How Avalokiteśvara (and compassion) is Invoked in Different Traditions

In my last post, we talked about how the tradition tell us in the Lotus Sutra that if we call on the name of Avalokiteśvara, we will achieve some kind of connection with the compassion of that great deity. It is also possible to invoke the compassion of Avalokiteśvara by chanting a Mantra, a technical phrase that embodies the power of that great celestial figure.

The Mantra: “Om Mani Padme Hum”

The mantra to invoke Avalokiteśvara is “Om Mani Padme Hum”, some of you may have heard it. This is an important phrase throughout the Mahayana world, particularly in Tibet, where it is not only chanted, but also inscribed and carved on rocks.

Sometimes people translate it as meaning something like “Ah, the jewel in the lotus”, but actually, a mantra is a syllable that has power separate from its meaning, so, it is not necessary even to translate it. It is only important to chant it, and with it comes the power of Avalokiteśvara.

Tara: The Female Bodhisattva of Compassion

Compassionis also associated with Tara, a female bodhisattva of compassion. It would be interesting to read a couple of lines from the following texts that invokes Tara, so that you could get a sense of what a devotee might have spoken in order to bring the compassion of Tara present in her or his life. It goes like this:

“Om prays to the noble Tara. Your compassion truly extends equally to all beings on the pathways of rebirth, therefore I am surely among those whom it embraces. Your unequalled capacity to save beings shines like the sun in the dark of the impurities of the whole world.”

Often, Mahayana liturgical statements like this start out with a statement of your own faults, your own sins, as saying “you’re very great, oh, blessed Tara. I’m very small”. You can see the devotional logic at work in these words.

The Dalai Lama as the Embodiment of Avalokiteśvara

In Tibet, under the name of Chenrezig, Avalokiteśvara is thought to be the patron deity of the nation. He takes the form of the monkey, who is the progenitor of the Tibetan race. He also takes the form of the Dalai Lama.

You sometimes hear a funny tale about Avalokiteśvara in conversations with the Dalai Lama. He is understood to be a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara himself. Sometimes, when he is talking to American audiences, he gets all sorts of questions, but one of them has particularly to do with the theory of evolution.

I’ve heard the Dalai Lama been asked the following: “You know, some people in this country have problems with the idea that we are descended from monkeys. What do you think about that?”. The Dalai Lama says: “Well, you know, in Tibet we think that the Tibetan nation has is descendent of the union of a monkey and a goddess, so we really don’t have any particular problem with the idea of evolution”.

He never says: “I, the Dalai Lama, was that monkey. I, Avalokiteśvara, was there as that monkey when the Tibetan race began”. So, Avalokiteśvara is visualized as having a particular close relationship with Tibet and he is embodied in the figure of the Dalai Lama.

Guan Yin: The One Hearing the Sounds (Cries)

In China, Avalokiteśvara is known as Guan Yin, “The One Who Hears Sounds”. During the Tang dynasty, Guan Yin came to be pictured as a white robed female deity like the deity Tara, who was particularly associated with the power to grant children. So, people make pilgrimages to the Shrines of Guan Yin for the prosperity of their family, and also, in the hope that Guan Yin will grant them children.

This article is part of the series about Mahayana Devotion.

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