This article was originally published in Feng Shui Times on 16 February 2001.
In many Buddhist temples, there will be images of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or popularly known as “Guan Shi Yin Pu’sa” (Guan-Yin for short). Most images depict the Avalokitesvara as a benevolent woman clad in white robes, holding a vase of pure water in one hand and a willow twig in the other. However, the Avalokitesvara originated as a man. So how did this transformation of gender come about?
In Buddhism, it is believed that all Bodhisattvas are asexual. They appear in various forms in different circumstances. The Avalokitesvara for example, has 33 manifestations which will be listed out later.
Before the Avalokitesvara became a Bodhisattva, he was Prince Bu Xun and lived in the Southern coast of India. After listening to Gautama Buddha’s discourse, he decided to renounce the material world to become a disciple of the Buddha. Avalokitesvara was overcame by the suffering of all beings and made a great vow of compassion to deliver them from further suffering.
In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), a Lady Guan printed a “Biography of the Goddess of Mercy”, in which she claimed that the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was a female. She and other women believed that there are certain tasks that male Bodhisattvas were not ‘fit’ to perform, such as bestowing and delivering babies. Choosing Avalokitesvara for this task was a shrewd and wise choice because Avalokitesvara can transform into 33 manifestations, and a female was part of the transformation. The trend caught on and soon many temples began erecting images of a female Avalokitesvara. The most popular image of the Bodhisattva is of a pretty woman wearing white robes, with kind eyes and jade-white smiling face, wearing fringes with a bun done at the back of her head, a willow in her right hand and a white vase in her left.
One of Avalokitesvara’s appearances is of her with 1,000 hands and eyes. It is one of Avalokitesvara’s 33 transformations but a popular myth surrounds this appearance. Legend has it that she was the 3rd daughter of Prince Zhuang of Chu (722 B.C. – 481 B.C.) named Miao Shan. Miao Shan was a devoted Buddhist who abstained from taking meat and chanted Buddhist sutras every day. When she asked her father’s permission to enter nunhood, he flew into a rage and had her killed. Her soul was brought back by King Yama (Guardian of Hell) to a peaceful place in the province of Zhejiang, where she could practice Buddhism without interference. She attained Enlightenment and spent her days benevolently helping human beings, relieving them of their distress.
One day Prince Zhuang fell seriously ill. Doctors told him that the only cure for his illness was to rub an ointment made from the hands and eyes of a being that was never angry. When Miao Shan heard this, she gouged out her own eyes and cut her hands and made them into medicinal pills for her father. When the prince got better, he was ashamed of his evil deeds and ordered that a statue be made for Miao Shan. Through some miscommunication, the statue ended up having 1,000 eyes and hands.
According to the scriptures, Avalokitesvara was contemplating compassion for the happiness and safety of all beings when he became so ‘stressed’ that his head burst into 1,000 pieces. Amitabha Buddha (not to be confused with Gautama Buddha) saw the situation and helped ‘glue’ back Avalokitesvara’s head. He also bestowed 11 heads, 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms to the Bodhisattva so that he could alleviate every being’s suffering. That is why when people pray to Avalokitesvara sincerely, He can come to each individual, even though they are at different places at that time.
The 33 Manifestations of Avalokitesvara
According the scriptures, Avalokitesvara can transform into 33 incarnations (depending on situations) and save beings from 13 types of disasters. The following are the 33 manifestations of Avalokitesvara.
1. Avalokitesvara who holds the willow branch
2. Avalokitesvara of the dragon head
3. Avalokitesvara who holds the sutras
4. Avalokitesvara of complete light
5. Avalokitesvara of enjoyment or playfulness
6. Avalokitesvara who wears white robes
7. Avalokitesvara who sits on a lotus leaf
8. Avalokitesvara who views waterfalls
9. Avalokitesvara who gives medicine
10. Avalokitesvara of the fish basket
11. Avalokitesvara the King of Merit
12. Avalokitesvara of moon and water
13. Avalokitesvara of the one leaf
14. Avalokitesvara of blue throat
15. Avalokitesvara, powerful and virtuous
16. Avalokitesvara who extends life
17. Avalokitesvara of various treasures
18. Avalokitesvara of the rock cave
19. Avalokitesvara who bestows calmness
20. Avalokitesvara of 1,000 hands and eyes
21. Avalokitesvara of fearlessness
22. Avalokitesvara who wears robe of leaves (Parnashabari)
23. Avalokitesvara of Vaidurya
24. Avalokitesvara of salvation
25. Avalokitesvara of the clam
26. Avalokitesvara of 6 hours
27. Avalokitesvara of universal compassion
28. Avalokitesvara of Ma-Lang’s wife
29. Avalokitesvara of prayer
30. Avalokitesvara of Oneness
31. Avalokitesvara of non-duality
32. Avalokitesvara holding the lotus
33. Avalokitesvara of pure water
Bits and Pieces
The Avalokitesvara Mantra is ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. It contains 6 syllabus. Each syllable represents each of the 6 realms in the world of Samsara (Deva, Semi deva, Humans, Animals, Hungry Ghosts or Petas and Hell). When a being from any of the 6 realms hears this mantra, it will immediately cast away all angry thoughts and be enlightened.
The vase held by Avalokitesvara contains ‘Amrita’, meaning the Dew of Compassion. It can purify the defilement of our body, speech and mind. It also contains curative powers and can extend life.
In the practice of Feng Shui, Feng Shui masters who suspect a particular house of being resided by beings other than human would chant the great mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum”. As mentioned earlier, beings who hear this mantra will be enlightened. Angry spirits would behind their anger (and the house) and more subdued spirits would lay still and be enlightened.
According to a Feng Shui master, a person who has chanted the great mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” a 100,000 times in the space of his lifetime would be granted one miracle. He would also have ‘priority’ access to Avalokitesvara whenever he calls His name sincerely.
“Think of it as an ISDN line to the great Bodhisattva,” the Feng Shui master says.