The nineteenth day of the sixth Chinese lunar month celebrates the day of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva's Enlightenment.
Avalokiteśvara is the Bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Although Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva manifested himself as a Bodhisattva, he had actually attained Buddhahood eons ago. His dharma name is "the Tathāgata who clearly understands the true law". In order to save and liberate all sentient beings, he returned to the Saha world (the secular world) out of kindness and compassion and manifested himself in the body of a Bodhisattva.
Originally a male deity, Avalokiteśvara gradually became indigenized as a female deity in China over the span of nearly a millennium: first as Guanyin in China, and later Kannon in Japan, Gwanseum in Korea, and Quan Am in Vietnam, all meaning “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World”. Around the 12th century, Guanyin became interpreted as fully female – being represented, at times, with an infant in her arms, implying the relationship between the deity and maternity. By the Ming (1358–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) periods, Guanyin had become the most popular female deity in China. Today, Guanyin is most often seen as a woman dressed in flowing white robes.
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva possesses infinite compassion, profound wisdom, and skillful means. With deep connections to the Saha world, she showed up everywhere with the spirit of great compassion. The Lotus Sutra, one of the most important texts in Mahāyāna Buddhism, describes Avalokiteśvara extensively in Chapter 25, “The Universal Door of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva”:
"In times of suffering, agony, danger, and death, she is our refuge and protector. Complete with all merit and virtue, her kind eyes watching living beings."
According to this chapter, when sentient beings come across difficulties, as long as they recite her name, Guanyin Bodhisattva will listen to their call and go to rescue them. As such, she liberates sentient beings from various disasters and sufferings in real life. With supremely compassionate vows and universal impartiality, she contemplates and illuminates all beings in suffering with great wisdom and gives them help.
In the Heart Sutra, a short but influential sutra on the perfection of (transcendent) wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā), Avalokiteśvara is an interlocutor.
“When I was a prince before, I made an aspiration to the Buddha, in the entire world of the buddhist cosmology, if there is one sentient being who has not heard about the Right Path nor generated the mind of the unexcelled perfect enlightenment, I vow not to become a Buddha. Why was this the case? All sentient beings can attain the path, their mind (heart) is the Buddha.”
This kind of selfless aspiration to help liberate all sentient beings without exception moves and inspires numerous Buddhists around the globe. For us, in the process of letting go of negative thoughts and intentions, physical tensions, and worldly concerns in our practice, it is also essential to cultivate a loving and kind bodhicitta, which embodies the wisdom of compassion and emptiness; so that we can truly transform, transcend, and attain the Perfect Wisdom. For example, when people complain about us, hold a grudge against us, or misunderstand us, we should tolerate them as much as possible instead of taking revenge. We should also actively learn from challenging situations to achieve personal growth and enlighten our inner compassion and wisdom to awaken our original Buddha nature. This is the right path of cultivation and the cultivation of the heart.
Photo courtesy of Asian Art Museum of San Francisco