Kannon, the Benevolent Protector

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

You have just arrived in Kyoto and you are entering the magical sanctuary of Sanjusangendo, a long wooden building which, like the hull of an elongated ship, houses the thousand statues of gilded wood, all on a human scale, which flank an enormous representation of the thousand-armed Kannon, whose hands radiate into space and carry a multitude of objects and tools to relieve the world of suffering.

Your metro train arrives at rush hour in the station and you contemplate the multiplicity and variety of faces and bodies waiting on the platform. From Kyoto to Paris, are these two scenes so distant? Does the question seem so absurd to you?

If you travel to Japan, you will very quickly become familiar with a figure that one often encounters in temples, on prints and who never ceases to be present in people's hearts. This is Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is called here Kannon. He or she – there is no real question of gender here – who listens to the complaints and cries of the world is one of the most popular and revered Buddhist deities throughout the Orient. One of his incarnations is said to be the Dalai Lama, a figure that is now so familiar to us. For a long time, I contemplated these deities, these Buddhas, these representations as figurations of an existing reality in a certain transcendence, in a spiritual elsewhere which went beyond this world and towards which this world was heading. However, I gradually got used to their actual presence in my daily life and I learned to recognize them in the people, events, things, animals and objects that I encountered daily.

From then on, Kannon was no longer just this exotic, wacky and slightly disturbing figure, but a symbolic representation of the teachings concerning the heart of benevolence, of the selfless and altruistic action of practitioners, and, beyond that, a possible face of reality. Gradually, I learned to recognize Kannon in the helping hand or the patient ear of the friend, the benevolent severity of the teacher, the opportunities and happy moments of my life, but also, to my great surprise, I came to recognize the presence of Kannon in hazards, accidents, bad days, bad weather and sickness. Happiness and adversity were this presence. In short, I began to see the world and recognize it as an unconditional expression of love itself. And then, of course, I realized that these deities were ultimately just clever and strong interesting representations of aspects of our human psyche. Like a jewel carved with multiple facets to give it that incomparable brilliance when touched by daylight, our mind is also capable of metamorphoses and a wide variety of aspects in order to respond to various situations of existence and to express with grace and freedom the inexhaustible variety of his awakened nature. Kannon would therefore not be a piece of wood on a throne sitting on a distant altar and to which one would have to offer incense, prayers and grievances, this image over there – because it is only an image – is then the mirror which reflects our own nature. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are not where you think you can find them.

This freedom to love carefree is the very face of Kannon.

Thus, all these visitors of such different nationalities, ages and languages ​​who crowd in front of this alignment of a thousand statues are far from suspecting that it is the statues that are contemplating marvelous living, vibrant and varying Buddhas. From the bored young teenager, dragged there by his school trip, to the well-informed amateur of Buddhist statuary, passing by the European tourist or the devout little old woman, all of them are the moving multiplicity of Kannon's faces. This is what this temple teaches us, and it is hard for us to contemplate this face. As the saying goes zen : no one can see his own eyes. The intermediary of the statue allows us to glimpse the original nature and the Awakening that we all embody.

So let's go back to our wharf. Let's find our Paris. Or our rue de Province. Is it now possible for you to realize how close these two scenes are, although geographically and culturally so distant?

Invitation cards

A somewhat singular invitation, in the mode of memory for a change. Please remember one of those times when you loved without knowing it, without having any particular awareness of it. It could be an animal, a vulnerable and wounded being, a plant lovingly contemplated, it was always in a relationship, in your attentive presence to another presence. And knowing nothing of it, wasn't it even bigger and freer? No BA, no idea of ​​doing good sullied your mind or marred your actions. This freedom to love carefree is the very face of Kannon.

Do little things, but secretly don't publicize it, don't tell anyone. Slip a little money, or better leave a nice book, nice clothes, a bouquet of flowers or some food with a sleeping homeless person. Cook or donate your time to charity. The main thing is to disappear while helping, to let the action take your place.

Do the words benevolence and love have any meaning in themselves? Or rather is it not the action itself which alone is real? André Malraux used to say that you are never just what you do. Rather than gargle with ideas of love, we can roll up our sleeves and get to work without any kind of pretension. This is the most beautiful face of love. An anecdote will probably make you smile: André Nocquet, French disciple of aikido master Usheiba, had returned from Japan and was staying with his parents in Prahecq, in his native countryside. While he was meditating in the garden, his father comes and asks him: “What are you doing? And he, peremptory and detached, replies: “I practice zazen, I meditate”. And the father immediately retorted: “It's all well and good, but the vegetable garden needs you! These words allowed Master Nocquet, it is himself who affirms it, to finally understand the real meaning of the practice.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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