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This small sculpture, carved in India sometime during the 11th-12th centuries, depicts Avalokiteśvara , the bodhisattva of compassion.

What is a bodhisattva? In some Buddhist traditions, specific qualities or character traits to be cultivated by followers are expressed in human form as divine beings known as bodhisattvas. Giving a human form to an abstract quality allows Buddhists to imagine themselves emulating or becoming like the bodhisattva, cultivating within themselves the qualities embodied in the deity. There are many bodhisattvas — Manjushri is the bodhisattva of wisdom. Maitreya is the bodhisattva of benevolence or kindness.

Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who embodies the quality of compassion—the ability to understand the suffering of others. Known as the “one who listens to the cries of the world,” Avalokiteśvara is motivated by a keen desire to help alleviate the suffering of all.

Select highlighted areas of the sculpture to learn more.

One story demonstrates the intensity of Avalokiteśvara’s desire to help others along the path to enlightenment. Long ago, Avalokiteśvara made a vow never to rest until he had freed all beings from samsara, promising that if he ever gave up, his head should split into a thousand pieces. One day, observing the intense suffering in the world, he became discouraged and decided that it was not possible to help so many, that instead he should work only for his own benefit. At that moment his head split into a thousand pieces. When he realized what had happened, he called out to Amitabha Buddha for help. Amitabha Buddha used his great power to reassemble the pieces of Avalokiteśvara’s head, and also gave him a thousand arms so that he could be of help to ever more beings. Amitabha Buddha put an eye into the palm of each of the thousand hands, so that Avalokiteśvara’s compassion for others would always be informed by wisdom. What does this story tell us about becoming discouraged? Seeking help? Becoming stronger?


The Sanskrit word samsara means “journeying” and in Buddhism is the name for the repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth caused by attachment and desire.

A sculpture like this one would have been used to as a visual aid to meditation, a practice of controlling one’s thoughts and breath in order to train the mind. A person might focus on the image and meditate on the compassion embodied by Avalokiteśvara, as well as on his dedication to helping others on the path to enlightenment. While meditating, one might recite the Sanksrit mantra associated with Avalokiteśvara, Om Mani Padme Hum .

There are many ways to interpret this mantra. Here is one. The syllable Om indicates one’s intention to cultivate compassion in body, speech, and mind — known in Buddhism as the three “doors” by which one enters the world. Mani means “jewel” and represents compassion itself. Padme means “lotus” and symbolizes wisdom. Without wisdom, compassion can be well-meaning but misguided. Hum symbolizes one’s intention to cultivate wisdom and compassion together.

Another form of meditation on the compassion of Avalokiteśvara which has been practiced by Buddhist monks for centuries is the making of a sand mandala.

Click here or the side bar to your right to watch monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery make the sand mandala of Avalokiteśvara from millions of grains of colored sand.


Avalokiteśvara holds a lotus in his left hand. The lotus, which begins in the mud at the bottom of the pond but rises above the murky water and blooms without stain, reminds Buddhists of the capacity for enlightenment in each of us. A verse from an ancient Buddhist text reads, “The spirit of the best man is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water, which does not adhere to it.” At the same time, the lotus symbolizes Avalokiteśvara’s connection to the world, which he does not abandon despite its impurity.


Avalokiteśvara is sometimes called the "one who works tirelessly to help all of those who call his name." Because Avalokiteśvara’s compassion calls him to help others, his pose is one of action. Compare his pose to that of Buddha in a sculpture from the same era.

The Buddha sits cross-legged in a still and quiet pose of meditation. Avalokiteśvara’s body sways in movement. His right leg steps forward and his right arm reaches out, emphasizing his connection to all earthly beings, each of whom he has promised to help.


Avalokiteśvara’s right hand reaches out in the gesture ( mudra ) of bestowing blessings. If you look closely, you will see drops of nectar carved into his palm, which he offers to all living beings.


The name Avalokiteśvara means “the lord who gazes down upon the world.” In this sculpture, Avalokiteśvara’s half-closed eyes look down upon the suffering beings of the earth, his gentle smile expressing compassion for all beings.


Images of the Buddha portray him in the robes of a monk and with long, stretched ears that hint at the heavy earrings and other riches he left behind. In contrast, celestial bodhisattvas like Avalokiteśvara are depicted wearing tall crowns, resplendent with jewelry like heavy earrings, necklaces, and bracelets.


The five seated figures above Avalokiteśvara’s head represent the Five Buddha Families, each of which embodies a particular Buddhist principle. Each one is associated with one of the five negative emotions that cause suffering, which Buddhist teachings call poisons, and the corresponding type of wisdom that emerges as the transformation of that poison. Each one is also is associated with a symbolic color, one of the cardinal directions, and one of the five elements.

From left to right:

Vairochana represents both the poison of delusion or ignorance and its transformation into the wisdom of understanding ultimate reality. Vairochana’s color is white; his direction, center; his symbol, a wheel.

Ratnasambhava represents the poison of pride, of thinking that we are better than others. Its transformation is the wisdom of equanimity, in which we see all beings equally. Ratnasambhava’s color is yellow; his direction, south; his symbol, a jewel.

Amitabha represents the poison of desire and its transformation — the wisdom of discernment. Desire, craving, and attachment create dissatisfaction — the feeling of wanting more, better, newer. With the wisdom of discernment comes the ability to make correct judgments about what will and will not lead to true happiness. Amitabha’s color is red; his direction, west; his symbol, a lotus.

Ashokbhya represents the poison of anger and the “mirror-like” wisdom that is its transformation. It is called “mirror-like” wisdom because it allows one to see everything, clearly and free from distortion, just as it is. Akshobhya’s color is blue; his direction, east; his symbol, a vajra, a symbol of stability.

Amoghasiddhi represents the poison of envy or jealousy and its corresponding transformation — all-accomplishing wisdom. When one views the world with envy, one is overwhelmed either by the need to keep up or the feeling of being left out. When transformed into all-accomplishing wisdom, one can act freely in order to reach one’s full potential. Amoghasiddhi’s color is green; his direction, north; his symbol, a sword.


The Sanskrit word mandala means “circle.” In the Buddhist tradition, it is understood as the circle around a great being, such as the Buddha or a bodhisattva, and can also be understood to symbolize the entire universe.

Mandalas can be three-dimensional—carved from wood or cast in metal—or they can be two-dimensional, often painted on cloth. Some of the most remarkable mandalas are “painted” with millions of grains of colored sand, over a period of days or even weeks, and destroyed as soon as they are completed, reminding us of an important principle of Buddhism, the impermanence of all things.

In 2014, monks from the Drepung Loseling Monestary worked for six days to complete the sand mandala of Avalokiteśvara at the Michael C. Carlos Museum as part of the annual Tibet Week celebration.

First, the monks consecrate the space in which the mandala will be created by making offerings, chanting prayers, blowing horns, and ringing bells.

The monks begin the mandala by laying out the plan or “working lines” with chalk according to centuries-old mathematical formulas.

To distribute the sand, the monks use copper funnels called chak-purs .

Holding the chak-pur, full of sand, in one hand and running a metal rod back and forth across its surface to make the sand flow, the monks work with great precision to create the intricate design of the celestial palace in which Avalokiteśvara resides.

As you watch the time-lapse video of the monks at work, keep in mind that the making the of the mandala is an act of meditation. As the monks work, they are meditating on the quality of compassion embodied by Avalokiteśvara that they hope to realize in themselves.

You may be surprised to see that as soon as it is finished, the mandala is destroyed, its colorful sands swept up and carried to the waters of Peavine Creek on the Emory campus. Depositing the sands in the moving water is believed to spread the compassion of Avalokiteśvara throughout the world.

The sand mandala is a two-dimensional representation of the celestial palace of Avalokiteśvara. Think of it as a map of the palace, or a bird’s-eye view. As monks create the mandala, they imagine themselves traveling through the celestial palace, moving closer and closer to Avalokiteśvara, and the compassion he represents.

To explore the imagery of the mandala, click on the highlighted areas.

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Three rings encircle the celestial palace. The outer ring symbolizes protective flames, the mountain of fire.


Three rings encircle the celestial palace. The second is a ring of vajras , a ritual implement as well as a symbol of stability.


Three rings encircle the celestial palace. The inner ring represents lotus petals, a symbol of purity and the capacity for enlightenment.


The square shape within the circle represents the plan of the palace, which is divided into four areas, or quadrants, of differing colors. Along with the red circle in the center, the colored quadrants represent the Five Buddha Families.

The inner walls of the palace are composed of five layers of light: blue, green, red, yellow, and white.


The symbols along the red band represent eight goddesses who give offerings in the form of garlands, perfume, song, dance, flowers, and light. Above that, a row of repeating vajras on a yellow band, and above that, garlands of pearls. The outer edge is formed from white lotus petals.


At each corner of the palace roof, a small monkey grasps a parasol from which colorful banners stream. The Buddha taught that human minds were like monkeys — restless, hard to control, curious, but undisciplined. Buddhist teachings and practices help to focus and discipline the mind.


Avalokiteśvara is represented by the red lotus in the center of the mandala. The lotus, and the color red, also represent Amitabha, the head of one of the Five Buddha Families that we saw hovering above the head of the Carlos Museum sculpture of Avalokiteśvara. The lotus is surrounded by symbols of the other heads of the Buddha Families.


The blue vajra represents Akshobya, the head of one of the Five Buddha Families. Vajra is the Sanskrit word for diamond, a symbol for the stability of the enlightened mind. On the green field representing the gardens of the palace look for other images of the blue vajra.


The wheel represents Vairocana, head of one of the Five Buddha Families. The wheel, as we have seen, also represents the teachings of the Buddha, the dharma. On the green field representing the gardens of the palace look for other images of the dharma wheel.


The jewel represents Ratnasambhava, head of one of the Five Buddha Familes.


The sword represents Amoghasiddhi, head of one of the Five Buddha Families. On the green field representing the gardens of the palace look for other images of the sword.


“Golden treasure vases” from which fly flags and banners.


Images of the seven jewels are tucked within the foliage of wish-fulfilling trees. Look for the unicorn, king’s earrings, queen’s earrings, crossed gems, the three-eyed gem, and the eight-branch coral.


Each of the cardinal directions is marked by an elaborate gate or entrance to the palace. The opening in each gate is in the shape of a T. The gates are depicted as if standing in front of them, rather than down on them like a map.

Sitting atop the T-shaped openings are guardians called makaras , Sanskrit for “sea dragons.” Garlands of pearls stream from the mouths of the makaras.

At the very top of the gate two deer flank the dharma wheel, representing the first teaching (dharma) given by the Buddha in Deer Park in Sarnath, India.

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University
571 South Kilgo Circle