Hears the Cries of the World
The Bodhisattva of Great
Now we come to
the figure who is far and away the most popular Bodhisattva in Mahayana
countries. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's name means "the one who
sees (or hears) the cries of those who suffer." In China he is
known as Kuan Yin (or Kuan Shi Yin); in Japan, as Kannon, after whom the Canon
electronics company was named. (It was founded by a devotee.)
Avalokitesvara represents Great Compassion-the key concept for any
Bodhisattva, but attaining its highest expression in Kuan Yin. Using
skillful means, Avalokitesvara can take on many forms to help in many ways.
He is often portrayed with multiple arms-four, six, eighteen, forty, or even a
thousand-and multiple eyes or faces, to portray his ability to help in many
ways, and to perceive all of those who need help.
Chinese forms of
Kuan Yin are often female. This may be because of the general perception
of Compassion as a "feminine" virtue. However, there are also
specific traditions that have contributed to this transformation in China.
There were Taoist Goddess of Mercy figures, and many Sea Goddesses who
protected sailors. Even the Virgin Mary had an effect; after the
Portuguese brought images of this "Mother of Mercy," the Chinese
potters consciously copied some of her characteristics.
greatest influence on this development was the legend of Miao Shan. She
was an only child, and her father had set his hopes on benefiting from a good
marriage for his daughter. She, however, had other plans: she wanted to
become a Buddhist nun. Nonetheless, her father arranged to marry her to
a wealthy man. Refusing to prepare for the wedding, Miao Shan sat in
meditation every day. Recognizing his defeat, her father had her sent to
a convent, where she was assigned the most humiliating tasks. Undaunted,
she carried them out with the utmost energy. Her father, in frustration,
ordered her to be executed, but the executioner's sword shattered into a
thousand pieces. He then ordered her to be suffocated, and this was
successful. (An alternate legend says her father returned her to the
convent and ordered it burned down-with her in it.)
In any case, she
died. When she arrived in the underworld, all the flames were converted
to flowers. Dismayed, the King of Hell granted her life-to save his
job!-and sent her to her own island home, now Mount Putuo, a major pilgrimage
site dedicated to Kuan Yin.
As it happened,
her father fell ill. Miao Shan appeared to him in the form of a healer,
and told him that he could only be cured by a concoction made from the eyes
and hands of a pure woman. The evil father sent out his men, and one of
them was guided to Miao Shan, who willingly sacrificed her eyes and hands.
When her father was cured, he asked to meet this generous woman-and was
horrified to discover that it was his daughter! He then ordered a statue
to be made of her "with completely-formed hands and eyes."
Because of a misunderstanding of the Chinese words, the sculptor instead made
a statue with a thousand completely-formed arms and eyes, which has remained a
custom to this day.
This Miao Shan
is considered to be one of the previous incarnations of the Bodhisattva Kuan
Kuan Yin is
often seen holding a willow branch, associated with healing, and pouring the
"nectar of compassion" from a vase. Although she takes many
forms, she can usually be identified by the small figure of Amitabha Buddha in
her headdress (as seen in the Garden outside, as well as in many figures in
the Museum). This may be associated with another legend stating that, in
a previous existence, Amitabha Buddha had been an ancient king, and
Avalokitesvara was his oldest son. This son, Pu-hsun by name, vowed
before the Buddha of that time to save anyone who called on him. The
Buddha validated this pledge, and gave him the name Avalokitesvara. This
legend is recorded in the Peihua Sutra.
A final bit of
trivia: Tibetan Buddhists consider the Dalai Lama to be an incarnation of
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Just as the Dalai Lama has dedicated himself
to a life of compassion, we can all manifest Kuan Yin in the world, being some
of her myriad eyes and hands.
In front of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
O Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Great Compassion!
I ask you to help me gain control over my heart and destroy all apathy.
Through your great mercy, you have heard the cries of the world, and you have never failed to respond to the sincere requests of the unfortunate.
Through your willingness to help others, you have shown us the importance of caring for others.
Let me also, by cultivating compassion, attain this excellence.
Help me to conquer my indifference and laziness.
Help me to be attentive to the needs of those around me, and emulate your heart of compassion by bringing aid to those in trouble,
that I may dedicate further merit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
O great One Who Hears the World's Cries, hear my prayer!
O great Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, hear my prayer!