develop. In early Mahayana, wisdom was seen as more important than compassion. Therefore, Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, was the most highly regarded bodhisattva. However, with time, compassion came to be seen as the more important quality, and thus Avalokitesvara became the most honored bodhisattva.

    Avalokitesvara's rise in prominence did not stop at this point. Probably around the fifth century C.E., a full-blown cult of Avalokitesvara emerged. Avalokitesvara evolves into the supreme savior of all suffering beings. He takes on the characteristics of various brahmanic gods, such as Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. Like Brahma, Avalokitesvara is described as the creator of the universe. "From his eyes arose the sun and the moon, . . . from his mouth, the wind, . . . from his feet, the earth." He is also described as being the creator of the brahmanic dieties. This attribution of power to Avalokitesvara may well have been aimed at proselytizing among brahmanic followers.

    Descriptions of his physical form become increasingly fantastic. He is described as being enormously large. His face is a hundred thousand yojanas in circumference (a yojana is a few miles long). His body is gold colored. He has a halo in which there are five hundred buddhas, each attended by five hundred bodhisattvas, each attended by numberless gods. From the hair between his eyebrows there flow eighty-four kinds of rays. Each ray contains a vast number of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Each of his ten finger tips has eighty-four thousand pictures and each picture has eighty-four thousand rays which shine over everything that exists. And so forth.

    At this point, Avalokitesvara takes precedence over the buddhas. Even the buddhas cannot estimate Avalokitesvara's merit. It is said that just thinking of him garners more merit than honoring a thousand buddhas. Avalokitesvara's rise to prominence may be partially caused by the Mahayana doctrine of the bodhisattva vow. This doctrine says that the most wonderfully compassionate decision is to vow to stay a bodhisattva instead of becoming a buddha, because bodhisattvas can more effectively help other beings become enlightened. Because of his compassion, Avalokitesvara has vowed not to become a buddha and slip into nirvana until after all sentient beings are saved from the nearly endless round of suffering in samsara. Instead, he has committed to continued existence so that he can help suffering beings. Avalokitesvara is not the only bodhisattva who has made this vow. However, he embodies the compassionate motivation which led all bodhisattvas to the vow. Thus, valuing the bodhisattva vow leads to valuing Avalokitesvara and everything he signifies.

    As compassionate action is Avalokitesvara's essence, he is supremely helpful. He can assume any form in order to help sentient beings, and there are descriptions of him appearing as buddhas, brahmanic gods, humans, and animals. In all these forms he does wonderful things to help alleviate the suffering of beings and bring them towards enlightenment. He rescues his followers from fires, from drowning, from bandits, from murder, from prisons. He gives children to female followers who want children. He helps release beings from the three mental poisons of passion, hatred, and delusion. He helpful both on the physical, worldly plain, and on a more psychological or spiritual level.

    In addition to being the personification of compassion, Avalokitesvara has been connected with light more thoroughly than any other Buddhist deity. The stories say that he was created from a ray of light which emanated from Amitabha Buddha. Avalokitesvara is a luminous being of light, and is repeatedly described as radiating light which shines over all sentient beings and over all corners of the universe. Similarly, he sees everything and everyone in all corners of the universe, a fact that is emphasized by his name. "Avalokitesvara" comes from two roots, "avalokita" and "isvara". "Avalokita" means "glance" or ""look". "Isvara" means "lord". "Avalokitesvara" has been taken to mean such things as "Lord of what we see", "Lord who is seen", "Lord who is everywhere visible", "Lord who sees from on high", and "Lord of compassionate glances". None of these interpretations are definitive, but regardless of how his name is interpreted, Avalokitesvara is certainly connected with lightness and sight. His ability to see everywhere is important because it allows him to manifest his compassion everywhere. The light that he emanates everywhere is sometimes described as a representation of the flow of his compassion to all parts of the universe.

    As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the teachings about Avalokitesvara were carried everywhere Buddhism went. In China and Japan, Avalokitesvara is the most popular bodhisattva. However, he has undergone a sex-change, and is almost always portrayed in feminine form. In China, he/she is called Kuan-yin or occasionally Kuan-tzu-tsai. In Japan, she is called Kan-non or Kwan-non. In both countries, she is seen as the supreme savior of suffering beings and is worshipped widely as the goddess of mercy and compassion. She gives children to women who pray to her for offspring.

    The cult of Avalokitesvara also spread to Sri Lanka. This is a little surprising as Sri Lanka primarily follows Theravada Buddhism, while Avalokitesvara was originally a strictly Mahayana conception. In Sri Lanka, he is called Natha, which is an abbreviation of Lokesvaranatha, which means "Lord of the World". He has become identified with the bodhisattva Maitreya, the "future Buddha". He is also seen as being identical with several Hindu gods. Natha is seen as the guardian deity of Sri Lanka, and is reportedly worshipped primarily because he is regarded as a pragmatically useful source of advantages in the phenomenal world. Although I have been able to find very little information on it, apparently the cult of Natha has also spread with little change to other Theravada Buddhist countries, such as Cambodia and Burma.

    In Nepal, Avalokitesvara is conflated with the Brahman deity Matsyendranath. He is worshipped in elaborate rituals which are performed by a priestly caste. Ordination is handed down from father to son, with some important positions being sold to the highest bidder from within the caste. According to one reporter, the meanings behind the rituals have been largely forgotten. However, they continue to be performed because they are customary and are considered to bring luck.

    In Tibet, Avalokitesvara has reached a position of tremendous importance. The stories surrounding him, his integration in the practicalities of life, and his use in meditative practice have all been highly developed. The Tibetans started with Avalokitesvara (here called Chenrezi) where the Indians left off.

    Traditional Tibetan belief holds that the cult of Avalokitesvara was brought to Tibet by the eighth century C.E. During the eighth century, King Srong-btsan sgam-po was active in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. This king is considered an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. Tibetans traditionally believe that he was active in propagating a cult of Avalokitesvara. Not long after his reign, Buddhism went into a decline, and did not revive until the eleventh century. Western scholars believe that although there may have been a small following of the Avalokitesvara cult during the reign of Srong-btsan sgam-po (and there is not much evidence that there was any such cult then), the cult certainly died out between then and the eleventh century. Traditional Tibetan belief holds that the cult continued in secret during this period. However, everyone agrees that the cult of Avalokitesvara first became widely popular during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

    The belief that Avalokitesvara is the creator of the universe was accepted and elaborated upon. In Tibetan writings, he is seen as not only creating the world and the Hindu gods, but also as creating the buddhas and the buddha-fields. The whole cosmos exists as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara's creative activity.

    This is especially true of Tibet, which is depicted as having a particularly close relationship with Avalokitesvara. His vow to save all beings becomes a vow to first save Tibetans, because they need his teachings particularly badly and because the Buddha asked him to concentrate on Tibet.

    Stories arose which describe Avalokitesvara as being intimately involved with the creation of Tibet. One of the more popular of these stories describes the creation of the Tibetan people. Once there was a monkey who was an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. He lived in the mountains, where he practiced meditation. One day, a demoness saw him and fell in love with him. She tried unsuccessfully to court him, and finally said that she would bring disaster on all the living beings in the area if he did not marry her. The monkey was confused, and asked Avalokitesvara what to do. Avalokitesvara told the monkey to marry the demoness. The monkey and the demoness wed and had six children, who were the progenitors of the Tibetan people. Thus, all Tibetans are direct descendants of a manifestation of Avalokitesvara.

    Tibetan Buddhism also produced the innovation of recognizing mortal human beings as the incarnations or manifestations of dieties. As far as I am aware, Tibet is the only Buddhist country that has this understanding. Incarnations of Avalokitesvara are particularly important in Tibetan history. I have already mentioned the progenitor monkey and King Srong-btsan sgam-po. Another manifestation of Avalokitesvara which plays a crucial role in Tibetan history is the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has been repeatedly incarnating in Tibet since the fifteenth century. He is now in his fourteenth incarnation. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Kagyu-pa school, which is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Also, from the time of his fifth incarnation in the early seventeenth century until the Chinese conquered Tibet, the Dalai Lama was the ruler of Tibet. Thus, Tibet was governed by a manifestation of their protective deity, who was also the progenitor of the Tibetan people and the ruler who had brought Buddhism to Tibet. Further, this deity, and therefore also his manifestation, is the personification of compassion, which should guarantee that his rule is kind and reduces suffering.

    Avalokitesvara is important not only in Tibetans' understanding of their history, but also in their practice of Buddhist meditation. Particularly in tantric visualization practices, Avalokitesvara, as the embodiment of compassionate action, is critically important. In tantra, practitioners create visualizations which are structured so as to bring about experiential realizations of Buddhist teachings2. In order to understand the purpose of these visualizations, it is necessary to understand the philosophy which the visualizations serve to make experientially real.

    What is this philosophy? It is beyond the scope of my paper to lay forth the entire teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, but I will try to briefly outline the philosophies which are most commonly used in tantric visualizations of Avalokitesvara. The most obvious Buddhist teaching used in these practices is the importance of compassion. What, precisely, is the Buddhist understanding of compassion? Compassion starts with sorrow at the suffering of others. As such, it incites action aimed at reducing the suffering of others. Compassion is the motivating force behind useful action. It is a warm, positive energy directed towards helping others.

    Compassion can only arise when we do not have a strong sense of separation from others. If there is a feeling that I am over here, and you are over there, and we are totally separate individuals, then we will not be able to truly sorrow at each others' pain, because others' pain will not touch us. In order to truly be touched by the suffering of others, we have to abandon our attachment to sharp divisions between individuals. We need to live in awareness of the flow of energy between ourselves and others...

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