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The practical similarity between Christ/disciples and Buddhas/bodhisattvas is their orientation toward others, their unrestricted compassion. To attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings is by definition to be a helper to all beings. Throughout the Buddhist world, suffering beings address their appeals to bodhisattvas and look to them for aid. In this chapter, we turn to these simple questions: How do bodhisattvas help? And how might reflection on that helping inform Christian theology? Many Faces of Compassion So far, we have not focused on any particular bodhisattva. The teachings that we have reviewed suggest that there is only one bodhisattva path and that bodhisattva-Buddhas could not differ from one another in their nondual realization. But the characteristic form of the bodhisattva is precisely as a helper, and such helpers come in different guises. One of the most famous is the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the “Lord who regards the cries of the world.” This figure appears in Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra , arising as a roughly chronological contemporary to Jesus and the gospels.1 The Buddha explains this title by saying that if numberless billions of beings in suffering and agony were to call Avalokiteśvara’s name, he would “immediately hear their cries and all of them would be freed.”2 This applies to concrete worldly needs, whether they be the attack of robbers or the desire to bear a son. If someone, guilty or not, is imprisoned, then her bonds will be broken if she calls on this name.3 This bodhisattva is a prime example of the skillful-means/one-vehicle theme of the Lotus Sutra. He appears in more diverse forms than any other bodhisattva, 6 How Do Buddhas Help? B O D H I S AT T VA A S B E N E FAC T O R A N D C H R I ST A S S AV IO R 210 C h r i s t i a n R e f l e c t i o n s taking whatever status is required—that of a monk, a woman, a child, or a deity.4 In the Lotus Sutra, he is one of many bodhisattva figures. But as Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India, his prominence grew. This change came most decisively after the transition to China and East Asia. A key aspect was a shift in gender that took place around 900 ce in the northwest Chinese end of the Silk Road.5 Avalokiteśvara became Kuan Yin (or, in Japan, Kannon), the preeminent object of appeal and representation of mercy in Buddhist religious life in these cultures. Kuan Yin assumes many forms herself. The most common catalog of these lists thirty-three, each responsive to particular conditions such as childbirth or peril at sea.6 With the concrete figure of Kuan Yin, we come much closer to the texture of bodhisattvas in ordinary Buddhist life. Her benefits and assistance are sought by virtually all, not only those who in their lifetimes vow to take up the organized pursuit of the bodhisattva perfections. Just as the Jataka tales retrospectively outline Gautama’s bodhisattva path, Kuan Yin acquired her backstories, as well. One of the most popular accounts says that Kuan Yin was once a princess named Miao Shan.7 If Miao Shan belongs to Avalokiteśvara’s family tree on the ascending bodhisattva path, then she also has a pedigree on the other, “descending” side, as well. Avalokiteśvara is an emanation of Amitābha Buddha, who became the central figure in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition. Looking at things from a chronological perspective, we could say that Miao Shan became Kuan Yin (Avalokiteśvara), who became Amitābha Buddha in the realization of dharmakāya or ultimate Buddha nature. One could equally well say that Buddha nature manifests as Amitābha, an enjoyment body (a sambhogakāya), who further manifests as Kuan Yin on another level, while Miao Shan herself is an even less subtle or nirmānakāya manifestation of Kuan Yin. In a sense, the first approach adheres to the no-self itinerary, as increasingly subtle selves are cleared away. The second comports with the Buddha-nature itinerary, as this supreme reality is manifested to the relative levels of sentient beings in their ignorance. According to her legend, Miao Shan was intent on a Buddhist monastic life, but her royal father wished her to marry. He allowed her to go...


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