Eternal and transient


Some time ago while on semi-pilgrimage in India and Nepal surrounded by developing country levels of poverty and suffering, I grew to become, like many others before me, very fond of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisatva of loving-kindness.

I haven’t thought about Avalokiteśvara for some time to the extent that I’d actually forgotten its full name and had to look it up today. But on the ride in, I was ruminating about the principles of loving-kindness and the usefulness of the Tibetan approach to conceptualising it in such a way that one could be mystical and literal or philosophical and pragmatic (or both). This is of course typical of Tibetan philosophy / religion.

Anyway, there is the eternal form of Avalokiteśvara embodying the principles and ideals of compassion both in its loving and wrathful aspects, a representation containing both genders (or neither) and often consisting of multiple arms and faces. On the face of it, exotic and supernatural, on closer reading a nicely encapsulated philosophical concept: that the eternal can only be grasped through the transient.

The transient aspects of Avalokiteśvara is traditionally thought to be represented by the various embodied forms on earth, the primary manifestation being the Dalai Lama. Being an atheist, I have little truck with the literal meaning of it, but having been quite a fan of the Dalai Lama for some time, I tend to agree that he’s probably the most public face of how the principles and ideals of Avalokiteśvara can be developed within a person. And being the public face of Avalokiteśvara’s principles, he is also fulfilling his role as a boddhisatva, guiding and inspiring people towards living a life of loving-kindness and compassion.

But there’s no need to limit the earthly embodiment of Avalokiteśvara to just the Dalai Lama. In traditional representations, Avalokiteśvara has a thousand faces and limbs. We all have the potential to embody Avalokiteśvara, some of us flicker with the flame of loving-kindness, some of us like the Dalai Lama shine brightly and unwaveringly. In my mind, the eternal form of Avalokiteśvara is made up of all of us living now, its eternal form composed of our transient minds and bodies, our combined efforts to be kinder, to be more compassionate, to be better. The full eternal form of Avalokiteśvara has all our faces, all our limbs.

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