Ishvara means lord, and Avalokita is translated as 'the one who looks down.' So Avalokiteshvara is the Lord of the Dharma who looks down with infinite compassion on any being in a state of suffering. His sphere of concern is universal.
It was particularly in the land of Snows, Tibet, that devotion to Avalokiteshvara reached its height. There he is known as Chenrezig, and is regarded as patron and guardian of the whole of the Tibetan people. Indeed thousands of Tibetans carried him in their hearts when they went into exile. In fact they did more than this, for the Dalai Lamas, the secular and spiritual heads of Tibet, are considered to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara. The tremendous devotion shown by Tibetans to the Dalai Lama is not simply on account of his human qualities and leadership. A Tibetan, upon meeting His Holiness, feels himself to be in the presence of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
There are three principal forms of Avalokiteshvara -
1) As Padampani or "Lotus in Hand.' This is a very ancient form, often depicted standing, holding a lotus in the right hand.
3). Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara (the present image)
The Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara is white in color. His first two hands are pressed together at his heart supplicating all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to look after sentient beings and protect them from suffering. These hands hold a wish-fulfilling jewel.
His other right hand holds a crystal rosary symbolizing his ability to liberate beings from samsara, and reminding the practitioner to recite his six-syllable mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM. In his left hand he holds the stem of an utpala flower symbolizing his stainless and selfless compassion. The utpala's three blossoms suggest that Avalokiteshvara embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.
Over his left shoulder is draped the skin of a wild deer, representing his ability to subdue the untamed delusions. A traditional commentary explains:
"This particular deer is said to live upon mountains in the margins between the snow and rock. It has incomparable physical strength, but is extremely compassionate by nature. One of the hunters' tactics is to enter its territory and pretend to fight among themselves with swords. Seeing this, the deer becomes impatient with compassion and emerges to mediate between them, which provides the hunters the opportunity to kill it. Merely touching its skin with one's feet calms the mind and endows it with bliss."
As was the custom with ancient Indian royalty, Avalokiteshvara is dressed in silken robes and adorned with various jeweled ornaments, such as bracelets, necklaces and the like, symbolizing his mastery of the perfections of generosity, morality and so forth. In the manner of a prince he wears his black hair long, some of it piled high on his head and the rest flowing down to his shoulders. This indicates that just as a prince is the son of and heir to a royal king, this Bodhisattva is the spiritual son and heir to the king-like Buddhas.
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