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?
      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."1  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 
      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.