Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow
As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.
I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.
Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.
So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.
Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.
I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.
A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.
He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.
Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.
I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.
I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.
Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:
In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.
His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.
Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.
As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.
So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.
As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.
He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.
For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.
The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.
Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.
I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.
I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.
According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.
This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.
This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.