Guan Zizai Bodhisattva


Translated By Andrew Yang

The subject of the first line in Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. In Chinese this holy appellation is translated as Guan Zizai instead of Guan Shiyin, which is shortened to the more familiar Guanyin. Is Guan Zizai, then, the same as Guanyin, an elliptical form of Guan Shiyin? Ladies and Gentlemen, the two terms in fact denote the same bodhisattva, though in that case how is Guanyin, again short for Guan Shiyin, also known as Guan Zizai?

First of all, the Chinese word guan means to see and investigate. This is, however, not necessarily done with eyes, it can mean contemplation with the mind as well. Used in the Chinese name of Avalokitesvara it has come to mean that the bodhisattva, on observing and perceiving yin, the sounds of shi, the world crying out for salvation, relieves people from affliction through unobstructed divine power of loving kindness and great compassion. In the same vein, zizai, meaning “freedom”, emphasizes the bodhisattva’s power of liberating while unhindered in his contemplation and deliverance.

In addition, calling the bodhisattva Guan Zizai implies that Avalokitesvara embodies both self-help in cultivation and altruism.

Self-help in cultivation

When the bodhisattva was yet in the process of pursuing Buddhahood, he used the wisdom of amazing contemplation through the ears in meditative concentration, and attained samadhi, a Sanskrit word for the final stage of pure concentration. According to Volume Six of Surangama Sutra,

“At that time, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva rose from his seat, bowed at Buddha’s feet and said to Buddha: World Honored One, I remember that in the past for countless kalpas like grains of sand in the Ganges River, a buddha appeared in the world named Avalokitesvara.  From that buddha I aroused a Bodhi mind, and with the buddha’s teaching I entered into samadhi through hearing, contemplating and cultivating.”

The scripture tells the story of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva reporting to his teacher Sakyamuni Buddha and the audience at a Surangama Assembly how he attained enlightenment through cultivation. He said that a long time ago, a buddha named Avalokitesvara had been born into the world. In front of Avalokitesvara Buddha, he aroused the Mahayana bodhicitta to seek the Buddhist way and redeem sentient beings. Avalokitesvara the Buddha taught him how to enter into samadhi through hearing, contemplating and cultivating, that is, practise Buddhism in the three steps of listening, thinking and meditation.

By listening to the Dharma, studying the scriptures, pondering its principles and practising accordingly, the practitioner may successfully enter into the realm of the all-encompassing penetration-through-the-ears approach. As stated in Surangama Sutra, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva attained the real mark of the dharmas with great extricating freedom through practice based on the faculty of ears, by hearing all sounds in the world without delusional, discriminating thinking, by thinking of the self-nature while not being twined by triggering sounds, and by cultivating till all-encompassing penetration through the ears. Hence the epithet Guan Zizai, or contemplation in freedom.

Altruism following awakening

Avalokitesvara takes loving kindness and great compassion as his votive mission of becoming a bodhisattva. Upon any sentient being in the world encountering disaster, if they keep reciting the bodhisattva’s holy name wholeheartedly, the bodhisattva, through observation and contemplation of the world with wisdom in all directions, can immediately produce an empathetic response with great compassion. He is known to have sought out voices in distress and saved people from suffering in response to all requests under all circumstances. Thus, in the words of the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Sutra, in the chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Universal Gate, “If anyone among countless sentient beings suffering from various afflictions hears the name Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and single-mindedly repeats it aloud, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva will immediately contemplate their voices and extricate them from suffering”.

Because Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva uses wisdom of profound insight in equal contemplation of self and other to emancipate all beings, his supernatural powers come with unrestrained and unobstructed freedom, thus his Chinese name Guan Zizai.

What freedom

According to Avatamsaka Sutra, bodhisattvas possess ten types of freedom. The first is freedom from a life span. By definition, bodhisattvas have transcended The Three Realms and escaped the life and death therewithin, and so their life expectancy is unlimited.

The second is freedom of the mind. Mortals’ minds, being delusional, roam in and interact with the external triggering environment, subject to momentary greed, anger or delusion, and so they undergo endless mental trouble and incessant suffering. A bodhisattva’s mind, however, is not troubled and neither is it entangled by external circumstances. Thus they enjoy infinite freedom of the mind.

The third is freedom from karma. Being free from the entanglement of evil karma, bodhisattvas have cast off all karmic obstacle and trouble and achieved great liberation.

The fourth is freedom  from a bodily appearance. Bodhisattvas can take on a body shape or appearance according to need and circumstance, as the chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Universal Gate points out that the body form used to attain awakening is the body form used in preaching the Dharma.

The fifth is freedom of sacred understanding. Bodhisattvas fully understand all worldly and supra-mundane dharmas.

The sixth is freedom in granting all wishes. What bodhisattvas avow to do will be completely fulfilled.

The seventh is freedom to act as wished. Bodhisattvas have great supernatural powers, changing body forms at will freely and without obstacle.

The eighth is freedom  with the Dharma, all of which bodhisattvas can practise and preach so that all sentient beings may properly receive it.

The ninth is freedom with wisdom. Bodhisattvas have great wisdom and they all possess unhindered eloquence in discourse.

The tenth is freedom with resource. Bodhisattvas possess boundless resources that realize as necessitated, and can adequately respond to innumerable sentient beings in meeting their needs.

The holy names of bodhisattvas are established according to their individual noble vow, Dharma gate, merit and virtue and strength of compassion. Bodhisattvas attaining an eighth stage and further in their bodhisattvahood have reached the inconceivable state of unimpeded freedom in their practice, and thus, in a broad sense, they may all be named Guan Zizai.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Guan Zizai Bodhisattva has a special karmic bond with us sentient beings in the saha world, and has generated numerous deeds in response to our urgent requests. Everyone who habitually recites his full holy name of Namo Guan Shiyin Bodhisattva or Namo Guan Zizai Bodhisattva will be able to eliminate disaster-potent karma while increasing virtue, wisdom and beatitude.

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