Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

by Tamara Hosui Vasan, MRO

The Monastery Store would not be complete without offerings of the most enduring bodhisattva in the Buddhist pantheon—Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy. Appearing in female and male form, s/he is known by many names that span ages, continents and cultures, and is revered across all Buddhist traditions.

In the Mahayana tradition, Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattvawho makes a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every sentient being in achieving Nirvana.Mahayana sutrasassociated with Avalokiteshvara include the following:

Saddharma Puṇḍaika Sutra(Lotus Sutra)
Karaṇḍavyuha Sutra
Prajnaparamia Hdaya Sutra(Heart Sutra)
Mahakaruna Dharani Sutra(Nilakaṇṭha Dharani)
Avalokiteshvara Ekadasamukha Dharani Sutra
Cundi DharaniSutra

According to legend, her head once split with grief at realizing the number of wicked beings in the world who still needed to be saved. In Buddhist art, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is sometimes shown with eleven heads and 1,000 hands and eyes on the palms of each hand. The thousand eyes allow her to see the sufferings of sentient beings, and the thousand hands allow her to reach out to help them. Her traditional residence is the mountain Potala, and her images are frequently placed on hilltops.

In China, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is represented in female form and is known as Kuan Yin. In Japan she is known as Kannon, in Korea as Gwaeum, and in Tibet as Chenrezig. Perhaps because of Avalokiteshvara’s great compassion—a quality which is traditionally considered feminine—most of the bodhisattva's statues in China since the Tang Dynasty have appeared as female figures.

However, Avalokiteshvara is neither male nor female; s/he is said to have transcended sexual distinctions and all other dualities in the sphere of samsara. Viewed this way, the flowing drapery and soft contours of the body seen in statues and paintings have been intentionally combined with a visible moustache to emphasize the absence of sexual identity. Furthermore, the Lotus Sutra relates that Avalokiteshvara’s skillful means are limitless; she can appear in any form in all the six realms of existence to relieve the suffering of the sentient beings who live there.

What is compassion? How do we practice it? Manifest it? These questions reside in this potent figure that refuses to be fixed, yet is so plainly human. We know compassion is neither a female nor male virtue. It is something we all possess and can call forth at any time. Keep Avalokiteshvara close—so close that there is no distinction, only compassion.

Tamara Hosui Vasan has been practicing with the MRO since 2006. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Hollins University and has worked for many years supporting the arts and social justice causes as a fundraiser. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Prabu Gikon Vasan.

The Monastery Store offers Avalokiteshvara Statues for home altars.