Making a general observation of the Buddhist doctrine, we can divide this complicated system into two main aspects, the religious aspect and philosophical aspect. The religious aspect is about Samsara and cultivation, while the philosophical aspect is about the truth of life and the universe. Buddhist people always get overwhelmed by this extensive knowledge and profound learning, and most of them learn Buddhist doctrine by joining one tradition and studying particular mantras. In China, most people choose Chinese Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism. The Great Compassion Mantra, which is well known in Buddhism, is studied by many Buddhist people.
How is the Great Compassion Mantra critical for disseminating the Buddhist doctrine? Firstly, this mantra comes from Avalokitesvara, so it reflects Avalokitesvara’s Buddhist teachings. Secondly, as a mantra, the Great Compassion Mantra has its advantages for people to remember it easily. Thirdly, every sentence of its content consists of different religious and philosophical doctrines of Buddhism. The first piece of evidence that the Great Compassion Mantra helps disseminate the Buddhist doctrine is that it reflects Avalokitesvara’s Buddhist teachings.
The full title of the Great Compassion Mantra is Thousand-Handed and Thousand-Eyed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva’s Vast, Perfect, Unimpeded, Great Compassionate Heart Dharani Sutra. (Tanxiyong, 2008, 202. ) The Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is known as one of the most widely revered bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. According to the book of Jian Xiu Fa Man (Tanxiyong, 2008), the origin of the Great Compassion Mantra is that Avalokitesvara met a Buddha whose name was “Thousand Rays King Stillness Thus Come One” countless billions of kalpas ago.
The Buddha told Avalokitesvara that he should hold a heart-mantra to give great benefit and happiness to all living beings in the future evil age and then spoke the Great Compassion Mantra to him. At that time Avalokitesvara was just at the first Bhumi(stage of Bodhisattva), right after hearing this mantra, he exceeded the eighth Bhumi. At that time, as his heart was joyful, he vowed: ‘If I will be able to give benefit and happiness to all living beings in the future, let me have one thousand hands and one thousand eyes immediately. ‘
Instantly after the vow, Avalokitesvara got fully one thousand hands and one thousand eyes on his body. (Tanxiyong, 2008, 202-204) In this story, the Great Compassion Mantra plays an important role for Avalokitesvara’s path of enlightment. For spreading the doctrine of this mantra, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva says that people and gods who recite and hold the Great Compassionate Heart Dharani will obtain fifteen kinds of good birth and will not suffer fifteen kinds of bad death. (Tanxiyong, 2008, 206) This saying is reflecting the Buddhist doctrine of Samsara, the circle of human’s birth.
People need to do good actions so that they can reborn in good karmas such as meet virtuous friends, be pure, and obtain everything they seek. On contrast, if people do bad actions, they will be influenced by bad karma such as die of poverty, die of madness, and suicide. Those elements are exactly what the Great Compassion Mantra advocates. If gods and people wants to born in good karma, they should constantly recite and hold the Great Compassion Mantra without laziness. There are many Buddhist people, especially Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist people, who believe in Avalokitesvara religiously.
In order to study the Avalokitesvara’s Buddhist teachings better and living in good karmas as well, most people choose to study this symbolic mantra and gain Buddhist learning from this scripture. Mantra, which is widely used in Buddhism and Hinduism, is a special kind of representation and has its advantages for people to remember it easily. There are many ways to understand the meaning of mantra, one way is to understand it as the transformation of speech (Dharma Heaven, 2003).
To explain more specifically, We recite and meditate on mantra, which is enlightened sound, the speech of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the union of Sound and Emptiness. It has no intrinsic reality, but is simply the manifestation of pure sound, experienced simultaneously with its Emptiness. Through mantra, we no longer cling to the reality of the speech and sound encountered in life, but experience it as essentially empty. Then confusion of the speech aspect of our being is transformed into enlightened awareness. (Dharma Heaven, 2003, 4).
The citation shows that mantra, although is simple and short, refers to Buddhist doctrines and brings people grasps such as meditation and emptiness. Let’s take the very famous mantra, Om Mani Padma Hum as example. In the book of An Introduction to Buddhism (Harvey, 1990), this mantra only consists of six words and its six syllables are associated with the six perfections, or the six realms of rebirth (Harvey, 1990, 136). When People recite this six-word-mantra, they can understand the compassion of Avalokiteshvara better.
In other words, people can achieve plenty of enlightens through a simple mantra. This is the advantage of reciting mantra rather than other kinds of representations, especially for the complicated Sanskrit language. Similar to other mantras, the Great Compassion Mantra is also an easily remembered short mantra with 84 sentences, and every sentence of it consists of group of words and some sentences only include one word. What’s more, another feature of mantra is that it can be sung.
According to Lin Haicheng (2004), Buddhist music appeared in the times of the Buddha, after being adopted by the Chinese Buddhists, it embodied the features of Chinese traditional music, thus causing the Sanskrit music developed in China to have a greater variation in style and contents (Lin, 2004, 240). It’s much easier for Buddhist people reciting and spreading the mantra because singing is often said to be more emotional than speaking. In China, there are over one hundred editions of different songs of the Great Compassion Mantra.
Some pop singers such as Qiyu also record a Great Compassion Mantra song into her album. By this way, the Great Compassion Mantra is spread more widely, and when people sing the mantra, they gain knowledge and learning easier, and get a better understanding of Buddhist doctrine of the content. How the Great Compassion Mantra helps disseminate the Buddhist doctrine is also reflected in its content and meaning. According to the Indian tradition, every sentence of a mantra should be explained by inner meaning and outer meaning.
As mentioned before, the Great Compassion Mantra consists of 84 sentences and every sentence includes different religious and philosophical Buddhist doctrines. For example, As Tan (2008) wrote in his book, the twelfth sentence is sarva athaduh subha?. sarva means everything, the athaduh is translated as no desire; and the subha? equals to the meaning of purity (Tan, 2008, 228). The outer meaning of this sentence is to show Avalokitesvara’s selflessness and achievements because he desires nothing and remains everything purely.
However, the inner meanings sublimate this to a higher level which focuses on suffering and desire. All beings are pure if they stop desire because multifarious desires (jealous, anger, and so on) keep one being in the cycle of Samsara. If one stops desire, he can achieve enlightment and go to Nirvana, the state of complete happiness and peace, and the way to do this is to get wisdom and leave desires away. Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is also reflected here. Nothing is permanent in Buddhism, everything includes desires are going to change at last.
When we recite this sentence, we will keep in mind that we should remain ourselves pure and stop those impermanent desires, thus way we can understand the doctrine of empty finally. This sentence contains the meaning of the basic Buddhist doctrines of desire, purity, and empty. Similar doctrines are to be found in other 83 sentences. As Tan (2008) said, when people recite the Great Compassion Mantra, they gain Buddhist learning through the content synchronously. (Tan, 2008, 262) In conclusion, the Great Compassion Mantra plays an important role in Buddhist tradition.
The mantra comes from and reflects Avalokitesvara’s Buddhist teachings. Besides, like other mantras, it has advantages for people to remember it easily because it’s short and can be sung. Furthermore, the content of the mantra consists of different inner and outer meanings of Buddhism doctrines. Although it is only a short mantra with some words, the meaning behind the content can’t be ignored. It is no doubt that the Great Compassion Mantra is critical for disseminating the Buddhist doctrine.