The Compassionate Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva is universally known
to all those living in Asia as a gentle and compassionate one. There
was once a survey in China that showed that even though people did
not know about Buddha Shakyamuni, they knew about Kuan Shi Yin and
Ah mi tuo (Amitabha). This shows how much people are inclined to
However despite of this, many don't know about His origin. Many
less educated Buddhists especially the elderly would cite a story
where Guan Shi Yin was once the third princess Miao Shan in ancient
China. In the story, she was a compassionate daughter
who even gorged out her eyes to cure the illness of her evil father.
In reward for her deed, Buddha gave her a thousand eyes and a thousand
arms so that she could continue to help others. Later, she was canonized
and worshiped by the common people. This story has many versions
but among the illiterate majority this was the source of inspiration
for the masses who could not read the scriptures.
However, in order for us to understand his origin and mission,
it is still the best to use the scriptures for reference as such
stories are not that reliable for a serious study of Buddhism. Despite
of my limited knowledge, I hope everyone would have a greater understanding
of Guan Yin and Buddhism.
Firstly, what is a Bodhisattva (Pu Sa). Bodhisattva is a sanskrit
word which can be split into two parts. Bodhi means wisdom and compassion,
sattva means a being. Together the term means "A being with great
compassion and wisdom". Specifically, such a being wishes to gain
enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. In fact for many,
Bodhisattvas give up their opportunities of Buddhahood so that they
can help others as a Bodhisattva where their characteristics of compassion
are more pronounced. . In Bodhisattvahood there are ten stages and
those of a high level are known as great Bodhisattvas. However it
is important to remember that Guan Shi Yin is in fact a Buddha as
he attained enlightenment infinite kalpas ago but in order to help
others He decided to manifest as a Bodhisattva. (This issue will
be elaborated later.)
Guan Yin's original name in sanskrit is Avalokitesvara (pronounced
as Ah va loh ki teh sva ra) which roughly means "The Observer of
the sights and sounds of the world" The chinese translations of her
name are either Guan Shi Yin???(Regarder of the worlds cries) or
Guan Zhi Zai??? (Observer
of the ultimate nature of things). Of the two, Guan shi yin is more
popular perhaps due to the fact that this world is full of sufferings
and people need a great savior to behold them. In Japanese, Korean
and Tibetan, his is known as Kannon, KuanUm and Chenrenzig respectively.
Regarding the origin of Guan Shi Yin, there are many sources to
refer from. The first is the Suramgarma sutra (Shou Leng Yan Jingº·«ÄY¸g).
In it, GuanYin narrated how he learnt from his teacher in his world-Buddha
Guan Yin(the disciple takes the name of the teacher in honour of
the teacher). He was then taught how to observe things internally
and externally as a way to cultivate towards Buddhahood.
The second is that in sutras it was recorded that Guan Yin is actually
The Tathagatha of the Brightness of True Dharma (¥¿ªk©ú¦p¨Ó).
The third is from the records of Master Dao Xuan (¹D«Å). Master
Dao Xuan of Tang Dynasty was a monk of high attainment, as a result,
many heavenly beings came to make offerings to him. Once he asked
about the origin of Guan Yin and a deva told him that infinite kalpas
ago, there was a king named Zhuanyan (²øÄY¤ý) and he had 3 daughters,
the youngest was called Miao Shan (§®µ½) who left home and later
became Guan Yin. From this it is highly possible that the Miao Shan
story developed from this incident.
In addition, in Bei hua sutra (´dµØ) it was recorded that there
was a father -son relationship between Guan Yin and Amitabha. Amitabha
was then a King in that world system and Avalokitesvara was one of
his sons. Guan Yin vowed before the before the buddha in his world
that if any being in misery called upon his name, he would try to
relieve his suffering. The buddha praised him and said that he would
be named as Avalokitesvara. It was also stated that Guan Yin will
one day succeed Amitabha's place.
After reading this, some might think,"So whch is the correct version?".
There are many ways of looking at this problem. However, whatever
way we try, we should understand that enlightened beings do not have
a true body, in fact they exist as energy (mind). Thus the many forms
and lifetimes they manifest are just a display of their quest to
liberate sentient beings of many shapes and inclination. In the Lotus
Sutra (ªkµØ), it is listed that Guan Yin appears in any form in accordance
to the needs of the beings who need his instruction. As such, arguments
whether Guan Yin is male, female, Chinese, Tibetan etc is as meaningless
as arguing whether water is square or round!
In addition, people who know little about Buddhism tend to translate
Guanyin Pusa as "The Goddess of Mercy", this is inaccurate. First
as said earlier, Guianyin is neither male or female. Secondly, Buddhist
do not make gods or goddesses the main object of their devotion.
Why? These so called gods/goddesses are only beings on the heaven
realm of the six states of existance of Samsara. People are born
there due to their large amount of merit in their past life but even
though they are happier than humans, they still have to die one day
and might even drop down as a animal or hell-being. In short, they
are not liberated from the cycle of life and death unlike the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas. Thus praying to them cannot deliver ourselves from
samsara! This accidental/intentional degrading of Guanshiyin might
be due to the early westerners in China who had their first contact
with the popular religion of the common people which was a mix of
Taoism, Buddhism, superstition. As these people were not knowledgeable
in orthodox Buddhism, they regarded GuanYin like any other Taoist
goddess, this probably resulted in the misnomer " Goddess of Mercy".
However, I urge everyone to refer to her as Guan Yin Bodhisattva
or Guan yin Pusa as to accord her the full title of her attainment.
The various representations of Guan Yin
In China, Japan, Korean and Southeast Asia, Guan yin is usually
represented as a gentle lady in white robes carrying a vase with
a willow twig. This image is extremely popular since the Song Dynasty.
In India however, images were made portraying him as a handsome prince
wearing a crown bearing the image of his teacher-Buddha Amitabha.
It is also worth mentioning here that in scriptures, Shakyamuni Buddha
addresses Guan Yin as "Virtuous man (µ½¨k¤l)" which implies that
he manifested as a male during Buddha's time. In Tibet, Guan Yin
is still thought of as male and is portrayed as a youth with 4 arms
bearing a string of white quartz prayer beads, a wish fulfilling
jewel and a white lotus in bloom. One common manifestation among
all Mahayanan schools is the thousand arms and thousand eyes Avalokitesvara.
There are also other representations showing him with 18, 42 etc
hands carrying various ritual implements. Another common convention
is to show Guan yin and bodhisattva Da Shi Zhi (¤j¶Õ¦ÜVajrapani)
on the left and right of Amitabha Buddha respectively. This triad
is usually called " The 3 holy ones of the West". In addition, there
are many other icons of Guan Yin but due to a lack of time only the
common ones are described here.
On a side note, in the chinese tradition, Guan Yin has two attendants
on her two sides. On her right is a girl carrying a flaming pearl
and on the left is a boy folding his palms together. The boy is known
as Shan Cai (µ½°]), the Celestial youth of the Treasure of Merit
( kumara Sudhana ). This boy was extremely wise and dedicated his
life in pursuit of Buddhahood. He visited 53 saints and finally met
Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (´¶½åµÐÂÄ) who advised him to practise
the tenfold path in order to be reborn in the western world of Amitabha-Sukhavati
and be enlightened there. Many have thought that he was the son of
the bull demon, so on and so forth. This is just the imagination
of the author of the novel Journey to the West. The girl is called
the Dragon girl, normally she is thought to be the 8 year old daughter
of a dragon king. This daughter became a buddha later, much to the
misbelief of Shakyamuni buddha's disciples who previously thought
that only men could be buddhas. Anyway, these two are thought to
be Guan yin's attendants.
The symbolism behind the different icons of Guan
As mentioned before, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not have any true
form or shape. However as sentient beings like us live in a material
world, there is a need to create a way to remember the qualities
of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. One of this ways is through the
making of images on paper, cloth, metal, stone etc. Contrary to popular
opinion, images have existed during Shakyamuni Buddha's time. It
arose from an incident whereby the king and many others missed the
Buddha's presence and therefore made an image of him out of sandalwood
while he was in the heavens preaching to his mother. Thus the presence
of an image is for people who live later to feel the Buddha's presence.
In another way, the image is a personification of abstract ideas
(like Compassion and Wisdom). The various hand signals (mudras) and
ritual implements in iconography have much meaning behind them and
some commonly associated with Guan Yin are listed below.
||Purity, Transformation of inner defilements to
the qualities of Buddhahood.
|Jewel or gem(mani)
||Ability to grant the wishes( good ones of course!)
of sentient beings.
|White quartz prayer beads
||Reminder to sentient beings to recite his mantra
Om Mani Paymay Hum for concentration and attainment of Enlightenment.
White quartz is also a stone sacred to him.
|Bow and arrow
||The defeat of the four negative forces
|Vase of nectar
||Wisdom quenching the thirst of Ignorance. Also
represents the relieving of sufferings since nectar is the food
of hungry ghosts.
||The only way to overcome hatred is through universal
||The healing of the sickness of the body and mind.
|Palm facing outwards with fingers pointing to the
||The gesture of charity towards all.
|Palm facing outwards and pointing upwards
||The bestowing of fearlessness on all.
|White robe or white body colour
||White represents absolute purity of the buddha's
body, speech and mind.
Many followers of other externalist religions have often criticised
that buddhists worship idols. This is a wrong and extreme view held
by some people, if they were to believe what they preach, then the
use of photographs should be banned! Images are not the Buddhas themselves
but a representation of their superior qualities. This is similar
to the use of symbols in languages to convey meanings. The symbols
have no meaning till the meanings are assigned to the symbols. This
also means that any misinterpretations on the meanings of the symbols
used are also meaningless as the true meanings are not interpreted
correctly. For example, the various weapons held are not to advocate
violence but to symbolise the defeat of evil and ignorance. Similarly,
the wrathful appearance of Buddhas etc do not portray demons but
display another aspect of courageous compassion.
Guan yin is often shown with a thousand hands and although this
is biologically impossible, it symbolises the uinversal compassion
for all beings (ie,a helping hand for every one). Of course if there
were more than 1000 people in help it would be ridiculous to think
that Guan Yin would have a lack of arms to help others. Many numbers
are used metaphorically in Buddhism, this is an important point we
must keep in mind. In Tibetan Buddhism, Guan Yin is also portrayed
as a male deity ( there is a female form of him known as Tara) with
4 arms. These four arms represent the 4 vows of the Bodhisattva way.
These 4 vows are as follows:
1) Living beings are infinite, I vow to save them all.
2) Sorrows and defilments are infinite and I vow to break them all.
3) The Dharma doors are infinite and I vow to learn them all.
4) Buddhahood is the Highest without compare and I vow to achieve it.
These are just some of the many symbolism used in Buddhist iconography
and the above serves as a brief introduction.
The proper attitude to have in praying to Guan Yin
Many people pray to Guan Yin but few really know the real reason
in praying to him. For the majority of the people, the following
reasons would be cited.
1) For the peace and safety of the family.
2) For prosperity in wealth etc.
3) For a peace of mind especially in difficulties.
Of the above, 1) is the most commonly cited. There is nothing wrong
with praying with such objectives. However in the true spirit of
Buddhism, we need to know the true meaning of prayer. The main objective
of prayer is to provide a moment of spiritual reflection on the doctrine
not just to seek divine help on problems etc. Some have the attitude
of praying only in need of help but during normal times praying tends
to be less devout. Some semi-buddhists, being in influence of Taoism,
even treat prayer as a commercial transaction. They might pray," Oh
Buddha, grant me this wish and I will donate $X to the temple etc,
buy large amounts of lamp oil, be a good person so on and so forth.
This is very wrong. The Buddha and Bodhisattvas are perfect and impartial,
unlike other divinities worshipped in other religions. They have
no need for our offerings and thinking that we can bribe them is
wishful thinking. The true purpose of offerings is to show our devotion
and train our generosity. We should fulfill our religious duties
and be a moral person at all times without any inclination to use
such duties as 'bribery'. However some people out of their genuine
respect and devotion often have an occasion to make large scale offerings
to the Buddhas and others. Such is of course encouraged. Therefore
the motivation is extremely important for it is the motivation that
means the difference.
The correct way to pray
For the sake of explaining the true spirit of prayer, a typical
Om Mani Pay may Hom Sri
(Om Mani Padme hum Hrih(in written form))
I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
Homage to Lord Avalokitesvara of Great compassion.
Namo Arya Avalokitesvara
I request the Compassionate One, please listen to me,
Please guide myself, mothers and fathers.
In all 6 realms to be freed swiftly from the great ocean of samsara
I request that the vast and profound awakening mind may grow.
With the tear of your great compassion, please purify all evil karma and delusions.
Please lead all sentient beings with your hand of compassion to the Land of
Please, Amitabha and Avalokitesvara.
May all of you be my virtuous friends in all my lives.
Show us well the path and quickly place us in Buddha's state.
( personal requests are then added humbly)
From this prayer, it is evident that prayer has a higher ideal
that what people think. The main priority is to pray that may all
(including ourselves) be free from all sufferings and one day attain
Buddhahood. Buddhism teaches that all beings with life have this
potential to be a Buddha, but like a jewel locked in a safe, this
potential is like an unsprouted seed. Thus is the difference between
the Buddhas and sentient beings like us is like a fruit and a seed.
Once we generate compassion, it develops this potential, in this
way everyone has a Guan Yin in himself\herself. Thus we pray to develop
compassion and wisdom not just for the fulfillment of mundane wishes.
The Universal mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum
This mantra which is pronounced as Om Mani Pay may Hom (also known
as the mantra of six syllables ) is the most common in the Himalayan
region where it is recited from the very young to the very elderly
in honour of Avalokitesvara. It is also engraved on prayer wheels,
walls and cliffs to remind people of the compassion of Avalokitesvara.
In fact it can be said that any child who can call "Mama" can recite
this mantra. Chinese Buddhists too recite it quite often but the
recitation of the name Namo Ah Mi Tuo Fo/ Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa
is more popular.
What is a mantra? Simply speaking it means "The protection of the
Mind". It refers to a sacred sanskrit phrase which is recited for
a particular purpose especially to develop compassion etc. This mantra
although short contains everything in the path to be Enlightened.
The six sounds shut the doors of rebirth in the 6 realms of existence
( humans, gods, asuras, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings) and
destroys their sufferings. This mantra is said by Guan Yin herself
and it contains infinite meanings and blessings. In fact to give
a summarized teaching on it would take 3 years. However people are
not expected to know all the meaning in order to recite it.
As an introduction, Om refers to the Body of the Buddhas, Hum refers
to the Mind of the Buddhas and the 5 wisdoms. Mani refers to a wish
granting jewel carried by Guan Yin and Paymay refers to a white lotus.
Together, this mantra can mean: Avalokitesvara who possesses the
Body and wisdom of the Buddhas, behold us! This mantra can also be
said to be Avalokitesvara manifesting as sound. Sometimes, the syllable
Hrih which is Avalokitesvara's seed syllable is added after the syllable
Hum. Normally mantras are not explained as the true meaning cannot
be fully explained. To understand this, think that water is shapeless
and can take any shape but once someone says water is circular, he
is only half right, neither completely right nor wrong as water has
Many have either intentionally or unintentionally made fun of this
mantra as Mani sounds like "money" in English. This act is a form
of blasphemy that earns bad karma. Furthermore whether a person believes
or not, he should respect the beliefs of other people. Buddhist too
have a duty to gently remind such people to refrain from such offensive
behavior. Most would not even allow their parent's names to be a
subject of jokes not mentioning the names of the Enlightened ones
who behold us without cease. The Buddhas are perfect and do not feel
angry at anyone, no matter how evil. Karma is not a punishment from
the Buddhas, it is a Universal law that acts on anyone. To understand
this, suppose someone slanders the President of a country. Even if
the President forgives him personally, he would still be punished
under the law as no one is above the law.
To further understand the relationship between the Buddha and us,
an analogy is needed. The Buddhas are like counsellors in prison
who talk to the inmates (ie sentient beings who suffer) so that they
could be released for good behavior (deliverance to the many Buddha
lands) and be of use to the society (attain enlightenment and then
deliver other sentient beings). The counsellors enter and exit the
prisons freely but they cannot say, "We pity you people a lot, therefore
today we shall release all of you on our own today." Thus the Buddhas
cannot directly deliver all beings (In fact, no one can do so), everyone
is responsible for him/herself. The law of Karma is like reaping
what you have sown. The Buddhas have practised infinite ages ago
when they were too sentient beings like you and me but have since
reaped the fruits of Buddhahood. This is the positive aspect of the
law of Karma and only Buddhism alone preaches the possibility of
all life forms to attain the same state as the Divinities involved.
In stopping the sufferings of all beings, it is meant that if all
were to heed the teachings of the Buddhas, places such as the hells
etc would no longer exist as such sufferings are caused by no one
else but ourselves. It is like there is no need for prisons, laws
and policemen if the world was perfect.
Why prayers sometimes
Sometimes, people new on the Buddhist path feel disheartened to
find out that their prayers have not been answered. This is unfortunate
as such people have yet to understand the true spirit of prayer.
For prayers to be answered, we to need to play an active role to
achieve the objective that is being prayed for. Suppose a person
prays for a long life but still kills living beings, such prayers
would of course never come true. We need to plant the seed for happiness
in order to let the seed grow. If the seed was not there, any amount
of sunlight or fertilizers (ie The blessings of the Buddhas ) would
not produce the desired fruit. Praying is not an occasion for bribery
or laziness. We need to start helping ourselves before the Buddhas
can assist us in any way.
In addition, some people experience unfortunate things despite being
devout. Some might then ask, " What did I do wrong?, I have been
kind and devout all my life!, Why did such a thing happen? " Well,
we, as sentient beings are in the great sea of misery where there
is not true happiness. Even though one has been kind all his life,
there are many factors as to why we suffer. For example, wars and
natural disasters are sometimes due to the collective karma of the
people as a whole. Others are due to other people or circumstances
that no one can control. To illustrate this, there was the occasion
when Shakyamuni Buddha knew that his clan was to be massacred by
a king. Three times he talked this king out of his cruel intention
to war along the route to Buddha's hometown. However he always rekindled
his wish and on the fourth time Buddha knew that his people were
doomed. His disciple Maudgalyayana who had great spiritual powers
did not heed Buddha's advice and still used his powers and hid his
people in to his alms bowl. However he was shocked to find that all
in his bowl still died. It was only then that he realized that there
were just some ripening of bad karma that could not be avoided. We
would never know when we would die (not mentioning those highly cultivated
people who know), thus when time is short and we must do what is
the most worthwhile for us and others. Avoiding death is not solving
the problem, it is in knowing about death which is a fact of life
before we can know the true meaning of life.
However no matter what happens, we can rest in true faith that
the Buddhas would do all they could to help all sentient beings.
This is to be remembered in our hearts.
Praying in sickness
In sickness, trying to rely solely on mantras and prayers is not
advised. Although high monks can pray, meditate to heal themselves,
most people like us should seek medical help primarily first. This
not an occasion to prove our faith, even the great masters of the
past still learnt medicine to maintain the health of themselves and
others. Some people deliberately refuse any medical help in the belief
that their disease is the ripening of their karma and therefore the
more they suffer, the faster the karma will go. This mentality is
not unlike the Hindus who practise self-mortification (ie, torture
themselves) in order to be born in the heavens as a reward. We
need to take care of ourselves in order to pracise the Dharma and
to be of service to others. Faith healing should be used to complement
medicine and not to replace it.
In times of terminal diseases, prayer should be used to strengthen
the mind in preparation for death. If we practised the Dharma well
beforehand, we would then be less likely to be confused when the
stages of death starts to come. We should not hope for an unrealistic
desire to get cured miraculously as death is certain to everyone.
Thus a typical prayer for the terminally ill would run something
Homage to Amitabha Buddha and Avalokitesvara.
Behold us beings who suffer in Samsara
I (so and so), has contracted this disease perhaps out of my past misdeeds.
If I am of future benefit to others around me, bless me so that I may recover
If my time is up, may this short duration of suffering quickly pass. At that
time, Lord Amitabha, please remember your past vows and manifesting your Golden
body, please bring me to your Joyful land of Sukhavati.
May I be born from a lotus in Sukhavati and learn from your and the Bodhisattvas
so that I can then be like you in order to benefit those yet to be delivered.
Namo Amitabha Buddhaya !
The different schooltheravadas of Buddhism
There are 2 schools of Buddhism, namely the Mahayana (Vajrayana
is within this branch) and the Hinayana (better known as the Theravada).
Maha means Great and yana means Vehicle, thus Mahayana means The
Great Vehicle and Hinayana means The Small Vehicle (Theravada means
The Way of the Elders).
The Theravada school emphasizes the need of renouncing this suffering
of the world and practicing for one's own salvation. However, though
compassion is emphasized, it is not necessary for the attainment
of Arahatship which is a form of lower enlightenment where the Arahat(Ah
Luo HanªüÃ¹º~) does not take rebirth in this world anymore. This
school relies on Pali scriptures and spread mainly to Sri Lanka,
Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos etc.
The Mahayana maintains that all beings can attain the same state
of enlghtenment of the Buddha. The Mahayanan ideal is that of infinite
compassion which is the Bodhisattva idea as mentioned earlier. All
disciples of the Mahayana need to have great compassion and even
though we may not have this ability now, we need to make it a ideal
that we need to achieve. We strive for Buddhahood so that we can
help other beings. There are infinite Bodhisattvas and Buddhas
ready to help all beings in trouble the most famous being Kuan Shi
Yin. This school relies on Sanskrit scriptures and spread to China,
Tibet, Nepal, Japan, Korea, Vietnam etc.
Having faith in the Mahayana
Buddhist historians often accuse that Buddha never said the Mahayana
scriptures, it was "made up" by people who wanted to compete with
Hinduism. Vajrayana was made to be in a worse light, they claim that
as the battle with Hindus started losing, elements from Hinduism
like magic, mantras etc were "added" to call it Vajrayana to make
it more attractive during 700AD onwards. This helped, as their theory
goes, but by the 11the century the battle with Hindus was lost and
Buddhism vanished from India altogether.
This theory is obviously flawed, think, why keep bothering with
the Buddha time after time if he was such a killjoy? Why then they
not rather convert to Hinduism altogether?
In addition, if the Mahayana was not told by the Buddha then why
numerous ancient Buddhist masters converted to Mahayana? As such
people were nearer to the past, would not they know better what is
authentic and what is false? Furthermore, Vajrayana existed since
Buddha's time and the earliest Chinese text on Mantras was done from
the early 2nd century onwards. How can they then assume that the
various schools were founded at periods corresponding to the periods
when they became popular among the masses! Archeological evidence
is often misleading as the scriptures were passed down orally by
great masters. How can they then assume and reconstruct to such a
The reason why different schools came about is because Buddha taught
different people differently according to individual
needs of the disciples. Buddhism is unlike other religions where
one doctrine is forced on all. The Mahayana and Vajrayana were only
taught to people who can understand what Buddha was trying to say
without misinterpretation. To understand this, recall when young
we were taught that we can only subtract 3 from 5 and not 5 from
3. In the later stage we know that we can get negative numbers. Certain
mathematical laws are broken as we proceed to higher education. We
should understand that this is why sutras sometimes contradict each
other. Therefore to insist that Buddhist should not recite mantras,
not believe in the Mahayana etc, due to reasons based on Theravada
scriptures is like insisting that the mathematics taught in Universities
are wrong based on the mathematics taught in the Primary level!
However as the Mahayana is based on the Theravada as a foundation,
we should not despise the Theravada teachings as unimportant as
like a mathematician does not despise ordinary addition and subtraction
as useless theories. This is a very important point that we must
Most people, have a special affinity for Guan Shi Yin
which make them thus suitable for learning the Mahayana. We should
then take heed of the great doctrine of Mahayana and learn it well
to benefit others.
The Pure land of Amitabha
The Mahayana emphasizes the need to be enlightened in order to
help others. This aspiration is indeed noble but in this present
age being enlightened in this lifetime on earth is virtually impossible.
We are born in this impure world full of evil and sorrow, depending
on only our own to deliver ourselves is very difficult. Buddha Shakyamuni
taught different doctrine to different people but among the many,
the Pureland doctrine is the best suited for today 's people. Basically,
Buddha Amitabha made 48 vows to save all beings to his pure land
of Sukhavati (Ji Le Jing Tu·¥¼Ö²b¤g) where all forms of suffering
are not known. He vowed that all those who hear his name, recite
his name, wish sincerely to go to his land will be received at his
death by Amitabha and his Bodhisattvas to his land of purity. One
might ask the relevance of this to the practice of Guanyin. Well,
Amitabha is Guanyin's teacher and he himself was born there in one
of his lives and attained the same state as his teacher. Together
with Vajrapani (Da Shi Zhi ¤j¶Õ¦Ü), the Bodhisattva of wisdom and
strength, both Bodhisattvas manifest throughtout the universe to
teach others and deliver others to Sukhavati.
Sukhavati is entirely different from the normal concept of Heaven
where the inhabitants just enjoy there and serve their tyrannical
Lord. In Buddhism, these heavenly beings have still not escaped the
wheel of reincarnation, they will still fall when their long life
span comes to an end. The beings in Sukhavati have infinite life
like that of Amtabha where they learn directly from him and other
great Bodhisattvas. In time, they will too attain the state of Buddhahood
and go forth to deliver those yet to be delivered.
Sukhavati is unlike our world where there are many opportunities
to slide back from our practice, there is no possibility of back
sliding once we are born there in Sukhavati. The beings there do
not have material bodies but exist as a formless state where sufferings
of sickness and death do not happen.
Thus, the best we can do to get enlightened is to seek rebirth in
Sukhavati by virtue of Amitabha's vows and name. To be born there,
three conditions are needed, namely Faith, Vow and Practice «HÄ@¦æ.
Faith means to believe in the words of Shakyamuni and the ancient
great masters that Amitabha made 48 vows and created Sukhavati with
his power in order to save others. There are many first hand accounts
of devotees who died knowing their own date of death beforehand and
saw the Buddhas coming to fetch them. Further reading on such accounts
could be made at buddhist libraries.
Vow is to sincerely want to go to Sukhavati without
any attachment to our Saha world. In addition, the vow to wish to
seek Buddhahood for the sake of delivering others, not just for one's
enjoyment is to be re-emphasized here.
Practice is to recite the name of Amitabha or any other mantras
of the Great Bodhisattvas and dedicate all merits for one's rebirth
to Sukhavati. All three conditions are necessary, not even one can
Having said so much, the recitation of any mantras or names of any
Buddha MUST be dedicated for one's rebirth to Sukhavati and the benefit
of all sentient beings. Without dedication, any anger would impede
the ripening of such virtuous merit. As mentioned earlier, personal
and worldly request come after the dedication (ie, take second preceedance.
) As the inclinations of people are all different, it would be unreasonable
to insist that only this certain recitation enables rebirth. I mean,
some like to recite Namo Amitabha buddhaya while others prefer Namu
Kanno Bosatsu or her other mantras, thus we must remember that Amitabha
is not that concerned with such minor differences which are the same
ultimately, it is like no matter one uses chopsticks or a spoon to
eat, as long one relieves one's hunger, the objective is achieved.
In addition, many might ask," Is not the frequent contemplation of
death pessimistic?" To this, we must know that death comes to all
and avoiding it is cowardly. To solve the problem, we need to face
it, not avoid it. In fact, it is the through the understanding of
death that we know the best way to make use of our rather short time
on earth. We would then engage in actions that benefits others rather
than wasting our lives on useless and trival things.
Setting up an altar
An altar is the focal point of prayer and worship in our homes etc.
Maintaining and praying at a altar regularly is a good way of keeping
in mind the teachings of the buddhas.
It is not that difficult to maintain one contrary to what most people
think. Firstly, set up a place with a simple altar (ot those gaudy
Taoist tables ) facing away from the toilets, kitchen and bedrooms
(s a form of respect ).
Secondly, obtain an icon of any buddha or Bodhisattva one wishes
to honour, the most common being Guanyin or Amitabha with the two
Bodhisattvas. The style ( chinese, japanese or tibetan) and material
is not important. What is crucial is that one must feel completely
at ease with the icon. In addition, whether the icon is just a poster,
porcelain, brass, the artwork needs to be reasonably fine with proportional
facial features. The choice of materials depends on the financial
status of each individual but plastic statues made of resin are normally
not used. The display of only the head of Buddhas is also considered
to be inappropriate (in the past, looters often sawed off the heads
of icon that were too big to haul away) as only a complete icon can
Thirdly, sent the icon for consecration by an orthodox Buddhist
monk prior to installing the icon for veneration on a particular
With regards to the altar keep it clean, bright and sacred. Offerings
need not be over elaborate, a simple oil lamp, incense burner and
a daily offering of a glass of water would suffice. For safety reasons,
taper candles should not be burned unattended, if necessary use votive
candles in glasses. The oil lamp if lit perpetually, needs to have
a proper glass lamp shield to protect from air currents and flying
insects. The flame should be kept small (about 1cm in height) and
trimmed daily to prevent dirt from accumulating in the oil. If one
feels that for safety reasons, the lamp needs to be extinguished
( using tweezers, not the mouth to blow the flame off.) before sleeping,
then by all means do so. Electric lamps could also be used (not those
with red bulbs ) as offerings.
Coil incense is preferably used as the traditional standing incense
spreads ash all over the altar. If one feels that one is allergic
to the smoke, them incense burning can be omitted. The crucial thing
is to have a pleasant place to honour the Buddhas.
In addition, never offer things that contain meat, lard, eggs, wine,
onion, garlic, chives, leek and spring onion. These are forbidden
as offerings in general. As Buddhism is against the taking of any
life, offering of meat the sake of fulfilling a selfish wish is considered
offensive. The vegetables listed are prohibited due to their pungent
nature which stimulates and excites a person ( thus people who meditate
do not consume these vegetables). The true spirit of offerings would
be elaborated in the next section.
The meaning of offerings
The act of offering is practiced among all major religions but in
Buddhism, offering has a different symbolism that few really understand.
For easy reference, some common offerings and their meanings are
shown in the table below.
|Lights (sny type)
||The light of wisdom cutting through the darkness
||The fragrance of pure morality
||The calmness of the mind.
||The impermanance of life
||The Ultimate fruit of Buddhahood
||The gratitude for our food which comes from the
hard labour of other beings.
There is a need to understand the true meaning of offering such
objects as there is no point in doing things that are not understood
completely. For example, as mentioned earlier, Buddhas do not need
our offerings as many people think. The purpose of offerings is
to cultivate a habit of generosity to others. Water as an offering
is practised even by the very poor as an offering to the Buddhas. Water
is widely available and yet without water, life is impossible!
There is no stipulated offerings that must be done. Rather, it depends
on the financial status of each individual. The form is also not
important, whether it is chinese or tibetan incense, carnations or
jasmine, glass or plastic plates etc, it means the same as long the
motivation is pure. The different ways of offerings are due to differences
in cultural and geographical reasons. For eg, Tibetans use butter
for lamps as they don't grow vegetable oil in their area and flower
motifs are used to represent flowers in Tibet for the same reason.
To insist that only butter can be burned in lamps is then an extreme.
The Buddhas are not interested over such trival things!
In addition, it is to be remembered that the main objective as a
Buddhist is to benefit others. Thus there must be a balance between
helping others (charities etc. ) and religious offerings using the
same amount of money. Offering 10 dollars to a starving person
is much better than offering thousands of dollars to the Buddhas.
Why? It is the welfare of sentient beings that the Buddhas are concerned
about. They have no need for such things. If a person does not
help others at all and yet make enormous offerings then he is losing
the point altogether. Unfortunately history shows that there are
cases all over the world where religious leaders were more concerned
with hoarding wealth rather than doing what is supposed of them.
Such mistakes must never be repeated again by the all people in
the Buddhist world!
Prayer beads are used in Buddhism as an aid to concentrate one's
mind during prayer. It is called Nian zhu (©À¯]), Fo zhu (¦ò¯]) in
chinese, Ju Zu (¼Æ¯]) in japanese, Treng nga in tibetan, Mala in
Sanskrit. Some also call it as Buddhist counting beads or the Buddhist
rosary. The normal number of beads used consists of 18, 21, 27, 36,42,
54 and 108 beads. High monks are known to use long ones with 216
or 324 beads. However, most people use the 108 type for their daily
prayer. Wrist rosaries strung using elastic strings normally have
18, 21, 27 beads depending on the size of the beads. Material of
the beads range from plastic, Bodhi seeds to semi precious stones.
Using prayer beads is a good way to concentrate and keep count of
the number of prayers repeated. Every string of prayer beads has
a large head bead known as the Guru bead which has 3 holes and ends
with a decorative tassel or chinese knot. Beginners usually start
with small strings of 27 beads made of sandalwood or Bodhi seeds
as these are cheaper and easier to use due to their short length.
Plastic and artificial cats eye beads are not normally used by serious
students of Buddhism due to their synthetic nature. Another function
of beads is to amplify the power of the invocations said on the beads.
Semiprecious stones are used not to flaunt the owner's wealth but
to increase the merit of the prayers said on the beads. Different
materials have different purposes but for beginners, Bodhi seeds
and sandalwood can be used for all types of prayers. ( As a sidenote,
clear quartz is a stone sacred to Guanshiyin and could be used if
one recites Om Mani Padmay Hum frequently.)
The number of beads have a special significance, for example, 108
represents the 108 type of mental defilments that are to be destroyed
with the repetitions of mantras and names of the Buddhas. There are
of course many other meanings attached to the other numbers but basically
multiples of 7 are sacred to Buddhism. Other numbers such as 22,
33, 66 and 99 are used in other religions and should be avoided.
The use of beads is useful for keeping track of the number of prayers
said. To use it, start by placing the first bead next to the head
bead between your middle joint of the middle finger and the thumb.
For every prayer said, move the beads inwards till you reach the
head (ie: 1 cycle). Normally, if the head bead contains a tiny picture
of any Buddha, the fingers should not rub over the head bead, instead
one should turn the rosary around and start again. However, if the
head bead is just a solid bead without any pictures inserted into
it, the fingers can just rub over it and start a new cycle. This
is just one of the many ways of using the beads though different
traditions can have other ways of saying their beads.
To keep track of the number of "rounds" of beads said, there is
a device known as Counters (©À¯]) tied on the prayer beads. It has
two strings of beads, 10 on each string terminating in two different
ritual objects know as the Vajra and the Bell. To use it, tie each
strand to the 27th bead on each side of the Head bead. Determine,
which ritual object one wishes to take as the "Ones" and which instrument
to be the " Tens". For every round of prayers said, pull up 1 bead
on the " Ones", once 10 rounds are reached, push all beads back to
the ritual object and raise 1 bead on the other string of counter
beads. In this way, this pair of counters can record up to 100 rounds
or 10800 recitations if using a 108 rosary. So how much should one
recite a day? It depends but most are to say 3 rounds on the 108
beads per day. But no matter the amount, the practice should be consistent
throughout one's life.
The string of beads should be treated with respect and should not
be stepped over, played with or sat on. Beads are to help us to meditate
on the Buddhas but some wear beads on their wrists because of a belief
in their talismanic powers to protect them. This should not be the
attitude, though there are cases where beads which were frequently
recited on helped their owners in miraculous ways, the wearing of
beads should be to remind us of the Buddhas and to engage in recitation
wherever convenient. Beads which are not recited on have minimal
powers at all, wearing one just for the sake of wearing defeats the
real purpose. However, there are some who wear one on their wrist
to remind themselves of the constant need to be aware of our thoughts
and actions, this of course is alright. Some also feel that if the
string breaks while one is praying it is a sign of coming disaster.
This attitude is very wrong, nothing on earth is permanent! Even
images of the Buddhas decay due to time. Rather than feeling worried
we should take this opportunity to contemplate the meaning of Impermanance.
The beads could be stringed back and used again thinking, before
I die, I must be diligent in my practice.
On a side note, the beads worn by Qing Dynasty officials on their
necks actually came from prayer beads used by Tibetans!
Becoming a real Buddhist
Like other religions, one is only a true Buddhist only if one takes
the Three Refuges¤T¬Ô¨Ì. The Three Refuge are:
2)The Dharma (The Teachings of Buddha)
3)The Sangha (The Community of Monks and Nuns)
One expresses one's desire to take the Buddha's teaching as one's
guidance recites the following verse in an official ceremony organized
by orthodox Buddhist temples of any tradition. During this ceremony,
one is required to recite sincerely the following verse:
Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya.
After this simple ceremony, one is officially a full fledged Buddhist
disciple. It is best to undergo this ceremony under the witness of
monks or nuns but if it is not possible one can recite the Three
Refuges sincerely in front of any altar of any Buddhas or Bodhisattvas.
It is the joyous acceptance of the Three Jewels ¤TÄ_ ( another name
for the Three Refuges) that is important, the ritual is not important.
In addition, the particular monk or nun presiding over the ceremony
is only a witness to our profess of faith. We take refuge in the
whole Sangha not to a particular monk or nun. Thus we should avoid
saying " I took refuge in Venerable So and So". Also, it is to be
noted that only children who know what is Refuge Taking all about
can be given Refuge as it is important for the takers to know what
they are doing. Babies cannot be given the Refuge but it seems that
some equate the process to be like Baptism where one's sins are " washed" away
after the ceremony. If the true meaning of the Refuge ceremony is
not known, taking it blindly as a salvation process defeats the whole
purpose of taking the Refuge. After the refuge, one is now a Buddhist
and should not pray to other gods ( Taoist, etc) as a upkeep of the
refuge and a thorough understanding of who can offer the best teaching
that enable us to attain enlightenment. Syncretism has no place in
orthodox Buddhism! Please remember that one cannot step on two boats
at the same time.
Miracles of Bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara While miracles are not our objective of practicing
the Dharma, miracles are not unusual in the history of Buddhism.
There are many books from ancient times to today where miraculous
accounts are collected and read by others to inspire faith. Two accounts
are reproduced here to give an ideal of the compassion of Guanshiyin.
In the late Qing Dynasty of China (1644-1911) there was a revolution
led by a Chinese Christian who wanted to create a Kingdom known as
the Tai Ping Tian Guo¤Ó¥¤Ñ°ê. However this group went around killing,
plundering and burning the people and their property. At that time
in southern China, there was a devotee of Guan Yin called ChenWang
, he would offer incense and light to a icon of her every morning
and evening without fail. However, one night he dreamt that Guan
Yin appeared and told him" You will be killed by one of the TaiPing
rebels." Shocked, he woke up and prayed sincerely to her the next
day. The next night, he dreamt that Guan Yin appeared again and told
him" Well it seems that you have killed your to be killer in another
life and now he is wanting to kill you for what you did to him during
that time. However I will try my best to help you. His name is WangZhan,
from HeNan province who was a orphan since young and joined the Rebels
out of poverty. He will come tomorrow and you should set out a banquet
for him, remember, friendship can change even the most evil criminal." Then
she disappeared. The next day, he calmly sent his family members
away to another place of safety while he alone stayed at home and
prepared a nice dinner. Soon, battle cries were heard and the rebels
soon came carrying weapons. One rebel broke down Chen's door and
Chen asked" Are you Wang Zhan from HeNan who was an orphan since
young? I have been waiting for your arrival for a meal together!" This
rebel was shocked that Chen knew his name and replied "Yes, I am." " If
yes then come in for a meal" replied Chen. Although Wang was bewildered
he following Chen in for a meal. At the table Chen discussed about
the appearance of Guan Yin in his dreams, her instructions etc. Towards
the end of the meal, Chen rose up and knelt before him" I owe you
a life for I killed you in another life of yours, Please kill me
now so that the debt will be settled once and for all!" Wang urged
him to rise and said" My parents died when I was young and I joined
the rebels out of desperation. No one else except you have been so
kind to me! I am tired of this life of killing and plundering and
have longed to it up. You are my friend now, why should I kill you!" Chen
was deeply touched and said " I have some money here, why not you
take these and do a small business." Wang gratefully accepted and
both of them then became friends for life.
In 1922, there was a large earthquake in Asakusa Tokyo. Many building
collasped and the whole place was set ablaze after cooking stoves
were overturned. Many people were trapped by the great conflagration.
Some tried hiding in the ponds in the parks but the fire which was
fanned by the winds scorched them to death. Out of desperation, thousands
began crowding at the Asakusa Kannon temple ²L¯óÆ[µ°ó which was
built in the early 7th century by fishermen who found a Kannon(Guanyin)
statue in their nets and built this wooden temple to house this image.
The people had no other choice but to pray from their bottom of
hearts to Kannon. Many were chanting "Namu Kannon Bosatsu save us!"Miraculously,
everytime the towering flames tried to burn towards the temple, another
gust of wind would blow the flames back to where the flames came
from. Many people also witnessed the physical manifestation of Kannon
in the typical Japanese form, riding on the head of a dragon. Many
thousands were saved during that catastrophic day. Today, this temple
is famous as a tourist spot and the Kannon statue is considered so
sacred that it is only revealed to the public once in many years.
After reading these two accounts, some might ask, can these accounts
be attributed to Guanyin Pusa? Can they be due to other possible
reasons? To this I would say, many miracles are almost impossible
to prove using science as we know it at this period. But from the
many accounts, attributing the miracles to mere coincidence or hallucinations
is unreasonable. For example, the Japanese Kannon Temple is only
a wooden structure and certainly would not have survived the fire
which consumed even the concrete buildings! Divine intervention is
then beyond doubt. In addition, people would be tempted to infer
Guanyin as a female from the manifestations. This should not be the
case. Imagine, if Guanyin did not appear as a typical chinese form
but appear as the Four armed Chenrensig to Chen Wang, do you think
that Chen Wang would believe what she wanted to say? The Bodhisattvas
have to appear in forms that the particular person or group is/are
most familiar with in order to make identification easy for the believers
who are not familiar with her other forms. There are also many recent
accounts during the 99 Taiwan earthquake, however most individuals
normally don't reveal such interventions out of humility and other
reasons pertaining to personal privacy. But I would like to stress
again that the motivation of learning Buddhism is not for such miracles
to happen. Miracles are given to those in desperate need and have
the causes for the Buddhas to help them. Miracles are just a way
of helping beings who have no means of helping themselves and to
convey the message that the Dharma has much to hold for them.
The Memorial days of Guanyin
By tradition, Guan Yin has 3 dates dedicated to her. These are
19 of 2nd month-------------- Her birthday
19 of 6th month--------------- Her Enlightenment day
19 of 9th month--------------- Her Ordination day
All months are in the Chinese lunar month. On these dates, devotees
flock to any temple dedicated to her and make offerings as a respect
to her. Many chinese temples also have prayer sessions and vegetarian
lunches prepared for the many people.
Well some might ask, as Shakyamuni is the only Buddha to be born
on earth then how did these dates come about? Many of these dates
are by tradition and are usually dates where there was a major miracle
by the particular Buddha or dates of birth, passing away of high
monks who have demostrated(indirectly) that they were the emanations
of the particular Bodhisattva. For example, there was this monk who
emanated a buddha and rays of light from his mouth every time he
recited Namo Amitabha Buddhaya, when he passed away in a miraculous
way, people took his birthday 17 of the 11 month as the birthday
of Amitabha. Such dates are for the masses to have a day of refresh
their faith even though the Buddhas have infinite birthdays throughout
their quest for Buddhahood. Well this is fine for people, we should
not have this misconception to do good, be vegetarian, help the charities
etc ONLY when her memorial days are near. This should not be the
case, we should be praying to her and practice constantly whether
it is her birthday or not. These days are for us to refresh and to
affirm our faith in Guanyin.
Holy Places Dedicated to Guan Yin
Holy places dedicated to Guanyin are countless but the most famous
of these is the PuTuo µÐªû¤s mountain in Zhejiang province China.
It is a small island with numerous temples built over the long period
of chinese history. This mountain became sacred after many miracles
and manifestations of Guanyin were experienced by people in trouble
at sea. The name Putuo comes from Putuoluojia µÐ ªû¬¥ ¦÷ (Potalaka)
which is a pureland of Guanyin on earth (although in another dimension
which we cannot see). Although scriptures state that this island
Potalaka (A Little White Flower ) is somewhere to the south of India,
naming this chinese island as Potalaka is not unreasonable due to
the frequent sights of Guanyin. It is still a popular pilgrimage
site but tourism and commercial activities are destroying the charm
and sacredness of this island. Some high Tibetan monks have also
said that the place is also the holy place of the White Tara which
is in fact no different from Guanyin. The place is packed with people
during the 3 dates mentioned earlier especially on her birthday.
I suppose the information given so far is helpful to my readers
with regard to GuanShiYin the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.
As my Buddhism knowledge is far from adequate, please inform me of
any suggestions or comments for improvement on this webpage.
May my readers join me in dedicating the merit from this work.
Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya
Namo Amitabha Buddhaya
Homage to all great Mahayana teachers May I/we dedicate this merit
for the eradication of all forms of suffering of all sentient beings
and may all come under the protection of the Great Avalokitesvara.
May I/we seek rebirth in Sukhavati so that we can learn under Amitabha
and Avalokitesvara and be Enlightened so that I/we can come back
and deliver others.
May all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the 10 direction give their
blessing that this would be achieved without delay! Om Mani Padmay