24 April 2015

Avalokiteśvara & The Heart Sutra

Huntington Archive
Avalokiteśvara (aka Guānyīn, Kannon, Chenrezik) is probably the best known Buddhist deity after the Buddha. Avalokiteśvara makes his first appearance in Buddhist literature as one of two bodhisattvas flanking Amitāyus in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras and continues to play roles associated with the qualities of Amitābha, particularly karuṇā, or compassion. He is one of the first mythic figures who has no discernible basis in an historical person, but emerges as a Buddhist value (karuṇā) personified. He (or, indeed, She in China) was and continues to be one of the most important figures in the Buddhist pantheon, both in Asia and in the West.

This essay will be particularly concerned with the name Avalokiteśvara. We most commonly read that this name means something like 'Lord Who Looks Down'. This is how Conze reads the name in his Heart Sutra commentary and it's also a feature of the commentarial literature on the Heart Sutra . We'll see that the name changed, perhaps in the 6th or 7th century, and that the etymology alone is insufficient to fully understand what the name means and how to translate it. 


In Sanskrit we find two forms of the name: Avalokitasvara (avalokita-svara) and Avalokiteśvara (avalokita-īśvara). The name Avalokitasvara does not appear in any complete Sanskrit manuscript, but is found on fragments of an old manuscript Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra (Studholme 53). The form is confirmed by the Chinese translation with 音 yīn which means 'sound' (discussed in more detail below). 

The first part of the name avalokita is usually interpreted as something like 'looked down'. This is a deceptively literal reading of the etymology. Avalokita is a passive past participle from ava + the verbal root √lok. The root does mean 'look', and the prefix ava- can mean 'down'. A quirk of Sanskrit is that past participles such as avalokita can take on an active meaning (Studholme 2002: 55). Thus we can understand how translators such as Conze get "looks down" as the translation. This is often how the tradition has understood the name. As I comment in my forthcoming article on the Heart Sutra (JOCBS 8):
This is confirmed, for example, by the Indian commentaries preserved in Tibetan, viz. “Because he looks down on all sentient beings at all times and in all ways with great love and compassion, he is the one who looks down (avalokita)” (Lopez 1988: 43); “Because he is superior and is the lord who looks down, he is called the ‘Noble Lord Who Looks Down (āryāvalokiteśvara)” (Vimalamitra in Lopez 1996: 52). Looking down on the world and its inhabitants is one of the prominent characteristics of this figure in Buddhist mythology. 
Studholme suggests that the name might be understood as "sound viewer", or "sound perceiver" which he ties to the mythology of Avalokiteśvara, the one who responds to the cries of the suffering (55-56). This is a theme in the myth of Amitābha as well, with whom Avalokiteśvara is closely connected: calling his name results in an intervention, usually at death, so that the supplicant is reborn in Sukhāvati, the Pure Land of Amitābha. This practice is known as nāmānusmṛti 'recollection of the name'. In the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, the efficacy of the mantra oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ is explained as a form of nāmānusmṛti, since maṇipadma is a coded form of the name of Avalokiteśvara, though here the supplicant is reborn in one of the worlds which occupy the hair pores on Avalokiteśvara's body.

As my forthcoming article says, the closely related verb vyavalokayati (vi + ava + √lok) does not mean 'look down' but 'examine', still with a visual connotation. Which suggests to me that the ava in ava√lok does not mean 'in a downwards direction', but more like 'to look closely', 'to narrow down one's field of view', either by concentrating or by physically getting close to the object.

The problem here is that we have a mixed metaphor, a jumbling of sensory modes. The idea of seeing sounds is not found in early Buddhist texts which assert that only the eye can see forms and only the ear can hear sounds. Studholm also notes this synaesthesia and does what we all do, he changes the sense of avalokita from a visual one to a general sensory perception. While this certainly solves the problem, I'm not convinced that it is justified because ava√lok is specifically a visual verb. However, we have no better explanation and the Buddhist tradition has also used this solution.

There is another potential solution. Peter Alan Roberts (2012: 236-7) points out that the word avalokita has a different meaning in the Mahāvastu, which contains two sub-texts both called Avalokita Sutra (See Jones Vol. II: 242-253) [I'm grateful to Richard Gombrich for pointing out this article to me]. Curiously, amongst the audience for the texts are two devas called Īśvara and Maheśvara, two epithets traditionally associated with Śiva. According to Roberts, because the Mahāvastu is the product of the Lokavattarin branch of the Mahāsaṅghika sect, it may well represent a kind of proto-Mahāyāna view of what the word means. 
"In the Avalokita Sūtras, avalokita does not refer to a being, but means that which has been seen by those who have crossed over saṃsāra, and is therefore a synonym for enlightenment." (237)
Roberts' observation helps a bit with the earlier form of the name: avalokita-svara where svara means 'sound, noise' and the whole must mean something like 'the sounds perceived by the enlightened'. Unfortunately I don't quite see why Roberts thinks avalokita means "that which has been seen by those who have crossed over saṃsāra". I have looked at the Avalokita Sūtras and as far as I can tell they don't actually comment on this issue, they merely contain episodes in the biography that makes up the Mahāvastu

The situation improves somewhat with the change of the bodhisattva's name. As Studholme discusses, in his study of the Kāraṇḍavūyha Sūtra, Avalokiteśvara converts the god Śiva to Buddhism and in the process seems to assimilate some of Śiva's iconography, including especially the epithet īśvara 'Lord' (Studholme 2002: 37ff.). For a Lokottaravādin, according to Roberts, "whatever the actual etymological origin of the name may be, it would inescapably have had the resonance of meaning 'Lord of Enlightenment'." (2012: 237). It may be that reading the Mahāvastu in Sanskrit reveals something about the word avalokita that the translation does not, but since it is 100 pages of translation, the reading becomes a fairly major project in itself for little reward.

The association with the Avalokita Sūtras, however, opens up the possibility of another way of understanding avalokita-īśvara.  It might mean 'Īśvara of the Avalokita'; i.e., the Īśvara who was in the audience of the Avalokita Sūtra. But this may be too simple and obvious to appeal to many people.

Translations of the name into other languages, particularly Chinese, shed further light on the name. The Chinese forms are particularly useful because texts in which Avalokiteśvara appears were translated from early on, which, in this case, means from around the late 2nd Century CE onwards. 

Chinese & Tibetan

As in Sanskrit, there are two forms of the name in Chinese. Avalokiteśvara is known in Chinese by the name 觀世音 Guānshìyīn. Literally 'look-world-sound' or 'watching the sounds of the world'. This is apparently a translation/interpretation of the name Avalokita-svara. Note that the Chinese translators preserve the synaesthetic idea of seeing sounds. 

Although 觀世音 was used by earlier translators, it was the translations of Kumārajīva, in the early 5th Century CE, which popularised this form of the name. The name is regularly shortened to 觀音 Guānyīn, though there is no evidence for doing so until around the sixth century (Studholme 2002: 53). It is this shortened form of the name by which Avalokiteśvara is known in China down to the present. The shortening is sometimes said to be because of the death of the Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty (唐太宗; 599-649) to avoid uttering one of the characters in his personal name 李世民 Lǐ Shìmín. This is a traditional form of Chinese taboo, but that it applies in this case is disputed. Indeed, the word 世 'world' is so common it would be hard to avoid it completely.

Buddhist Chinese routinely abbreviates words, so that prajñāpāramitā is transcribed as 般若波羅蜜多 bōrěbōluómìduō, but just as often, and routinely by Kumārajīva, the last syllable is dropped. So in some respects 觀音 is an unexpected form of the name. If it were an abbreviation in this style, we might expect 觀世. Studholm, apparently following an argument made by Lokesh Chandra, seems to suggest (2002: 57) that 觀音 might have been the original form of the name in Chinese, since there is no Sanskrit equivalent of 觀世音 containing the word 世, which in Sanskrit is loka; i.e., we do not find the form avalokita-loka-svara. (this claim is repeated without caveats on Wikipedia). However, this is not entirely convincing because it is not backed up by evidence for the existence of earlier texts without 世.

It might be more plausible to suggest that 觀世 conveyed avalokita by combining a word meaning 'to see' with one that suggested 'loka'. Digital Dictionary of Buddhism associates 觀 more with verbs from the root √paś and √īkṣ than with √lok. In other words, 世 was not intended as a standalone character, but as one which modifies 觀 phonetically. The principle of phonetic and semantic radicals pervades the construction of complex Chinese characters from simpler elements. Indeed, the character 觀 guān is made up from two radicals:  雚 guàn is a phonetic element which suggests how the word is pronounced and 見 jiàn 'see' is a semantic element suggesting what the word means. This trend continues with Modern Mandarin frequently employing two characters to both avoid ambiguous homonyms and to expand the range of meaning carried by single characters. 

In my other writing about the Heart Sutra, I've noted that the first sentence in Sanskrit contains two visual verbs meaning roughly 'to look' and 'to see', the first being vyavalokayati and the second being paśyati. In Chinese, these both tend be covered by 見 and related words.  So, in the Chinese Heart Sutra, instead of Avalokiteśvara looking and seeing as he does in the Sanskrit, we find the puzzling phrase 照見. This is variously translated as "illuminated and saw" or  "illuminatingly saw/clearly saw", since 照 means 'illuminate, shine' and it is ambiguous as to whether it is intended as a second verb (illuminated) or as an adverb (illuminatingly). Since we now know that the Chinese preceded the Sanskrit, and we can infer that the first translator of the Heart Sutra was better informed about Chinese than Sanskrit, we can assume that, for that translator, 照見 conveyed both looking and seeing, since that is how they chose to translate it. The shift of perspective provided by Nattier (1992) provides us with valuable insights into these small textual or linguistic problems.  

The form 觀自在, Guānzìzài ('watching one's existence'), was introduced by Xuánzàng and used, for instance, in the translation of the Heart Sutra attributed to him. My friend Maitiu has written in to point out that:
"自在 means 'free', 'unrestrained' or 'independent'. It has the sense of 'sovereignty' and it's used to translate īśvara more generally than just Avalokiteśvara's name."
Thus, 觀自在 ought to mean 'Watching Lord'. Studholme suggests that the timing of this new form coincides with the change of the last element of the name from svara to īśvara (2002:56-57). However, though Xuánzàng's translations are acknowledged to be more faithful to the Sanskrit, where a translation by Kumārajīva exists it has always remained more popular that Xuánzàng's (with the sole exception of the Heart Sutra and this is taken as evidence to doubt the attribution). And so it is with the name. In fact, even Xuánzàng's followers, and his biographer Huili, continued to use the older form of the name.

The Tibetan version of the name is སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས i.e. spyan ras gzigs (pronounced Chenrezik). Romanisations for this name vary and I have adopted that used by the Dictionary of the Tibetan & Himalayan Library. The name is translated literally as 'sees with eyes'. The word spyan means 'eye' and is frequently used to translate words related to Sanskrit cakṣu or sometimes netra both meaning 'eye'; and spyan ras can mean "penetrating vision, observation". Gzigs means 'to see, gaze, perceive, realise', etc., and is used to translate Sanskrit words from √īkṣ 'to see' and √paś 'to see'.  As we can see, the Tibetans resolved the difficulty of the different sensory modes in their translation of the name in favour of the visual sense. This in itself is interesting, since it must have been a source of cognitive dissonance for the Tibetan translators, who are usually very faithful to the Sanskrit. Studholme suggests that spyan ras gzigs is "an honorific form of the Sanskrit Avalokita" (2002: 58).

The Heart Sutra

One of the differences between the two short versions of the Heart Sutra in Chinese, T250 and T251, is the name they use for Avalokiteśvara. The former uses 觀世音, consistent with being translated by Kumārajīva; while the latter uses 觀自在, consistent with being translated by Xuánzàng. As we recently saw (Chinese Heart Sutra: Dates and Attributions),  the attribution of these translations to these translators is now plausibly disputed, because the facts of history, such as they are, conflict with the traditional authorship. Now that we also know the text was composed in China, it also alters the landscape. The scholarly consensus is that Kumārajīva did not translate or compose T250. Nattier makes a good case for Xuánzàng not being the translator/composer of T251 (See Nattier 1992: 184 ff.). Both texts seem to be later creations, based on some earlier text, that have been edited to look like authentic productions of the two famous translators. Indeed, Nattier shows that T250 has most likely been altered to look more like《大智度論》Dàzhìdù lùn (*Mahā-prajñā-pāramitopadeśa; T1509 ), a commentary on Pañcaviṃśati Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra attributed to Nāgārjuna, also translated by Kumārajīva. 

However, since 觀世音 as the translation of Avalokiteśvara both predates Kumārajīva and is the standard form he used in his translation of Prajñāpāramitā texts (from which the Heart Sutra certainly draws its core), then we can assume that the ur-text of the Heart Sutra used this form of the name also.

In his translation of the Heart Sutra, Edward Conze takes the odd step of carving up the name Āryāvalokiteśvara into its constituent parts: ārya, avalokita, and īśvara. He then takes īśvara to be an epithet like ārya and translates "Avalokita, the Holy Lord". There is simply no way to construe ārya as qualifying īśvara here. Although it is true that some texts, notably the Bodhicaryāvatāra, use the name Avalokita, Avalokiteśvara can only be read as a compound with an implied syntactic relationship between the two words, because avalokita is undeclined. Ārya then qualifies the whole name. Indeed, in this period of Buddhism it was typical to add ārya to names of people and texts as a mark of special status. Perhaps "holiness" is not too far from the mark, though we can refine it to mean 'connected with awakening'.

In China, Avalokiteśvara took on a female form, partly through syncretisation with the myth of Miaoshan (妙善)  (Guang 2011). Though scholars differ on when the sex-change took place, it seems to have begun to manifest by the Tang Dynasty. This covers the likely period of composition of the Heart Sutra. However, as far as the Sanskrit text is concerned, Avalokiteśvara is a grammatically masculine name, as is the alternate Avalokitasvara.  We can assume, therefore that at least the translator from Chinese into Sanskrit thought of the deity as masculine. 

The question is frequently raised as to what a deity associated with compassion is doing in a sutra about wisdom. Various theories have been put forward to explain this disparity. However, given what we now know and can deduce about the history of the text, it was composed or collated by an early medieval Chinese monk who saw nothing strange about worshipping Guānyīn and studying Prajñāpāramitā. By the seventh century the geography of Chinese Buddhism was very different from its Indian forms. Boundaries shifted or disappeared. Elements that might have seemed distinct—Pure Land Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism—became mixed and recombined to form native Chinese sects. Indeed, Xuánzàng dealt with the Prajñāpāramitā texts from a Yogācāra perspective as did his main disciples 窺基 Kuījī (632–682) and 圓測 Woncheuk (613-696).

Thus, even if the association of Avalokiteśvara still strikes us as incongruent, we must accept that it did not seem so to the author/composer. The failing is on our part. Perhaps because of monotheism or perhaps because European Christian churches dealt with heresy so viciously, for so long, we find syncretism difficult to fit within our paradigms of religion. At best, "syncretism" is pejorative, at worst, dismissive. However, it was the norm in both ancient India and China and their culture spheres in Central and South-East Asia. Synthesis is just as common and accepted as schism is. I've explored this also in my critiques of the tree as a metaphor for evolution. Which is not to say that there are no arguments over orthodoxy and orthopraxy, only that these arguments seldom seemed to generate quite the hostility that we find in European religion. And this situation has changed in modern India, perhaps under the influence of European values, certainly in reaction to colonialism and its aftermath.

It is a curious feature of history that some details seem to become so well known that we stop explaining them, and they are subsequently lost without possibility of recovery. If the early Mahāyāna Buddhists puzzled over the name Avalokiteśvara, they did not record their thoughts. Nor does any justification for the name change survive. Attempts to reconstruct ancient knowledge from minimal clues is a fascinating endeavour and I'm grateful to the people at the coal face, the various experts, whose work makes my kind of writing possible. 


Guang Xing (2011). 'Avalokiteśvara in China.' The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 12, 2011 
Jones. J. J. (1952) Mahavastu. (Trans.) Vol. II. Luzac & co.
Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707
Roberts, Peter Alan. (2012) ‘Translating Translation: An Encounter with the Ninth-Century Tibetan Version of the Kāraṇḍavyūha-sūtra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 2: 224-242.
Senart, Émile (1882-1897) Mahavastu-Avadana. 3 vols. Paris.
Studholme, Alexander. (2002) The Origins of Oṃ Maṇipadme Hūṃ: A Study of the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra. State University of New York.

Note 8 Jun 2015

Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures? ––– The Mahāsāṃghikas and Vaitulya Scriptures.
ARIRIAB XVIII (2015), 113–162.

"An illustrative example of this sort of misunderstanding is Avalokitasvara and Avalokiteśvara. There are at least eight old Sanskrit fragments from Central Asia which bear the name Avalokitasvara, as well as one fragment from Kizil, which has (Apa)lokidasvara. These older forms agree with the early Chinese renderings “One, who observes sounds” and “One, who observes sounds of the world” (闚音, 現音聲, 光世音, 觀世音), which were made between the 2nd and 5th centuries, [114] while the newer form Avalokiteśvara, which first appears in a Mathurā inscription of the Gupta year 148 (467/468 C.E.)1 and later in the Gilgit manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, dating back to the 7th century, agrees with the newer Chinese renderings “One who observes the sovereignty of the world” and “One who observes sovereignty” (觀世自在,觀自在) from the 6th century onwards. We cannot say for certain that the older forms are “corruptions” of the newer ones.2"
1 Cf. IBInsc I 686~687.
2 The most recent example of this misunderstanding is found in Saitō 2015. I assume that, in the language (probably Gāndhārī), in which the verses of the Samantamukha Chapter of the Lotus Sutra had been composed originally, svara (or śpara) might have meant both “sound” and “thinking” (= Skt. smara), and the composer of the verses himself may have understood *Avalokitasvara (or Avalokitaśpara, *Olokitaśpara or the like) as “One, who Observes Thinking”. Much later, when this -svara (or -śpara) was no longer understood as meaning “thinking; memory”, people probably began to regard it literally as “sound”. Thus, the composer of the prose portion of the same chapter understood the Bodhisattva’s name in this way, which was shared also by the early Chinese translators. I assume, also, that the Gāndhārī form *Avalokitaśpara could have been incorrectly sanskritised later to Avalokiteśvara by somebody who knew the development Skt. īśvara > Gā iśpara. Cf. Karashima 1999 and 2014a.
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