AVALOKITEŚVARA , a bodhisattva especially associated with the principle of compassion, is the most popular figure in the pan-Asian Mahāyāna Buddhist pantheon. Worshiped and invoked in both male and female forms, Avalokiteśvara is considered a potent savior in times of life-threatening dangers, who watches over all beings and heeds their cries of suffering and distress. He responds directly to the pleas of those in great need, while also serving in symbolic manner as the embodiment of the principle of compassion, a fundamental aspect of the Buddhist way of life. In addition to his numerous pan-Asian roles, Avalokiteśvara has played a significant role in distinctive local traditions throughout Buddhist Asia.
The meaning of this bodhisattva 's name traditionally has been understood in several ways, emphasizing his sovereignty over the material world and his responsiveness to the calls of suffering humanity. A principal interpretation holds that the name Avalokiteśvara is a compound of Sanskrit avalokita and īśvara, translated variously as "the lord of what is seen, the lord who is seen" or "the lord who surveys, gazing lord." The celebrated seventh-century Chinese monk-scholar Xianzang upheld this view, translating the bodhisattva 's name as Guanzizai ("gazing lord").
An alternate spelling of this name—Avalokitasvara—also existed, as seen in some fifth-century Sanskrit manuscripts and as noted by learned Chinese exegetes such as Chengguan (eighth century). This led to the well-known Chinese translation Guanyin ("he who has perceived sound"). The frequently seen Chinese translation Guanshiyin ("he who perceives the sounds of the world") appears to have a dubious etymological basis, but expresses well the functional quality of the bodhisattva: a savior who hears all cries of suffering and responds with potent aid.
Avalokiteśvara has numerous epithets. The most common are Padmapāṇi ("lotus bearer") and Lokeśvara ("lord of the world"), by which he is best known in Southeast Asia. Many epithets related to his specific saving functions are connected to a dizzying panoply of iconographic forms.
It generally is agreed that the cult to Avalokiteśvara arose in the northwestern borderlands of India. Much scholarly energy has been devoted to determining the "origins" of the bodhisattva. Many of these efforts presuppose a diffusionist model for the formation of the Mahāyāna pantheon; they assume that the pantheon was in some way devised or adapted from the various deities of neighboring religious movements. For example, Marie-Thérèse de Mallmann (1948) suggested Iranian antecedents based on Avalokiteśvara's name and functions. Others hold that the pantheon came into being as the deification of early Buddhist principles or of potent moments in the life of Śākyamuni Buddha; for example, Giuseppe Tucci (1948) suggested that Avalokiteśvara is the personification of the compassionate gaze of Śākyamuni. Such views are far distant from the notable intensity of belief in the compassionate lifesaving powers of this deity, as expressed among Buddhist Asians from all levels of society. Mahāyāna scriptural traditions simply hold that Avalokiteśvara is one among many beings having human history whose dedication and spiritual development has led to successful fruition as a bodhisattva.
Principal Scriptural Sources
Among the numerous scriptural sources on Avalokiteśvara, three works are especially important: the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus scripture), various versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Pure land scripture), and the so-called Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Contemplation on Amitāyus scripture). The Lotus provides much information on the bodhisattva 's lifesaving powers, while the Pure Land and the meditation scripture reveal his spiritual kinship to Amitābha Buddha and outline his functions in this context. These aspects both have been essential features of the cult.
The Lotus devotes a full chapter to Avalokiteśvara, and this chapter (chapter 25 in Kumārajīva's eloquent fourth-century Chinese translation) not uncommonly has been memorized, recited, and treated as an independent scripture by East Asian devotees. The chapter includes discussion of the bodhisattva 's name, the dangers that he can dispel, and the myriad forms in which he may appear to aid devotees.
The bodhisattva 's name in this well-known version of the Lotus clearly is Avalokitasvara, translated by Kumārajīva as Guanshiyin, or "hearer of the sounds of the world." Śākyamuni Buddha explains in the scripture that this name arises from the bodhisattva 's pledge to heed the call of any suffering being who cries out his name and to appear before him in rescue.
The list of dangers and difficulties that the bodhisattva can counter is impressive: fire, drowning in a river, being lost at sea, murder, demonic attack, fierce beasts and noxious snakes or insects, legal punishment, attack by bandits, falling from steep precipices, extremes of weather, internecine civil or military unrest, and others. The bodhisattva also assists those ensnared by the traditional three poisons of Buddhism: lust, anger, and delusion. Avalokiteśvara also grants children—both male and female—in response to the pleas of barren women. According to the Lotus, Avalokiteśvara is a master of skillful means (upāya ) who is adept at manifesting himself in any suitable form (thirty-three are listed) to convey the deliverance of any being.
The Pure Land scriptures, of which several versions are extant in Chinese translation, pair Avalokiteśvara with a bodhisattva named Mahāsthāmaprāpta. Both are principal assistants to the Buddha Amitābha, lord of the Western Paradise, a glorious realm free of suffering where diligent questers for enlightenment may be reborn after earthly existence. Among his various functions, Avalokiteśvara guides devotees from earthly deathbed to rebirth in the spirit land. He acts as emissary for the Buddha throughout the various realms of the universe, and he is described as the eventual heir to the throne of this realm. (The Karuṇāpuṇḍarīka Sūtra, translated into Chinese in the early fifth century, extends this relationship by explaining that Avalokiteśvara was the first son of Amitābha in an earlier incarnation.)
The meditation scripture provides an extended description of Avalokiteśvara as the focus for one of the stages of a multifaceted visualization practice. Successful accomplishment of this practice leads not only to future rebirth in the Western Paradise, but also to continuous invocation of the principal lords of that land, with the accompanying protection and inspiration they afford. Avalokiteśvara is described as a golden-skinned princely being of enormous stature, wearing a great crown made of wondrous gems within each of which there stands a manifested Buddha. Many-hued rays of light stream forth from his body in a patterned manner; these rays reach into the various realms of existence and send forth manifested Buddhas and bodhisattvas, who accomplish his works of compassion. Innumerable rays of soft light extend from his hands, illumining all things, and he is seen to be assisting all beings with these hands.
Avalokiteśvara is believed to dwell on a certain mountain from which he attentively hears the rising cries of suffering beings and extends his mystic aid. A version of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Flower garland scripture) identifies this site as Potalaka Mountain, a name that became well known throughout Buddhist Asia. This mountain has been identified with a number of actual geographical sites in Asia. The seventh-century monk-traveler Xuanzang noted that Potalaka could be found on the Malaya coast, although few who sought the bodhisattva had been successful in their quest. From at least the tenth century it was identified as an island off the coast of the southern China seaport of Ningbo, which was named Putuo Shan (Potalaka Mountain) and remains an important pilgrimage center to the present day. In Japan, several sites have been identified as Potalaka: at the Nachi Falls within the Kumano Shrine complex near the ocean on the Kii Peninsula, in the mountains at Nikko, and at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara. In Tibet, the seventeenth-century palace of the Dalai Lama, built upon a hill facing Lhasa and constituting one of the world's great architectural treasures, was named the Potala. Thus, the mountain palace was physically made manifest as the residence of the Tibetan ruler, believed to be the physical embodiment of the bodhisattva.
Principal Iconographic Forms and Cultic Activity
Numerous forms of Avalokiteśvara are seen in art and described throughout a wide range of ritual texts, meditation manuals, and scriptures. These range from the simplicity of the Water-Moon form, with the princely bodhisattva seated upon Mount Potalaka gazing at the evanescent reflection of the full moon upon a still sea, to the complexity of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed, thousand-eyed images, the multiplicity of features expressing the bodhisattva 's extraordinary abilities to seek out and respond to the distress of all beings.
Aryāvalokiteśvara ("noble Avalokiteśvara"), sometimes termed "great compassionate one," is a simple form of the bodhisattva bearing in his left hand a lotus flower. Often, especially from the ninth century onward, this form wears a crown or headpiece in which the image of his spiritual father Amitābha Buddha is depicted. Closely related to this form is the White-Robed (Paṇḍaravāsinī) Avalokiteśvara, the most frequently seen East Asian type from the tenth or eleventh century to the present. With special emphasis on the motherly compassion of the bodhisattva, this form most often is depicted as a female seated in meditation or holding a lotus blossom. Caṇḍī, less commonly seen, is another female form, having three eyes and eighteen arms.
Paintings and sculptures depict some of the specialized abilities of the bodhisattva : as savior of those subject to life-threatening dangers such as fire, flood, and attack; as benevolent bestower of sons; as guide of souls, leading them in the journey from deathbed to Amitābha's Western Paradise; as a king of healing, in one form holding both a willow branch (as sign of the ability to ward off disease) and a vase of amṛta (the nectar of enlightenment), or in another healing form seated upon a roaring lion. Other important forms include Amoghapāśa ("unfailing rope"), holding out a lasso to assist all beings, or the fiercely protective Hayagrīva, horse-headed with dark flames emanating from his body. Avalokiteśvara is also shown paired with Mahāsthāmaprāpta in attendance on Amitābha, performing various functions in the Western Paradise, and he is seen as one among eight or more bodhisattvas in numerous types of assembly scenes throughout Mahāyāna art. This vast array of iconographic forms, only touched upon here, provides a sense of Avalokiteśvara's preeminent popularity throughout the Asian Buddhist populace.
An eleven-headed form of the bodhisattva is seen in the art of numerous Buddhist lands. These eleven heads may represent an elaboration of the concept of Avalokiteśvara as an all-seeing lord, encompassing views of the four cardinal and the four intermediate directions, as well as the nadir, center, and zenith. In East Asia, this form was first associated with special confession and repentance rites undertaken by lay and monastic practitioners. According to a text translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the sixth century, the eleven heads are related to an elevenfold vow made by the bodhisattva to aid all sentient beings, including pledges to do such things as relieve beings of illness, misfortune, suffering, and worries, free them of unwholesome intentions, and turn their thoughts toward that which is wholesome. Iconographically, the eleven heads should be depicted in the following manner: three heads in the center with a compassionate expression—suited to devotees with predominantly good karma (Skt., karman ); three heads on the left with an angry expression—directed toward saving beings with unwholesome qualities; three heads on the right with white tusks protruding from the tops of the mouths—to assist people with good karma to find enlightenment; a single face in back with an expression of violent laughter—to reform evil-doers; and a Buddha face on top, preaching the dharma —for those capable of following the Mahāyāna path.
The development of this bodhisattva 's cult is closely related to his function as extender of life and protector from the hardships and dangers of the world, who, as the Lotus puts it, "confers the gift of fearlessness" in the midst of terror and trouble. Based on the records of Chinese travelers to India, there was some worship of Avalokiteśvara in the fourth century at Mathurā, and by the seventh century the cult was widespread throughout India; by this time, according to Xuanzang, images of the bodhisattva flanked the "diamond seat" of Śākyamuni Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gayā, one of the most sacred sites in the Buddhist world.
In all the coastal areas of Mahāyāna Buddhist countries, Avalokiteśvara has been especially worshiped and invoked for his lifesaving protection of seafarers. This ability, mentioned in the Lotus Scripture, is attested to in numerous travel diaries and miracle tales from the fourth century to the present.
As noted above, in East Asia Avalokiteśvara has been the most popular of all Buddhist deities, most especially by virtue of the prominence accorded him in the Lotus Scripture traditions. The Lotus traditions of the thirty-three types of manifestations of the bodhisattva led in Japan to several very important pilgrimage circuits devoted to Kannon (Avalokiteśvara), each having thirty-three stations dedicated to the bodhisattva.
Avalokiteśvara (Spyan ras gzigs) is one of the key protective deities of Tibet, and the recitation of his six-syllable Sanskrit mantra, "Oṃ maṉi padme hūṃ," has been a widespread practice among Tibetans. Tibetan myths hold that Avalokiteśvara was the progenitor of the Tibetan people, and they believe that the founder of the first Tibetan dynasty, Srong bstan sgam po (seventh century), was an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara. Similarly, especially since the seventeenth century, the Dalai Lamas, successive temporal rulers and spiritual leaders of Tibet, have been believed to be human incarnations of Avalokiteśvara.
The most comprehensive Western-language study of Avalokiteśvara is Marie-Thérèse de Mallmann's Introduction à l'étude d'Avalokiteçvara (Paris, 1948), which surveys the myriad forms of the bodhisattva seen in Indian art. Mallmann's diffusionist views were rejected by Giuseppe Tucci in his "À propos Avalokiteśvara," Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques 9 (1948–1951): 173–220. Another diffusionist, Alexander Coburn Soper, has also made a study of the origins and iconography of the bodhisattva, relying on Chinese sources; see "The Triad Amitāyus-Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, Mahāsthāmaprāpta," in his Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China (Ascona, 1959), pp. 141–167. For a valuable study of Chinese perceptions of Avalokiteśvara written by a learned Buddhist practitioner and devotee of the bodhisattva, see C. N. Tay's "Guanyin: The Cult of Half Asia," History of Religions 16 (November 1976): 147–177. For the so-called Avalokiteśvara Sūtra, chapter 25 of the Lotus, see Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, translated by Leon Hurvitz (New York, 1976). Also helpful is Henri Maspero's discussion in "The Mythology of Modern China," in Daoism and Chinese Religion, translated by Frank A. Kierman, Jr. (Amherst, 1981), pp. 166–171.
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Thang Stong Rgyal Po, and Janet Gyatso. "An Avalokitesvara Sadhana." In Religions of Tibet in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 266–270. Princeton, 1997.
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Raoul Birnbaum (1987)
In China, Avalokiteśvara is known as Kuanyin, ‘he who hears the sound of the world’. In addition to the characteristics and representations of Avalokiteśvara, Kuan-yin frequently has a child on one arm, and appears (under Taoist influence of complementary properties) increasingly with feminine characteristics. She becomes the all-compassionate mother-goddess, perhaps the most popular deity in China, represented in a flowing white robe, holding a lotus.
In Japan, ‘he’ (see below) is known as Kannon (Kanzeon, Kwannon), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, one of the most popular deities in Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to the Lotus Sūtra, Kannon perceives the sufferings of all sentient beings and devises ways to assist them, to answer their prayers, and to lead them to salvation. This compassion of the Bodhisattva is reflected in his fuller name Kanzeon, meaning ‘He Who Regards the Cries of the World’. In Japan, as in China, Kannon was frequently portrayed in feminine form, possibly stemming from the Lotus Sūtra's statement that the Bodhisattva will take on the guise of a woman or any other figure in order to lead sentient beings to salvation, and perhaps suggesting feminine representation to be more expressive of compassion.
In Tibet, he is known as sPyan-ras-gzigs, or in the West as Chenrezi. The king Songsten-Gampo who brought Buddhism into Tibet (see TIBETAN RELIGION) is regarded as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, as are the successive Dalai Lamas.