Avalokiteśvara

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Avalokiteśvara | Chenrezig
Avalokiteśvara | Chenrezig

1. Avalokiteśvara

In Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara is a Bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.

He can manifest himself in many forms. This Bodhisattva is variably depicted, described and portrayed in different cultures as either male or female.

In Tibet, he is known as Chenrezig.

In China, Taiwan and other Chinese communities, Avalokiteśvara has evolved into the somewhat different female figure Guanyin or Guanshiyin;

He is also known as Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan, Kwanseum Bosal in Korea.

He is known as Nātha Devīyo in Śrī Lanka and Lokanātha In Myanmar (Burma). In Thailand and Cambodia, he is called as Lokeśvara.

Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit masculine noun. Female Bodhisattvas don’t exist in Indian Buddhist literature, but exist in Tibetan Buddhist literature.

2. Etymology

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

The name Avalokiteśvara combines the verbal prefix ava "down", lokita, a past participle of the verb lok "to notice, behold, observe", here used in an active sense; and finally Īśvara, "lord", "ruler", "sovereign" or "master".

In accordance with Saṅdhi (Sanskrit rules of sound combination), a+īśvara becomes eśvara.

Combined, the parts mean "lord who gazes down (at the world)".

The word loka ("world") is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied. It does appear in the Cambodian form of the name, Lokeśvara.

The earliest translation of the name Avalokiteśvara into Chinese by authors such as Xuanzang was as Guānzizai, not the form used in East Asian Buddhism today, Guanyin.

It was initially thought that this was due to a lack of fluency, as Guanyin indicates the original Sanskrit form was instead Avalokitasvara, "who looked down upon sound", i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need help.

It is now understood Avalokitasvara was the original form, and is also the origin of Guanyin "Perceiving sound, cries".

This translation was favoured by the tendency of some Chinese translators, notably Kumārajīva, to use the variant Guānshīyīn "who perceives the world's lamentations"

—wherein lok was read as simultaneously meaning both "to look" and "world" (Sanskrit: loka; Chinese: shì).

The original form Avalokitasvara appears in Sanskrit fragments of the 5th century.

This earlier Sanskrit name was supplanted by the form containing the ending -īśvara "lord"; but Avalokiteśvara does not occur in Sanskrit before the 7th century.

The original meaning of the name fits the Buddhist understanding of the role of a Bodhisattva.

The reinterpretation presenting him as an Īśvara shows a strong influence of Hinduism, as the term Īśvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of Viṣṇu (in Vaiṣṇavism) or Śiva (in Śaivism) as the Supreme Lord, Creator and Ruler of the world.

Some attributes of such a God were transmitted to the Bodhisattva, but the mainstream of those who venerated Avalokiteśvara upheld the Buddhist rejection of the doctrine of any creator God.

In Sanskrit, Avalokiteśvara is also referred to as Lokeśvara ("Lord of the World").

In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is Chenrezig, and is said to emanate as the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa and other high lamas.

An etymology of the Tibetan name Chenrezig is spyan "eye", ras "continuity" and gzig "to look". This gives the meaning of one who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion).

3. Mahāyāna account

Guānyīn

Guānyīn

According to the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, the Sun and Moon are said to be born from Avalokiteśvara's eyes, Śiva from his brow, Brahma from his shoulders,

Nārāyaṇa from his heart, Sarasvatī from his teeth, the winds from his mouth, the Earth from his feet, and the sky from his stomach.

In this text and others, such as the Longer Sukhāvatī vyūha Sūtra, Avalokiteśvara is an attendant of Amitābha.

Some texts which mention Avalokiteśvara include:

  1. Avataṁsaka Sūtra
  2. Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra
  3. 11-Faced Avalokiteśvara Heart Dhāraṇī Sūtra
  4. Heart Sūtra (Heart Sūtra)
  5. Longer Sukhāvatī vyūha Sūtra
  6. Lotus Sūtra
  7. Kāraṇḍavyūha sūtra
  8. Karuṇā Puṇḍarīka sūtra
  9. Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī Sūtra
  10. Śūraṅgama Sūtra
  11. The High King Avalokiteśvara Sūtra

We come across the name Avalokiteśvara in the Avatamsaka Sūtra, a Mahāyāna scripture that precedes the Lotus Sūtra.

On account of its popularity in Japan, and as a result of the works of the earliest Western translators of Buddhist Scriptures, the Lotus Sūtra, however, has long time been accepted to be the earliest literature teaching about the doctrines of Avalokiteśvara:

These are found in Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sūtra: Universal Gate of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

This chapter is devoted to Avalokiteśvara, describing him as a compassionate Bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and who works tirelessly to help those who call upon his name.

A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokiteśvara are described, including female manifestations, all to suit the minds of various beings.

This earliest source often circulates separately as its own Sūtra, called the Avalokiteśvara Sūtra (Chinese: Guānshīyīn jīng), and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia.

When the Chinese monk Faxian travelled to Mathura in India around 400 CE, he wrote about monks presenting offerings to Avalokiteśvara.

When Xuanzang travelled to India in the 7th century, he provided eyewitness accounts of Avalokiteśvara statues being venerated by devotees from all walks of life: kings, to monks, to laypeople.

In Chinese Buddhism and East Asia, Tangmi practices for the 18-armed form of Avalokiteśvara called Cundī are very popular.

The popularity of Cundī is attested by the 3 extant translations of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra from Sanskrit to Chinese, made from the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 8th century.

In late imperial China, these early esoteric traditions still thrived in Buddhist communities. In these communities, the esoteric practices of Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.

In the Tiantai school, 6 forms of Avalokiteśvara are defined:

Each of the Bodhisattva's 6 qualities are said to break the hindrances respectively of the 6 realms of existence: hell-beings, pretas, animals, humans, asuras, and devas.

And also according to prologue of Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī Sūtra, Gautama Buddha told a disciple Ānanda that Avalokiteśvara had become a Buddha from countless previous incarnations ago.

Because of his great compassion, because he wanted to create proper conditions for all the Bodhisattva ranks, because he wanted to bring happiness and peacefulness to sentient living beings, he became a Bodhisattva, the title of Avalokiteśvara, often abiding in the Sahā world.

At the same time, Avalokiteśvara is also the attendant of Amitābha Buddha, assisting Amitābha Buddha to teach the Dharma in his Pure Land.

4. Theravāda account

Veneration of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva has continued to the present day in Śrī Lanka:

In times past both Tantrayāna and Mahāyāna have been found in some of the Theravada countries, but today the Buddhism of Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia is almost exclusively Theravāda, based on the Pāḷi Canon.

The only Mahāyāna deity that has entered the worship of ordinary Buddhists in Theravāda countries is Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

In Ceylon he is known as Nātha-deva and mistaken by the majority for the Buddha yet to come, Bodhisattva Maitreya. The figure of Avalokiteśvara usually is found in the shrine room near the Buddha image.

In more recent times, some western-educated Theravādins have attempted to identify Nātha with Maitreya Bodhisattva;

however, traditions and basic iconography (including an image of Amitābha Buddha on the front of the crown) identify Nātha as Avalokiteśvara.

Avalokiteśvara is popularly worshiped in Myanmar, where he is called Lokanātha, and Thailand, where he is called Lokeśvara.

The Bodhisattva goes by many other names. In Indochina and Thailand, he is Lokeśvara, "The Lord of the World."

In Tibet he is Chenrezig "With a Compassionate Look."

In China, the Bodhisattva takes a female form and is called Guanyin, "Hearing the Sounds of the World."

In Japan, Guanyin is Kannon or Kanzeon; in Korea, Kwanseum; in Vietnam, Quan Am.

5. Modern scholarship

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Avalokiteśvara is worshipped as Nātha in Śrī Lanka. Tamil Buddhist tradition developed in Chola literature (9-13th century), such as in Buddamitra's Virasoliyam, states that the Vedic sage Agastya learnt Tamil from Avalokiteśvara.

The earlier Chinese traveller Xuanzang recorded a temple dedicated to Avalokiteśvara in the South Indian Mount Potalaka, a Sanskrit name of Pothigai Hills, where Tamil Hindu tradition places Agastya having learnt the Tamil language from Śiva.

Avalokiteśvara worship gained popularity with the growth of the Abhayagiri Vihāra's Tāmraparṇīya Mahāyāna sect.

Western scholars have not reached a consensus on the origin of the reverence for Avalokiteśvara.

On the basis of study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey some scholars believe that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Xuanzang’s Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, is the real mountain Pothigai on Tamil Nadu & Kerala border.

The mount Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. It is the traditional residence of Siddhar Agastya, at Agastya Mala.

With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the 3rd century BCE, it became a holy place also for Buddhists, who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there.

The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Tamil Animist religion.

The mixed Tamil-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara.

6. Mantras and Dhāraṇīs

Cundī

Cundī

Mahāyāna Buddhism relates Avalokiteśvara to the 6-syllable mantra

Oṁ Maṇi Padme Hūṁ.

In Tibetan Buddhism, due to his association with this mantra, one form of Avalokiteśvara is called Ṣaḍākṣarī "Lord of the 6 Syllables" in Sanskrit.

Recitation of this mantra while using prayer beads is the most popular religious practice in Tibetan Buddhism.

The connection between this famous mantra and Avalokiteśvara is documented for the first time in the Kāraṇḍavyūha sūtra.

This text is dated to around the late 4th century CE to the early 5th century CE.

In this sūtra, a Bodhisattva is told by the Buddha that recitation of this mantra while focusing on the sound can lead to the attainment of 800 Samādhis.

The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra also features the first appearance of the dhāraṇī of Cundī, which occurs at the end of the sūtra text.

After the Bodhisattva finally attains samādhi with the mantra "Oṁ Maṇi Padme Hūṁ", he is able to observe 77 koṭi of fully enlightened Buddhas replying to him in one voice with the Cundī Dhāraṇī:

Namaḥ Saptānāṁ Samyaksaṁbuddha Koṭīnāṁ Tadyathā,
Oṁ Cale Cule Cunde Svāhā

Another mantra for Avalokiteśvara commonly recited in East Asian Buddhism is

Oṁ Arolik Svāhā

Also popular is the Guanyin mantra:

Namo Guan Shī Yin Pusa

7. 1000-armed Avalokiteśvara

Avalokiteśvara with 1000 hands, 11 faces

Avalokiteśvara with 1000 hands, 11 faces

One prominent Buddhist story tells of Avalokiteśvara vowing never to rest until he had freed all sentient beings from Saṁsāra.

Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, his head splits into 11 pieces.

Amitābha, seeing his plight, gives him 11 heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering.

Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara tries to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that his 2 arms shattered into pieces.

Once more, Amitābha comes to his aid and invests him with a 1 000 arms with which to aid the suffering multitudes.

There is a popular Dhāraṇī mantra dedicated to this 11-headed Avalokiteśvara:

The Heart-Dhāraṇī of Avalokiteśvara-Ekadaśa-mukha Sūtra:

Namo Ratna Trayāya, (homage to the triple gem)
Namaḥ Ārya Jñāna Sāgara, (homage to the ocean of noble wisdom)
Vairocana, (the illuminator)
Vyūha Rājāya (to the king of the host [also the name of a Bodhisattva])
Tathāgatāya, (to the Tathāgata)
Arhate, (to the arhat)
Samyak sambuddhāya, (to the perfectly awakened one)
Nama Sarva TathagatebhyaH (homage to all Tathāgatas)
Arhatebyaḥ, (to the arhats)
Samyak SambuddhebhyaH, (to the fully and perfectly awakened ones)
Nama Aryā Avalokiteshvarāya (homage to noble Avalokiteśvara)
Bodhisattvāya, (to the bodhisattva)
Maha Sattvāya, (to the great being)
Maha Karunikāya, (to the greatly compassionate one)
Tadyatha (thus):Om Dhāra Dhāra, (bearing)
Dhīri Dhīri, (firm)
Dhuru Dhuru (bearing a burden)
Itte Vatte, (??)
Cale Cale, (moving, trembling, shaking)
Pracale Pracale, (moving, trembling, shaking)
Kusume (in flower)
Kusume Vare, (in the circumference)
Hili Mili (??)
Citi Jvālam, (blazing understanding)
Apanaye Svāhā. (leading away) hail!

It is said that anyone who recites this Heart-Dhāraṇī mantra will receive blessings of good health, longevity, and happiness.  This mantra is usually used for repentance. If anyone memorizes this mantra, demons would stay away from you.

8. Tibetan Buddhist beliefs

Avalokiteśvara is an important deity in Tibetan Buddhism. He is regarded in the Vajrayāna teachings as a Buddha.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Tārā came into existence from a single tear shed by Avalokiteśvara.

When the tear fell to the ground it created a lake, and a lotus opening in the lake revealed Tārā.

In another version of this story, Tārā emerges from the heart of Avalokiteśvara.

In either version, it is Avalokiteśvara's outpouring of compassion which manifests Tārā as a being.