Avalokiteshvara is one of several Buddhas worshipped in Asian Buddhism.
Statue of Avalokiteshvara at the Bach Ma National Park in Hue | photo: Frank Fox (cc-by-sa)
On my travels in Asia, I encounter a broad variety of images and statues of holy entities. Similar to Europe, where you have the old gods of Greece, Rome, the Germanic peoples and the Celts, later on influenced by Middle Eastern religions like Islam or Christianity. We even have rare images of Mithras, Isis and other interesting people.
Statue of Avalokiteshvara at Linh Phuoc Pagoda in Da Lat | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox
In Asia however, I need some research to identify religious icons. Meanwhile I understand some cultural aspects, but I always stumble upon new things. This icon here I encountered at a shrine in the marble mountains of Da Nang, Vietnam. It depicts the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Avalokiteshvara | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox
Bodhisattva are former humans, who reached enlightenment. But instead of entering the last phase and leaving earth, they decide to remain here and help others to reach enlightenment as well. Now this explanation is not 100% correct, but kinda sufficient for our current purpose here.
In Tantric Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara has 11 faces and thousand arms, which let it rain flowers or have other specialised purposes.
Colourful Mosaic At Linh Phuoc Pagoda in Da Lat | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox
The legend of Avalokiteshvara
The legend tells us of the prince, who vowed to help all living beings to free themselves from the circle of constant rebirth, otherwise he would shatter to pieces.
Flower Covered Avalokiteshvara Statue | photo: (cc-by-sa) Frank Fox
He tirelessly walked the planes and aided humans, animals and demons alike - all suffering beings - on their path to enlightenment. One day he looked over his shoulder behind him and he saw, that every being he saved, got replaced by countless other, suffering entities.
For a short while, he doubted his ability to fulfil his vows. Thus he shattered in a thousand pieces.
From all directions, Buddhas came running, to help the helper and put his pieces back together. Amitabha, the Buddha of discerning wisdom, gave Avalokiteshvara 11 faces and a thousand arms, so he could better fulfil his vows to help the world.
The 1000 arms symbolise the mercy and helpfulness of 1000 Buddhas, who will appear during the fortunate kalpa (an age in Buddhist mythology). In Tibetan culture, the Nyungne-Ritual, the ritual of the 11-headed Bodhisattva is of great importance.
This ritual has been spread by the nun Palmo during the 10th century. It is said, that it has strong healing powers.