Avalokiteshvara: feminine compassion

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Crossing the borders of the Himalayas, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara changed sex. The reason ? Greek statuary has revisited its beauty in a different way.

In its beginnings, Buddhism is a revelation without image. During the two hundred years following the death of the Buddha, the 320th and XNUMXth centuries before the Christian era, no one made a statue or a painting representing the Buddha. This changes from -XNUMX, when the Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, conquered Persia and arrived in India, thus coming into contact with Buddhism.

It was following the reign of Ashoka (around -270/-232), the great Indian emperor who spread Buddhism beyond his kingdom, that the first graphic representations of the Buddha appeared. Some borrow the aesthetic canons of Indian statuary, others the classical Greek style. The latter translates into superbly proportioned statues, dressed in togas with perfectly restored folds.

It is likely that it is the delicacy of the Greek statuary that makes believers think that this bodhisattva is a woman. Or the fact that he takes care of assisting people in distress.

We then find these statues in kingdoms ruled by Greek dynasties, located in present-day Afghanistan. The best known of these kingdoms, Gandhara, converted to Buddhism, bequeathed to us superb statues of Buddhas, chiselled eighteen centuries ago, which one would think had come from the workshops of Athens, so realistic are they. Most represent bodhisattvas. The kingdom of Gandhara adopted Mahayana, Buddhism of the Great Vehicle, which differs from the doctrine of the Ancients, the Theravada. One of the differences between the two currents lies in the bodhisattvas. These beings are Buddhas in the making who choose, out of altruism, to remain in this world to help others gain faster access to Awakening, the ultimate stage of the Buddhist path.

Avalokiteshvara, eleven heads and a thousand arms

One of the best known of these bodhisattvas is Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese), Bodhisattva of Compassion. Originally, in India, it is male, and it will remain so in Tibet, where it is called Chenrezik. But once crossed the Himalayas, the Buddhists of the Far East will often give it a female representation. It is likely that it is the delicacy of the Greek statuary that makes believers think that this bodhisattva is a woman. Or the fact that he cares to attend people in distress. Anyway, it doesn't matter what gender a bodhisattva is. It also matters little that the beautiful statues of Avalokiteshvara, in China, Japan or Vietnam, represent a woman for those who implore them. Nor that it is sometimes endowed with eleven heads and a thousand arms, attributes allowing it to better fight against distress in this world. The main thing is not there, but in the role that the Buddha of Compassion plays for them.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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