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Thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Sculpture made by Yang Huishan and Photo by You Lu Shi.

Avalokitesvara ("The Lord Who Looks Down on the World" or "Regarder of the Cries of the World"), also known Lokeśvara ("Lord of the World") or Padmapani ("Lotus Bearer"), is the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, dedicated to helping all without distinction in situations of distress and danger, untiring in his work to assist all who call his name. He is the most recognized bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism and appears also in Cambodian Theraveda Buddhism, and in Chinese folk-Buddhism, as well as in Chinese folk religion, Confucianism and Taoism. Prominent manifestations of Avalokitesvara are the Chinese bodhisattva Guan Yin, a female form; Kwannon in Japanese Buddhism , also a female form; and Chenrezig in Tibetan Buddhism, a male form. Among Buddhists in India he is said to live on Mount Potalaka, believed by many to be Pothigai Hills of the Agasthiyar Mountains whose peak lies in the state of Tamil Nadu. Adherents of Guan Yin in Chinese Buddhism believe her to live on Mount Putuo on an island in Putuo District, Zhoushan, Zhejiang, China.

Avalokitesvara is initially mentioned in chapter 25 of the well-known and popular Saddharmapundarika Sutra, more commonly known as the Lotus Sutra, composed in the first century CE and received further description and veneration in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra of the fourth century CE, which also attributes the creation of the fourth world – the current universe – to him. The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” – introduced in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra and translated to English as “praise to the jewel in the lotus” – is one of the most popular mantras in Buddhism and accredited to Avalokitesvara. The regular recitation of this mantra is said to bring about liberation leading towards achieving enlightenment. He can be petitioned for protection, healing, strength, clarity, and courage. The Lotus Sutra describes 33 different manifestations of Avalokitesvara. These expressions are not always male however, some are female as well. The gender fluidity of the appearance of Avalokitesvara can be attributed to the ability to manifest on earth in whatever form necessary to befit the minds of various beings.

Depictions of Avalokitesvara vary greatly, due to the myriad of his, or her, manifestations. In India he is described as a slender young man, dressed in silken robes of Indian royal style. He has four arms and wears many jeweled adornments – bracelets, necklaces, anklets – symbolizing his generosity and morality. His hair is long and black with the bottom half flowing down to his shoulders and the upper half in a high knot, similar to that of Hindu god Shiva. In his hands he holds a crystal mala or string of prayer beads to signify his dedication to liberating all beings from samsara, an utpala flower speaking to his compassionate motivations, and clasped between two hands in front of his chest is a wish-fulfilling jewel denoting the enlightenment of a compassionate mind. On his head is a crown with five jewels, representing the five Buddha families. In China and Japan images of Guan Yin and Kannon are often similar. She is commonly shown wearing a flowing white robe and necklaces symbolic of royalty. Her right hand bears a jar holding pure water, the nectar of compassion and wisdom. In her right hand she bears a willow branch to sprinkle the pure water over devotees as a blessing for peace. A crown, often bearing the image of Buddha, rests on her head and she sits or stands on a lotus flower. The most complex depiction of Avalokitesvara, from Vajrayana Buddhism, is the thousand-armed Chenrezig. Like his Indian counterpart, Chenrezig's hands clasp a jewel in front of his chest. His outer right hand holds beads similar to a mala, which pass through his fingers to symbolize the turning of the wheel of enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings. His outer left hand holds a lotus flower of wisdom and compassion. He has eleven heads and a thousand eyes, including one in the palm of each hand, to symbolize his ability to reach out to everyone and see exactly what they need and how best to help them towards enlightenment.


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