Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (as translated by Kumarajiva) provides a teaching regarding one of the most important characters in Mahayana Buddhism. The title of this chapter is variably translated as:
- The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds – Burton Watson
- The Gateway to Everywhere of the Bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World – Leon Hurvitz
- The All-Sidedness of the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World – Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura and Kojiro Miyasaka
Like many spiritual entities, Avalokitesvara is none gender specific. In China she is referred to as Guanshiyin, or simply Guanyin, westernised as Kuan Yin. The Tibetan traditions refer to him as Chenrezig. He is the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas throughout time, and is closely associated with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. This mantra has many meanings (like Nam Myoho Renge Kyo has many interpretations), but the most common one is that Om represents the practitioner’s body, Mani represents the jewel of compassion, Padme (literally Lotus in Sanskrit) represents wisdom, and Hum (usually pronounced ‘hoong’) represents indivisibility. The meaning summates that our manifest body and mind are transformed through the indivisibility of wisdom and compassion. Most interestingly His Holiness the Dalai Lama is believed to be the living embodiment of Avalokitesvara, and so it would seem fitting that any Nichiren Buddhist should at least listen to what he says.
A Tibetan story goes that Avalokitesvara made a solemn vow before the Buddha Amitabha that he would forever embody compassion and would not rest from the task of liberating all beings from suffering. He declared that should he fail then his head would split into ten pieces and his body into a thousand. He worked hard, and often wept when meditating upon the suffering of living beings. There came a point, however, when poor Avalokitesvara had to take a break, but the sea of suffering was still unbearable. Realising that he could not single handedly save everyone he declared that it would be better to look after his own happiness, but upon uttering those words his head and body broke into pieces. The Buddha Amitabha in his compassion, healed Avalokitesvara, and transformed the ten pieces of his head into ten new faces that look out in all directions, and transformed the thousand pieces of his broken body into a new thousand armed body, with an eye in each palm of his thousand hands so that he can watch over living beings and assist them far more effectively than before. It is a beautiful story and in many ways describes the transformation from self-cherishing to cultivating an expansive compassionate awareness of the suffering of others.
Avalokitesvara is also a key figure in the Heart Sutra (part of the Prajnaparamita – or Perfection of Wisdom), another important Buddhist teaching. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokitesvara addresses Sariputra and tells of his liberation through the insight gained regarding the emptiness of all phenomena known through the five skandhas (aggregates). This is a key text used within Zen and is often chanted during ceremonies. Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of the compassion of Avalokitesvara and how it can be realised through the Zen practice of mindfulness.
So, coming back to the Lotus Sutra, chapter twenty five starts off with Bodhisattva Aksayamati (Inaexhaustible Mind) asking the Buddha why Avalokitesvara is so named Observer of the Sounds of the World. The Buddha goes on to explain that Avalokitesvara is a powerful protective force and looks over all beings, regardless of their wealth, nobility or conduct, protecting them from suffering and conferring the gift of fearlessness. The Buddha then teaches that by remaining mindful and humbly respectful of Avalokitesvara that we shall naturally strive to let go of anger and foolishness.
He uses his common literary devices (sands of multiple ganges rivers) to compare the benefit of keeping the names of an almost infinite number of Bodhisattvas in mind and making offerings, to receiving and keeping the name of Avalokitesvara, and making offerings to him just once – the latter being declared infinitely more beneficial.
I think here it is important to clarify that the benefit spoken of is the “benefit of merits” – that is to say, karmic benefit. The accumulation of karmic benefit is most fortuitous as it serves to remove the darkness from which are born our delusions and harmful desires. Also, the semantics of “keeping the name” does not simply mean to utter the name Avalokitesvara or to make an offering of, say, fruit on the altar to her. This is, I feel, a misunderstanding in Buddhism that was perhaps inevitable given the superstitious nature of the societies that practiced in the distant past. To become a great footballer, you wouldn’t just hang a picture of Bobby Moore on the wall and hope that through some magical means you would somehow captain the England squad. To achieve wisdom and to understand compassion as Avalokitesvara did we have to understand his teachings, if only at the intellectual level. In doing so we can meditate upon the meanings of each word and phrase, gain insight into what Avalokitesvara transmitted to Sariputra, and apply it at an unconscious level in our daily life.
Chapter twenty five goes on to describe the many forms that Avalokitesvara manifests in order to preach the dharma to living beings. This goes on at some length, but to sum it up Avalokitesvara appears in infinite forms depending upon the nature of the recipient. He might manifest as a Buddha, a god, pratyekabuddha, voice-hearer, Brahma-king, an elder, a householder, a monk or nun, or even a woman (remember this was groundbreaking stuff at the time). Of course, we have to distinguish the dharma body of Avalokitesvara from her manifest body. Avalokitesvara isn’t going to poof in front of us like a magic genie when we are in strife. When someone encourages us or helps us when we are suffering then they themselves become the manifestation of Avalokitesvara. When we experience such an act of altruism we must consider it carefully for the giver of help is providing our heart with an invaluable lesson in wisdom and compassion. Likewise, when we listen to the words of our dharma teachers we must also consider them deeply, for these people are also manifestations of the nature of Avalokitesvara.
Towards the end of the chapter the Bodhisattva Aksayamati, clearly convinced by the Buddha, takes off his necklace of incredibly precious gems and offers it to Avalokitesvara, but he would not accept it. Aksayamati offered his necklace once more, and the Buddha this time steps in requesting that Avalokitesvara should accept the necklace out of pity for Aksayamati and his fourfold assemly; a request that Avalokitesvara complies with. However, upon accepting it, Avalokitesvara instantly divides the necklace’s gems between Shakyamuni Buddha and the stupa of Many Jewels (Taho) Buddha. This is significant again as Taho Buddha represents perfected wisdom (emptiness and impermanance), while Shakyamuni represents compassion for living beings – thus demonstrating the non-duality of the middle way.
So, why should Nichiren thank the Dalai Lama? If we consider the Tatsunokuchi persecution, the event where Nichiren claims to throw off the provisional and reveal himself as the Buddha of the Latter Day, then one will remember his plea as he passed the shrine of the god Hachiman. Of course later on the beach, just moments before he was due to be decapitated, he was saved by a cosmic event. Hachiman’s work perhaps?
This is interesting because as early as 740 (CE) Hachiman was believed to have paid his respects to the great Buddha statue at Nara(1), and soon later earned the title Great Bodhisattva. It wasn’t unusual at the time for Shinto spirits (Jpn. Kami) to become rebranded as Bodhisattvas (Jpn. Bosatsu). Hachiman was also considered a manifestation of Amitabha Buddha (ibid). Perhaps this is why in the Gosho Great Bodhisattva Hachiman Nichiren really goes out of his way to portray Hachiman as Shakyamuni Buddha, and not Amitabha Buddha and to explain why the latter is mistaken. This gosho was written in 1280, well after Tatsunokuchi, so you can make of this what you will, but it was perhaps necessary to distance his salvation and valorisation as the Buddha of the Latter Day from being attributable in any way to Amitabha Buddha. Shakespear might well have commented “The sage doth protest too much, methinks.” – who knows for sure?
Now, it’s interesting that Avalokitesvara is avoided by Nichiren, especially given the clear endorsement given by the Buddha himself in chapter twenty five for keeping Avalokitesvara in mind and for making offerings, and that this is done after the emerging from the earth and lifespan chapters. I would go so far to say it’s a glaring omission, and unless Nichiren had good reasons (which he has never given) for overlooking or diminishing bits of the Lotus Sutra like this, then it is very hard to explain. Given that the Gohonzon is a representation of the ceremony in the air, and that Avalokitesvara was present, it’s interesting he is missing from the mandala while Hachiman is prominently there despite the latter being a local diety. Of course, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta were attendants to Amitabha Buddha and so were important factors in earlier Pure Land buddhism, so that would perhaps explain their ablation from Nichiren’s record.
In some ways, it would have been entirely consistent for Avalokitesvara to have been the fireball that saved and encouraged Nichiren on the beach that night – and if it was, then in some way the Dalai Lama must embody the wisdom and compassion that reached out to transform Nichiren’s strife into his awakening.
1. Sources Of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1
A friend reminded me, which I had completely forgotten, that the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra was also regarded by some to be an independent Sutra dedicated to Kuan Yin, and yet others believe that this chapter is the core teaching itself.