55 – Listener’s Questions: Enlightened Behavior, Openings, Chanting, Recommended Books
57 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 1: What's the Big Deal about Zazen?

Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (also called Guanyin, Kannon, or Kanzeon), is hands-down the most popular of the Buddhist archetypal bodhisattvas. The many teachings and stories around Avalokiteshvara express the Buddhist view that compassion is a force unto itself; it isn’t merely a feeling or an ideal for personal conduct, it’s a reflection of universal interdependence and something that functions freely when we simply get ourselves out of the way. We practice in order to tap into, and more skillfully manifest, the compassion that’s already inherent in the universe.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
A Note About Archetypal Bodhisattvas
The Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion
A Tale of Avalokiteshvara’s Great Compassion
Prayers to Avalokiteshvara for Deliverance
Invoking the Power of Compassion
Is the Bodhisattva of Compassion “Real?”
How We Tap Into Compassion
The Power of Prayer Even If We’re Skeptical
Sources

 

A Note About Archetypal Bodhisattvas

Before I get to a discussion of Avalokiteshvara, I should briefly say something about the Mahayana concept of the bodhisattva, and the nature of archetypal bodhisattvas  – who sometimes take on some of the characteristics of a deity, to the surprise of some modern convert Buddhists who assume Buddhism is entirely nontheistic and rational.

The word bodhisattva (or bodhisatta in Pali), has been around since the beginning of Buddhism. It was said Shakyamuni himself was a bodhisatta, meaning someone who diligently practices the Buddhist way lifetime after lifetime, gradually refining their character and insight until they achieve complete buddhahood. In original Buddhism, this was understood to take an extremely long time (think eons, and countless lifetimes), and was seen as a much more ambitious path than that toward arhatship, which was the typical goal of personal liberation. A buddha was seen as a remarkable kind of arhat who also had special powers when it came to teaching others.

Later on, Mahayana Buddhists began to promote the path of a bodhisattva as an ideal to which everyone should aspire, because they saw it as selfish to seek your own liberation without concern for others. According to the ancient Asian view, once you achieved complete spiritual liberation, you would never be born again, and would leave behind all the suffering beings in the world. In contrast, a bodhisattva vows to reborn deliberately, practicing diligently for lifetime after lifetime, until every last being is saved. I don’t have time here to go into the utility of making such an impossible vow but suffice it to say that it’s the thought that counts.

As for archetypal bodhisattvas, in Mahayana Buddhism there eventually evolved conceptions of fantastic, perfect, otherworldly kinds of bodhisattva figures. In addition to Avalokiteshvara, there’s Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of loving activity, and Jizo, a bodhisattva who specializes in vow. Each archetypal bodhisattva ended up with his or her own iconography, mythology, and place in Buddhist liturgy and teaching. These bodhisattvas are not seen as people who historically existed, but rather as embodiments of particular kinds of practice and virtue. The nature of their existence is open to interpretation, and Mahayana Buddhists even within the same sect or community will vary in their perceptions of archetypal bodhisattvas, ranging all the way from viewing them only as useful metaphors to relating to them as sympathetic supernatural beings.

The Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion

Statue of Guan Yin (Wikimedia Commons, Author 风之清扬)

That brings us to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Probably because compassion is such a desirable and simpatico trait, Avalokiteshvara is arguably the most popular and widely revered bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. He appears in a multitude of different iconographic forms, by many different names: Chenrezig in Tibet, Guanyin in China, Quan Am in Vietnam, Kwanseum in Korea, and Kannon, Kanzeon, or Kanjizai in Japan. His name means “Perceiver of Sounds” or “Regarder of the Cries of the World.” In some of his manifestations he is male, but many times the bodhisattva of compassion is portrayed as female (although honestly, most bodhisattvas are painted or sculpted to look fairly androgynous). Avalokiteshvara may be seen as a powerful, fantastical being with eleven heads and a thousand arms, or as a more normal human figure with a peaceful, benevolent expression.

There are also countless fascinating stories told about Avalokiteshvara, including many where the bodhisattva temporarily takes on some other guise in order to interact with mortals. One of my favorite stories is from a Tibetan Buddhist scripture called the Mani Kabum, about how the bodhisattva ended up with eleven heads and a thousand arms. In this telling of the story, when I offer a quotation it’s from a version of the story by Venerable Shangpa Rinpoche.[1]

 

A Tale of Avalokiteshvara’s Great Compassion

Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms and eyes and eleven heads

Out of great compassion, Avalokiteshvara felt compelled to liberate all sentients beings from suffering. Using his supernatural powers, he gazed out on all the beings in the universe and observed how countless numbers of them were trapped in their suffering by their attachments and delusions. Avalokiteshvara saw that “their desires are like the waterfall; their hatred is like a blazing fire; their ignorance shrouding them like clouds of darkness; their pride is as solid as the mountain, and their jealousy is as rapid as the wind. The chain of self or ego ties each and every sentient being to the cycle of birth and death…”

Avalokiteshvara was filled with such sorrow and compassion at this sight, tears flowed from his eyes. Making bows and offerings, he beseeched the many Buddhas in the universe to advise him on how he could benefit all the suffering beings. The Buddhas replied, “If you wish to benefit all these sentient beings, you must be motivated by loving-kindness and compassion. Do not be tired of this work. Do not give up.” Avalokiteshvara then vowed, “from each and every pore of my body, may I manifest Buddhas and bodhisattvas according to the needs of all sentient beings. With these manifestations, may I liberate all sentient beings without leaving anyone behind. If I have self-clinging, may my head crack into pieces…”

The bodhisattva then worked tirelessly for some time and helped large numbers of beings escape from suffering. At one point, figuring he must have significantly reduced the number of beings trapped in suffering, he again used his supernatural powers to gaze at all the beings in the universe. To his surprise and dismay, the numbers of suffering beings had not decreased! In despair, the bodhisattva recalled that the Buddha had said sentient beings are infinite. Realizing his task to liberate all beings was impossible, Avalokiteshvara concluded he had better give up and at least liberate himself.

Of course, this was a selfish thought at odds with his vow, so Avalokiteshvara’s head promptly cracked into a hundred pieces. Despite the state of his head, the bodhisattva was able to appeal to the Buddhas for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared, collected all of the bodhisattva’s skull fragments, and transformed them into eleven heads – ten with benevolent faces, and one with a wrathful expression for those beings who need that kind of message in order to awaken. Amitabha then warned the bodhisattva, saying “There is no end to [the world of suffering]. You must benefit sentient beings until [the world of suffering] ends.”

Faced with this endless and impossible task, Avalokiteshvara then asked, as long as Buddha Amitabha was at it, whether he could also have one thousand eyes to see the work that needs to be done, and one thousand arms to carry it out. Amitabha granted the bodhisattva’s wish, placing an eye in the palm of each hand.

(You can see paintings of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara if you search online, and I’ve also got one on the page for this episode on the Zen Studies Podcast website.)

Prayers to Avalokiteshvara for Deliverance

This colorful story illustrates how the bodhisattva of compassion is revered not only because people want to be beneficiaries of his goodness, but also because he is an inspiring exemplar of unselfishly devoting himself to compassion – feeling it, being troubled by it, responding to it, and making sacrifices in order to manifest it as fully as possible. We’ve all felt and witnessed the power of compassion, and how it calls us to benefit others – whether or not we listen to that call.

Our personal experience of the power of compassion is probably why Buddhists throughout history have prayed to Avalokiteshvara for deliverance and succor (support and aid in times of distress or hardship). That kind of prayer continues today. For example, one of the standard Soto Zen daily chants is called the “Universal Gateway Chapter” (it comes from the Lotus Sutra), which states:

“If floating on a vast sea,
menaced by dragons, fish, or demons,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
the billowing waves cannot drown you.

If from Mount Sumeru’s lofty peak,
someone were to throw you down,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
like the sun you would stand firm in the sky…

If, persecuted by rulers,
you face torture and execution,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
their weapons will thereby shatter to pieces.

If imprisoned in shackles and chains,
hands and feet bound in restraints,
by mindfully invoking Avalokiteshvara’s power
suddenly you shall be released.”[2]

It might be easy to conclude it was only certain ancient Buddhists who prayed to the bodhisattva of compassion for worldly results – after all, the Lotus Sutra was compiled around the 1st century CE. However, this is definitely not the case.

For example, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), is widely revered for his philosophical teachings and his devotion to Zen meditation. Yet, throughout his life, he credited Kanzeon with the very fact he was still alive. (From here on out I’ll refer to the bodhisattva of compassion using the name Kanzeon and feminine pronouns.) According to Dogen, on his journey back from China his ship was caught in a terrible storm. The crew and everyone on board was certain they would drown. Dogen sat in meditation on deck, chanting aloud the Universal Gateway chapter I just introduced you to. After some time, he had a vision of Kanzeon riding atop the waves on a leaf, and afterwards the sea calmed and the storm subsided.

Invoking the Power of Compassion

It may seem strange to some of us to “pray” to Kanzeon as if she’s a deity able to respond to us using supernatural powers. That’s why I’ve somewhat adapted the “Universal Gateway” scripture we chant at my Zen center, Bright Way (click here to see it; it’s in Full Service B) in order to leave out the most magical-sounding of the verses. (We have brand-new people drop in for chanting on a regular basis, and I feel these verses need some explanation…)

But there’s another way to look at such prayer. Compassion, according to Buddhism, is a force unto itself. This is because beings aren’t separate from one another, or from the world around them, the way they think they are. A sense of a separate self only arises because of the delusional (and optional) process of “I-making and my-making,” or falsely identifying things – including our bodies and minds – as self, or as belonging to self. In reality, everything arises in relationship to, and dependence on, everything else, and there is no inherent, enduring, independent self-essence in anything.

We’re intimately connected to everyone and everything else, and in a very real way someone else’s suffering is our own suffering, and vice versa. Temporarily we may convince ourselves otherwise – that the suffering of others isn’t our problem, or even that we’re justified in causing harm to others – but such a position will inevitably come back to haunt us in some way. Perhaps no one helps us when we’re the ones who are suffering, or maybe a sad and pervasive guilt and stress compromises our health in the long term. At the very least our hearts are hardened and our spiritual practice is compromised by our self-absorption.

On the other hand, if we can transcend self-concern and open up to the reality of interdependence, compassion can be a powerful and sublime motivator. As long as we haven’t hardened our hearts or become entrenched in our selfish delusions, we naturally feel compassion when we see the suffering of other beings, or of any form of life. While compassion may be accompanied by some sorrow and overwhelm (even the bodhisattva of compassion shed tears and experienced despair), it also tends to come with warmth, love, appreciation, determination, willingness, openness, and a sense of intimacy.

In a way, you might say compassion is inherent in the structure of the universe. Because of interdependence, compassion is the natural experience of beings as long as they aren’t caught up in selfishness, greed, hatred, or delusion. This is why we practice – to get ourselves out of the way and be able to experience and act with compassion more freely and completely. Or, in other words, to move in harmony with the reality of interdependence instead of fighting against it. Therefore, compassion is something that’s already present, just waiting for us to tap into it – rather than it being a sentimental feeling, or a virtue we achieve through personal effort.

Is the Bodhisattva of Compassion “Real?”

As for “invoking the power of compassion” in a manner that seems to border on magical thinking? It may be difficult for some of us skeptics to get our minds around, but such invocation makes sense if you challenge your assumptions about what’s real. In his book, Bodhisattva of Compassion, John Blofeld describes a conversation he had with some Chinese Buddhists about devotional conceptions of bodhisattvas. One of them had just explained how it was human nature to picture compassion in the form of a lovely woman, and how devotional practices often lead to more or less the same spiritual results as more rational practices such as meditation. Blofeld writes:

“‘Do you mean,’ I asked, ‘that Amitabha, Kuan Yin and their vows to succor sentient beings are really myths used to persuade unlearned people to concentrate upon their names and thus achieve one-pointedness of mind even though unable to perceive its proper purpose?’”

Blofeld explains that there was then a pause in the conversation, as his friends seemed at a momentary loss for words. He surmises “they were aghast that their way of putting things had led me so far astray, or perhaps they were just bewildered by my obtuseness.”

“ ‘Make no mistake,’ cried old Mr. Lao sharply… ‘The Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas and their vows are real. If you doubt it, you will be beyond their help!’”

By way of explanation, Mr. Lao asks Blofeld whether the desk in front of them is real. Blofeld answers yes, because you can see and touch it. Mr. Lao then asks, “How about, say, justice? …Is justice real?” Blofeld, rather reluctantly, says yes, because it can be quantified to some extent and seen to exist in one place but not another. Mr. Lao responds:

“Excellent. Thought you cannot hurt your hand by banging it against justice, you do agree it is real. But why is it real? Because mind conceives it. If human beings were mindless entities like motor-cars, there could be no such thing as justice. Whatever the mind conceives thereby achieves reality.”[3]

How We Tap Into Compassion

How do we open up to the reality of interdependence, and to compassion, without ending up exhausted, overwhelmed, or discouraged? Whether we’re trying to act compassionately with the people in our lives, fighting for justice, or contemplating the ecological fate of our planet, it’s easy to come to the same conclusion as Avalokiteshvara: The struggle is endless and our diligent efforts haven’t even made a dent in the suffering of sentient beings. What can we do when we fail to live up to Buddha Amitabha’s admonition to Avalokiteshvara, “Do not be tired of this work. Do not give up?”

This is when we need to work on our insight into the true nature of self, which is shunyata. Shunyata can be translated as emptiness (that is, empty of any inherent self-nature) or boundlessness. It’s our dependently co-arisen, interdependent nature. I like to think of insight into shunyata as realizing we’re not in charge the way we think we are. Deepening our personal experience of this truth can relieve us of our sense of inadequacy and overwhelm in the face of our impossible bodhisattva vows. It helps us recognize how compassion functions through us whenever we’re not stuck in self-consciousness, rather than us having to create and enact compassion every time it’s called for.

The shunya – empty or boundless – nature of the one who manifests compassion is illustrated by a classic Zen koan:

“Ungan asked Dogo, ‘What does the great compassionate bodhisattva do when she uses her manifold hands and eyes?’

Dogo said, ‘It’s like a man who reaches behind him in the night to search for his pillow.’”[4]

Think of reaching back for your pillow in the night. Your body is experiencing some discomfort. Would you say that, out of compassion, your mind decides you need your pillow, even though you’re unconscious? And then, out of compassion, your arm reaches for the pillow so your head and shoulders will be more comfortable? Does it make any sense to divide all of these parts up – body, mind, and arm – as if one part is doing another part a favor? In this spontaneous act of compassion, is it necessary for any part to conceive of, or be conscious of, compassion? Isn’t it just natural functioning?

Is compassion any different when one sentient being reaches out to stop another from stumbling, or offers food to someone who’s hungry, or steps in to protect a child from harm? Of course, many of our acts of compassion get complicated by questions of circumstances, responsibility, blame, limited resources, and concern about long-term obligations… but underneath it all, the fundamental motivation is the same.

The Power of Prayer Even If We’re Skeptical

It can be valuable to invoke the power of compassion in devotional way, even if you’re not at all inclined to conceive of supernatural bodhisattvas or your ability to influence powerful external forces through your words and actions. Calling on Kanzeon, or compassion, in some sort of prayerful way points to how we can’t fix the suffering of the world by ourselves. We acknowledge and express our sincere wish for all beings to be at ease, and this puts us in alignment with the reality of interdependence. Our request for assistance reflects the fact that we have to rely on compassion functioning at a much larger scale than our own personal lives and practice if the world is going to be saved.

To illustrate, I tried writing a few new verses for the Universal Gateway Chapter that, as a modern, atheistic person who values science and is concerned with social justice, I find it easier to relate to. As you listen to these verses, see if such a prayer touches you, regardless of how you feel about archetypal bodhisattvas:

If selfishness and fear lead people to turn their backs
on their fellow human beings who are starving, dying, and without homes,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
those who are suffering and homeless will find succor and safety.

If ignorance and greed cause those with wealth and power
to exploit and oppress those without it, to an extreme degree,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
all beings will be cherished and given a chance for a fulfilling life.

If small-minded people torment others with hatred and xenophobia
because of the color of their skin, or any other arbitrary characteristic,
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
human beings will recognize and embrace one another as kin.

If systemic greed results in a planet
stripped of resources and full of poisons
by mindfully invoking the power of Compassion
you shall find a way to heal the world.

 


Sources

Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1988.
Leighten, Taigen Dan. Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Wick, Gerry Shishin. The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Endnotes

[1]Story from Tibetan Buddhist scripture Mani Kabum (retelling by Venerable Shangpa Rinpoche, https://www.dhagpo.org/en/index.php/multimedia/teachings/205-arya-avalokitesvara-and-the-six-syllable-mantra)
[2] https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/01/01.pdf
[3] Blofeld pg 86
[4] Wick, pg 168 (Case 54: Ungan’s Great Compassionate One)

 

55 – Listener’s Questions: Enlightened Behavior, Openings, Chanting, Recommended Books
57 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 1: What's the Big Deal about Zazen?
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