Avalokitesvara and the Tibetan Contemplation of Compassion
Karen M. Andrews
May 31, 1993
Tibetan Contemplative Traditions

Who is Avalokitesvara?  What is his place in Buddhist doctrine 
and history?  Why is he important in Tibetan Buddhism?  What is his 
function in Tibetan Buddhism?  What does he do?  What are the 
philosophical explanations of his existence?  How is he used in 
contemplative practice?
     Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is one of the 
most important and popular Buddhist dieties.  Although he originally 
was conceived of in a Mahayana context, he has been worshipped under 
different names and in different shapes in nearly every form of 
Buddhism in every country Buddhism has entered.
     Avalokitesvara first appears in Indian Buddhism.  He is 
originally mentioned as one of a number of bodhisattvas.  These 
bodhisattvas are personifications of various attributes of the 
Buddha.  Avalokitesvara is the personification of compassion.  The 
development of a Buddhist doctrine of bodhisattvas is more or less 
contemporaneous with the development of brahmanic deity worship.  
Either the same societal forces led to both developments, or the 
bodhisattva doctrine was a response to the rival movement of 
brahmanic deity worship.  The bodhisattva doctrine may have appeared 
as early as the second century B.C.E.  
     Originally, bodhisattvas were considered to be less important 
than buddhas.  Buddhas, of course, are completely enlightened 
beings, whereas bodhisattvas are beings who are on the verge of 
being completely enlightened.  Bodhisattvas originally appear as 
attendants of the buddhas.  Texts speak of there being vast numbers 
of bodhisattvas.  A few of the bodhisattvas are more important than 
others.  Avalokitesvara does not appear in the earliest texts about 
bodhisattvas.  However, after a while he becomes one of the 
important bodhisattvas.  By the second century C.E., in the larger 
Sukhavativyuha, Avalokitesvara is described along with 
Mahasthamaprapta as one of the two bodhisattvas in Sukhavati, the 
pure land of the Buddha Amitayus.  The two of them are described as 
the source of the light that illumines the pure land.  They also 
teach the devotees of Amitayus, adapting their techniques to the 
understanding of the listeners.  
     Avalokitesvara's prominence changed as the doctrinal position 
of Mahayana Buddhism changed.  In Mahayana, compassion and wisdom 
are seen as being the two most important qualities a person can 
develop.  In early Mahayana, wisdom was seen as more important than 
compassion.  Therefore, Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, was the 
most highly regarded bodhisattva.  However, with time, compassion 
came to be seen as the more important quality, and thus 
Avalokitesvara became the most honored bodhisattva.  
     Avalokitesvara's rise in prominence did not stop at this 
point.  Probably around the fifth century C.E., a full-blown cult of 
Avalokitesvara emerged.  Avalokitesvara evolves into the supreme 
savior of all suffering beings.  He takes on the characteristics of 
various brahmanic gods, such as Brahma, Visnu, and Siva.  Like 
Brahma, Avalokitesvara is described as the creator of the universe.  
"From his eyes arose the sun and the moon, . . . from his mouth, the 
wind, . . . from his feet, the earth."1  He is also described as 
being the creator of the brahmanic dieties.  This attribution of 
power to Avalokitesvara may well have been aimed at proselytizing 
among brahmanic followers.  
     Descriptions of his physical form become increasingly 
fantastic.  He is described as being enormously large.  His face is 
a hundred thousand yojanas in circumference (a yojana is a few miles 
long).  His body is gold colored.  He has a halo in which there are 
five hundred buddhas, each attended by five hundred bodhisattvas, 
each attended by numberless gods.  From the hair between his 
eyebrows there flow eighty-four kinds of rays.  Each ray contains a 
vast number of buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Each of his ten finger 
tips has eighty-four thousand pictures and each picture has 
eighty-four thousand rays which shine over everything that exists.  
And so forth.  
     At this point, Avalokitesvara takes precedence over the 
buddhas.  Even the buddhas cannot estimate Avalokitesvara's merit.  
It is said that just thinking of him garners more merit than 
honoring a thousand buddhas.  Avalokitesvara's rise to prominence 
may be partially caused by the Mahayana doctrine of the bodhisattva 
vow.  This doctrine says that the most wonderfully compassionate 
decision is to vow to stay a bodhisattva instead of becoming a 
buddha, because bodhisattvas can more effectively help other beings 
become enlightened.  Because of his compassion, Avalokitesvara has 
vowed not to become a buddha and slip into nirvana until after all 
sentient beings are saved from the nearly endless round of suffering 
in samsara.  Instead, he has committed to continued existence so 
that he can help suffering beings.  Avalokitesvara is not the only 
bodhisattva who has made this vow.   However, he embodies the 
compassionate motivation which led all bodhisattvas to the vow.  
Thus, valuing the bodhisattva vow leads to valuing Avalokitesvara 
and everything he signifies.  
     As compassionate action is Avalokitesvara's essence, he is 
supremely helpful.  He can assume any form in order to help sentient 
beings, and there are descriptions of him appearing as buddhas, 
brahmanic gods, humans, and animals.  In all these forms he does 
wonderful things to help alleviate the suffering of beings and bring 
them towards enlightenment.  He rescues his followers from fires, 
from drowning, from bandits, from murder, from prisons.  He gives 
children to female followers who want children.  He helps release 
beings from the three mental poisons of passion, hatred, and 
delusion.  He helpful both on the physical, worldly plain, and on a 
more psychological or spiritual level.  
     In addition to being the personification of compassion, 
Avalokitesvara has been connected with light more thoroughly than 
any other Buddhist deity.  The stories say that he was created from 
a ray of light which emanated from Amitabha Buddha.  Avalokitesvara 
is a luminous being of light, and is repeatedly described as 
radiating light which shines over all sentient beings and over all 
corners of the universe.  Similarly, he sees everything and everyone 
in all corners of the universe, a fact that is emphasized by his 
name.  "Avalokitesvara" comes from two roots, "avalokita" and 
"isvara".  "Avalokita" means "glance" or "look".  "Isvara" means 
"lord".  "Avalokitesvara" has been taken to mean such things as 
"Lord of what we see", "Lord who is seen", "Lord who is everywhere 
visible", "Lord who sees from on high", and "Lord of compassionate 
glances".  None of these interpretations are definitive, but 
regardless of how his name is interpreted, Avalokitesvara is 
certainly connected with lightness and sight.  His ability to see 
everywhere is important because it allows him to manifest his 
compassion everywhere.  The light that he emanates everywhere is 
sometimes described as a representation of the flow of his 
compassion to all parts of the universe.  
     As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the teachings about 
Avalokitesvara were carried everywhere Buddhism went.  In China and 
Japan, Avalokitesvara is the most popular bodhisattva.  However, he 
has undergone a sex-change, and is almost always portrayed in 
feminine form.  In China, he/she is called Kuan-yin or occasionally 
Kuan-tzu-tsai.  In Japan, she is called Kan-non or Kwan-non.  In 
both countries, she is seen as the supreme savior of suffering 
beings and is worshipped widely as the goddess of mercy and 
compassion.  She gives children to women who pray to her for 
     The cult of Avalokitesvara also spread to Sri Lanka.  This is a 
little surprising as Sri Lanka primarily follows Theravada Buddhism, 
while Avalokitesvara was originally a strictly Mahayana conception.  
In Sri Lanka, he is called Natha, which is an abbreviation of 
Lokesvaranatha, which means "Lord of the World".  He has become 
identified with the bodhisattva Maitreya, the "future Buddha".  He 
is also seen as being identical with several Hindu gods.  Natha is 
seen as the guardian deity of Sri Lanka, and is reportedly 
worshipped primarily because he is regarded as a pragmatically 
useful source of advantages in the phenomenal world.  Although I 
have been able to find very little information on it, apparently the 
cult of Natha has also spread with little change to other Theravada 
Buddhist countries, such as Cambodia and Burma.  
     In Nepal, Avalokitesvara is conflated with the Brahman deity 
Matsyendranath.  He is worshipped in elaborate rituals which are 
performed by a priestly caste.  Ordination is handed down from 
father to son, with some important positions being sold to the 
highest bidder from within the caste.  According to one reporter, 
the meanings behind the rituals have been largely forgotten.  
However, they continue to be performed because they are customary 
and are considered to bring luck.  
      In Tibet, Avalokitesvara has reached a position of tremendous 
importance.  The stories surrounding him, his integration in the 
practicalities of life, and his use in meditative practice have all 
been highly developed.  The Tibetans started with Avalokitesvara 
(here called Chenrezi) where the Indians left off.  
     Traditional Tibetan belief holds that the cult of 
Avalokitesvara was brought to Tibet by the eighth century C.E.  
During the eighth century, King Srong-btsan sgam-po was active in 
bringing Buddhism to Tibet.  This king is considered an incarnation 
of Avalokitesvara.  Tibetans traditionally believe that he was 
active in propagating a cult of Avalokitesvara.  Not long after his 
reign, Buddhism went into a decline, and did not revive until the 
eleventh century.  Western scholars believe that although there may 
have been a small following of the Avalokitesvara cult during the 
reign of Srong-btsan sgam-po (and there is not much evidence that 
there was any such cult then), the cult certainly died out between 
then and the eleventh century.  Traditional Tibetan belief holds 
that the cult continued in secret during this period.  However, 
everyone agrees that the cult of Avalokitesvara first became widely 
popular during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  
     The belief that Avalokitesvara is the creator of the universe 
was accepted and elaborated upon.  In Tibetan writings, he is seen 
as not only creating the world and the Hindu gods, but also as 
creating the buddhas and the buddha-fields.  The whole cosmos exists 
as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara's creative activity.  
     This is especially true of Tibet, which is depicted as having a 
particularly close relationship with Avalokitesvara.  His vow to 
save all beings becomes a vow to first save Tibetans, because they 
need his teachings particularly badly and because the Buddha asked 
him to concentrate on Tibet.  
     Stories arose which describe Avalokitesvara as being intimately 
involved with the creation of Tibet.  One of the more popular of 
these stories describes the creation of the Tibetan people.  Once 
there was a monkey who was an incarnation of Avalokitesvara.  He 
lived in the mountains, where he practiced meditation.  One day, a 
demoness saw him and fell in love with him.  She tried 
unsuccessfully to court him, and finally said that she would bring 
disaster on all the living beings in the area if he did not marry 
her.  The monkey was confused, and asked Avalokitesvara what to do.  
Avalokitesvara told the monkey to marry the demoness.  The monkey 
and the demoness wed and had six children, who were the progenitors 
of the Tibetan people.  Thus, all Tibetans are direct descendants of 
a manifestation of Avalokitesvara.  
     Tibetan Buddhism also produced the innovation of recognizing 
mortal human beings as the incarnations or manifestations of 
dieties.  As far as I am aware, Tibet is the only Buddhist country 
that has this understanding.  Incarnations of Avalokitesvara are 
particularly important in Tibetan history.  I have already mentioned 
the progenitor monkey and King Srong-btsan sgam-po.  Another 
manifestation of Avalokitesvara which plays a crucial role in 
Tibetan history is the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama has been 
repeatedly incarnating in Tibet since the fifteenth century.  He is 
now in his fourteenth incarnation.  The Dalai Lama is the head of 
the Kagyu-pa school, which is one of the four major schools of 
Tibetan Buddhism.  Also, from the time of his fifth incarnation in 
the early seventeenth century until the Chinese conquered Tibet, the 
Dalai Lama was the ruler of Tibet.  Thus, Tibet was governed by a 
manifestation of their protective deity, who was also the progenitor 
of the Tibetan people and the ruler who had brought Buddhism to 
Tibet.  Further, this deity, and therefore also his manifestation, 
is the personification of compassion, which should guarantee that 
his rule is kind and reduces suffering.  
     Avalokitesvara is important not only in Tibetans' understanding 
of their history, but also in their practice of Buddhist 
meditation.  Particularly in tantric visualization practices, 
Avalokitesvara, as the embodiment of compassionate action, is 
critically important.  In tantra, practitioners create 
visualizations which are structured so as to bring about 
experiential realizations of Buddhist teachings2.  In order to 
understand the purpose of these visualizations, it is necessary to 
understand the philosophy which the visualizations serve to make 
experientially real.  
     What is this philosophy?  It is beyond the scope of my paper to 
lay forth the entire teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, 
but I will try to briefly outline the philosophies which are most 
commonly used in tantric visualizations of Avalokitesvara.  
     The most obvious Buddhist teaching used in these practices is 
the importance of compassion.  What, precisely, is the Buddhist 
understanding of compassion?  Compassion starts with sorrow at the 
suffering of others.  As such, it incites action aimed at reducing 
the suffering of others.  Compassion is the motivating force behind 
useful action.  It is a warm, positive energy directed towards 
helping others.  
     Compassion can only arise when we do not have a strong sense of 
separation from others.  If there is a feeling that I am over here, 
and you are over there, and we are totally separate individuals, 
then we will not be able to truly sorrow at each others' pain, 
because others' pain will not touch us.  In order to truly be 
touched by the suffering of others, we have to abandon our 
attachment to sharp divisions between individuals.  We need to live 
in awareness of the flow of energy between ourselves and others.