Embodiment of Compassion
in Tibetan Buddhism
"The four arms and hands signify the four immeasurables: immeasurable loving kindness, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable joy, and immeasurable equanimity. Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Boundless Compassion, is the very embodiment and realization of the four immeasurables. The four immeasurables are the vehicles through which Chenrezig benefits beings; therefore, Chenrezig has four arms.
"The first two, the inner arms, have palms joined at the heart, holding a sky-blue, wish fulfilling jewel. This symbolizes that in whatever way Chenrezig manifests to benefit beings, the quality of Chenrezig's mind is never separate from the all pervasive, non referential state of dharmakaya (primordial wisdom).
"In the outer right hand, Chenrezig is holding crystal beads and moving them the way we use a mala to count mantras. This symbolizes that there is not one moment when Chenrezig does not benefit beings. Like the steady movement of counting the beads, Chenrezig is continuously benefiting sentient beings and turning the wheel of enlightened activity.
"In the outer left hand, Chenrezig holds a lotus flower. This symbolizes that, in benefiting sentient beings, Chenrezig manifests in whatever forms are necessary in accordance with the mental capacities, circumstances, and aptitudes of sentient beings. For instance, if Chenrezig appeared in the form of a human among certain kinds of sentient beings, (animals, for instance), these animals might run away. For this reason, Chenrezig may appear in the form of an animal. In a similar way, Chenrezig may appear in any of the different realms, such as the hell realm or the hungry ghost realm. However Chenrezig may appear, he remains free from any of the samsaric stains of the various realms, the way a lotus flower growing in a swamp appears free of the stain of the mud. The left hand of Chenrezig, holding the flower, symbolizes that stainlessness."
All the various features of this image have meaningful connections to the wonderful qualities of Chenrezig, and by focusing on these details as we visualize the image in the meditation, we can gradually awaken our own awareness of those same qualities in ourselves.
In the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon of enlightened beings, Chenrezig is renowned as the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Avalokiteshvara is the earthly manifestation of the self born, eternal Buddha, Amitabha. He guards this world in the interval between the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, and the next Buddha of the Future Maitreya.
According to legend, Chenrezig made a a vow that he would not rest until he had liberated all the beings in all the realms of suffering. After working diligently at this task for a very long time, he looked out and realized the immense number of miserable beings yet to be saved. Seeing this, he became despondent and his head split into thousands of pieces. Amitabha Buddha put the pieces back together as a body with very many arms and many heads, so that Chenrezig could work with myriad beings all at the same time. Sometimes Chenrezig is visualized with eleven heads, and a thousand arms fanned out around him.
Chenrezig may be the most popular of all Buddhist deities, except for Buddha himself -- he is beloved throughout the Buddhist world. He is known by different names in different lands: as Avalokiteshvara in the ancient Sanskrit language of India, as Kuan-yin in China, as Kannon in Japan.
As Chenrezig, he is considered the patron Bodhisattva of Tibet, and his meditation is practiced in all the great lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. The beloved king Songtsen Gampo was believed to be an emanation of Chenrezig, and some of the most respected meditation masters (lamas), like the Dalai Lamas who are considered living Buddhas, are also believed to be emanations of Chenrezig.
Whenever we are compassionate, or feel love for anyone, or for an animal or some part of the natural world, we experience a taste of our own natural connection with Chenrezig. Although we may not be as consistently compassionate as some of the great meditation masters, Tibetan Buddhists believe that we all share, in our basic nature, unconditional compassion and wisdom that is no different from what we see in Chenrezig and in these lamas.
We might have trouble believing that we are no different than
Chenrezig -- but learning about the nature of compassion, and learning about
Chenrezig, repeating his mantra
Om Mani Padme Hum
and imagining that we would like to be like Chenrezig, pretending that we really
are just like Chenrezig, we actually can become aware of increasing compassion
in our lives, and ultimately, the lamas tell us, awaken as completely wise and
Buddhism offers many different types of mental and physical and spiritual exercises to help individuals move toward this goal of awakening. One form of practice, highly respected by Tibetan Buddhists, is connecting with the qualities of an enlightened being, one who is already awake, as an example and inspiration.
Various awakened beings are seen as manifesting various superlative qualities of awakened mind. Among the best known are three bodhisattvas, or buddhas of the future -- Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. Manjushri manifests supreme intelligence, insight, and wisdom; Vajrapani represents the power aspect of complete enlightenment; and Avalokiteshvara embodies unlimited loving kindness and compassion. Chenrezig is what the Tibetans call Avalokiteshvara.
"The importance of love and compassion is not an idea that is particular to Buddhism. Everyone throughout the world talks about the importance of love and compassion. There's no one who says love and compassion are bad and we should try and get rid of them. However, there is an uncommon element in the method or approach which is taken to these by Buddhism. In general, when we think of compassion, we think of a natural or spontaneous sympathy or empathy which we experience when we perceive the suffering of someone else. And we generally think of compassion as being a state of pain, of sadness, because you see the suffering of someone else and you see what's causing that suffering and you know you can't do anything to remove the cause of that suffering and therefore the suffering itself. So, whereas before you generated compassion, one person was miserable, and after you generate compassion, two people are miserable. And this actually happens.
"However, the approach [that the Buddhist tradition takes] to compassion is a little bit different, because it's founded on the recognition that, whether or not you can benefit that being or that person in their immediate situation and circumstances, you can generate the basis for their ultimate benefit. And the confidence in that removes the frustration or the misery which otherwise somehow afflicts ordinary compassion. So, when compassion is cultivated in that way, it is experienced as delightful rather than miserable.
"The way that we cultivate compassion is called immeasurable compassion. And, in fact, to be precise, there are four aspects of what we would, in general, call compassion, that are called, therefore, the four immeasurables. Now, normally, when we think of something that's called immeasurable, we mean immeasurably vast. Here, the primary connotation of the term is not vastness but impartiality. And the point of saying immeasurable compassion is compassion that is not going to help one person at the expense of hurting another. It is a compassion that is felt equally for all beings.
"The basis of the generation of such an impartial compassion is the recognition of the fact that all beings without exception really want and don't want the same things. All beings, without exception, want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. There is no being anywhere who really wants to suffer. And if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings be free from suffering. And there is no being anywhere who does not want to be happy; and if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings actually achieve the happiness that they wish to achieve. Now, because the experience of happiness and freedom from suffering depend upon the generation of the causes of these, then the actual form your aspiration takes is that all beings possess not only happiness but the causes of happiness, that they not only be free of suffering but of the causes of suffering."
With this understanding of what Buddhists mean when they talk about compassion, we can proceed to consider Chenrezig as an embodiment of boundless loving kindness and compassion.
"There is not a single aspect of the eighty-four thousand sections of the Buddha's teachings which is not contained in Avalokiteshvara's six syllable mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", and as such the qualities of the "mani" are praised again and again in the Sutras and Tantras.... Whether happy or sad, if we take the "mani" as our refuge, Chenrezig will never forsake us, spontaneous devotion will arise in our minds and the Great Vehicle will effortlessly be realized."Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche