Dharma Data: Avalokitesvara
By the most popular and beloved of the Mahayana bodhisattvas. The name Avalokitesvara means something like "the Lord who looks down on the World" or according to another interpretation " the Regarder of the Cries of the World". This bodhisattva is first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (approx. 1st century AD) which together with the Karandavyuha Sutra describe him as rescuing from all kinds of distress and danger anyone who calls out his mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum (Om the Jewel in the Lotus Hum). This desire and ability to help all without distinction is due to Avalokitesvara's great compassion, indeed he is seen as the very embodiment of the Buddha's compassion.
In India Avalokitesvara was usually portrayed as a handsome young prince with the Buddha nestled in his crown, or sometimes as an ascetic, iconographically very similar to the Hindu god Siva. He was also given some of Siva's names - the Blue Throated One, Mahesvara etc. In Tibet he is often portrayed with a thousand arms, each hand with an eye in it, symbolising the seeing and reaching out to help those in distress. In China however Avalokitesvara is more usually represented as a beautiful white robed woman and is known as Kwan Yin. From Mongolia to Sri Lanka, from Afghanistan to Indonesia, the worship of Avalokitesvara has long been popular, even fervent, and has inspired some of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist art.
A. On, In China. J. Blofield, Bodhisatva of Compassion. Boston, 1988; in Sri Lanka, J.C. Holt, Buddha in the Crown. Oxford, 1991.