Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisattva, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. En route between India and China, the male Avalokiteśvara changed gender and became the female Guanyin (Kanzeon or Kannon in Japan).
We might, of course, consider the sex change as a manifestation of traditional patriarchal sexism, allocating ‘compassion’ to women as a narrative useful to make them take care of / serve others (men, children, elders)…
Or, we might consider that, somehow, the Sacred Feminine was re-made visible into Buddhism, as a welcome evolution / next step of Buddhism's challenge to fixed, rigid conventions1.
Even in narratives where Avalokiteśvara remains male, he's connected to the Sacred Feminine, as the illustrious female bodhisattvas, White Tārā and Green Tārā, arise from his tears2.
And if we're to consider the Sacred Feminine in relation to the embodiment of spirituality and to spiritual service, then it's foundational in Buddhism:
the Middle Way rejects asceticism (the ‘male,’ violent attempt to separate / free the mind from the body);
the ‘female’ energy is crucial to the awareness of the collective (emotional intelligence), and to the well-rounded growth of the individual;
etymologically, from Avalokiteśvara to Guanyin implies a shift from looking —“lord who gazes down”— to hearing —“who hears the cries”— and seeing tends to be directed / focused / chosen by self / ‘male’ while hearing is more open / triggered by others / ‘female’;
“engaged Buddhism” owes much to the idea of manifesting spirituality into the world, based on the needs of others rather than preconceptions vis-à-vis what ‘should’ be done;
letting go of the notion of ‘self’, there's no Enlightened being: only Enlightened activity;
Buddhism's “ultimate truth” relies on rejecting dualism…
Avalokiteśvara vowed never to rest until he had freed all sentient beings from saṃsāra, a commitment bordering on insanity even if it's out of wholesome compassion. Thus, he's a role model, but he remains a bodhisattva, not a buddha.
In spite of his efforts (leading many from the hells to Amitābha's Pure Land), he finally realizes that many beings still need support, that the task is seemingly infinite: new beings appear, and take the place of those he just saved…
From grief, and from attempting to understand how to help more effectively, his head splits into eleven pieces. Amitābha then transforms these pieces into eleven heads: 22 eyes, 22 ears, 11 brains help to comprehend the best means to save the many!
However, Avalokiteśvara then tries to reach out to all beings in need… and his 2 arms shatter into pieces. Once more, Amitābha intervenes and transform the pieces into a thousand arms3…
The kāraṇḍavyūha mahāyāna sūtra describes Avalokiteśvara’s activities in various realms.
The saddharma puṇḍarīka sūtra (aka. “lotus sūtra”) describes Avalokiteśvara as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and helps those who call upon his name, as well as Avalokiteśvara's doctrines, in its 25th chapter. Critically, Avalokiteśvara appears in any form that would help: « To those who are to be saved by the form of …, he teaches the Dharma by changing himself into the form of … »
Hence, the sūtra suggests to be mindful and to look at the potentials / possibilities in anything and everything, as these might provide the very help we need to get unstuck. This also helps to cultivate a sense of appreciation / contentment.
Moreover, once we ungrasp the ‘self’ as a separate entity, the sūtra suggests as well that our ‘own’ activity in the world might participate in the manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, no matter who we are! This, in turn, might act as a source of inspiration, this might help alleviate the fear from “what if I make a mistake?”, this might serve as an antidote to negligence (e.g. waiting for ‘others’, incl. Avalokiteśvara himself, to intervene when we could)…
Like Pure Land sutras lead some people to negligently just wait for Amitābha to bring them to a Pure Land (conducive for spiritual progress), even though the sutras contain instructions for deep meditative practices to be cultivated here, in the same way these sutras lead some people to count on Avalokiteśvara to intervene, even though the sutras actually suggest a much deeper approach. There's philosophy in these sutras, in metaphorical forms.
There are several ‘practices’ (sādhanā) associated to Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig in Tibet), e.g. those from a text called “Extending throughout space for the benefit of beings” or those taught by the Karmapa.
For the sake of some techniques in which it's conducive to believe he's all powerful, Chenrezig might at times be described as a bodhisattva having attained the 10th bhūmi4 thereby having all the qualities of a buddha, but what I find most instructive precedes this stage.
On his path, and when he was already a very advanced bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara suffered! He definitely was in saṃsāra, not nirvāṇa: a bodhisattva he is, for sure. And he suffered from the frustration not to be able to do more / better. That is to say, he suffered from clinging to some idealized goal!
Since the 6th bhūmi already corresponds to the Perfection of Wisdom, and clinging to some idealized outcome wouldn't fit this pāramitā, this makes reasonably clear that the manifestation of compassion (even through five Perfections: generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, mental cultivation) can be painful. Compassion —like the other Brahma-vihārās— might well be a “Dharma gate”, it doesn't magically solve unsatisfactoriness!
There's another fundamental lesson here: neither the purity —or wholesomeness— of one's intention, nor even the relative perfection of its manifestation, guarantee success.
Upon reflection, the ‘purity’ of one's intention is a mere narrative, an attempt to justify why reality ‘should’ have complied with our wishes.
When things go ‘wrong’, we tend to pretend that we only had one (‘good’) intention, and that its purity ‘should’ have guaranteed a desired outcome… but it's not reality: the mind is an aggregate, with many streams inter-acting.
One example, of how multiple intentions can interact, appears specifically when we do mistakes we could have avoided: there was an intention to help but there also was e.g. an intention to do so quickly, or to do so without putting too much effort / attention / mindfulness… i.e. trying to help at minimum cost (such a minimum might be high already).
This secondary intention of “executing the first intention at minimum cost” doesn't even necessarily comes out of selfishness: it might come from an awareness that there are ‘others’ who need help too, and that the supply of energy available is limited, and therefore that no energy should be wasted in any way.
Good intention associated with not wanting to spend too much resources might lead to negligence though, to not paying attention enough, which in turn might lead to errors and bad outcomes. Making up caricatures about causality and purity won't help; iterating, trying again (from the intermediate situation reached —not out of stubbornness, but simply because there's this need, among all other present needs) might be the solution. We ought to understand, and embody, that “letting go” doesn't imply ‘disengagement’, it implies “engaging anew / afresh” (bound neither by the “sunk costs” fallacy, making us double-down on prior engagement to try and force the desired outcome, nor by fatalism / determinism from “I already tried and it failed”).
And, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘wholesome’ a desired outcome is imagined to be, clinging to an outcome still is samsaric clinging, i.e. a source of frustration whenever the desired outcome doesn't materialize as expected (or even as soon as expected).
Practicing doesn't immediately free you from dukkha. Too often, practitioners hope that suffering will gradually subside as they progress on the Path. In some sense, it might be true, as in “the fewer the attachments, the fewer the sources of suffering”; yet, as one becomes aware of subtler forms / sources of dukkha, a single source left can still make one's head split into 11 pieces… This doesn't mean one's not progressing, this doesn't imply one should abandon the Path, it only means that most expectations about how fast suffering weakens are misguided.
At this point, and even without considering Wisdom vis-à-vis the unsustainability of one-way relationships, it should become apparent that compassion is to reach out to all, oneself included, not just to ‘others’.
If there's a warning about the ‘saviour’ syndrome in Buddhism, then it is the story of Avalokiteśvara!
In the Brahma-vihārās, compassion comes alongside love / loving-kindness, empathetic joy and… equanimity! This should make clear that equanimity hardly is the same as indifference, but it might seem weird nonetheless: why would the proficiency in “stepping back” come with the proficiency in “engaging constructively”? Equanimity is necessary to prevent ‘drowning’ out of compassion, it is key in differentiating between wise compassion and naïve compassion, in playing the (realistically) long game.
Just like there's unwise generosity when one gives ‘everything’ only to immediately end up in need of hand-outs, compassion is unwise if it leads to exhaustion, depression, extra need for support.
Wisdom therefore calls for some pacing, and equanimity is necessary not to let observed needs automatically take priority over other concern. Fear in general shouldn't automatically make one narrow-focus on / magnify its object, but shouldn't be stupidly ignored either: it should be treated as an information calling for some attention, among many others, and freedom from lust / from aversion / from tendencies is manifested in weighting this information in, without bias. In the same way, awareness of another's need shouldn't automatically make one narrow-focus on such a need, but shouldn't be stupidly ignored either; equanimity allows to consider any particular need in relation to a wider context, to refrain from simple reactivity, to select an appropriate response to the (whole) situation at hand, not just to that need.
Hopefully, this article will have shown that beyond the 11 heads, 1000 arms, representations of Avalokiteśvara, and beyond the sutras praising this bodhisattva, there are serious philosophical points. These are certainly expressed in a metaphorical way, rather than some analytical or logical way, but these are serious considerations nonetheless.
Such considerations are worth reflecting upon, because they might play a major rôle when we fall into troughs, into feelings of being a ‘bad’ person or a ‘bad’ Buddhist… When I try to help and it lamentably fails (if only temporarily), I find it useful to remember these points. Clinging to outcomes is unwise; and if there still is a need, then this ‘updated’ need might be attended to, a moment-to-moment iterative approach makes sense.
In fact, even prior helping, I find it useful to remember these, because they prevent me from the fallacy that helping is easy (to live), comes with its own rewards, etc. Helping actually ‘costs’, it comes with expectations of an improved situation and expectations cause dukkha, because our efforts won't always work out (even less so when we're far from mastering 5 pāramitā)!
Compassion is a wholesome intention, its manifestation is the right behaviour to embody, but it's always better to walk into such an activity with clarity vis-à-vis what it will cost, for this will minimize the disappointment. The more naïve the views, the harder the disillusion strikes.
There's a book called “Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. We're practicing toward a “Liberation from” (dukkha), not “for”: a relinquishment, not an appropriation. We do our best, and this is important and valuable, but we should be extremely careful not to fall into hopes that our lives will become ‘easy’ thanks to that: they won't, and we better face such a harsh truth right away, so we can embrace compassionate activity with our eyes open (rather than naïvely feel let down later and abandon the Path as a result). Yes, we might benefit from our compassion as a side-effect, but hopes of direct selfish benefits ought to be shelved.
Compassion is stressful: not only we share the suffering of others, but also we take on ourselves some extra dissatisfactions (by trying to help)! It takes a strong heart to accept that and still do it.
As a practice, compassion makes the heart / mind stronger, as it requires relinquishing naïve expectations, as it helps developing a contentment with regards to small positive intermediate results, as it favours iterative moment-to-moment perseverance5, as it demands taking the wider situation into account, as it requires feeling ‘OK’ in the absence of a safe ground, as it leverages generosity, as it weakens the hold of the ego…
As a practice, compassion is a “Dharma gate” because it helps us to understand dukkha / unsatisfactoriness / suffering… so trying to pretend that compassion is stress-free totally misses the point! By compassion, we review more causal processes leading to dukkha than our own in this life; we get to study dukkha and its origins. As a practice, it helps us to understand the four “Noble Truths”, it also helps us to distinguish ‘pain’ from ‘suffering’, to discern the first arrow from the second arrow (sallatha sutta, SN 36.6).
We voluntarily shoulder some responsibility to alleviate the suffering of ‘others’ —not so much ‘others’ once we no longer separate ‘our’ plight from ‘theirs’— as a way to speed-up our study of dukkha. Like other studies, this requires effort and strain, there's no point in pretending otherwise: if you wish to master anything, you need studying —in one form or another— and once this resolve is ascertained, then there's little point in dragging it on (by reinventing the wheel, by rejecting the lessons from others, by insisting on repeating their mistakes by yourself…).
The narratives on Avalokiteśvara make clear that compassion is a “Dharma gate”: after all, it did lead him to the highest realizations and stages / bhūmi. These sutras are here to inspire us to take upon such a task, but to do so with our eyes open and without naïve personal agenda: studying dukkha, by sharing the stress of others, helps you (and them) to become free from dukkha. Intense studying helps speed up Liberation, but might also prove taxing along the way. Know so, and do it anyway!