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Visit a Tibetan Buddhist temple and you cannot help being drawn to the expression of glowing serenity on the face of Avalokitesvara. He is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whose name means “The Lord Who Hears the Cries of Mankind”.
Mahayana texts say that Avalokitesvara vowed to hear the prayers of all beings needing spiritual succor and to delay his own nirvana until all sentient beings in the world were liberated from their earthly suffering. In striving towards this stupendous task, Avalokitesvara’s head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha then gave him eleven heads to accommodate his ever increasing understanding of sufferers. When Avalokitesvara set forth to relieve them, his two arms were inadequate for the task. Amitabha then gave him a thousand arms. This story finds expression in Buddhist iconography – the Bao’en temple in Sichuan, China has a superb Ming era statue of a 1000-armed Avalokitesvara.
In Buddhist art, the gentle Avalokitesvara assumes male or female form. Tibetans call him Chenrezig and believe that the Dalai Lama is his current reincarnation.
Avalokitesvara is associated with the widely practiced mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. This six-syllable utterance is believed to encapsulate all of the Buddha’s teachings. It is not easily translatable; what matters is that this mantra needs no initiation and can be practiced by anyone.