Avalokiteśvara (Sanskrit: “Lord who looks down”) is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He is one of the more widely revered bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism. The original name for this bodhisattva was Avalokitasvara. The Chinese name for Avalokitasvara is Guānshìyīn Púsà, which is a translation of the earlier name “Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva.” This bodhisattva is variably depicted as male or female, and may also be referred to simply as Guānyīn in certain contexts.
In Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara is also referred to as Padmapāni (“Holder of the Lotus”) or Lokeśvara (“Lord of the World”). In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is known as Chenrezig, and is said to be incarnated in the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa] and other high lamas.
Western scholars have not reached a consensus on the origin of the reverence for Avalokiteśvara. Some have suggested that Avalokiteśvara, along with many other supernatural beings in Buddhism, was a borrowing or absorption by Mahayana Buddhism of one or more Hindu deities, in particular Shiva or Vishnu (though the reason for this suggestion is because the current name of the bodhisattva not the original one). The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gandavyuha Sutra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara,
In Theravada, Lokeśvara, “the lord, ruler or sovereign beholder of the world”, name of a Buddha; probably a development of the idea of Brahmā, Vishnu or Śiva as lokanātha, “lord of worlds”. In Indo-China especially it refers to Avalokiteśvara, whose image or face, in masculine form, is frequently seen, e.g., at Angkor. A Buddha under whom Amitābha, in a previous existence, entered into the ascetic life and made his forty-eight vows.
Avalokiteśvara is an important deity in Tibetan Buddhism, and is regarded in the Vajrayana teachings as a Buddha. In the Mahayana teachings he is in general regarded as a high-level Bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama is considered by the Gelugpa sect and many other Tibetan Buddhists to be the primary earthly manifestation of Chenrezig. The Karmapa is considered by the Karma Kagyu sect to be Chenrezig’s primary manifestation. It is said that Padmasambhava prophesied that Avalokiteśvara will manifest himself in the Tulku lineages of the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas. Another Tibetan source explains that Buddha Amithaba gave to one of his two main disciples, Avalokiteśvara, the task to take upon himself the burden of caring for Tibet. That is why he has manifested himself not only as spiritual teachers in Tibet but also in the form of kings (like Trisong Detsen) or ministers. Other manifestations popular in Tibet include Sahasra-bhuja (a form with a thousand arms) and Ekādaśamukha (a form with eleven faces).
In Tibetan Buddhism, Tara came into existence from a single tear shed by Chenrezig. When the tear fell to the ground it created a lake, and a lotus opening in the lake revealed Tara. In another version of this story, Tara emerges from the heart of Chenrezig. In either version, it is Chenrezig’s outpouring of compassion which manifests Tara as a being.