Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) Embodiment of Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism

"Every person whose heart is moved by love and compassion, who deeply and sincerely acts for the benefit of others without concern for fame, profit, social position, or recognition expresses the activity of Chenrezig."
Bokar Rinpoche

Chenrezig: Lord of Love
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 and Karmapas, 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 compassionate buddhas.

This page explores some of the many facets of Chenrezig and his meditation, and the Buddhist view of compassion. First, though, I want to call your attention to two more pages that are closely related to this one. One of them is a page about Chenrezig's mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, and the other is about prayer wheels, or Mani wheels.
This is Om Mani Padme Hum, the famous mantra of Chenrezig, written in Tibetan script. It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra. Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying the mantra (prayer), out loud or silently to oneself, invokes his powerful benevolent attention. Viewing the written form of the mantra is said to have the same effect, and it is often carved into stones, placed where people can see them.
We've placed a whole page about the Mani mantra on the Web where you can see it:
Om Mani Padme Hum: The Meaning of the Mantra
Spinning the written form of the mantra around in a Mani wheel (prayer wheel) is also believed to give the same benefit as saying the mantra, and Mani wheels, small hand wheels and large wheels with millions of copies of the mantra inside, are found everywhere in the lands influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Here's a page about Mani wheels:
The Prayer Wheel: Spiritual Technology from Tibet
If you go look at it, lots of copies of the mantra will be spinning around on the hard drive of your computer while you read it.
You might wonder how twirling a roll of printed copies of Om Mani Padme Hum round and round in a Mani wheel could be a way to be more aware of the compassionate quality of ones basic nature. To understand that, it might be best to begin by learning a little about the Buddhist understanding of compassion -- so that is the topic of the next section.

A Buddhist Perspective on Compassion

Buddha taught that none of his students should worship him, or anyone else -- nor any god or gods or anything else under the sun or beyond it. For Buddhists, the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is to awaken to ones own true nature, which is the nature of a fully enlightened Buddha.
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.
We shouldn't go much further in this discussion of Chenrezig as the Embodiment of compassion without being clear about how Buddhists understand the concept of compassion. The following brief discussion of compassion from the Buddhist perspective comes from a dharma talk, The Reason We Practice Meditation, by Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, a senior meditation master and scholar in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
"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.

Chenrezig / Avalokiteshvara
The Embodiment of Compassion

Having trouble seeing how your real nature could be no different from that of a being who constantly manifests unsurpassable intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and confidence? We know we're not always compassionate, that we care much more about the well being of certain people than about others, that we hardly know what it would mean to give without expecting anything in return. The descriptions of Chenrezig as consistently compassionate to all beings, impartially, don't sound like anyone we've ever met.
The image of Chenrezig that is visualized in the meditation practice is not a real person who happens to be perfect in every imaginable way. It is an image, an imaginary form with certain wonderful qualities -- Chenrezig glows in the dark -- Chenrezig even glows in the daylight. In his Teaching on the Chenrezig Sadhana, Kalu Rinpoche said "one does not think of the deity's body as solid or material, made of flesh and blood like one's ordinary body, or made of metal or stone like an idol. One thinks of it as appearance that is inseparable from emptiness, like a rainbow or like a reflection in a mirror."
The particular wonderful qualities that Chenrezig manifests for us are just the ones we need to get more in touch with, as aspects of our own nature, if we want to become an enlightened buddha, or even if we just want to become a truly compassionate person. We and the image of Chenrezig are two extremes -- we have flesh and blood bodies, but not as much compassion as we would like to have, and Chenrezig has a body made of rainbows, and boundless impartial compassion. When we put those two extremes together, in the Chenrezig meditation, we move in the direction of manifesting as a being with a flesh-and-blood body and unlimited compassion -- with maybe a few rainbows thrown in for decoration.
Imagining that we are just like Chenrezig is not just wishful thinking, like wanting to become a supercomputer or a Lear jet: We do already have everything we need to awaken to our own unlimited compassion. The purpose of the Chenrezig meditation is to help us realize that, to become conscious of that aspect of our intrinsic nature.
Various aspects of the form we visualize remind us of the most important qualities of this particular manifestation of awakened mind, the qualities we are trying to connect to.
Chenrezig is visualized in many forms, with various numbers of faces and arms, and various colors and ornaments. Here we are discussing the white four-armed form with one face, the one illustrated here, which is the most common visualization.
This manifestation of Chenrezig is the radiant white Buddha form which represents purity and power of the enlightened mind's loving kindness and compassion. He should be seen as a somewhat transparent, rainbow like form, like a reflection in water, which represents the empty/open aspect of awakened mind; we cannot latch on to Chenrezig with our concepts -- he transcends the solidification of concepts, including our idea that he is "out there," separate from us.
He sits on a lotus and the flat disc of the moon, with another moon disk behind him, reflecting his total purity. Two of his four arms are joined in the prayer position holding the wish fulfilling gem. In his other left hand he holds a lotus flower and in his other right hand, a crystal mala (rosary), which he is using to count the repetitions of his mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, which liberates all beings from suffering. He wears the silks and ornaments of a Bodhisattva, representing all his special qualities, and the soft skin of an antelope over his shoulder, symbolizing his complete freedom from violence.
He smiles with deep understanding, love and compassion as his eyes look upon all beings -- just like a mother watching her only child.
In "A Teaching on the Chenrezig Sadhana" Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche explains the significance of the four arms in the image:
"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. The next section is devoted to this particular meditation practice, described in The Sadhana of Chenrezig.

Meditation: The Sadhana of Chenrezig

The Sadhana of Chenrezig is open to anyone who feels inspired to practice it -- unlike most of the Tibetan Buddhist practices, which require prior initiation by a lama (meditation master).
Here is an explanation given by Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, who served for many years as the Chief Meditation Master of the Kagyu Lineage, from his book Gently Whispered:
"Most tantrayana or vajrarana visualization and mantra practices require that an initiation and subsequent authorization and instruction be given by a qualified lama before the sadhana, or ritual practice, can begin. However, a few practices, those that were given publicly by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, do not fall under such restrictions. Very definitely, all the practices given in the Sutras have the full blessing of the Buddha and therefore can be practiced if one has the aspiration to do so. Such practices include those of the noble Chenrezig and of the mother of the buddhas, Green Tara. Naturally, whenever it is possible for you to take the vajrayana initiation of Chenrezig or Green Tara, you are encouraged to do so."
Bokar Rinpoche wrote, in Chenrezig: Lord of Love, these clarifying remarks: "As long as one considers Chenrezig outside oneself, the initiation, in fact, is not indispensable. However, to meditate on oneself in the form of the deity and to actually accomplish the phases of creation and completion, the initiation is necessary."
While even hearing the name of Chenrezig, or seeing his image, is said to bring inconceivable blessings, performing Chenrezig practices will speed the development of ones compassion in this life, and performing them regularly, ideally every day, is even better. Chenrezig practices are even more effective when performed under the guidance of a qualified teacher. To begin working with such a teacher, you might contact one of the many Traditional Tibetan Meditation Centers that are now flourishing in many Western countries.
In visualization practice we imagine ourselves to be a buddha, in this case the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. By replacing the thought of yourself as you with the thought of yourself as Chenrezig, you gradually reduce and eventually remove the fixation on your personal self, which expands your loving kindness and compassion, toward yourself and toward others. In the same process, your intelligence and wisdom become enhanced, allowing you to see clearly what someone really needs and to communicate with them clearly and accurately.
In most religious traditions one prays to the deities of the tradition in the hopes of receiving their blessing, which will benefit one in some way. In the vajrayana Buddhist tradition, however, the blessing and the power and the superlative qualities of the enlightened beings are not considered as coming from an outside source, but are believed to be innate, to be aspects of our own true nature. Chenrezig and his love and compassion are within us.
Buddhists all over the world like to keep a special place which they use only for meditation and for studying the dharma (Buddhist teachings). Depending on ones condition, as wealthy or poor or in between, that place might be just a certain corner in ones room, or might be a separate room, or even a separate building. In any case, it would be attractive, with fresh flowers if possible, or dried flowers or even plastic flowers or just colored pieces of cloth, and would have a raised area for special objects connected with the meditation. These might be pictures or statues of buddhas or ones meditation masters, or in this case perhaps a picture of Chenrezig. A book of dharma teachings is also often included. All of the things on this shrine are above ones waist, but low enough to be easily viewed when sitting in meditation posture.
A session of meditation might begin by lighting incense, and possibly a candle or light of some sort (Tibetans use butter lamps) and bowing or prostrating to the shrine. One then sits down comfortably on a cushion, in a cross-legged position, or in a chair if sitting on a cushion is physically difficult. The hands rest at the level of the navel, palms upward, one on top of the other, or palms downward on the knees.
The actual practice begins by connecting to Chenrezig's wish to save all beings from suffering by establishing them in the state of Buddhahood, and proceeds through the various stages of the liturgy, until we arrive at the section where we repeat the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hung. As we repeat the mantra, over and over, for as long as we wish to continue the practice, we visualize Chenrezig sending loving kindness and healing to all sentient beings throughout the universe.
When we arise from the practice, we might bow to the shrine again, to close the session, after putting out the candle if we have offered one. As we do this, we might dedicate the merit gained by the practice to the benefit of all beings.
Tibetan Buddhists often continue the mantra practice during ordinary activities, and they might also use a prayer wheel to amplify the benefit of the mantra.
Different lineages of Tibetan Buddhism use somewhat different forms of the Sadhana, and if you have a connection to a meditation master from a particular lineage, then it would be best to use the version of the Sadhana that your teacher recommends. However, if you don't yet have a connection with a particular lineage, it would be fine to use any version of the Sadhana of Four-Armed Chenrezig. Links to versions that are available on the Web are given below in the Resources section. (If you decide use one of these from the Web, you will probably want to print it out, unless you plan on turning your computer into a shrine.)
Printed copies of the Sadhana are available from sources listed in the Resources section. One very nice version is printed, with detailed instructions and commentary, in the book Gently Whispered, by Kalu Rinpoche. If you are going to use it regularly, you might want to Xerox it, so that it will easily lay flat.
One last consideration, before we end this section. Some versions of the Sadhana are available with transliterated Tibetan pronunciation of all the words, some with English translations or translations into other Western languages, and some with both the transliteration and the translation. (Some versions that are available on the Web provide only the translation, but they aren't recommended -- it's better if you have some idea of what you are saying.) You can do the practice by saying the words in Tibetan using the transliterations, or just say the translated version in whatever language you prefer, if you have it. In any case, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is done in Sanskrit.

"Buddha of great compassion, hold me fast in your compassion. From time without beginning, beings have wandered in samsara, Undergoing unendurable suffering. They have no other protector than you. Please bless them that they may achieve the omniscient state of buddhahood.
With the power of evil karma gathered from beginningless time, Sentient beings, through the force of anger, are born as hell beings and experience the suffering of heat and cold. May they all be born in your presence, perfect deity."