Universal love and compassion are the very foundation of every bodhisattva’s spirituality yet nowhere are they more evident than in Chenrezig. In many ways, he is the archetypal expression of compassion, which is the sine qua non [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] for attaining enlightenment. He occurs throughout Mahayana Buddhism, either as a specific being or, more commonly, as an archetypal bodhisattva who is the quintessential expression of every Buddha’s love.
The Legend of Chenrezig as a Specific Being
Whether it be plain fact or apocryphal legend, the story of Chenrezig as a specific being is also the tale of compassion as it develops in the mind.
Compassion is first born through a sincere wish for enlightenment and a vision of life’s meaning which puts others first.
The initially heroic approach towards helping others mellows and deepens as the infinite vastness of the task unfolds and the underlying nature of samsara becomes clear.
One also comes to recognise the diabolical skill of ignorance in eluding the truth and thwarting attempts at its destruction. This forces one to learn how to tackle it from many angles simultaneously.
After long experience of the battle between good and evil, one finds a need to draw closer to the real heart of the problem and to befriend and understand it rather than attacking it. For this, one must learn how to mobilise both the masculine and feminine aspects of mind’s innate loving compassion, and be both dynamic yet responsive in one’s dealings with the myriad manifestations of mind. These steps are all reflected in the traditional story:
“Countless ages ago, a thousand young men vowed to become Buddhas, each offering up a different resolution. One resolved to become Gautama Buddha, in what was a far distant time in the future and which has now become our era.
Another, Chenrezig, resolved not to become enlightened until all the others had succeeded, promising to assist them all in their task and to be the servant of any being wishing to attain enlightenment, anywhere in the universe. He would both teach them and put questions on their behalf to the Buddhas, as humans often find it difficult to formulate their enquiries clearly.
Feeling great compassion for all beings, he made many journeys into their various domains of existence, from the highest realms of the gods to the most pitiful hells. The more he saw of the confusion and suffering that predominated everywhere, the more he longed to be of help.
He prayed to the Buddhas, ‘May I help all beings. Should I ever tire of this great work, may my body be shattered into a thousand pieces.’
Subsequently, he visited the worst hell (avici hell) and liberated as many beings as were receptive to his teachings. Progressively, he worked his way up through the worlds until he reached the deva realms.
Surveying the universe, he saw that although he had released thousands from the sufferings of the three lower realms – animals, spirits and hell-beings – thousands more new entrants were pouring in to take their place.
Distressed by this and despondent, his resolve waned and he flew into a thousand pieces, like the seeds of a pomegranate. He cried out to all the Buddhas who, like a fall of snowflakes, came to his rescue and made him whole again through their beneficent influence.
Thereafter, he had a thousand arms and nine heads, to which Amitabha Buddha added a special head along with the blessing of his higher wisdom. Then Bodhisattva Vajrapani added a wrathful head symbolising the special powers of all the Buddhas. This is why Chenrezig is sometimes depicted with a thousand arms and eleven heads.
In his new form, Chenrezig became even more powerful than before but he was still moved to tears by the manifold sufferings of samsara.
Again he took a solemn vow before all the Buddhas, ‘May I not attain enlightenment until every last being has been liberated.’
At one time, his tears of compassion fell to the ground and caused two lotuses to spring up. From each of these emerged a form of the female Bodhisattva Tara, one white and the other green. Tara (dolma in Tibetan) means the Saviouress, the One Who Carries Across the Ocean of Samsara. The two Taras pledged to be Chenrezig’s sisters in dharma and to help him bring beings to enlightenment.”
The Mahayana scriptures also recount that Chenrezig offered his mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG to the Buddha, who advised him to use it as a very special means for liberating beings.
The Enlightened One blessed the mantra, pronouncing that it embodied the compassion of all the Buddhas combined.
At that time, the gods rained flowers on the worlds, the earth quaked with soft rumblings, and the air was filled with the sound of celestial beings chanting the mantra.
Chenrezig – the Guiding Light of Tibet
It is not unusual for one buddha, or even bodhisattva, to be placed centre stage by a particular sect, as is the case, for instance, with Buddha Amitabha in the teachings of the Japanese Pure Land school.
But the fact that a whole nation – possessing the greatest diversity of Buddhism found anywhere on Earth – considers itself to be guided and protected by Chenrezig is a tribute to him indeed.
The early kings who brought Buddhism to Tibet are believed by Tibetans to have been emanations of Chenrezig and Mañjushri.
Since then, some of the greatest reincarnate lamas, such as the seventeen generations of Karmapas and, more latterly, the fourteen Dalai Lamas, are also considered to be his emanations.
More strikingly, almost every Buddhist in Tibet recited Chenrezig’s mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG on a daily basis, to such an large extent that a popular saying recounts that Tibetan children pick up the mani mantra before learning to say “mama” or “papa”.
Chenrezig the Cosmic Bodhisattva
Mahayana Buddhism offers a wealth of techniques for transmuting the negative into the positive. At the heart of them all is compassion.
Chenrezig the bodhisattva is the symbolic expression of all these forms of compassion in action. As the Discourse on Chenrezig’s Realisation says:
“Were one thing and one thing alone to represent every enlightened quality, as though it were in the palm of one’s hand, what would it be? Great compassion.”
The light of compassion shines wisely and with timeliness.
It illuminates things appropriate to a particular disciple.
It shows the family person how to bring peace, wisdom and harmony into the household.
It shows the solitary meditator how to relate lovingly yet firmly to the complexities of his or her own mind.
It shows the ruler how to govern and the afflicted how to cope with their suffering.
Some of the techniques of compassion are superficial and remedial. Others are extremely profound and radical. Of the more profound techniques, Chenrezig is particularly associated with the use of the power of sound as a gateway to liberation.
The Suramgama Sutra tells how, in ages long gone by, the bodhisattva followed a certain Buddha Avalokitesvara, from whom he took his name, who instructed him to focus his meditation on the faculty of hearing.
By analysing what at first seemed to be two things – external sound and the inner faculty of hearing – the bodhisattva soon recognised their inseparability; their non-duality.
Neither could be found to have existence on its own and hence each was devoid of existence.
By then pursuing this voidness, with direct awareness rather than intellectual analysis, the bodhisattva understood the whole question of consciousness and attained successive degrees of enlightenment, thereby acquiring extraordinary powers to help others.
We find these powers, which are embodied in his mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG, also mentioned in the Lotus Sutra.
They enable him to manifest to anyone, in forms having direct relevance to their needs.
He appears as the Buddha to teach bodhisattvas, as a disciplined monk to those seeking the Four Noble Truths, as a mighty dharma warrior to those wishing to protect the weak, as a wise civil elder to those wanting to learn government, as a nun to women weary of their worldly lot, as a powerful Brahmin to those wishing to master natural energies and so on and so forth.
Praying to Chenrezig, reciting the mani mantra, and practising profound meditation on the nature of sound is believed to save people in dire situations, such as shipwrecks, fires, and armed attacks.
Some hold that reciting a million such mantras can enable the blind to see.
Sometimes such claims are meant to be taken at face value, but fuller explanations show them to be more reasonable, since they work over a period of lives.
The general theme of such explanations is that misfortunes are caused by bad karma and that such karma is more often than not habitual, and therefore likely to produce the same misfortune in future lives.
Meditation on Chenrezig and his mantra not only radically ruptures these negative habits but also opens the inner floodgates of compassion, spontaneously giving rise to their opposites, replacing aggression with love and tolerance and so forth.
Chenrezig takes on many forms in the tantras, having one, three, five, seven, nine, eleven, and so on up to 84,000 faces, with two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, and so on up to 84,000 arms. Some of his forms are gentle, kind, and merciful. Others show the wrathful face of compassion.
The extraordinary quality of the most common form – that with one face and four arms – is to be the only tantric practice which bears no element of risk and which can be practised by anyone and everyone.
In general, Mahayana Buddhists believe the grace of Chenrezig to be so powerful that even one sincere recitation of his mantra, or one open-hearted look at his kind face, is enough to sow a seed of future illumination in the mind.
Also widely practised is the eleven faced, one-thousand-armed form associated with the two-day uposita fasting ritual, known as nyungné by Tibetans. Involving an austere first day and total abstention from food or drink during the second day, this ritual is one of continuous prayer, humility, and generation of compassion. It is aimed at helping wretched ghosts and spirits and, in the process, eliminating some of the participants’ bad karma, caused through greed and avarice.
More wrathful than this form is the red standing form of Chenrezig known as ‘He who shakes the very foundations of existence’.