Avalokitesvara, Who Hears the Cries of the World

The Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

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Now we come to the figure who is far and away the most popular Bodhisattva in Mahayana countries. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's name means "the one who sees (or hears) the cries of those who suffer." In China he is known as Kuan Yin (or Kuan Shi Yin); in Japan, as Kannon, after whom the Canon electronics company was named. (It was founded by a devotee.) Avalokitesvara represents Great Compassion--the key concept for any Bodhisattva, but attaining its highest expression in Kuan Yin. Using skillful means, Avalokitesvara can take on many forms to help in many ways. He is often portrayed with multiple arms--four, six, eighteen, forty, or even a thousand--and multiple eyes or faces, to portray his ability to help in many ways, and to perceive all of those who need help.

Chinese forms of Kuan Yin are often female. This may be because of the general perception of Compassion as a "feminine" virtue. However, there are also specific traditions that have contributed to this transformation in China. There were Taoist Goddess of Mercy figures, and many Sea Goddesses who protected sailors. Even the Virgin Mary had an effect; after the Portuguese brought images of this "Mother of Mercy," the Chinese potters consciously copied some of her characteristics.

Perhaps the greatest influence on this development was the legend of Miao Shan. She was an only child, and her father had set his hopes on benefiting from a good marriage for his daughter. She, however, had other plans: she wanted to become a Buddhist nun. Nonetheless, her father arranged to marry her to a wealthy man. Refusing to prepare for the wedding, Miao Shan sat in meditation every day. Recognizing his defeat, her father had her sent to a convent, where she was assigned the most humiliating tasks. Undaunted, she carried them out with the utmost energy. Her father, in frustration, ordered her to be executed, but the executioner's sword shattered into a thousand pieces. He then ordered her to be suffocated, and this was successful. (An alternate legend says her father returned her to the convent and ordered it burned down--with her in it.)

In any case, she died. When she arrived in the underworld, all the flames were converted to flowers. Dismayed, the King of Hell granted her life--to save his job!--and sent her to her own island home, now Mount Putuo, a major pilgrimage site dedicated to Kuan Yin.

As it happened, her father fell ill. Miao Shan appeared to him in the form of a healer, and told him that he could only be cured by a concoction made from the eyes and hands of a pure woman. The evil father sent out his men, and one of them was guided to Miao Shan, who willingly sacrificed her eyes and hands. When her father was cured, he asked to meet this generous woman--and was horrified to discover that it was his daughter! He then ordered a statue to be made of her "with completely-formed hands and eyes." Because of a misunderstanding of the Chinese words, the sculptor instead made a statue with a thousand completely-formed arms and eyes, which has remained a custom to this day.

This Miao Shan is considered to be one of the previous incarnations of the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin.

Kuan Yin is often seen holding a willow branch, associated with healing, and pouring the "nectar of compassion" from a vase. Although she takes many forms, she can usually be identified by the small figure of Amitabha Buddha in her headdress (as seen in the Garden outside, as well as in many figures in the Museum). This may be associated with another legend stating that, in a previous existence, Amitabha Buddha had been an ancient king, and Avalokitesvara was his oldest son. This son, Pu-hsun by name, vowed before the Buddha of that time to save anyone who called on him. The Buddha validated this pledge, and gave him the name Avalokitesvara. This legend is recorded in the Peihua Sutra.

A final bit of trivia: Tibetan Buddhists consider the Dalai Lama to be an incarnation of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Just as the Dalai Lama has dedicated himself to a life of compassion, we can all manifest Kuan Yin in the world, being some of her myriad eyes and hands.


In front of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva:

O Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Great Compassion!

I ask you to help me gain control over my heart and destroy all apathy.

Through your great mercy, you have heard the cries of the world, and you have never failed to respond to the sincere requests of the unfortunate.

Through your willingness to help others, you have shown us the importance of caring for others.

Let me also, by cultivating compassion, attain this excellence.

Help me to conquer my indifference and laziness.

Help me to be attentive to the needs of those around me, and emulate your heart of compassion by bringing aid to those in trouble,

that I may dedicate further merit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

O great One Who Hears the World's Cries, hear my prayer!

O great Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, hear my prayer!

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