illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Avalokiteśvara is the most popular bodhisattva, by far… in particular through his sex change, as Guan Yin when travelling to China and beyond…
The reason why the bodhisattva of Compassion is popular is pretty clear: people love to join a school of Buddhism claiming to be linked to a powerful entity full of compassion. Compassion in Buddhism is one’s wish that sentient beings (others as well as oneself) do not suffer, hence joining such a school is akin to entering the realm of a saviour, a being who will take care of us… and this is classic ‘religion’ more than philosophy, and more than personal cultivation with a sense of responsibility. And indeed few followers of Buddhism then really cultivate a virtuous life, few meditate, few cultivate “right views”; they just go on with their conventional lives, and their usual ignorance.
The same wish "to be taken care of" is found in relation to schools linked to Amitābha. But counting on Amitābha ’s or Avalokiteśvara ’s “unconditional” compassion, in order not to have to cultivate wholesome karma, and not to have to refrain from bad habits, is taking their compassion for granted. It’s also contradicting Siddhārtha Gautama ’s teachings…
Yet few masters of Buddhism would reform their schools to minimise the apparent link to such great bodhisattvas. What could be the “expedient means”, the wholesome view, which would justify so?
Bodhisattvas are often associated with 'their' Pure Land, the realm in which it is easiest to “practice” the Buddhist teachings, easiest to spiritually develop, easiest to move beyond stress and saṃsāra. These Pure Lands are not Nirvāṇa in and of themselves, but they’re the most supportive realms one might abide into in order to attain Nirvāṇa.
The funniest part then is that, if Avalokiteśvara was to intervene to help us (based on our ignorant wish to be taken care of, at times of difficulty), then this would mean this realm, this world, is his Pure Land… which, in turn, would assert that this realm, this world, is the best place for us to “practice” the eightfold path, and in particular the “compassionate" dimension of it, under the guidance and opportunities created by Avalokiteśvara !
And suddenly, it’s no longer about us being taken care of, but about us letting go of selfishness, taking care of others, wisely engaging with causality in order of reduce the suffering for all sentient beings, etc!
The wish to "be taken care of" is to be tapped into, in order to understand / to realise what all other beings around us want: being taken care of… or, at the very least, not having to fear us, not having to suffer because of us, being free from our ignorance and selfishness!
This transition, from a self-centred, lazy and ignorant wish for a saviour (who would save us from doing the hard work of responsibly reforming our lives, of giving rise and cultivating wholesome karma, of reducing and ceasing bad karma — cf. “right effort”) to a realisation of what is the first generosity we ought to cultivate (i.e. offering safety to others from our own delusions), and a realisation of the "perfectible quality" we may cultivate most easily (i.e. compassion, for we have so many opportunities in our world to help others, in small and large ways!), is why Buddhist masters would maintain the religious connection to Avalokiteśvara the Carer, even though it might seem to contradict the Buddha’s message on personal responsibility and autonomy.
Once we’re clear on that, Avalokiteśvara becomes a role-model, not a saviour… and we’re back to engaging with the world, relinquishing views, and enquiring into the nature of reality, into how dukkha arises, into how dukkha might be ceased! Once we’re clear on that, the connection to Avalokiteśvara helped us relinquish our self-centred concerns.
image: Avalokiteśvara / Padmapani, Ajanta Caves, India © Kunal Mukherjee
Buddhism has no specific guideline on supporting teachers, it simply asks for you to consider causality: if you want this living tradition to survive, how are you participating, in practical terms, to make this happen? Nice words, exposure or social media ‘likes’ might feel good, but they do not actually help with the basic necessities. http://www.koan.mu/donate.htm