Who is Avalokitesvara?
Among all the "Eight great Boddhisattvas" of Buddhist Tradition, Avalokitesvara is considered one of the most highly regarded in many iconographic forms. Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhism are regarded as the aroused or awaked mind bodhicitta, who is said to working towards fulfilling the Buddhist path of awakening. He has the power to completely eliminate all mundane sufferings. To achieve his goals, he can take on various forms of life in order to benefit the ignorant and bring liberation to living beings.
"As different people belonged to different faiths, this compassionate Bodhisattva was obliged to assume the shape of all gods of all faiths."
The eight great Bodhisattvas in Buddhism:
- Maitreya Buddha
Avalokitesvara in different parts of the world
Avalokitesvara, also known as a Chenrezig in Tibetan, is the Boddhisattva of compassion who will assist anyone in physical or mental distress. Avalokiteshvara has a special connection with the Tibetans. A bodhisattva is a being on the path to Buddhahood, a warrior, and an idol of enlightenment. At some point, he is regarded as more than a Buddha. He voluntarily returned to the path of a bodhisattva after attaining Buddhahood in order to lead all beings to Buddhahood. As a result, Avalokiteshvara is regarded as the embodiment of the Buddhas' selfless, unconditional compassion.
In China, Avalokitesvara was associated with great compassion or mercy. He came to be popularly represented in the Chinese tradition in feminine form. In China, he is worshipped as Guanyin ("Hears Cries"), the 'Bodhisattva of Mercy,' and has a very different history. Since the 11th century, Guanyin has been primarily regarded as a beautiful young woman. It is worshiped in most regions of Southeast Asian countries like Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and other Myanmar, Thailand Cambodia.
In Hindu regions India and Nepal traditions, His name in Hinduism reflects Lord Shiva's nature. In fact, many people believe that Lord Shiva is Avalokiteshvara. In Hindu philosophy, nothing is devoid of Avalokiteshvara because the almighty/Shiva is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.
According to Buddhist iconography, he has fifteen different forms as follows;
1. Sadaksari; 2. Simhanāda; 3. Khasarpana; 4. Lokanatha; 5. Halahala; 6. Padmanarteśvara; 7. Harihariharivāhana; 8. Trailokyavasankara; 9. Raktalokeśvara; 10. Mäyäjälakrama; 11. Nilakantha; 12. Sugati sandarśana; 13. Pretasantarpita; 14. Sukhavati Lokeśvara; 15. Vajradharma.
He is the earthy manifestation of the self-born eternal Amitabha Buddha. Avalokitesvara has many iconographic forms, ranging from 108 to 365. The most iconic and significant iconographic forms are:
- Two-armed form of Avalokitesvara
- Four-Armed form of Avalokitesvara
- Thousand-armed form of Avalokitesvara
Avalokitesvara's Two-armed form
He is known as the Padmapani, a Sanskrit term referring to Lokeshvara, "Bearer of the Lotus," holding a pundaroka (White Lotus) fully blossomed in his left hand, while his right hand on Varda mudra, the gesture of giving. Two–armed Avalokitesvara is usually depicted in standings and sometimes stated on the lotus, and he has one face and two hands. He is adorned with a precious long jewel chain, and both seated and standing Avalokitesvara objects elegantly echo the slightly bend curve figure in the Tribhanga pose.
Padmapani is challenging to find. The name is also rare in Vajrayana Buddhism, where Lokeshvara's forms are understood as meditational deities with precise descriptions and meanings taught in the various Tantra source texts. Legends have it that once an elephant was trapped in the mashy pond while trying to get a hold of White Lotus, Arya Avalokitesvara heard his cry and prayed to Narayana. Then Avalokitesvara took the form of Narayana and rescued the trapped elephant. In return, to thank Arya Avalokitesvara elephant then offered his Lotus Flower. Avalokitesvara then took that lotus and offered it to the Shakyamuni Buddha, but Buddha asked him to provide the White Lotus to Amitabha Buddha on his behalf. After hearing a whole story from Arya Avalokitesvara, Amitabha Buddha appreciated the philanthropic deeds of Avalokitesvara and asked him to keep the White Lotus flower forever and told him to continue helping the sentient beings. Since then, Avalokitesvara has been known as Padmapani Lokeśvara.
Avalokitesvara's Four-armed Form
He is a bodhisattva who looks with unwavering eyes and embodies all the buddhas' infinite compassion. He is white in his four-armed form of Avalokiteshvara, and his first two hands are pressed together at his heart. This indicates his vow to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It is to protect all sentient beings from suffering. The hands hold a wish-fulfilling jewel that symbolizes Avalokiteshvara's compassionate Bodhichitta.
His other right hand holds a crystal rosary. It symbolizes his ability to free the beings from Samsara. It also reminds us to recite his six-syllable mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM. Avalokiteshvara holds the stem of a blue Utpala flower in his left hand, which symbolizes his compassionate Bodhichitta motivation. The Utpala is in full bloom together with two buds. It represents the three times and the way his compassionate wisdom encompasses past, present, and future. In The Nepalese Buddhism context, he forms a triad along with Shakyamuni Buddha and Prajnaparamita. This triad is called The Buddha Dharma Sangha, where Buddha is represented by Shakyamuni in Bhumiparsha. Sacred dharma is represented by the four-armed figure.
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The Iconography of the Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara
Avalokiteshvara is dressed in silken robes, which depicts the Indian royal look. He wears various jeweled ornaments. He has bracelets, necklaces, anklets, etc., that symbolize his mastery of the perfections of generosity and morality. As a prince, he wears his black hair long. The upper half is knotted high on his head, and the rest flows down to his shoulders. This bodhisattva is the spiritual son and heir to the king-like Buddha, just like a prince. A five jeweled crown rests on his head which represents the five buddha families. He sits in a peaceful scene of hills and lakes with a transparent aura.
Avalokitesvara's Thousand-armed form and history behind how he was formed.
The iconography of the Thousand-armed Avalokitesvara
"Thousand Armed Avalokitesvara" is one of the most predominant in Buddhism and famous in Tibet, Nepal, China, and many other Buddhist religions. Ichnographically he is shown with eleven heads and a thousand arms. In most of the paintings and sculptures, the body of the main deity is white in color and 1000 arms and 1000 eyes. In his arms, he is depicted holding various Buddhist symbols. He wears antelope skin on his shoulder, symbolizing compassionate nature. He is adorned with various ornaments like earrings, bracelets, vases, rosary, etc. His eleventh head is believed to be the spiritual sire of Amitabha Buddha.
Shakyamuni himself declared that Avalokiteshvara had a special relationship with the snowy land of Tibet in a sutra. His prophecy foretold that in the future, the barbarous inhabitants would be subdued by Avalokiteshvara. And that he would lead them along the path to enlightenment. Avalokiteshvara then took a vow wherein he stated his compassionate intention;
"May I be able to establish in emancipation all the living beings in the barbaric Land of Snow, where beings are so hard to discipline and none of the buddhas of the three times has stepped... May I be able to mature and emancipate them, each according to his way? May that gloomy, barbaric country become bright, like an island of precious jewels."
Avalokiteshvara had taken a miraculous birth, as Shakyamuni recalled. From Amitabha Buddha's heart, a light shaft emanated and transformed into a radiant lotus. The four-armed Avalokiteshvara rose within this lotus. Amitabha had prophesized that this aspect of his would subdue the Tibetans.
Avalokiteshvara repeated his vow to work tirelessly for the welfare of all beings in front of Amitabha. He declared with compassionate motivation.
"Until I relieve all living beings, may I never, even for a moment, feel like giving up the purpose of others for my peace and happiness. If I should ever think about my happiness, may my head be cracked into ten pieces...and may my body be split into a thousand pieces, like the petals of a lotus."
After entering a profound state of meditative absorption, he remained uninterrupted for a long time. He recited the six-syllable mantra. He directed his compassionate intention to all sentient beings. He wished that every being be free of their suffering.
He surveyed the Land of Snow after arising from his deep absorption. He realized that he had only helped a small number of beings. It disappointed him bitterly. He saw the majority of the beings still bound by their delusions. He cried in desperation.
"What is the use? I can do nothing for them. It is better for me to be happy and peaceful myself."
He uttered these words no sooner than his head split into ten pieces. By the power of his previous vow, his body was divided into a thousand pieces. It caused him unbearable agony. Amitabha immediately appeared before him. He cried out, but the Buddha of the West looked at him and told him not to despair.
All circumstances come from cooperative causes
Conditioned at the moment of intent.
Every fortune which arises to anyone
Results from his former wish.
Your powerful expression of supplication
Was praised by all the buddhas;
In a moment of time,
The truth will certainly appear."
His broken body was restored by Amitabha, who also turned his torn flesh into a thousand hands. Each had its own wisdom eye. The shattered pieces of his head were transformed into ten faces; nine peaceful and one wrathful. He could behold every direction now. He wanted to show that he was pleased he was with his Avalokiteshvara. So, he crowned the bodhisattva's ten faces with a replica of his own.
Thus, the eleven-faced and the one-thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara took form. This form, where he holds a jewel, rosary, and a lotus, is widely loved by Tibetans. He also holds a vase, a bow, and a wheel, whereas the rest of the hands makes a mudra.
He is still the patron deity of Tibet. Tibetans claim the descent from Avalokiteshvara, in the form of a monkey, have sired the original inhabitants of Tibet. He has appeared in many forms to propagate and defend Buddhist teachings and has been identified with Tibet's religious kings like Guru Rinpoche, Songtsen Gampo, etc.
Tibetans recite the following four-line prayer regularly as long-life prayer.
"In the heavenly realm of the snowy mountains,
The source of all happiness and help for beings
Is Tenzin Gyatso: Avalokiteshvara in person.
May his life be secure for hundreds of eons."
And, a popular practice is centered upon this figure of universal compassion:
"A Noble Avalokiteshvara, a treasure of compassion,
Together with your retinue, please listen to me.
May you quickly rescue me and my fathers and mothers,
the six kinds of beings, from drowning in Samsara's ocean.
I request that we may quickly attain
The profound and vast Bodhichitta.
May all our karma and delusion
Accumulated since beginningless time
Be purified by the nectar of your compassion.
With your outstretched hands
Please lead us to the Blissful Land.
I request that you and Amitabha
Become our spiritual masters in all future lifetimes.
Guide us along the noble and flawless path
And quickly lead us to Buddhahood