“You cannot petition Kannon with Prayer!”—Calling upon Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara through Embodied Compassion

In Mahayana Buddhism, enacting the life of the Bodhisattva is the goal of every practitioner. The Bodhisattva is one whose compassion for others’ suffering is so great that she delays her final escape from samsara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, life to life, and which is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction) until she has helped to awaken all other sentient beings, freeing them from suffering and samsara. There are two basic varieties of Bodhisattvas. The first are the living ones on the ground, so to speak, the living practitioners of Buddha Dharma and the second are the mythical figures that are revered by Buddhists as figures for inspiration and contemplation. One of the central Bodhisattva’s of the latter variety is Avalokiteshvara, also referred to as Kannon and Kanzeon in Japan, and Kuan Yin in China. Interestingly, Avalokiteshvara originally takes a male form in his appearance in writings from India, but later through his “travels” to China, Tibet, and Japan, he takes on a female form. Thus, one sees statues and figures in both male and female forms. In some his manifestations, Avalokiteshvara has thousands of arms, with an eye in each hand, symbolizing his compassionate activity and watchfulness over all sentient beings.

As Dōgen emphasizes, “The bodhisattva of great compassion is Avalokiteshvara—‘One who perceives the cries of the world,’ … This bodhisattva is regarded as the parent of all buddhas” (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi 2012 ed. page 397-98). These lines are significant, in part, because of the claim that Dōgen makes, namely, that it is the Bodhisattva of compassion who is the parent of all buddhas. That is, it is through compassion—embodied, compassionate activity—that Buddhas are born. Hence, Dōgen’s writing:

There is a simple way to become a buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful of seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Seek nothing else. (ibid., page 885).

Compassionate activity is so important, in part, because it is “…the prime means of destroying all clinging to delusory selfhood” (Blofeld, Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, page 22). However, in Dōgen’s Zen the point is not simply to “destroy all clinging to delusory selfhood,” which might imply lingering on the side of emptiness as an antidote to form, to “delusory selfhood.” Rather, “There is a point in which you jump off both form and emptiness, and do not abide there” (Bokusan. “Commentary on Dogen’s Genjo Koan.” In Dogen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. Berkeley, page 33). That is, lingering in emptiness as opposed to form isn’t the answer. One must “jump off” both form and emptiness. And as I have argued elsewhere, mindful, compassionate activity is one way to express both sides of reality through a single action, thereby jumping off of form and emptiness. Hence, compassionate activity is central to enlightenment, becoming and going beyond a buddha.

The final verse of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra tells us of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara ‘s wondrous powers:

Listen to the deeds of the Cry Regarder [Avalokiteshvara],
Who well responds to every quarter;
His vast vow is deep as the sea,
Inconceivable in its eons.
Serving many thousands of kotis of buddhas,
He has vowed a great pure vow.
Let me briefly tell you.
[He who] hears his name, and sees him,
And bears him unremittingly in mind,
Will be able to end the sorrows of existence.
Though [others] with harmful intent
Throw him into a burning pit,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power
And the fire pit will become a pool.
Or driven along a great ocean,
In peril of dragons, fishes, and demons,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power
And waves cannot submerge him.
Of if, from the peak of Sumeru,
Men would hurl him down,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power
And like the sun he will stand firm in the sky.
(The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Kosei Publishing, 1975, page 324)

The text goes on, saying the same thing in regard to being pursued by wicked men, meeting foes who have drawn swords, being sentenced to execution by the royal command, and more, namely: one won’t be harmed if one calls upon, cries out to, Avalokiteshvara.

But how should we understand this calling out to Avalokiteshvara? And in what way does she/he save people from such perils as pits of fire, oceans, swords, and execution?

I have long been fond of Jim Morrison’s brief “discussion” of this issue. His live performances of it are quite moving. He sings:

When I was back there in seminary school,
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition,
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer,
Petition the lord with prayer
You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

I am reminded of folks praying at high school football games, both sides petitioning God to help their side win. And even in my own desperate moments, consumed by fear at the prospect of flying overseas (in 1998), I petitioned the lord to live another day. However, despite my own moments of weakness, I don’t find such petitioning to be very Christian (or Buddhist), as it is ultimately self-serving; and it’s often done with the hope of God/Avalokiteshvara turning his head in your direction, as if he/she is only now willing to help you out, and even when doing so might mean that others are left out.

The concluding verse summary of the Kanzeon [Avalokiteshvara] Sutra chapter of the Lotus Sutra is still chanted daily in Chinese and Japanese Zen temples. It reiterates that when faced with danger, simply by constant mindfulness of Kanzeon’s power and virtue, one will be saved from fire, from drowning in the ocean, from violent attackers or predatory or poisonous animals, from imprisonment, execution, or other terrors.

This verse chanted daily in Asian temples has yet to be adopted into the liturgy of most Western Buddhist centers. Many Westerners who came to Buddhist practice in the sixties and seventies wanted some pure meditation technique, or therapeutic practice, and may feel that to call on the bodhisattva of compassion sounds too much like Judeo-Christian prayer. Calling out the name of some mythical bodhisattva may seem superstitious or primitive to “sophisticated” Westerners (Leighton, page 180).

Again, then, how should we understand the last verse in regard to Avalokiteshvara? After all, “According to [Avalokiteshvara’s] chapter of the [Lotus] sutra, Kanzeon answers the calls of all in need, and appears in whatever form will be helpful to beings in a particular situation” (ibid., p179). How are these calls answered? Leighton’s suggestion:

We might understand this promise by reflecting that to call upon the spirit of compassion and patient awareness in the midst of danger could easily be calming and induce one to activate one’s own awareness of compassion, with beneficial results. Thus the devotional act may give rise to transformative practice (ibid., page 179).

I think we can offer an even stronger interpretation along Leighton’s lines. That is, when the sutra says, “[He who] hears his name, and sees him, / And bears him unremittingly in mind, Will be able to end the sorrows of existence,” what it means to hear his name, see him, and bear him unremittingly in mind, is to hear, see, keep continually in mind Avalokiteshvara’s name, i.e., Compassion. Avalokiteshvara is the embodiment of compassion. It is through the embodiment of compassionate activity that one ends one’s suffering in the attempt to end the suffering of others. But such compassionate activity is not always easy to manifest, and so, identifying with, calling upon, the mythical Avalokiteshvara is one way to motivate compassionate activity, even if, at first, it is done out of self-interest. That is, you call upon compassion when you are in need, but with continued practice, you learn that the “true” motivation for compassion is not self-interest but the realization of no-self, no separation between oneself and the rest of the world, with all of its pain, suffering, and sorrow. Taking the pit of fire and the ocean metaphorically, we extinguish the fires of craving, we keep our heads well above the waves of life’s vicissitudes by engaging in compassionate activity, by seeking to awaken and help others who are in need. We become Avalokiteshvara, listening to the cries of the world. Such a “calling upon” is a far cry from petitioning Avalokiteshvara for a resolution of one’s problems from the outside, whereby one waits for Avalokiteshvara to put things right. Instead, one makes Avalokiteshvara manifest through one’s own embodied, compassionate activity.

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