Eleven Headed Avalokiteshvara

author: Tove E. Neville
edition: 1999, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
pages: 144
ISBN-10: 8121504570
Topic: Mahayana


BODHISATTVAS are beings with rainbow bodies—so it is said. They may inhabit normal human bodies but may on occasion exhibit a kind of radiance coming from within, originating from their extra-human qualities apparent in their faces, voices and actions. This rainbow radiance, which has nothing to do with flesh and blood as these are merely the carriers of an extraordinary spirit, is also the reason why artists portray Bodhisattvas with rainbow colored haloes and aureoles.

The human rainbow-beings can come and go without fears or hindrances in their own minds and always, naturally, and without prompting will try to help any being, plant, animal or human that seems to have need. When called upon, the Bodhisattva being will always try to help without thoughts of consequence to “self’ which is actually a non-existent entity, as the Bodhisattva knows. This spirit can inhabit either a male or female human, or an animal, as it is not dependent on sex, or related to ordinary human body-mind phenomena. Bodhisattva hood can he achieved by all beings by many different means; it is unattached to anything particular but only to the all-being. When human it has all the normal human feelings but will drop any urges, or desires, when these are seen inappropriate. Such a being is called a saint in some other religions than Buddhism.

My own earliest knowledge and interest in the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara stemmed from discussions with the poet Lew Welch when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area in 964. He described this great Bodhisattva of compassion with glowing enthusiasm and imagination and saw it as the highest ideal to give up one’s own salvation until one has helped save all other beings to become enlightened, which is the Bodhisattva vow.

At that point I began studying Zen Buddhism as I met other poets with Lew, who were doing Zen meditation and reading Suzuki Daisetz’s books. Soon after studying these I also read about Tibetan Buddhism and became acquainted with the Tibetan form of Avalokitesvara, called Chenresigs, the patron saint of Tibet, and considered compassion incarnate. Then I began meditation practice, and after a prolonged solitary period of meditation under ideal conditions in a quiet house near Carmel Beach, I was able to concentrate my one-pointedness of mind until my consciousness became immersed in what the Tibetans call the Great White Light (Skt. sunyata). After this my basic psychic makeup was fundamentally changed. Notably, an all- belonging, no-fear attitude, totally non-attached, had developed.

After that experience, I was determined to see the Buddhist places in India and elsewhere as I now felt self-converted to Buddhism. I also wished to learn more from masters, and to see many Buddhist images, chiefly the Buddha and Avalokitesvara whom I had used as a meditation object. Late in 1966, this wish materialized as I set out on a journey lasting one and a half years, visiting many museums, palaces, temples and tombs in more than thirty countries. After seeing most of Europe and North Africa, I traveled with a helpful friend, Jack L. Yohay, through the Middle East on to Pakistan and India where I was greatly impressed by the Gandhara and Gupta art. Finally I saw the serene Buddhist places of Bodh Gaya where the Buddha meditated, and Sarnath, where he preached the first time in the Deer Park. The caves of Ajanta and Ellora were seen on public bus tours where we became part of huge families on pilgrimages, and Buddhist, Jam and Hindu arts were seen all over. However, the sense of timelessness was greatest by the pristine stupas at Sanchi.

Deeply appealing to the heart was the living Buddhism at the shining Shwe Dagon (cetiya) gold pagoda in Rangoon, surrounded by small temples on a yellow pavement, where tiny bells rang as if the air was full of silver birds, while sarong-clad people bore fragrant flowers on their open palms to offer to the Buddha. The same fervent devotion and flower offerings, especially the jasmine, were ever present in the gorgeous Thai temples, where the Emerald Buddha’s dark green face seemed the epitome of Buddha hood, and where at the king’s ancestral temple door I found my own face on a kinnara statue. However, it was not until by the middle of 1968 when I arrived in Japan that I was able to study Mahayana images, especially Avalokitdvara, as it was revered here, even in the eleven-headed form since the seventh century.

For this reason, I took up residence in Japan, living intermittently in the U.S., mostly in Hawaii to carry on graduate studies in Buddhist art. Japan is today like a living museum of treasures, both Chinese and Japanese, and in looking at images I learned that the highest form of compassion in Avalokitesvara, in Japan called Kannon, with the greatest number of skilful means to save beings, is the eleven- headed, 1,000-armed form, the 1,000 being equated with infinite means, but why the eleven heads?

This question intrigued me so much that after repeated study trips to India, Southeast Asia, besides to special collections and sites in Afghanistan, Korea, Taiwan, and in Europe, France, England and Switzerland, I decided to investigate the eleven-headed form, as my chief study. I chose to include the background matrix of early scholarship bearing on Avalokitesvara’s origin and development of its eleven-headed form so as to present in a complete tapestry of historical overview the iconographic features in a variety of selected images from many localities.

Thus in the following study, more than fifty images are examined and many compared and illustrated in 67 figures. Some of these are prototypes, whereas others may illustrate styles with bearing on later Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin (Chinese name) or Kannon images, or the Tibetan Chenresigs. Many theories for the origin of the eleven-headed Bodhisattva have been advanced, but here a new theory for its origin, based on Avalokitdvara in the litany, as a savior from dangers, seen in Indian cave art, is my special contribution to such theories.

Two basic head styles can be discerned clearly in Eleven-Headed Avalokiteavara, a vertical one, found in India in the earliest known, sixth century example still seen in Kanheri caves, and later similar ones in Cambodia, Nepal and Tibet (the Tibetan with one demonic, or wrathful head among benign ones); and a pyramid style with a complex iconography of both beatific and wrathful, and also fanged heads, found in Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Sutras from the earliest centuries of this era explain the heads and other iconography, which are included here, but there are some differences in translations made at different times, and often iconographic scrolls did not follow sutra specifications, and consequently image-makers did not either.

As this study intends to move across political and cultural boundaries, and follow time factors from the fifth to the twelfth century, it shows an extended view across large parts of Asia where the Bodhisattva in many forms, among them the eleven- headed, gave succor to believers and inspired faith wherever the litany was produced, in rock inscriptions, sculpture or painting, with hope to save men from disasters.

The litanies I studied to work out my theory of the origin of Eleven-Headed Avalokitesvara are all from the sixth-seventh centuries, i.e. contemporary with the earliest known eleven-headed in Kanheri caves, which is near a sculpted litany showing en “dreads” or dangers from which the Bodhisattva saves. This image, litany, and others in Ajanta, and Aurangabad caves, having only eight dreads, are all in a noble Gupta style. In Nepal, a vertical head style similar to that of the eleven- headed in Kanheri caves is found in a fifth-sixth century’s form of Visnu Viavarupa in classical Gupta style. No such early images are found in Tibet where Avalokitesvara later on became the country’s patron saint, often in the eleven- headed form with 1,000 symbolic arms, an iconography that has been carried up to the present time.

Then jumping across the Himalayas into Central Asia, we find a seventh century wood sculpture of an Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin rescued from oblivion at Toyuk, near Turfan, robbed of its jewels in the meantime, but still showing the beatific Bodhisattva smile. Its style of drapery and jeweled chains can be traced back to one- head Kuan-yins from Hsiang-T’ang-Shan caves of the sixth century Northern Ch’i dynasty, also in the same columnar style. It is possible to follow their style of jewelry to many T’arig dynasty stone sculptures from Ch’ang-an, and again both of these types show influence from the Gupta style, in the way the figures are delineated under the garments. In Japan, the earliest known, seventh century bronze image of Eleven-Headed Kannon also shows many points of similarity with these images.

Influence from paintings of lantern ceilings in Ajanta caves are found in ceilings of the 1,000 Buddha caves at Tun-huang oasis near the “Jade Gate,” last point of no return into the Taklamakan desert. Here also we find perhaps the earliest Chinese wall painting of a seventh century, Eleven-Headed Kuan-yin with a mixed head style, combining the T’ang painting of red-iron-wire line with the sturdy, pneumatic and powerful body style of Kuana and Gupta style Buddhas. Later banners from Tunhuang of the eleven-headed form of Kuan-yin, from ninth-tenth centuries, show a developed pyramid head style, with some demonic or wrathful heads, perhaps guardian farms, on the sides of the benign main head of the Bodhisattva.

In Japan, the pyramid style of Kannon with eleven heads, Sometimes twelve, mostly has three calm heads, three fanged, three angry and a Buddha head on top. Besides there is a laughing head with open mouth in the back, often with the tongue sticking out, as in some Chinese images. The seventh-eighth centuries paintings in Horyu-ji temple, executed in the fine iron-wire line and delicate colors, derived from T’ang painting, show an eleven-headed image with a three-tiered head style and only a calm expression in all the faces. Still here, we find echoes of painting in the Ajanta caves.

In China there are also remnants of the Indian yaksi’s jeweled corset in T’ang images, and her tribhanga pose is seen as sensuously in a Japanese, ninth century huge wood sculpture with a perfect pyramid triple-main-head style with a demonic and an angry head on each side of the beautiful main head, in a way very reminiscent of the Mahesvara in Elephanta caves near Bombay.

It is hoped this short, though wide-ranging study will be of use to scholars in many fields of Asian and Buddhist studies, as well as in Asian art and culture touched by the influence of the Great Bodhisattva of the Silk Road. May the Brightness of the rainbow radiance shine forth in every quarter for the good of all humanity.

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