Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Iconography in Tibetan Buddhism

By By Sonam Tsering / 08-02-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A Statue depictng the Thousand-armed, Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara             


In Tibetan Buddhism, veneration of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara began sometimes in the 7th or 8thcentury, gradually becoming absorbed as an element of Tibetan culture and ultimately developing into a unique, regional subculture. While some facets of its cultural import held constant, the Tibetans’ brought Avalokiteshvara back down to earth, representing the bodhisattva as a living human incarnation rather than a fictive object of worship. As can be seen from the variations in Avalokiteshvara statues, a variety of forms for worshipping the deity emerged.


In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara is depicted very differently from the image of a gentle female deity popularized in Tang Dynasty China—flowing robes, long hair, one hand holding a flask of blessed water, one hand holding a willow branch—or with a lithe, sensuous body and soft, refined expression. Rather, the Avalokiteshvara of Tibetan Buddhism, known as Chenrezig, is a sacred and benevolent male, depicted extends his right hand in the mudra of giving alms while holding a red lotus in his left hand, seated or standing on a large lotus. Avalokiteshvara wears a crown bearing a small statue of the Amitabha Buddha, as it is said Avalokiteshvara was formed from a single tear drop shed from the Amitabha Buddha’s right eye.


In Tibetan temples and monasteries, Avalokiteshvara is typically pictured with a single face and two arms, but there are several other notable representations, including the Four-armed Avalokiteshvara, Lion’s Roar Avalokiteshvara, Dual-bodied Avalokiteshvara, and the Thousand-armed, Thousand-eyed (Eleven-faced) Avalokiteshvara. The Four-armed Avalokiteshvara appears both peacefully and wrathfully. Seated on a lotus pedestal with crossed legs, the peaceful Four-armed Avalokiteshvara has only one head, and presses two of its palms together while holding prayer beads in its right hand and a lotus in its left. The wrathful Four-armed Avalokiteshvara has four heads, and bears weapons in each of its four hands. A tiger skin skirt is tied around its waist and it stands upon vanquished demons. The Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara is particularly revered. It is actually a synthesis of two different manifestions, the Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara and the Thousand-armed and Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara. The eleven heads appear in five successive layers, the first three of which each have a merciful face, a sorrowful face and a smiling face. Above these faces is the face of a wrathful deity, and on the very top is the face of Amitabha Buddha. The last face is considered the incarnation of Amitabha Buddha as well as the original form of Avalokiteshvara. With ten principle arms, and 38 secondary arms, the Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara holds a number of significant artifacts, including a Khakkhara(monk’s pewter staff), a jeweled mirror, and a Cintamini (wish-fulfilling gem), which it clasps in front of its chest with two hands. The ten principle arms represent Dharmakāya, while the 38 secondary represent Sambhogakāya, or the body of enjoyment, and the remaining two thousand represent Nirmanakāya, or the terrestrially incarnated body. Every hand is decorated with a bracelet, and the body is enshrouded in a tiger skin and various silk dresses. The Avalokiteshvara stands on a lotus pedestal.

In Tibet, veneration of Avalokiteshvara dates from the arrival of Buddhismin in the 7th century. The earliest appearances in Tibetan Buddhist iconography are statues of tutelary deities (Yidam) built by Songtsän Gampo, including a Eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara currently enshrined at Gautama Buddha Hall of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and a small, jeweled Avalokiteshvara enshrined in the Saint’s Chapel at the Potala Palace. Many legends surround the construction of these two statues. It is said that Songtsän Gampo formulated10 divine dharmas and 16 worldly dharmas by which to govern his people, and he wished to have an image of his tutelary deities. One day, a magical boy appeared suddenly in the clouds before Songtsän Gampo and told him:


On the shores of Singhala

Behind a self-created statue of Khasarparni

Beneath the sand where elephants sleep

Lies a miraculous, complete, self-created image of Avalokiteshvara

Made from ‘snake-heart’ sandalwood


Bhikshu Akarma, emanated from Songtsän Gampo, eventually found the natural statue of Avalokiteshvara in South India after overcoming various obstacles. Songtsän Gampo had craftsmen from Nepal erected Thousand-armed (Eleven-faced) Avalokiteshvara with all sacred materials brought back by Akarma, including “ox-head” sandalwood, soil from the Eight Great Hermitages and relics from Krakucchanda Buddha, Kāśyapa Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha.

The story of the Avalokiteshvara statue enshrined in the Saint’s Chapel is also very interesting. When Songtsän Gampo was praying to his tutelary deity, the heart of the Avalokiteshvara statue became bright and emit a ray of light that shone into the forests of Nepal. Gazing after the light, the king saw, on the border of India and Nepal, self-created images known as the “Four Divine Brothers” arising from a hari-sandalwood tree. Again, he emanated Bhikshu Akarma from the point between the eyebrows to retrieve them. Upon arriving in Nepal, Akarama came to a jungle where many buffalo were grazing. One buffalo approached a tree, then walked around its base with milk flowing from its utters. Sure that he had found the hari-sandalwood tree in which the images of the Four Divine Brothers existed, Akarama split it into four pieces. From each piece emanated a voice instructing where its image should be placed.  The first said, “Hew me carefully and place me in the city of Mangyul,” and from it arose the image known as the Sublime Wati. The second said, “Hew me carefully and place me in the city of Kathmandu,” and from this piece emerged the image known as the Sublime Ugang. The third piece said, “Hew me carefully and place me on the border between India and Nepal,” and from this piece arose the image known as the Sublime Jamali. Lastly, the final piece said, “Hew me carefully and I will go to Tibet to become the tutelary deity of King Songtsän Gampo.” From this piece emerged the image of Avalokiteshvara, which Akarma bore back to the summit of Mt. Potala. This Avalokiteshvara statue has been the most sacred deity in Potala Palace since its erection in the 7th century. It was sent to Qinghai in 1618 after a war with Mongolia and kept there till 1645 when the Mongols returned it. It has been enshrined in the palace ever since.



Sonam Tsering is professor and dean of School of Ethnic Studies at Tibet University for Nationalities.

Translated by Wang Wei

Revised by Charles Horne

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 467, June 26,

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