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Avalokitesvara (One Who Hearkens to the Cries of the World) is known by many names and a variety of appearances. In his Indian origin, Avalokitesvara is a male figure often portrayed with eleven heads and a multitude of arms. In China, the same figure is known as Kuan Shi Yin, and is generally portrayed as female or gender-neutral. The female portrayal of the bodhisattva carried over to Japan (Kannon/Kwannon-sama), and Korea (Kwanseum). As such, even Avalokitesvara is retroactively known as female in East Asian Buddhism.


Avalokitesvara is described in detail in the Lotus Sutra. There, he/she is portrayed as a bodhisattva who hears and attends to the cries of suffering sentient beings, and whose name, when invoked, will spare the sincere practitioner from all manner of ailments and catastrophes, including wild beasts, devils, execution, and even litigation. The many heads and arms of the figure are said to be all the better to take heed of the many suffering beings and their needs and subsequently attend to as many of them as possible. In China, Kuan Yin (or Kuan Shi Yin) is portrayed as a woman, often with a kind expression, often dressed in flowing garments and finery, who appears to succor suffering beings. She sometimes appears riding a dragon, or with the attendant youthful figures Shan Ts'ai and Lung Nu. Other common symbolism involves Kuan Yin depicted holding a willow branch or opening and pouring forth the dew of compassion on the world.

In the broader cosmology of Buddhism, Avalokitesvara/Kuan Yin was said to have been born from Amitabha's teardrop. In Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is thus the attendant bodhisattva of Buddha Amitabha, making him one of five Dhyani Bodhisattvas (one of the "Great Bodhisattvas"). Due to the connection with Amitabha, Avalokitesvara is thus associated with the west, which is the direction of Amitabha's Pure Land.

According to John Blofeld, the portrayal of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva in China was influenced by both Avalokitesvara and the Tibetan figure Tara. While popular tradition suggests that Kuan Yin as a female bodhisattva emerged from the legends surrounding princess Miao Shan, Blofeld believes that this legend played only a minor role, and that it is more likely that Miao Shan was retroactively accepted as an incarnation of Kuan Yin, rather than Kuan Yin's portrayal changing based on the influence of such legends.

Avalokitesvara is one of the few bodhisattvas for whom statues and shrines can be found even in deeply Theravadin countries, such as Sri Lanka. This may be a form of evidence that - despite claims to the contrary - Mahayana Buddhism may have overwhelmed Theravada and been the predominant form of interpreting Buddhism for a time on Lanka.

Lotus Sutra Verses

World-Honored Lord and Perfect One,
I pray thee now declare
Wherefore this holy Bodhisat
Is known as Kuan Shih Yin?
To this the Perfect One replied
By uttering this song:

The echoes of her holy deeds
Resound throughout the world.
So vast and deep the vows she made
When, after countless aeons
Of serving hosts of Perfect Ones,
She voiced her pure desire
(To liberate afflicted beings).

Now hearken to what came of it -
To hear her name or see her form,
Or fervently recite her name
Delivers beings from every woe.

Were you with murderous intent
Thrust within a fiery furnace,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would turn those flames to water!

Were you adrift upon the sea
With dragon-fish and fiends around you,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would spare you from the hungry waves.

Suppose from Mount Sumeru's peak
Some enemy should cast you down,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
And sun-like you would stand in space.

Were you pursued by evil men
And crushed against the Iron Mountain,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
And not a hair would come to harm.

Were you amidst a band of thieves,
Their cruel knives now raised to slay
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
And pity must restrain their blows.

Suppose the King now wroth with you,
The headsman's sword upraised to strike,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would dash the sword to pieces.

Were you close pent by prison walls,
Your wrists and ankles bound with chains
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would instantly procure release.

Had you imbibed some fatal draught
And lay now at the point of death
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would nullify its poison.

Were you beset by raksha-fiends
Or noxious dragons, gibbering demons,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
And none would dare offend you.

Did savage beasts press all around
With fearful fangs, ferocious claws,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would send them helter-skelter.

Should serpents lie athwart your path
Exhaling noxious smoke and flame,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would make them vanish as fast as sound.

Should thunder roll and lightning flash,
Or fear rains come hissing down,
One thought of Kuan Yin's saving power
Would straightaway lull the storm.

Though beings oppressed by karmic woes
Endure innumerable sorrows,
Kuan Yin's miraculous perception
Enables her to purge them all.

Imbued with supernatural power
And wise in using skillful means,
In every corner of the world
She manifests her countless forms.

No matter what black evils gather -
What hell-spawned demons, savage beasts,
What ills of birth, age, sickness, death,
Kuan Yin will one by one destroy them.

True Kuan Yin! Pure Kuan Yin!
Immeasurably wise Kuan Yin!
Merciful and filled with pity!
Ever longed-for and revered!

O Radiance spotless and effulgent!
O night-dispelling Sun of Wisdom!
O Vanquisher of storm and flame!
Your glory fills the world!

Your pity is a shield from lightning,
Your compassion forms a wondrous cloud
Which, raining down the Dharma-nectar,
Extinguishes the flames of woe.

To those enmeshed in litigation
Or trembling in the midst of hosts
There comes the thought of Kuan Yin's power,
Whereat all hatred is dispersed.

The mysterious sound of Kuan Yin's name
Is holy like the ocean's thuner -
No other like it in the world!
And therefore we should speak it often.

Call upon it, never doubting,
Kuan Shih Yin - sound pure and holy;
To those who stand in mortal fear
A never-wavering support.

To the perfection of her merits,
to the compassion in her glance,
To the infinitude of her blessings,
Worshipping, we bow our heads!


Namo Kuan Shi Yin Pu Sa

This chanting of homage to Kuan Yin is found in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, and has been called the Universal Door to the Dharma, because it is a method of liberation that can be performed by anyone. One simply chants the name of the bodhisattva in reverence and in sincere desire for the bodhisattva's compassion, and is liberated.

Om Mani Padme Hum

The first known description of the mantra appears in the Karandavyuha Sutra (Chinese: 佛說大乘莊嚴寶王經 [Taisho Tripitaka 1050]; English: Buddha speaks Mahayana Sublime Treasure King Sutra), which is part of certain Mahayana canons such as the Tibetan. In this sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha states, "This is the most beneficial mantra. Even I made this aspiration to all the million Buddhas and subsequently received this teaching from Buddha Amitabha." The middle part of the mantra, maṇipadme, is often interpreted as "jewel in the lotus," Sanskrit maṇí "jewel, gem, cintamani" and the locative of padma "lotus", but according to Donald Lopez it is much more likely that maṇipadme is in fact a vocative, not a locative, addressing a bodhisattva called maṇipadma, "Jewel-Lotus"- an alternate epithet of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Certain depictions of Avalokitesvara purport to be the incarnation of the mantra itself.

The Great Dharani

Sanskrit Text of the Great Dharani