THANGKA TALKS 01: CHENREZIG’s 1000 arms explained by Carmen Mensink

So today I want to talk to you about the
different forms of the Buddha of Compassion.
He’s called Chenrezig in Tibetan but his Sanskrit name is a bit more difficult to
pronounce, and it actually took me a while! ‘Avalokiteshvara’ which
literally means ‘He who hears the cries of the world.’ Did you know that there are
many different forms of Chenrezig? He appears in different manifestations so
he can be of help to many sentient beings, and for example in this two armed
version, which is usually considered to be the ‘bodhisattva form’, it’s a form that
you do not see very often and you’re probably much more familiar with the
four-armed version, because this is the form that is most commonly used in
Tibetan art. There’s also an eight-armed version, but this eight-armed version is
actually a simplification of the one- thousand-armed Chenrezig. The 1000-armed Chenrezig does not have one thousand arms as you would expect, it
is actually one-thousand-and-eight-arms! And when I made this drawing, oh my god
at first it really felt like doing homework, but later on it
became a beautiful practice, a beautiful meditation, and it took me a long time to
create this drawing. So the many hands are a sign of his enormous compassion
because the more hands that he has the more he can help other beings, and
when we zoom in you see that in each hand there’s a little eye that stands
for wisdom, because compassion and wisdom always need to go hand in hand.
If you have a lot of compassion but you’re compassionate actions are not
done in a wise way, it can lead to disaster even, and the other way around
as well, so wisdom and compassion are actually the two things that we need to
develop if we want to become a Buddha. So in one of the ancient sutras Buddha
Shakyamuni told that Chenrezig had a special relationship with Tibet for many
ages. He also said that in the future Chenrezig would tame the ‘wild and barbaric’
Ttibetans and lead them on the path to enlightenment. The Buddha also told of
how Chenrezig was miraculously born from a light beam, coming from the heart
of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha is the spiritual father of Chenrezig, and the
beam of light turned into a radiant Lotus, in which the four-armed incarnation
of Chenrezig came into existence and Amitabha predicted that in this
manifestation he would tame the Tibetans. In the presence of Amitabha Chenrezig repeated his vow to work ceaselessly for the welfare of all
sentient beings, and his compassionate motivation was so strong that he stated
“Until I have alleviated the suffering of all sentient beings, may I never, not even
for a moment, give up my purpose to live for others for my own joy and happiness.
If I may even think for a split second about my own happiness, may my head then
burst into ten pieces and my body into a thousand, like the petals of a lotus.”
After this statement he stayed in deep meditation in a state of single pointed
concentration for a very long time, and he recited the powerful mantra that he
directed at every living being, in every corner of the world, with the desire for
them to be free and become free of their suffering. And when he eventually emerged
from its long and deep meditation and looked out over the Land of Snow, he was
so bitterly disappointed when he realized that he was only able to help a tiny
number of beings The vast majority was still caught up in
their illusions as before, and in despair he cried out “What is the point? I cannot
do anything for them… Maybe it’s just better for me to find my own peace and
happiness. And he was still speaking when, by the power of his earlier vow,
his head split into ten pieces and his body into a thousand, and it filled the
discouraged bodhisattva with an unbearable pain… He cried out to
Amitabha, who immediately came forth, and looked at him affectionately and told him
not to despair. Amitabha restored the broken body and changed the broken
pieces into a thousand hands, each with their own ‘eye of wisdom’ in it. In the
same way he transformed the torned pieces of his head into ten faces of which nine
peaceful ones and one wrathful one, so he could see in all directions at
once, and in loving and powerful manner reach out to all sentient beings.
Finally, to show how happy is well he was with his heart son, Amitabha crowned the
ten faces with an eleventh face, that of himself, and this is the top face in the
picture. And in this way the Eleven-Headed and One-Thousand-Armed Chenrezig took shape. Do you want to learn more about Chenrezig,
this beautiful Buddha of compassion? Check out my upcoming lectures and thangka art classes via the links in the description below.

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