Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Avalokiteshvara Main Page

Avalokiteshvara Masterworks

- Art History

- Iconography

- Religious Context

Common Names:
- Avalokita, Chenrezi, All-seeing One
- Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezi Wangchug, All-seeing Universal Lord of the World
- Lokeshvara, Jigten Wangchug, Universal Lord of the World
- Lokanata, Jigten Gonpo, Lord of the World
- Mahakarunika, Tugje Chenpo, Great Compassion

Tibetan: Pagpa Chenrezig ('phags pa spyan ras g.zigs)

Made famous in the Sutras as a bodhisattva, an aspirant to enlightenment, in the Vajrayana system of Northern Buddhism - in the Tantra texts - he is acknowledged as a fully enlightened Buddha manifesting in a vast array of meditational forms for the benefit of all living beings. The most common Sanskrit names for the deity in general and those found in Vajrayana Buddhism are Lokeshvara, Avalokita, Avalokiteshvara, Lokanata and Mahakarunika. After that there are scores of names for specific forms of Lokeshvara - peaceful, wrathful and in-between. The Sanskrit word 'arya' meaning 'noble' or 'noble one' is often used at the beginning of the name for each of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas as well as notables such as Tara.

The early promoters of the practices of Lokeshvara were Jowo Atisha, Bari Lotsawa, Mitra Yogin, Machig Labdron, Kyergangpa, Tsembupa, and for the Nyingma 'Revealed Treasure' there was Ngodrub, Nyangral Nyima Ozer, Guru Chowang and others. Atisha promoted the practice of Lokeshavara as important and as one of the Four Deities of the Kadampa. Later, it is said that Machig Labdron was likely the first to associate the early beginnings of the Tibetan people with the creation myth of Lokeshvara emanating as a monkey and mating with Tara as a demoness. A survey of the writings of the early Sakya and Kagyu teachers reveals very quickly that Avalokiteshvara was not in general an important or overly popular practice. Three forms of Lokeshvara stand out as being more commonly practised than others, they were the Amoghapasha, Chaturbhuja and Simhanada. Through Jowo Atisha and the Kashmiri nun Bhikshuni Shri we get all the various traditions of the Eleven Faced and Thousand Armed Lokeshvara believed to have riginated with Arya Nagarjuna.

Padmapani, as a name for Lokeshvara, is a Sanskrit term meaning 'lotus holder' primarily coming out of the Sutra literature and Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. The Tibetan language translation of the name Padmapani is not easily found in the Tibetan literature. The name is also not commonly, if ever, found in Vajrayana Buddhism where the forms of Lokeshvara are understood as meditational deities with clear descriptions and meanings taught in the various Tantras and commentarial material. (It is interesting to note that in the study of Art History the term Padmapani is almost exclusively used with reference to sculpture and not painting).

Avalokiteshvara is considered the patron bodhisattva of Tibet and is found in all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. There are numerous New (Sarma) lineages and varying forms of practice that span all four tantric classifications as well as uncounted old oral traditions (Kama) and Treasure (Terma) traditions from the Nyingmapa School. [Further description and bibliography].

There are two main divisions in the iconographic study of Avalokiteshvara:
- Non-iconic Forms (narrative based): as a student of the Buddha described in Mahayana literature.
- Iconic Forms (meditational deity): based on the Tantra (Vajrayana) literature.

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Jeff Watt 2-2007 [updated 9-2014, 3-2017]