“Chenrezig, hold me fast in your compassion. From time without beginning, living beings have wandered in cyclic existence, undergoing unendurable suffering. They have no other protector than you. Please bless them that they may achieve the omniscient state of Buddhahood.”
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition Bodhisattvas are those who dedicate themselves to helping all beings reach enlightenment. They choose to remain in the world, taking whatever form is needed, until all beings, from the smallest insects, have gained freedom from the cycle of involuntary birth, death and rebirth. Chenrezig, known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, is the Bodhisattva of compassion. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, sent Chenrezig to help liberate all beings from suffering. Chenrezig looked on all beings with compassion and saw that they were weighed down by disturbing emotions, such as desire, greed, jealousy, pride, aversion and the blindness of ignorance. When he saw their immeasurable suffering, he vowed before Amitabha that he would work for the benefit of all beings until every single one of them was liberated. Amitabha promised to help him accomplish this vow. Chenrezig worked for eons until one day he looked to see how many beings he had liberated. To his despair he saw that countless millions of beings were still suffering under their karma and the agony of this made his body split into many small pieces. Seeing this, Amitabha kept his promise and re-assembled the body of Chenrezig, giving him one thousand arms and one thousand eyes so that he could reach out to and watch over all beings.
Earthly embodiments of Chenrezig have appeared throughout history, including Tibet’s first king, Srongsten Gampo, and Padmasambhava, who propagated Buddhism in Tibet during the eighth century. Padmasambhava declared Chenrezig to be the patron Bodhisattva of Tibet and widely taught the mantra of Chenrezig: Om Mani Padme Hum, which is now an inextricable part of Tibetan culture. Chenrezig also appears as His Holinesses’ the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwa Karmapa, who will continue to reincarnate until all suffering on earth is overcome.
The syllables Om Mani Padme Hum can be interpreted as an invocation to Chenrezig. OM is the opening syllable of many mantras and signifies enlightened body, speech and mind. It is a syllable of invocation and is used here to attract Chenrezig’s attention. MANI means “jewel”, symbolized by the crystal prayer beads that Chenrezig holds. These signify skilful means, while PADME means “lotus” and signifies wisdom. HUM is the seed syllable of enlightened mind. Chenrezig combines perfected skilful means and wisdom. Thus the mantra can be interpreted as a request: “You who hold the jewel and the lotus, please look on me with compassion and bless me to become like you.”
OM MANI PADME HUM
Skilful means principally consist of love, compassion, the altruistic intention to become enlightened for all living beings and the practice of the first five perfections: giving, ethical discipline, patience, enthusiastic effort and concentration. In fact all practices apart from the cultivation of wisdom fall into this category. There are many kinds of wisdom, symbolized here by the lotus. Foremost is the understanding of the connection that exists between actions and their effects, called the correct worldly view, and the correct supra mundane view, the understanding of reality or the fundamental way in which things exist. The lotus, which emerges from the mud and is not tainted by it, also frequently signifies the wish to be free from cyclic existence and the Bodhisattva’s ability to remain untainted in cyclic existence while working for living beings. Practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism aspire to become Bodhisattvas who embody skilful means and wisdom at all times. The Bodhisattva vow, like the vow made by Chenrezig, is taken and held through as many lifetimes as are needed to become enlightened.
Chenrezig is most often depicted in the four-armed or thousand-armed forms. Both forms wear an antelope skin which symbolizes non-violence. The four armed form holds a wish-fulfilling jewel between the palms of the first two hands, a string of crystal prayer beads in the second right hand and a lotus in the second left hand. The thousand-armed form has eleven heads: the top head is the red face of Amitabha Buddha. Below this is a fierce black face with fangs, glaring eyes and flaming tresses. Below this are three heads; the central one is red, that to its left is white and that to its right is green. Below these are three more heads that are, in the same order, green, red and white respectively. Below these are three more: white, green and red respectively. These nine heads all have peaceful eyes. The first two hands touch at the heart with a hollow between them symbolizing the form and wisdom of bodies of enlightened beings. The second right hand holds crystal prayer beads, representing skilful means. The third right hand is in the gesture of supreme giving. From it flows nectar alleviating the hunger and thirst of hungry spirits. This gesture denotes the promise to bestow everything that is needed, including common as well as supreme powerful attainments. The fourth right hand holds a wheel, which denotes the uninterrupted turning of the wheel of teachings for living beings. The second left hand holds an unsullied lotus to show that Chenrezig is untainted by any trace of selfishness. It also represents wisdom. The third left hand holds a water pot to symbolize the washing away of all-disturbing attitudes and emotions. The fourth holds a bow and arrow to show that by teaching living beings he will lead them to the path that combines skilful means and wisdom. The other nine hundred and ninety-two arms and hands symbolize his ability to emanate universal monarchs. The eyes in the palms of the hands represent the ability to emanate the thousand Buddhas of the fortunate era.