Avalokiteshvara is probably the most well-known figure in Buddhism aside from the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. His popularity can be attested to by the existence of his images even in Sri Lanka – the traditional strong-hold of Theravada Buddhism. At one point in the history of Sri Lanka both sutric and tantric Mahayana Buddhism flourished there. Thus, one can still see ancient statues of Avalokiteshvara in Sri Lanka. He also figured prominently in the Malay Archipelago before its conversion to Islam. In the northern areas such as Tibet, the Himalayan region, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan, Avalokiteshvara-devotion survives to this day. Known as Guanshihyin (“Contemplator of the Sounds of the World”) in China, Kwanseum in Korea, Kannon in Japan and Chenrezig in Tibetan, Avalokiteshvara is the quintessential embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas. Although primarily manifesting in the form of a bodhisattva, from the perspective of the level of the Body of Reality (Sanskrit: Dharmakaya) Avalokiteshvara is a perfect Buddha.
Avalokiteshvara’s affinities with our world can be seen in the existence of “Potalaka” in many different places in Asia. According to the sutras and tantras, Potalaka is the name of Avalokiteshvara’s pure-land. From this pure-land, Avalokiteshvara’s compassionate activities emanate out into the whole universe bringing relieve and liberation to all sentient beings. Due to the immeasurable compassion of Avalokiteshvara and the devotion of his followers, several Potalakas exist in the world today – the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, on Putuo Island off Zhejiang, China, in Korea and in Japan. At all these different Potalakas Buddhists feel the compassionate presence of Avalokiteshavara to this day. Although there are many different sutras, prayers, mantras and practices associated with Avalokitesvara, the Mani-mantra (or “Six Syllable Mantra) is the most well-known. The mantra OM MANI PEME HUNG (Sanskrit: OM MANI PADME HUM) is constantly on the lips and in the minds of countless Buddhists in the Himalayan region. This mantra is also recited by devotees of Avalokiteshvara in China and Korea.
In the thangka above, Avalokiteshvara is painted in the popular form of “Four Armed Chenrezig.” In this form, he is described as crystal-white in color, four-armed and seated in meditation posture. His first two hands are clasped in the mudra of paying-homage – with a wish-fulfilling jewel in the middle. His two hands clasped together symbolize the union and perfection of Wisdom and Compassion. The wish-fulfilling jewel in the middle is bodhicitta – the supreme jewel that can accomplish the welfare of all sentient beings. His second right-hand holds a crystal mala (prayer beads). Just as the beads follow one another uninterruptedly, Avalokiteshvara manifests unendingly in the different realms in samsara to liberate sentient beings. Although he appears in the various samsaric states, he is never contaminated by any samsaric defilements – hence the crystal mala. His second left-hand holds a lotus blossom symbolizing the purity of Avalokiteshvara’s wisdom mind. Just as a lotus grows above the mud, Avalokiteshvara’s wisdom-mind remains pure in the midst of all the mud of samsara.
Directly above Avalokiteshvara, the painter has placed an image of Amitayus – the “Life Unlimited Buddha.” Both Amitayus and Avalokiteshvara are considered as “members” of the Lotus-family. In this context, sometimes Amitayus is considered the principle deity from the Lotus-family manifesting in the form of the Body of Enjoyment (Sanskrit: Sambhogakaya) while Avalokiteshvara is seen as the principle deity of the Lotus-family manifesting in the form of the Body of Emanation (Sanskrit: Nirmanakaya). Amitayus is often invoked for the extension of life and for prevention from dying an untimely death. The main tantric Amitayus practice was brought to Tibet by Milarepa’s disciple Rechungpa. As such, Amitayus has a particularly strong connection with the Kagyu lineage. To the left and right of Amitayus are painted Green and White Tara (Sanskrit: Syama-tara and Sita-tara) respectively. Tara is also a member of the Lotus-family. While Green Tara embodies the swift enlightened activities of the Buddhas, White Tara is again related to longevity and prevention from untimely death. Also related to longevity-practices is the image of Ushnishavijaya (Tibetan: Namgyalma) painted at the right-hand corner of the thangka. The last image on the thangka is that of the Tibetan king Song-tsen Gam-po who is closely linked with Avalokiteshvara devotion in Tibet. He has an important role in the “Mani Kabum” – the central text for Avalokiteshvara devotion and the Mani-mantra practice in Tibet and is regarded by Tibetans as the human emanation of Avalokiteshvara himself.
As with many Buddhist centers, Chenrezig is the main public practice at Manjushri Vihara, Malaysia. We practice a short Chenrezig meditation-text every Friday evening (except for the first Friday of each month where we practice the Offering to the Spiritual Master and tantric Feast-Offering [Lama Chopa & Tshog]). If you are in Penang, Malaysia, you are invited to join us at our weekly practice. The Chenrezig meditation-text is available here.