Avalokitesvara, the Magnificent Play of Compassion

On Avalokitesvara’s teaching to Sudhana Kumara from Gaṇḍavyūha Sutra

Avalokitesvara in Potalaka

“O the heir of Buddhas, 

I know a gate to liberation,

The condensation of the compassion of all Buddhas, 

The very embryo of wisdom.

That love of mine too pervades everywhere,

To rescue and care for the beings of all worlds.”

These lines were spoken by Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the epitome of compassion to Sudhana Kumara, a wannabe Bodhisattva.  Avalokitesvara instructs Sudhana Kumara, an ordinary human like us, on how to become a refuge for all beings of inconceivable world systems, with magnificent qualities and abilities well beyond the reach of our imagination. For this Avalokitesvara reveals the entrance to the ‘Way of Bodhisattvas’.

Context of the Teaching

Gaṇḍavyūha Sutra , the 39th chapter of Avatāmsaka Sutra, narrates Sudhana Kumara’s quest for enlightenment. Sudhana Kumara an earnest seeker living in the town of Dhanyākara in South India happens to meet the great Bodhisattva Manjusri and receives teaching from him.

Manjusri further instructs him to go and meet many auspicious friends (kalyana mitras) who are Bodhisattvas and receive teachings from them. On the whole he meets 53 masters who belong to very diverse forms and backgrounds, which include both men and women, bhikshus and upasakas, ascetics and merchants, kings and craftsmen, queens and courtesans, humans and devas.  This itself is a teaching that people of any background can give rise to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattvas and turn their mundane activities into a way of bringing enormous benefit to beings who come in contact with them and lead them to awakening. It does not matter whether one is a monk or a king, an ascetic or a householder. As far as one is able to cultivate the view of non-abiding (aprathiṣṭāna) on Samsara and Nirvana, and give rise to the great compassionate mind of perfect and complete awakening (bodhicitta), one can be a Bodhisattva and bring benefit to countless beings.

According to Gaṇḍavyūha, through the teaching received from these Bodhisattvas and through the merit of meeting them, Sudhana gains a glimpse into the nature of reality (dharmadhatu) and become firmly established in the way of the Bodhisattvas.

In this Sutra, Avalokitesvara is the 27th Bodhisattva that he meets on the way. Avalokitesvara is staying in the Potalaka Mountain in the southern most part of India (In the Malaya-giri in the border between present day Kerala and Tamil Nadu ) .

The Splendid Display of  Avalokitesvara

As Sudhana reaches Potalaka, he sees Avalokitesvara in a glorious way as in the following gātha.

प्रकान्त दक्षिणपथं सुधनः सुदान्तः।

सो पश्यते रत्नपर्वतकन्दरस्थं

अवलोकितेश्वरमृषिं करुणाविहारिम्॥

Sudhana, well restrained, went to the South (dakshinapatha).

There he saw on the cliff of the jewel mountain,

The rishi Avalokitesvara, the play of compassion!

वज्रामये गिरितटे मणिरत्नचित्रे

सिंहासने पदुमगर्भि निषण्ण धीरो।


परिवारितो जिनसुतैर्वदि तेष धर्मम्॥

On a diamond slope, adorned with jewels,

Sitting in a lotus calyx on a lion seat, is the courageous one,

Encircled by devas, asuras, nāgas, kinnaras, rākṣasas,

Expounding the dharma to the Bodhisattvas.

This glorious display itself is another teaching. Avalokitesvara is sitting in the peak of a high and rocky mountain in a deep dense forest in the form of a rishi (hermit). Yet he manifests a magnificent display for his disciples, enthralling them into the way of compassion! It shows, how for a Bodhisattva of great compassion and wisdom, everything turns glorious and blissful. And the variety among his disciples itself is another teaching showing that there is no limit to the reach of a Bodhisattva’s hook of compassion. As the later part of Gaṇḍavyūha Sutra teaches the aspiration of a wannabe Bodhisattva,

“In the languages of gods and in the languages of nagas,

Yakshas, kumbhandas and humans,

In however many languages of beings there may be,

In all such ways, may I expound Dharma!”

The teaching is that a Bodhisattva should not be limited by context and should be eager to get into everyone’s context and help them compassionately from their own contexts.

Here, Avalokitesvara represents the flowering of the infinite innate potential that each of us have. As he himself says, “I have entered this way of the Bodhisattvas through great compassion without delay”. Thus through his magnificent display and variety of retinue, he is indicating that if we break our mental barriers and perceived limitations and enter into the way of Bodhisattvas, the numerous ways in which we can be of benefit to innumerable world systems is beyond what we can conceive now.

This may sound impractical, infeasible and mythological for some who are firmly rooted in the reality of this world. However, when one comprehends emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena and the way various perceptions of the world arise like in a dream, it can be seen that it is indeed possible for us to attain this magnificence and benefit beings of innumerably different perceptions.

In the verse below, Sudhana requests Avalokitesvara on a teaching on the way of Bodhisattvas. He requests Avalokitesvara thus, “O Noble One, I have generated the mind of enlightenment (Bodhicitta).  But I do not know the way of the Bodhisattvas. I heard you instructing the Bodhisattvas on the same. Please give me too the instructions on the way of the Bodhisattvas.”

दृष्ट्वोपजात अतुला सुधनस्य प्रीति

उपगम्य वन्दति क्रमौ गुणसागरस्य।

ओवाच देहि मम आर्य कृपां जनित्वा

शिक्षां तु अहु लभे इम भद्रचर्याम्॥

Seeing this, Sudhana, taken by joy unequaled,

Approached and paid homage to the Ocean of Qualities (guṇasāgara1).

And beseeched, “O Noble One, with compassion,

Teach me, so that I attain this excellent way”.

बाहुं प्रणम्य विमलं शतपुण्यचित्रं

प्रभमेघजाल विपुलं शुभ मुञ्चमानः।

मूर्ध्नि स्थिहित्व सुधनस्य विशुद्धसत्त्वो

अवलोकितेश्वरु विदू वचनं भणाति॥

Extending his stainless arm, with the splendor of hundredfold merit,

Radiating extensive net of the clouds of pure light,

Avalokitesvara, the utterly pure being, 

Laid his hands on Sudhana’s head and spoke:

एकं विमोक्षमुख जानमि बुद्धपुत्र

सर्वजिनान करुणाघनज्ञानगर्भम्।

संभूत सर्वजगत्रायणसंग्रहाय

सर्वत्र वर्तति ममाप्यथ आत्मप्रेम॥

O the heir of Buddhas2

I know a gate to liberation,

The condensation of the compassion of all Buddhas, 

The very embryo of wisdom.

That love of mine too pervades everywhere,

To rescue and care for the beings of all worlds.

The intense compassion to the beings pervading innumerable world systems itself is the embryo of wisdom of the Buddhasthat develop into a fully manifest Buddha.

Entering into Great Compassion Without Delay

Avalokitesvara then delivers to him the teaching with the name, ‘Entering into Great Compassion without Delay’.

साधु साधु कुलपुत्र, येन ते अनुत्तरायां सम्यक्संबोधौ चित्तमुत्पादितम्। अहं कुलपुत्र महाकरुणामुखाविलम्बं नाम बोधिसत्त्वचर्यामुखं प्रजानामि।

Avalokitesvara said,  “It is good that you have generated the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta). I know a way of the Bodhisattvas called ‘entering into great compassion without delay’.”

एतच्च कुलपुत्र महाकरुणामुखाविलम्बं बोधिसत्त्वचर्यामुखं सर्वजगदसंभिन्नसत्त्वपरिपाकविनयनप्रवृत्तं समन्तमुखस्रोतविज्ञप्तिसत्त्वसंग्रहविनयपर्युपस्थानम्।

O son of the noble lineage, the way of the Bodhisattvas, of entering into great compassion without delay, and guiding all beings of the world to maturity without partiality, as I heard that from the Buddhas, it abides there in me to care for and guide all beings.

सोऽहं कुलपुत्र महाकरुणामुखाविलम्बबोधिसत्त्वचर्यामुखे प्रतिष्ठितः सर्वतथागतानां च पादमुलान्न विचलामि, सर्वसत्त्वकार्येषु च अभिमुखस्तिष्ठामि। दानेनापि सत्त्वान् संगृह्णामि। प्रियवादितया अर्थक्रियया समानार्थतयापि सत्त्वान् संगृह्णामि।

O son of the noble lineage, established in the way of the Bodhisattvas, of entering into great compassion without delay, without ever moving from the feet of all the Buddhas, I turn towards and attend to the purpose of all beings. Through generosity, pleasing speech, beneficial actions and their consistency, I take care of beings.

“Without ever moving from the feet of the Buddhas” — It means that he does not part from the wisdom of the Buddhas for even one moment, at the same time he approaches beings with great compassion to care for them. This is  the perfect union (yuganaddha) of wisdom and compassion.

Generosity, pleasing speech, beneficial actions, and the concordance of speech and action are the four ways of connecting with beings in accordance with their propensities. This is how a Bodhisattva is to train while relating to beings.

Avalokitesvara continues,

The Magnificent Play of Compassion

रूपकायविदर्शनेनापि सत्त्वान् परिपाचयामि। अचिन्त्यवर्णसंस्थानरूपदर्शनविशुद्ध्या रश्मिजालोत्सर्गेणापि सत्त्वान् प्रह्लाद्य परिपाचयामि। यथाशयघोषोदाहारेणापि यथाभिमतेर्यापथसंदर्शनेनापि विविधाधिमुक्तिसभागधर्मदेशनयापि नानारूपविकुर्वितेनापि कुशलधर्मोपचयप्रवृत्तसत्त्वचित्तसंचोदनयापि आशयानुरूपविचित्रापरिमाणनिर्माणसंदर्शनेनापि नानाजात्युपपन्नसत्त्वसभागरूपसंदर्शनेनापि एकावासनिवासेनापि सत्त्वान् संगृह्णामि परिपाचयामि।

I bring them to maturity by appearing in various forms; I also delight and ripen them by radiating net of rays of inconceivable forms of pure vision. I also take care of them and ripen them by speaking to them in accordance with their mentalities, by showing ways in accordance with their inclinations, by teaching dharma in accordance with their propensities, by assuming various forms, by inspiring them to increase virtues, by manifesting in various ways in accordance with their mentalities, by appearing in accordance with their various kinds of existence, and by living together with them.

Here, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara narrates the magnificent play of compassion that he engages in. We need to remember that, he does not claim to be the creator of the universe. He does not claim to be the one who controls and runs this universe. But, he started as an ordinary being, and out of immeasurable great compassion for all beings, he entered the way of the Bodhisattvas and actualized his potential to this great scale. This is also the potential in each of us.

He is not assuming various forms and filling the space simply to show off his power. But, does so to suit the propensities of individual beings so that each being can be benefited in the best possible way.  He is also displaying the magnificent scope that each of us can grow into, the potential for which is fully present in each of us.

After all, no one else created the suffering of beings. No one can magically take away the suffering of beings or deliver them to Nirvana, as the laws of karma are infallible, and Nirvana can be attained only through taming one’s own mind. So, clearly Avalokitesvara’s display is not theistic. At the same time, it warns us from falling to the other extreme, of thinking that nothing can be done to benefit others as they suffer their own Karma. In fact, there are tremendous ways to benefit others, protect them, support them and guide them in their journey. Even ordinary beings are able to benefit others. So, what needs to be said about a Bodhisattva who  cultivated wisdom and great compassion and saw the emptiness of all limiting factors of our ordinary perceptions!

Karaṇḍavyūha Sutra, another Mahayana Sutra narrates Avalokitesvara taking innumerable forms according to the needs of beings to be benefited. Also in China Avalokitesvara is known to appear in a female form as Kuanyin. In India, Avalokitesvara appeared as a rishi (hermit) as in this Sutra, and also in many celestial forms in other occasions. He is also visualized in a form with thousand arms and eleven heads to depict the immeasurable benefit he brings. Visualizing Avalokitesvara in these various forms is also a way of invoking that mind of enlightenment dormant in us, entering into the way of great compassion and transforming ourselves into wish-fulfilling jewels.

Avalokitesvara continues,

Unfolding into a Refuge

तेन मया कुलपुत्र इदं महाकरुणामुखाविलम्बं बोधिसत्त्वचर्यामुखं परिशोधयता सर्वजगत्प्रतिशरणप्रणिधिरुत्पादितः,

यदुत सर्वसत्त्वप्रपातभयविगमाय सर्वसत्त्वसंत्रासकभयप्रशमनाय सर्वसत्त्वसंमोहभयविनिवर्तनाय सर्वसत्त्वबन्धनभयसमुच्छेदाय सर्वसत्त्वजीवितोपरोधोपक्रमभयव्यावर्तनाय सर्वसत्त्वोपकरणवैकल्यभयापनयनाय सर्वसत्त्वजीविकाभयव्युपशमनाय। सर्वसत्त्वाश्लोकभयसमतिक्रमणाय सर्वसत्त्वसांसारिकभयोपशमनाय सर्वसत्त्वपर्षच्छारद्यभयविगमाय सर्वसत्त्वमरणभयव्यतिक्रमाय सर्वसत्त्वदुर्गतिभयविनिवर्तनाय सर्वसत्त्वतमोन्धकारविषमगत्यप्रत्युदावर्त्यावभासकरणाय सर्वसत्त्वविषभागसमवधानभयात्यन्तविगमाय सर्वसत्त्वप्रियविप्रयोगभयनिरोधाय सर्वसत्त्वाप्रियसंवासभयापनयनाय सर्वसत्त्वकायपरिपीडाभयसंयोगाय सर्वसत्त्वचित्तपरिपीडनभयनिर्मोक्षणाय सर्वसत्त्वदुःखदौर्मनस्योपायाससमतिक्रमाय सर्वजगत्प्रतिशरणप्रणिध्यभिनिर्हारः कृतः।

अनुस्मृतिमुखं च मे सर्वलोकेऽधिष्ठितं सर्वसत्त्वभयव्युपशमनाय। स्वनामचक्रं मे सर्वलोकेऽभिविज्ञप्तं सर्वसत्त्वभयविगमाय। सर्वजगदनन्ताकृतिभेदशमथो मे कायेऽधिष्ठितो यथाकालजगत्प्रतिविज्ञप्तये। सोऽहं कुलपुत्र, अनेनोपायेन सत्त्वान् सर्वभयेभ्यः परिमोच्य अनुत्तरायां सम्यक्संबोधौ चित्तमुत्पाद्य अविवर्त्यान् करोमि बुद्धधर्मप्रतिलाभाय।

O son of the noble lineage, thus by following this way of the Bodhisattvas, of entering into great compassion without delay, I have purified myself, and generated the aspiration to be a refuge for all beings.

I perfected that aspiration and remain a refuge for all beings for ending the fear of falling out, pacifying the fear of terror, reversing the fear of confusion, exterminating the fear of bondage, removing the fear of hindrance to life, destroying the fear of deficiency in means, pacifying the fear of livelihood, transgressing the fear of defamation, pacifying all mundane fears, ending the fear of being trapped by a mob, overcoming the fear of death, reversing the fear of bad transmigration, bringing light to reverse the distress of darkness, ending the deep fear of getting exposed to poison, annihilating the fear of separation from friends, eliminating the company with unpleasant, separating from the fear of bodily torment, delivering from the fear of mental torment, andovercoming the encounter of pain and grief.

For pacifying the fears of all beings, my remembrance abides in all worlds. For ending the fears of all beings my name-chakra is known in all worlds. According to time, my embodiment (kāya) is individually known by beings as the support for the pacification of all beings in innumerable forms.

Thus, o son of the noble lineage, through many skillful means, I liberate beings from all fears, inspire them to generate the mind of unsurpassed perfect enlightenment, and not to reverse from the benefit obtained from Buddha dharma.

Here, Avalokitesvara explains how he was also just like any one of us. Then he entered into the way of compassion and generated the aspiration to become a refuge for all beings. Through the power of this aspiration and through the ripening of the embryo of wisdom, he indeed flowered into a great Bodhisattva, as a supreme jewel of refuge. As he actualized his potential, in him is the compassion and wisdom of all the Buddhas, and in him reflects the attainment and power of all the Buddhas. We can rely upon this great Bodhisattva as a refuge for protection and guidance through his great compassion. Taking refuge upon Avalokitesvara is the same as taking refuge upon all the Buddhas.

Also as he teaches, we can give rise to the same aspiration that Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara did earlier, for ourselves to be a refuge for countless beings of countless world systems. Breaking beyond the habitually imposed barriers of duality and this substantialized view of the world, we can also extent the net of our great compassion to countless possibilities of perception, to countless world-systems.  Thus, we can lead innumerable beings of innumerable world-systems in turn to the state of Avalokitesvara – as each being transforms into a play of compassion!

Let us be able to take support upon Avalokitesvara to transcend torments of Samsara and to invoke our potential to the fullest, by just remembering the name and qualities of Avalokitesvara! Likewise, let us be able to turn ourselves into a wish-fulfilling jewel like Avalokitesvara, and provide refuge to beings of countless worlds! Let beings of countless worlds realize that same potential and attain the state of Avalokitesvara!

Bhavatu Sarva Mangalam!

View of Avalokitesvara’s sacred mountain Potalaka (Potiyil/ Potikai/ Agasthyakoodam) from Trivandrum
View of Mount Potalaka (Potikai/ Agasthyakoodam) from Trivandrum
View of Avalokitesvara’s sacred mountain Potalaka (Potiyil/ Potikai/ Agasthyakoodam) from Trivandrum

3 thoughts on “Avalokitesvara, the Magnificent Play of Compassion

  • December 1, 2020 at 3:38 pm

    I am new to wayofbodhi.org. I quickly glanced thru ur top menu. What struck me was a lack of information on Buddhism in Andhra desa. From whatever little information I have, within South India, Andhra desa was a hotbed of buddhism.
    My question will make it clear as to why I am focussed on Buddhism in Andhra desa. By now, most of us are aware thru varied sources, that Tirupati is a temple of dravida origin, shramana culture.

    Would like to know what ur views are on the same. Also, if buddhist, would like to know who is the specific boddhisattva enshrined. If jain, which tirthankar.

    I am elated at finding this site and at being able to expand my knowledge on the great religion of buddhism.

    • December 7, 2020 at 6:40 am

      Dear Dinesh, As you said, Andhra desa was a hotbed of Buddhism. It is quite well known and many people have done substantial research on the Buddhist heritage of Andhra. Although Buddhism had an equally strong presence in the other three South Indian states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala there is hardly any awareness on that till recently. That is the reason we decided to explore and bring to light the Buddhist heritage of these areas.
      About Tirupati we have heard about the possible Buddhist connection and the statue being that of a Bodhisattva. But since there is difficulty in directly seeing and inspecting the statue, we cannot say anything conclusively.

      • August 4, 2022 at 8:20 pm

        That’s the reason they have covered the Buddha statue so much that no one can identify that it is a Buddha Status.


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