Cultural Variations of an Avalokiteshvara Statue
Avalokiteshvara is a Bodhisattva who is believed to embody the compassion of all the Buddhas. This representation is not taken lightly because compassion for all sentient life is the foundation that Buddhism is built on.
When Buddhism spread eastwards out of India, the Buddhist deities were adapted according to the cultural expectations of different countries. This was especially true with attributes such as compassion and wisdom. As a result, the physical nature of an Avalokiteshvara statue has wide variations depending on the its geographical location.
These variations include male and female variations, plus there is even a 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara statue with 11 heads. Read further to discover the fascinating Avalokiteshvara story.
Avalokiteshvara Statue – 1000 Arms, Male or Female
An Avalokiteshvara statue can be depicted as either male or female. Indeed the Buddhist canon states that “Bodhisattvas can assume whatever gender and form is necessary to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha (suffering)”.
This popular Bodhisattva is sometimes depicted with normal male or female human features. However, an Avalokiteshvara statue is also frequently depicted with ultra human characteristics such as a 1000 arms and 11 heads.
It is important to make note of the fact that the ultra human representations of Avalokiteshvara are not meant to be frightening. Instead, the Bodhisattva of compassion was given these ultra human features in order to work harder to free all sentient life from suffering.
For example, having many arms will allow work to be done much faster and more efficiently. Additionally, multiple heads will allow the Bodhisattva to effectively hear and see the suffering of all sentient life.
The 1000 Armed Avalokiteshvara Story
Avalokiteshvara once took a solemn vow to forgo enlightenment until the suffering of all sentient beings was eradicated. This vow was taken very seriously and Avalokiteshvara toiled night and day to assist all sentient life.
However, when he realized that many of the beings he had once saved had gone back to their evil ways, Avalokiteshvara imploded into thousands of pieces.
Amitabha Buddha arrived and put Avalokiteshvara back together again. As a result, Avalokiteshvara received a special embodiment which enabled him to work more efficiently to fulfill his vow. Indeed, Amitabha Buddha had created the 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara statue with 11 heads.
Out of respect for Amitabha, one of the heads featured is that of Amitabha Buddha. Additionally, a common feature of a female Avalokiteshvara statue is a depiction of Amitabha Buddha on the Bodhisattva crown. See the Avalokiteshvara images below.
Avalokiteshvara Mantra Meaning – “Om Mani Padme Hum”
The best translation of the Avalokiteshvara mantra meaning is given by Avalokiteshvara himself – the Dalai Llama. In case you didn’t know, it is believed by Tibetan Buddhists that the 14th Dalai Llama is a living reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara.
His holiness currently lives in exile in Dharamshala, India. His explanation of the Avalokiteshvara mantra meaning is as follows:
“Om Mani Padme Hum”
Om – is a syllable that has it’s origins in Hinduism and it is thousands of years old. It’s textbook definition is similar to saying “amen” during prayers in Abrahamic religions. However, the Dalai Llama expands further on this. He explains that phonetically, Om is broken down into 3 letters A-U-M. These three letters symbolize the practitioner’s impure body, speech and mind. However, these letters also symbolize the pure body, speech and mind of the Buddha. Additionally, nobody was born with pure body, speech and mind – including Buddhas. Therefore, everybody can attain them – but how?
Mani – this is a Sanskrit word that translates as “jewel”. His holiness explains that the four syllables contained in the word “Mani”, constitute the factors of “method” – altruistic desire to achieve enlightenment. By method, I think he is referring to the “altruistic desire” to realize the 8 fold Noble Path taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. These 8 elements of the noble path are put into 3 groups of morality, concentration and wisdom.
Padme – This Sanskrit word means “lotus” which symbolizes wisdom. Here he refers to the wisdom of realizing the true nature of all phenomenon – impermanence, unsatisfactory and insubstantial (no self). He says that acquiring wisdom is essential in order to realize emptiness.
Hum – symbolizes the indivisible unity of method and wisdom. Their indivisible nature is imperative to achieve purity.
Put together and recited “Om Mani Padme Hum” it means that by using the indivisible path of method and wisdom, sentient beings can purify their body, mind and speech to become Buddhas. His holiness then reemphasizes that in the teachings of Meitreya “all beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum.”
Avalokiteshvara Statue of Masculine Origin
In Buddhism, compassion has historically been associated with the masculine sex. For example, the vajra is a mystical weapon that is wielded by the guardian deity Indra. Additionally, the vajra is a symbol used in Vajrayana Buddhism that represents the male aspect of compassion or skillful means. In contrast, the ghanta (bell) symbolizes the feminine aspect of wisdom.
These two symbols are often combined by deities who are seen holding one in each hand to symbolize the primordial union of compassion and wisdom.
Male Depictions of Avalokiteshvara Statue
Geographical regions that adhere to the conservative nature of Theravada Buddhist beliefs stick to the principle that compassion is considered a masculine attribute. As a result, depictions of Avalokiteshvara in these countries are indeed male.
This is evident in many Buddhist countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. In Cambodia, an Avalokiteshvara statue is depicted as the male deity Lokesvara. This depiction of Avalokiteshvara is found nearly 200 times at the Bayon temple complex in the ancient city of Angkor.
In Tibet they adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism. However, Vajrayana also maintains the conservative Buddhist principle that compassion is a male attribute. Therefore, in Tibet an Avalokiteshvara statue is commonly known as Chenrezig and the depiction is masculine.
When Did Avalokiteshvara Become Female?
Buddhism gained in popularity during the first millennium and began to spread to the Far East. For an Avalokiteshvara statue it would mean his masculine depictions would become feminine.
Mainly, this is because the Chinese associate compassion with the female sex rather than male. As a result, Avalokiteshvara would become known as Guanyin and in this geographical region he would be depicted in female form.
Why is Guanyin Holding a Vase?
Avalokiteshvara statue China commonly depict Guanyin holding a vase which she is tipping over. The vase is filled with special water that she is liberally dispensing. Additionally, the water has healing properties that will prolong life and relieve suffering.
Buddhists believe that all suffering has it’s origins in the defilements of body, speech and mind. The special water, also known as the “dew of compassion” has the power to heal all defilements that lead to suffering. In her other hand Guanyin is typically holding a willow branch between her index finger and thumb. The willow branch is used to cure sickness and fulfill the wishes of her devotees.
Taoist Origins of Avalokiteshvara Statue China
Additionally, in some parts of China the origins of Guanyin are believed to be in Taoism and not Buddhism. Therefore, it is possible that her new female form is not only due to compassion being associated with the softer sex. Instead, she is believed to be associated with one of the eight immortals of the Taoist pantheon.
Since only one of the eight immortals is considered to be female, it is easy to guess which one Guanyin is believed to be. This female immortal is known as He Xian’gu and she lived during the reign of the Tang Dynasty in China.
1000 Armed Avalokiteshvara Statue (11 Heads)
To the delight of Buddhist art lovers, an Avalokiteshvara statue is sometimes depicted very extravagantly. Indeed, sometimes the Bodhisattva is depicted with a thousand arms and eleven heads.
However, from the perspective of Avalokiteshvara statue China, Guanyin is most commonly depicted in a flowing white gown dispensing the “dew of compassion” from her vase.
Indeed, there are many Chinese Buddhist sculptures and paintings that display Guanyin as the more extravagant 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara statue with 11 heads. However, it seems that the most common depiction of Guanyin is that of an elegant woman.