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The Multiplicity of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is the most popular of all the bodhisattvas. Avalokiteshvara is named Chenrezig in Tibet, Guanyin in China, Quan Am in Vietnam, Kwanseum in Korea, and Kannon, Kanzeon, or Kanjizai in Japan. In East Asia, the names mean "regarder of the cries of the world."

Avalokiteshvara assumes so many different forms, has so many closely associated figures, and takes on such varied coloration in new cultures, that this complex bodhisattva is a whole assemblage of archetypes of spiritual life. Avalokiteshvara may appear as female, male, or androgynous. All the various forms of this bodhisattva express the gentle, responsive, empathetic, or helpful qualities of compassion. We will explore the primary aspects of Avalokiteshvara to see how we might use this archetypal model to find compassion in our own lives.

The iconography of Avalokiteshvara

Sometimes male, sometimes female, Avalokiteshvara appears in more diverse forms than any other bodhisattva. The colorful variety of Avalokiteshvara's forms is part of her message of compassion, because compassion takes on any form that might be beneficial to beings.

There are six or seven primary forms of the Avalokiteshvara figure. The original form of the bodhisattva is elegant and simpler than other manifestations, with a single face and two hands. She holds a lotus or a vase in one hand, while the other hand is held out in the mudra, or gesture, for allaying fear or for offering.

Other forms are Eleven-Faced Avalokiteshvara, Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara, and Horse-Headed Avalokiteshvara, who displays a terrifying visage for whoever needs such incitement to awaken or be helped.

Part of the compassionate work of a bodhisattva is simply to give beings what they want. The lack of basic material needs often blocks the deeper work of liberation, which is the bodhisattva's ultimate concern. Starving beings usually cannot attend to spiritual matters. Avalokiteshvara Turning the Wish-Fulfilling Gem may grant someone's wish as a means of cultivating that being's affinity with the practice of awakening. To be granted one's wish provides the experience of generosity, which can be contagious, encouraging caring for others and the loss of self-centered concerns. Although the emptiness and illusoriness of all notions of gain and benefit are basic to the Mahayana teachings, the bodhisattva does not flinch from responding to the simple needs of beings in ways that will help gradually lead those benefited to their own awakening practice.