From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
(Avalokiteśvara), Skt.; one of the most important bodhisattvas of the Mahāyāna. The literal meaning of Avalokiteshvara is variously interpreted. One interpretation is the “Lord Who Looks Down,” in which the last component of the name is taken to be ishvara, “lord.” Another interpretation is “He Who Hears the Sounds [Outcries] of the World” or also the “Sound That Illumines the World,” in which svara, “sound” is regarded as the final component of the name. In any case, Avalokiteshvara embodies one of the two fundamental aspects of buddhahood, compassion (karunā), in virtue of which he is often given the epithet Mahākarunā, “Great Compassion.” The other fundamental aspect of buddhahood is wisdom (prajñā), which is embodied by the bodhisattva Mañjushrī. Avalokiteshvara is the power of the buddha Amitābha manifested as a bodhisattva and appears as his helper. His limitless compassion expresses itself in his wonderful ability to help all beings who turn to him at times of extreme danger. In folk belief, Avalokiteshvara also protects from natural catastrophe and grants blessings to children.
In China Avalokiteshvara is venerated under the name Kuan-yin, in Japan under the name Kannon (also Kanzeon and Kwannon), and in both countries is generally considered to be female. The Tibetan form of Avalokiteshvara is Chenresi. H.H. The Dalai Lama is considered to be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrizig, Tib.) by Tibetan Buddhists.