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Four-armed Tibetan Chenrezig form of Avalokiteśvara
Four-armed Tibetan Chenrezig form of Avalokiteśvara
Sanskrit:  अवलोकितेश्वर (Avalokiteśvara)
Burmese:  လောကနတ် (lo:ka. na') or လောကနာထ (lo: ka .na hta.)
Bengali:  অবলোকিতেশ্বর
Chinese:  觀世音 (guānshìyīn)
or 觀音 (guānyīn)
Japanese:  観世音2 (kanzeon)
or 観音 (kannon)
Thai:  อวโลกิเตศวร (Avalokitesuarn), เจ้าแม่กวนอิม (Chao mae Kuan Im)(Meaning : Great Mother Kuan Im)
Tibetan:  སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་ (spyan-ras-gzigs; chenrezig, chenrezi)
Korean:  관세음보살 (gwanseeum bosal)
Vietnamese:  Quan Thế Âm
Venerated by:  Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada (unofficial)
Attributes:  Great Compassion

Avalokiteśvara holding a lotus flower. A relief from the 8th-9th century Candi Plaosan temple, near Prambanan, Java, Indonesia.

Avalokiteśvara (Sanskrit: अवलोकितेश्वर , Bengali: অবলোকিতেশ্বর, lit. "Lord who looks down", Chinese: 觀世音) is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He is one of the more widely revered bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism. In China and its sphere of cultural influence, Avalokiteśvara is often depicted in a female form known as Guan Yin. (However, in Taoist mythology, Guan Yin has other origination stories which are unrelated to Avalokiteśvara.).

In India, Avalokitesvara is also referred to as Padmapāni ("Holder of the Lotus") also Thirumai (Tirupati), Lokeśvara ("Lord of the World") or Tara. In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is known as Chenrezig, and is said to be incarnated in the Dalai Lama,[1] the Karmapa[2][3] and other high Lamas. In Mongolia, he is called Megjid Janraisig, Xongsim Bodisadv-a, or Nidüber Üjegči.


The name Avalokiteśvara is made of the following parts: the verbal prefix ava, which means "down"; lokita, a past participle of the verb lok ("to notice, behold, observe"), here used in an active sense (an occasional irregularity of Sanskrit grammar); and finally īśvara, "lord", "ruler", "sovereign" or "master". In accordance with the rules of sound combination, a+iśvara becomes eśvara. Combined, the parts mean "lord who gazes down (at the world)". The word loka ("world") is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied.[4]

It was initially thought that the Chinese mis-transliterated the word Avalokiteśvara as Avalokitasvara which explained why Xuanzang translated it as Guan Zizai instead of Guan Yin. However, according to recent research, the original form was indeed Avalokitasvara with the ending svara ("sound, noise"), which means "sound perceiver", literally "he who has perceived sound" (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help). This is the exact equivalent of the Chinese translation Guan Yin. This name was later supplanted by the form containing the ending -īśvara, which does not occur in Sanskrit before the seventh century. The original form Avalokitasvara already appears in Sanskrit fragments of the fifth century.[5]

The original meaning of the name fits the Buddhist understanding of the role of a bodhisattva. The reinterpretation presenting him as an īśvara shows a strong influence of Shaivism, as the term īśvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of a creator god and ruler of the world. Attributes of such a god were transmitted to the bodhisattva, but the mainstream of the Avalokiteśvara worshippers upheld the Buddhist rejection of the doctrine of any creator god.[6]

An etymology of the Tibetan name Chenrezig is chen (eye), re (continuity) and zig (to look). This gives the meaning of one who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion).[7]


The graceful golden statue of Avalokiteçvara in Malayu-Srivijayan style, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Mahayana account

According to Mahayana doctrine, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to listen to the prayers of all sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every being on Earth in achieving nirvana. Mahayana sutras associated with Avalokiteśvara include the Heart Sutra (as disciple of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni) and the Lotus Sutra, particularly the 25th chapter, which is sometimes referred to as the Avalokiteśvara Sutra.

Six forms of Avalokiteśvara in Mahayana (defined by Tian-tai, terrace): 1. great compassion, 2. great loving-kindness, 3. lion-courage, 4. universal light, 5. leader amongst gods and men, 6. the great omnipresent Brahman. Each of this bodhisattva's six qualities of pity, etc., breaks the hindrances respectively of the (6 realms) hells, pretas (hungry ghost), animals, asuras (demi god), men, and devas.

Vajrayana account

Bronze statue of Padmapāni, circa 1100

In the Tibetan tradition, Avalokiteśvara is seen as arising from two sources. One is the relative source, where in a previous eon (kalpa) a devoted, compassionate Buddhist monk became a bodhisattva, transformed in the present kalpa into Avalokiteśvara. That is not in conflict, however, with the ultimate source, which is Avalokiteśvara as the universal manifestation of compassion. The bodhisattva is viewed as the anthropomorphised vehicle for the actual deity, serving to bring about a better understanding of Avalokiteśvara to humankind.

Seven forms of Avalokiteśvara in esoteric Buddhism: 1. Amoghapāśa. not empty (or unerring) net, or lasso. 2. Vara-sahasrabhuja-locana/Sahasrabhujasahasranetra, 1000-hand and 1000-eye, 3. Hayagriva, horseheaded, 4. Ekadasamukha,11-faced, 5. Cundi, 6. Cintamani-cakra;wheel of sovereign power, 7. arya Lokiteśvara, the Holy sovereign beholder of the world (loka), a translation of īśvara, means "ruler" or "sovereign", holy one.

Theravada account

Although mainstream Theravada does not worship any of the Mahayana bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is popularly worshiped in Burma, where she is called Lokanat, and Thailand, where she is called Lokesvara.

Modern scholarship

Western scholars have not reached a consensus on the origin of the reverence for Avalokiteśvara. Some have suggested that Avalokiteśvara, along with many other supernatural beings in Buddhism, was a borrowing or absorption by Mahayana Buddhism of one or more Hindu deities, in particular Shiva or Vishnu.

The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gandavyuha Sutra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu.[8] Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara[9] .

In Theravada, Lokeśvara, "the lord, ruler or sovereign beholder of the world", name of a Buddha; probably a development of the idea of Brahmā, Vishnu or Śiva as lokanātha, "lord of worlds". In Indo-China especially it refers to Avalokiteśvara, whose image or face, in masculine form, is frequently seen, e.g., at Angkor. A Buddha under whom Amitābha, in a previous existence, entered into the ascetic life and made his forty-eight vows.


Om Mani Padme Hum

Tibetan Buddhism relates Chenrezig to the six-syllable mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. Thus, Chenrezig is also called Shadakshari ("Lord of the Six Syllables"). The connection between this famous mantra and Avalokiteśvara already occurs in the Karandavyuha Sutra (probably late fourth or early fifth century), one of the first Buddhist works to have reached Tibet (before the end of the fifth century).

In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra used to praise Avalokiteśvara is On Aro-rikya Sowaka, in Sanskrit: Om Arolik Svāhā (Oh, Unstained One, Hail!).

The Great Compassion Mantra is an 82 syllable mantra spoken by Avalokiteśvara to the assembly of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and extolling the merits of chanting the mantra. This mantra is popular in China, Japan and Taiwan.

The thousand arms of Avalokiteśvara

Avalokiteśvara with 1,000 arms, part of the Dazu Rock Carvings at Mount Baoding, Dazu County, Chongqing, China.

One prominent Buddhist story tells of Avalokiteśvara vowing never to rest until he had freed all sentient beings from samsara. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, his head splits into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing his plight, gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara attempts to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha comes to his aid and invests him with a thousand arms with which to aid the suffering multitudes.[10]

Many Himalayan versions of the tale include eight arms with which Avalokiteśvara skillfully upholds the dharma, each possessing its own particular implement, while more Chinese-specific ones give varying accounts of this number.

The Bao'en Temple located in northwestern Sichuan province, China has an outstanding wooden image of the thousand armed Avalokiteśvara, an example of Ming Dynasty decorative sculpture.[11]

Tibetan Buddhist beliefs concerning Chenrezig

Avalokiteśvara is an important deity in Tibetan Buddhism, and is regarded in the Vajrayana teachings as a Buddha. In the Mahayana teachings he is in general regarded as a high-level Bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama is considered by the Gelugpa sect and many other Tibetan Buddhists to be the primary earthly manifestation of Chenrezig. The Karmapa is considered by the Karma Kagyu sect to be Chenrezig's primary manifestation. It is said that Padmasambhava prophesied that Avalokiteśvara will manifest himself in the Tulku lineages of the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas. Another Tibetan source explains that Buddha Amithaba gave to one of his two main disciples, Avalokiteśvara, the task to take upon himself the burden of caring for Tibet. That is why he has manifested himself not only as spiritual teachers in Tibet but also in the form of kings (like Trisong Detsen) or ministers.

Other manifestations popular in Tibet include Sahasra-bhuja (a form with a thousand arms) and Ekādaśamukha (a form with eleven faces).

In Tibetan Buddhism, White Tara acts as the consort and energizer of Avalokiteśvara/Chenrezig. According to popular belief, Tara came into existence from a single tear shed by Chenrezig. When the tear fell to the ground it created a lake, and a lotus opening in the lake revealed Tara. In another version of this story, Tara emerges from the heart of Chenrezig. In either version, it is Chenrezig's outpouring of compassion which manifests Tara as a being.


Avalokiteśvara has an extraordinarily large number of manifestations in different forms. Some of the more commonly mentioned forms include:

Sanskrit Meaning Description
Aryavalokitesvara Sacred Avalokitesvara The root form of the Bodhisattva
Ekādaśamukha Eleven Faced Avalokitesvara Additional faces to teach all in 10 planes of existence
Sahasra-bhuja Sahasra-netra Thousand-Armed, Thousand-Eyed Avalokitesvara Very popular form: sees and helps all
Cintāmani-cakra Wish Fulfilling Avalokitesvara Holds the jewel Cintamani
Hayagrīva Horse Headed Avalokitesvara Wrathful form; simultaneously bodhisattva and a Wisdom King
Cundi' Mother Goddess Avalokitesvara Zhunti in Chinese
Amoghapāśa Avalokitesvara with rope and net
Bhrkuti Fierce-Eyed
Pāndaravāsinī White and Pure the direct forbear of Guan Yin
Parnaśabarī Cloaked With Leaves
Rakta Shadaksharī Six Red Syllables
Śvetabhagavatī White-Bodied
Udaka-śrī Water Auspicious

See also


  1. "From Birth to Exile". The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  2. Martin, Michele (2003). "His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa". Music in the Sky: The Life, Art, and Teachings of the 17th Karmapa. Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  3. "Glossary". Dhagpo Kundreul Ling. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  4. Studholme p. 52-54, 57.
  5. Studholme p. 52-57.
  6. Studholme p. 30-31, 37-52.
  7. Bokar Rinpoche (1991). Chenrezig Lord of Love - Principles and Methods of Deity Meditation. San Francisco, California: Clearpoint Press. pp. 15. ISBN 09630371-0-2. 
  8. Hirosaka, Shu. The Potiyil Mountain in Tamil Nadu and the origin of the Avalokiteśvara cult
  9. Läänemets, Märt (2006). "Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in the Gandavyuha Sutra". Chung-Hwa Buddhist Studies. Retrieved 2009-09-12. 
  10. Venerable Shangpa Rinpoche. "Arya Avalokitesvara and the Six Syllable Mantra". Dhagpo Kagyu Ling. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  11. Guxi, Pan (2002). Chinese Architecture -- The Yuan and Ming Dynasties (English Ed. ed.). Yale University Press. pp. 245–246. ISBN 0-300-09559-7. 


  • Alexander Studholme: The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum. Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2002 ISBN 0-7914-5389-8
  • Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (2001) by Chün-fang Yü, ISBN 978-0231120296, Columbia University Press
  • Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka (1999) by James P. McDermott, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 119 (1): 195-

External links

bn:অবলোকিতেশ্বর bo:སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས། cs:Avalókitéšvara da:Avalokiteshvara eo:Avalokiteŝvara ko:관세음보살 mk:Авалокитешвара ml:അവലോകിതേശ്വരന്‍ ms:Avalokitesvara ja:聖観音 pt:Avalokiteshvara ru:Авалокитешвара sv:Avalokiteshvara ta:அவலோகிதர் th:พระอวโลกิเตศวรโพธิสัตว์ uk:Авалокітешвара vi:Quán Thế Âm