Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Legendary Origin

The most important objects in the Buddhist tradition are images of celebrated buddhas. In Mahayana the Great Vehicle, images of the Bodhisattvas are also venerated. Among the Bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara in particular is regarded as the embodiment of great compassion. He has been widely revered throughout all the Buddhist lands of Asia, wherever and whenever the teachings of the Mahayana have been followed, since the beginning of the Common Era.

The study of Avalokiteshvara and his forms is of great importance for the student of Buddhism. In the Mahayana pantheon as it developed in India, and thereafter in Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Mongolia, China, Vietnam and Korea, Avalokiteshvara assumes various forms as the protector and savior of all living beings. This multitude of forms expresses the power and diversity of Avalokiteshvara s vow to assist living beings.108 Avalokiteshvara's talent for assuming various forms as an expedient means is explained in the well-known chapter in the Lotus Sutra [Saddharmapundarika], the universal Gate« [Samantamukhaparivarta]:

In some worlds, young man of good family, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva Avalokiteshvara preaches the law to creatures in the shape of a Buddha; in others he does so in the shape of a Bodhisattva. To some beings he shows the law in the shape of a Pratyekabuddha; to others he does so in the shape of a disciple; to others again under that of Brahma Indra, or a Gandharva.

To those who are to be converted by a goblin, he preaches the law assuming the shape of a goblin; to those who are to be converted by Isvara, he preaches the law in the shape of Isvara; to those who are to be converted by Mahesvara, he preaches assuming the shape of Mahesvara.

It also seems that those Bodhisattvas who are affiliated which Lokeshvara raja Tachagata are called »Lokeshvara« according to the Sukhavarivynha, a Mahayana scripture describing the Pure Land associated with Avalokiteshvara. Etymologically, the Sanskrit word »Lokeshvara« is a compound comprised of two words, i. e. loka + isvara = Lokeshvara , lord of the world. In all forms of Buddhism, the concept of an Isvara or creator God's inherent existence is denied and refuted at the philosophical level. However, in common parlance, the Newar Buddhists of Nepal can regard any Bodhisattva or savior figure as a Lokeshvara . It should be made clear that all forms of Avalokiteshvara belong to the general category of world savior', Lokeshvara , but not all Lokeshvara s are forms of Avalokiteshvara . As many as three hundred and sixty forms of Lokeshvara are vencrated in hymns or stavas. This book describes the iconography and legends of one hundred and eight forms of Lokeshvara , which are commonly depicted as a group in Nepal. Most, though not all, of the 108 forms of Lokeshvara have been transmitted with iconographic details. Among these one hundred and eight forms of Lokeshvara are important figures which can be classified not only as Bodhisattvas but as Buddhas and tantric deities such as Vajrasattva, Sitatâpatra, and others. We can tentatively conclude that in the most general terms, a »Lokeshvara« can be a Bodhisattva, Buddha or other deity who out of great compassion makes altruistic vows to work for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings. Such a figure may be tantric or non-tantric, male or female-in short, any figure who works to benefit living beings.

A detailed account of Avalokiteshvara appears in the Mani bka bum, a Tibetan text attributed to the 7th century, Tibetan king Srongbtsan gam po, who is himself considered to be a reincarnation of this great Bodhisattva. The following summary is from Bokar Rinpoche:

From an absolute point of view, Avalokiteshvara is without origin; he exists primordially. However, from the relative point of view, there is the beginning of his manifestation in the realm of phenomena. The description given here of this manifestation is a summary of the more extensive teaching found in a text called the Mani Khabum [sic].

Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light who reigns in the Land of Bliss [bde ba can], one day conceived that in order to help beings, a deity in the form of a young man should be manifested. His right eye then emitted a beam of white light that took the form of Avalokiteshvara . Having been born from the eye of Amitabha, the young man miraculously appeared on a lotus.

In those days there was a king called Sublime Kindness [beans po mcho] in the Land of Bliss. A thousand queens were his companions, but he had no son. This was his great regret and he fervently wished for the coming of an heir. In order to fulfill his wish, he gave much of his wealth to the dharma and on his shrine, presented many offerings to the Buddhas and the Three levels. He regularly sent a servant to the Lotus Lake lying not very far from the palace to bring back beautiful and fresh flowers for the shrine. One day, when the servant went to pick flowers, he saw a wonderful child seated on the heart of a lotus. He immediately ran to the palace and reported this to the king.

The king thought that his prayers had been fulfilled; the miraculous child could be none other than the son for whom he had wished so much. He went to the Lotus Lake with his entourage to invite the young man to come and live with him. This boy appeared to be sixteen years old; he was very handsome, white in color, and adorned with silks and jewels. He was ceaselessly saying: »Poor beings! Poor beings!« The boy then came to live in the palace. The king called him Heart of Lotus [pad mai snying po] because of the circumstances surrounding the boy's discovery. Sublime Kindness wanted to know from where the young man came. He therefore went to see Amitabha and asked him whose emanation Heart of Lotus was and what was his true name.

»This child is an emanation of the activity of all the Bddhas,« answered Amitabha.

»He is the one who accomplishes the benefit of all beings, the one who makes joyful the heart of all the buddhas. His name is 'Chenresi Ispyan ras gigs [= Avalokiteshvara], the Noble Sovereign. The help that this well-born son brings to beings will be as vast as space.« When Chenresi later looked at beings with compassion, he saw that they were covered with many karmic veils formed by the influence of desire, aversion, blindness, jealousy, and pride.

Thus, their sufferings were innumerable. He saw all of that and a tear dropped from each of his eyes. White Tarà which is symbol of peace appeared from the tear that fell from his right eye and Green Tara which symbolizes protection appeared from the tear that fell from his left eye. The two deities turned toward him and said, »Do not be scared. We will help you with your mission to benefit beings.« Then suddenly they melted again into his eyes. While he was in the presence of Amitabha, Chenresi thought, »As long as there is even one being who has not attained awakening, I will strive for the benefit of all. And if I break this promise, may my head and body split into a thousand pieces!«

Amitabha understood his thought and told him, »This promise is excellent. Myself and all the buddhas of the three times, having taken such commitments, attained awakening for the benefit of all. I will help you to accomplish that which you have promised.« Chenresi's body then emitted six beams of light that produced emanations whose destiny was to act for the benefit of all in each of the six realms of being: humans, gods, demigods, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. He thus worked for many kalpas.

Then, one day, he looked with the eye of knowledge from the top of mount Meru to see if he had liberated many beings and if the number of beings in samsara had diminished. Alas! he saw that they were still innumerable. He was very sad. Being discouraged, he thought, »I do not have the capability to help beings; it is better that I rest in nirvana.« This thought contradicted his promise, and he burst into a thousand pieces and felt intense suffering. Amitabha, by the power of his grace, reconstructed the body of Chenresi. He gave him eleven faces and a thousand arms similar to the thousand spokes of a universal monarch's wheel and a thousand eyes, symbolic of the thousand buddhas of the present kalpa. Chenresi could henceforth help the beings in this form as well as with his other forms of two or four arms.

Amitabha asked Chenresi to retake his promise with still more vigor than before and then transmitted to him the six-syllable mantra: OM MANI PADME HUNG.

This is the history of Chenresis manifestation in the relative domain.

Source: Iconography of 108 Lokeshvaras by Min Bahadur Shakya