This picture on my home altar because it is not only beautiful but because I feel very connected to the imagery. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is my favorite bodhisattva insofar as one can have a favorite bodhisattva. I guess if I was Catholic, and she was too, she would be my patron saint. Her name means “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction”. In Japan she is known as Kannon which means Watchful Listening, or “The One Who Sees and Hears All”.
From the Lotus Sutra:
Living beings are beset with hardships,
And oppressed by limitless sufferings.
The power of Kannon’s wondrous wisdom
Can rescue the world from suffering.
Undefiled pure light,
The sun of wisdom that breaks through the darkness
Is able to quell calamities of wind and fire
As it shines on all worlds.
Compassionate substance: the thunder of precepts.
Kind intent: a wondrous great cloud.
He rains down sweet dew and Dharma rain,
Which extinguish the flames of affliction.
I love the idea of rescuing the world from suffering simply by offering compassion.
But here’s the thing. When I first sat with this image, I didn’t see it. For a long time, I saw something more like this:
No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough. If I had 1,000 arms I should have had 1,001. Either I was saving the world single-handedly or I was failing. The harder I worked, the more I began to feel like this:
(You don’t see me in the picture; I’m the half dead animal on the side of the road.)
I became exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed. In my efforts to embody Infinite Compassion, I was pushing it away.
But as I sat with Avalokiteshvara, I noticed that she isn’t running around, frazzled, putting out fires. She isn’t shape-shifting, trying to be all things to all people. She is seated, centered, focused and wise.
She is simply, beautifully, herself.
John Daido Loori says,
One of the characteristics of Avalokiteshvara is that she manifests herself in accord with the circumstances. So she always presents herself in a form that’s appropriate to what’s going on. In the bowery, she manifests as a bum. Tonight, in barrooms across the country, she’ll manifest as a drunk. Or as a motorist on the highway, or as a fireman, or a physician. Always responding in accord with the circumstances, in a form appropriate to the circumstances.
In other words, I am just one of Avalokiteshvara’s arms. I am in a particular place at a particular time, and my job is to realize my Buddha nature within the context of my particular form: Suburban(ish) Middle-Class Mom. My manifestation is just as valuable as any other.
My work is not to do it all, but simply to do what is in front of me, right here, right now.
Over time, I began to notice something else. The bodhisattva is not surrounded by tired, poor, tempest-tossed huddled masses. She is surrounded by Buddhas. Her work is not only, or not necessarily, about serving the wretched refuse. Her work is about living from her own Buddha nature and recognizing the Buddha in everyone else.
Despite slight variations, all the Buddhas are basically the same.
There is not one that is more deserving of, or in need of, compassion. Each person’s needs look different, and they are all equally valid. I am not failing to manifest compassion because I sit in a warm home with a full stomach while I deal with first-world problems like car repairs and whether Harry should go to preschool or not.
The problems that my peers and I face may be less critical than those of others, but they are no less valid. Perhaps our disconnection from community and spirituality leaves us more in the need of Infinite Compassion. Perhaps it is in touching the Buddha nature in each other that we will begin to responsibly use the power we have to affect the lives of others and the health of our entire planet. Perhaps I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.