Friday, December 12, 2008

The Legend of the Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, perhaps the most famous of Mahayana Buddhist devotional figures (after the Buddha himself), and the interesting story of how he almost gave up trying to keep his bodhisattva vow. Avalokiteshvara is also known in East Asia as the female Bodhisattva Kuanyin (Kannon, in Japanese). The name ‘Avalokiteshvara’ can be translated as “All seeing lord” or “lord who looks down on the world” or perhaps “he who has perceived sounds.” Her Chinese name means “she who hears the cries of the world, in order to help.”

I found an account of the story online, titled“Legends of 1000 Armed Avalokiteshvara,” (by Min Bahadur Shakya, published in Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods, Vol. II No. I & II (1989) Copyright 1989 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods.)

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good English translation, so what I’m presenting below is excerpted and reworked, with some additional words by me. I hope I’ve kept true to the spirit of the original.

The legend goes as follows:

Kneeling before Buddha Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara made a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering and despair. This is the first of the four bodhisattva vows that all Mahayana Buddhists make.

Having thus vowed, Avalokiteshvara went into all the realms of Samsara (that’s where we are – the so-called “real world”), and with great effort, he absolutely emptied the ocean of sufferings. Then he went back to Buddha Amitabha and he declared that the liberation of all sentient beings had been affected.

Buddha Amitabha said to him, “You should look back again into the world!” And as he did, there he saw that once again sentient beings were in samsara and in sorrow. The ocean had refilled. He became so discouraged at what he saw that his “awakening mind (Bodhicitta)” decreased in that moment and he lost his courage. The promise that he had made earlier declined in his heart. He felt like giving up.

He was overcome with sorrow. He felt (or thought to himself): “how could there ever be time to liberate all sentient beings as I have promised?” At that moment, his head and body cracked and fell apart into one thousand pieces, and he fainted.

Buddha Amitabha said before the broken Avalokitshvara, “My son, where has your courage, your mental strength gone?” Amitabha picked up all the pieces of the bodhisattva’s head and body. At the same time he said, “this happened because of your prayer. You deserve the praise of all Buddhas since your prayer was efficacious! However, Noble son, don’t worry!” Thereby he blessed his broken head and reformed it into eleven faces upon eleven heads, and his broken body was reformed into one with a thousand arms and hands like one thousand petals. Thereafter he said,” I bow to you because your one thousand hands are the hands of the thousand universal emperors and those eyes in each palm of each hand are the eyes of one thousand Buddhas who will appear in this fortunate aeon.”

With all these heads, hands and eyes, Avalokitshvara was given the power to live up to his vow.

This is such a fascinating story. Who wouldn’t feel like giving up in this situation? Little things make my head pop -- but an entire ocean of suffering refilling? Why does Amitabha say that Avalokiteshvara’s prayer has been efficacious? And what about all those hands and eyes? Who is Avalokiteshvara, or Kuanyin, really? Whose heads are those 11 heads? Whose faces are the faces of compassion? Whose hands are the thousands hands, whose eyes are the thousand eyes? What does it mean to vow to save all sentient beings, anyway?

Something to ponder this holiday season.

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