The 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 integrated according to the cultural expectations of different countries. This was especially true with attributes such as compassion and wisdom. As a result, the physical characteristics of Avalokiteshvara statues and paintings have wide variations depending on the geographical location.
These variations include male and female variations, plus there is even a 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara with 11 heads. Read further to discover the fascinating Avalokiteshvara story.
Avalokiteshvara Statues Come in Many Different Forms
Indeed the Buddhist canon states that “Bodhisattvas can assume whatever gender and form is necessary to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha (suffering)”.
As such, this popular Bodhisattva is sometimes depicted with normal male or female human features. However, Avalokiteshvara is also frequently depicted with ultra human characteristics such as multiple arms and multiple heads.
It is important to make note of the fact that the ultra human representations of Avalokiteshvara are not meant to be intimidating. 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. However, Amitabha endeavored to relieve the intense anguish of Avalokiteshvara that was created by his tremendous vow.
As a result, Avalokiteshvara received a special embodiment which enabled him to work more efficiently. Indeed, Amitabha Buddha had given Avalokiteshvara 1000 arms and 11 heads! As a result, Amitabha Buddha had also created the inspiration for the 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara statue with 11 heads.
Furthermore, on the palm of each of Avalokiteshvara’s 1000 hands is an eye which symbolizes the joining of the five method perfections (fingers) with the sixth perfection of wisdom (eye).
The 11 Heads of Avalokiteshvara
Of Avalokiteshvara’s 11 heads, only 9 heads actually portray Avalokiteshvara. As the teacher of Avalokiteshvara, Amitabha placed his own head on the top. Beneath the head of Amitabha Buddha is that of wrathful Vajrapani who represents the power of the Buddha.
Vajrapani is a fierce protector of the Dharma and his expression is often wrathful. As a result, they would both assist Avalokiteshvara with their wisdom and power.
4 Armed Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) in Tibetan Buddhism
In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara is known as Chenrezig and his appearance has become somewhat simplified. As such the Tibetan version of Chenrezig is depicted in Buddhist art with 4 arms and he holds the cintamani “wish fulfilling jewel” in front of his chest between his two hands.
Symbolically, each of his 4 arms stands for one of the four immeasurables – compassion, loving kindness, equanimity and appreciative joy. Additionally, he holds the 108 mala beads in his upper right hand and the symbol for enlightenment (lotus blossom) in his upper left hand.
Avalokiteshvara Mantra Meaning According to the Dalai Lama
The best translation of the Avalokiteshvara mantra meaning is given by Avalokiteshvara himself – the Dalai Lama. In case you didn’t know, it is believed by Tibetan Buddhists that the 14th Dalai Lama is a living reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara. His holiness currently lives in exile in Dharamshala, India. His explanation of the Avalokiteshvara Mantra 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 Lama 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. Additionally, the letters symbolize the pure body, speech and mind of the Buddha. However, 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. As such the altruistic objective of achieving enlightenment is to enable other sentient life to also become enlightened.
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 the emptiness of all phenomenon.
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” 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.”
108 Mala Beads for the Avalokiteshvara Mantra
Tibetan statues and thangka paintings of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) depict him holding the 108 mala beads in his upper right hand. For recitation of the Avalokiteshvara mantra, Tibetan Buddhists use the 108 mala beads to count the number of recitations.
To be effective, each recitation of the mantra must be done without any selfish desires. If so, the devotee will obtain merit and progress towards enlightenment. However, if the Avalokiteshvara mantra is tainted with selfish desire it has no benefit. Therefore, it is imperative for each recitation to be done with absolute sincerity.
In Tibet, one popular variation of Chenrezig is the “108 Chenrezig Tibetan Thangka painting”. This is because one large picture of Chenrezig is located in the middle and he is surrounded by 107 smaller Chenrezig paintings. As a result, there are 108 paintings of Chenrezig to match the number of his mala beads.
Masculine origins of Avalokiteshvara Statues
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 a 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.
Construction of the Bayon Temple in Cambodia was completed in the 13th century A.C.E. Subsequently, the construction of the temple was altered several times as the Khmer Empire fluctuated between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Fortunately, the 200 smiling faces of Lokesvara were never altered. Indeed, the teachings of Avalokiteshvara predate the construction of Bayon by over 1300 years!
In Tibet they adhere to their adaptation of 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.
Where 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 Avalokiteshvara Holding a Vase?
Avalokiteshvara statues in 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 Statues in China
Furthermore, 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.
The Bodhisattva of Many Forms
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.