Celebrating Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

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Happy Birthday to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion

By Tasha Friedman

Today is Guanyin’s birthday, or one of three birthdays on which the bodhisattva of compassion is honored in China and throughout the eastern Mahayana Buddhist world.

Guanyin, “the one who hears the sounds of the world,” is the Chinese name for Avalokiteshvara, “the one who looks down on the world with mercy.” For the last several weeks, many members of the global Hridaya sangha have been repeating Avalokiteshvara’s most beloved mantra, Om mani padme hum, every day as part of our 49-day tapas for world peace.

Guanyin is depicted as female and Avalokiteshvara as male, but both represent the same spirit, and both are often shown with one thousand arms and an eye on every hand.

Compassion can take many forms and knows no boundaries, like those thousand arms to see all and help wherever needed.

How do you decide who to show compassion towards? Most of us put conditions on our expression of compassion. You might easily feel compassionate towards your friends and family, towards children or animals, or towards people in difficult situations that you have been through.

Towards people who are violent or aggressive, or who you feel have wronged you, or who have something you wish you had, it’s not so easy.

Yet compassion itself is essentially free and radiates equally towards all—no one is more or less deserving of it. It’s only the mind that comes with judgments and qualifications, trying to fit the ocean of universal compassion into the little bucket of personal reactivity.

There is a beautiful practice in Buddhism where you send metta (loving-kindness or compassion) to three types of people: first someone you love, then someone about whom you feel neutral, and finally someone who causes a strong contraction.

In this practice, you begin to recognize that everyone needs compassion. Everyone is suffering in some way, and everyone needs support. Even the most harmful people are only acting out of a lack of awareness. They are not inherently wrong or bad, simply lacking understanding and a connection to their True Nature. This in itself is the essence of suffering.

Accepting this doesn’t mean you condone their actions. If there is an opportunity to stop them from causing more harm, out of compassion, you would take it, not only to protect those who would be hurt but to save the perpetrators from going deeper into violence.

You may also start to see how everyone you have ever met has an inner world that is just as deep, as rich, and as alive as yours. That person who you have no particular feeling about, the bank teller,  bus driver, or neighbor you see walking their dog and never say hello to—these beings at the periphery of your life are at the center of their own story, working through their karmic predicaments on their way to realization.

And you may see how the beings closest to you, for whom you wish only the best, are suffering even now, maybe in ways that you can do nothing to alleviate except to be present for that suffering, to acknowledge it without reacting, to hold it and let it unfold in the space of the Heart.

Or maybe there is something you can do, an impulse which only the aliveness of the present moment can reveal.

The world we live in desperately needs this willingness to see and reach out with support. On this birthday of the bodhisattva of compassion, the invitation is for you to become that bodhisattva, to be that ever-present Compassion itself.

Help is always needed. Don’t hold back because you think you aren’t up to the task or that it’s impossible. You can only ever offer what you have, but in that purity and authenticity, there is so much grace as well. Along with your two hands, the thousand hands of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, are at work.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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