Meeting Chenrezig in Sound: Understanding Chenrezig’s Name and the Meaning of the Chenrezig Mantra

Chenrezig personification of compassion

In recent years, Chenrezig—the Tibetan name for the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion—has become an important part of my spiritual practice. I have a strong affinity for sound, and much of my learning about Chenrezig has been in the form of sound and meaning: what “Chenrezig” itself means and how it relates to Avalokiteshvara’s other names, what the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of the word compassion actually mean, and the meaning of the famous Chenrezig mantra OM MANI PADME HUM.

In this article, I want to share both what I’ve learned about Chenrezig himself, as well as my own process of exploration. I feel the process I’ve followed shows how association and meaning can unfold along the Buddhist path, especially the parts of the path that are rich in energy and iconography.

Throughout this article, I’ll be describing what I learned about Chenrezig in my explorations , as well as weaving in Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on the same topic. I only discovered Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on Chenrezig within the past month, so it’s been very interesting to compare my own independent learning with his teaching, and I hope to illustrate that dynamic as well.

Chenrezig: First Connections

I had heard of Chenrezig growing up, but I didn’t connect strongly to Chenrezig until around three years ago, when my father, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, began practicing Four-Armed Chenrezig sadhana practice with a Tibetan Lama living in Hawaii. At his suggestion, I began joining for the weekly sadhana practice.

The lama often played a YouTube video (with the sound off) during the visualization part of the sadhana. The video includes a thangka of Chenrezig that I really like—something about the eyes and facial expression, and the vibrant colors. I found that looking at it gave me a certain feeling, and I began to carry that with me.

Four-armed Chenrezig
The YouTube video’s Chenrezig thangka

Because of his enthusiasm for the practice, I gifted my father a Chenrezig thangka for one of his birthdays, and then later bought one for myself. When my thangka arrived (about a year and a half ago now), I found that the energy of my own interest in and connection with Chenrezig heightened significantly.

Four-armed Chenrezig
The Chenrezig thangka in my home

From there, I began exploring Chenrezig in earnest, and that’s where I began to learn in depth about Chenrezig’s name, the meaning of compassion, and the meaning of the Chenrezig mantra.

Chenrezig: What the Name Means

The Tibetan name Chenrezig means “continuously looking,” and has been translated as:

  • “One who looks with unwavering eye”
  • “Unblinking Eyes”
  • “One who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion)”

Trungpa Rinpoche translates Chenrezig as: “He Who Sees All Sentient Beings.”

Chenrezig is the Tibetan version of the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara, which means “lord who gazes upon the world.” The idea of this name (in both Sanskrit and Tibetan) is that the loving gaze of compassion—the gaze of Chenrezig, compassion itself—forever holds all beings.

Avalokitasvara: The Female Compassion Deity

What I find most interesting about Chenrezig’s name is that there is another form of the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara. Wikipedia does a wonderful job summarizing the history, and it felt like a major revelation to me when I read it. The other name is Avalokitasvara: “Who hears the cries of the world.”

The Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara has an earlier form: Avalokitasvara, which means not “who gazes upon the world” but “who hears the cries of the world.”

Western scholars originally thought this name had been made up, in error, by Chinese translators from Sanskrit, who named the deity Guanshiyin, “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World,” or “who perceives the world’s lamentations.” Shortened to Guanyin (and later rendered in Japan as Konan), this is the contemporary Chinese name for Avalokiteshvara, who is represented as a female compassion deity.

Guanyin

Scholars later realized that Avalokitasvara is actually a correct—and older—name of the deity, which was later developed into Avalokiteshvara (adding the sense of “lord” and changing “hear” to “see”). Guanshiyin, “Who Hears the Cries of the World,” wasn’t a mistranslation at all.

As I mentioned, I have a strong affinity for sound, and learning this alternate name of Chenrezig had a profound effect on me. One who gazes (lovingly) upon the world sounds, to me, nice but a little distant—but “hearing the world’s cries” carries a strong feeling I can immediately connect with.

In fact, many of my most immediate and piercing experiences of compassion have been sound-based. As an example, I have a small dog, and this morning when I picked her up, she yelped loudly (I don’t know why, and she wasn’t hurt). I was immediately pierced by a feeling that was so immediate I didn’t have a name for it. I feel it was a strong hit of compassion—the powerful, immediate, primordial feeling that is true compassion, not the refined notion of charity and concern for others that we might often think of.

Chenrezig and Quanyin: Different Representations of Compassion

So Quanyin/Konan inherit the earlier meaning of Avalokitasvara—“hearing the cries of the world”—and represent the deity as feminine; And Chenrezig inherits the later meaning—“lord who gazes lovingly upon the world”—and represents the deity as masculine.

I find that Chenrezig’s various names identify distinct elements or feelings of compassion.

What this leads to, in my experience, is a deity whose various names identify multiple distinct elements or feelings of compassion. These multiple meanings and representations have helped me understand Chenrezig, and compassion itself, more deeply.

This feels indicative of deity practices in Tibetan Buddhism—and especially of Chenrezig specifically, whose adaptability and multiplicity of manifestation seems, to me, to be a particular quality of that deity. Another way of saying this is that compassion itself is multifaceted.

Trungpa Rinpoche discusses this as follows:

“In the Chinese Buddhist tradition Avalokiteshvara appears in feminine form and in Tibetan tradition in masculine form. Nevertheless this is one and the same Avalokiteshvara. Let me make clear that there is a mandala of Avalokiteshvara; it contains a whole mandala. This is why differences appear between the feminine and masculine principles…

Compassion is not just one kind of compassion, it has many different aspects, different dimensions.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa – Volume One

Chenrezig and Compassion: The Meaning of Nyingje

Another journey of sound and meaning I’ve been on is the meaning of compassion itself—what Chenrezig is the deity of.

The Tibetan word for compassion, nyingje, has a beautiful meaning: “noble heart.”

Compassion is karuna in Sanskrit, and nyingje in Tibetan. Nyingje has a very beautiful direct meaning: “Noble Heart,” from nying (heart) and je (noble).

The many meanings of “compassion” in the West are sometimes quite different from nyingje itself, as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama indicates:

“[Nyingje] has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly, though the ideas it conveys are universally understood. It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness. It is also used as a term of both sympathy and of endearment. On the other hand, it does not imply ‘pity’ as the word compassion may. On the contrary nyingje denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origin in empathy.

…It is both the source and the result of patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and all good qualities.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Trungpa Rinpoche reinforces this meaning without mentioning nyingje by name (preferring to teach the Sanskrit name, karuna): “Compassion… does not mean being compassionate to a person, or being sympathetic, or collecting charity—one has to go beyond this. Now compassion in this sense, or karuna, is known in Tibet as the noble heart, that is to say the magnetic or the moving quality of enlightenment.”

My own compassion practice seems over time to move in line with these progressive meanings of compassion itself, from the shallowest—pity, charitable giving—to the deepest: noble heart, the quality of enlightened mind that moves on behalf of beings. Here as elsewhere, I have found simply exploring word definitions an extremely helpful vehicle in discovering compassion.

The Chenrezig Mantra: The Meaning of OM MANI PADME HUM

A last sound and meaning journey I’ve been on has to do with the famous six-syllable Chenrezig mantra: OM MANI PADME HUM.

OM MANI PADME HUM in Tibetan script (courtesy Jewel of Song)

This mantra may be one of Tibetan culture’s most recognizable elements. For example, around ten years ago, I attended a weekend teaching with His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, and before each day of teaching was not silent meditation, but rather OM MANI PADME HUM, set to music, on repeat until the Karmapa arrived. I was also taught, as a young child growing up Buddhist, to repeat the six-syllable mantra if I had to take a dead insect outside—presumably as an echo of a more widely held Tibetan practice.

Exploring the Chenrezig Mantra’s Six Syllables

But what does the six-syllable mantra OM MANI PADME HUM mean? Mani means “jewel” in Sanskrit, and Padma means “lotus,” which are clear. OM and HUM are both seed syllables, whose meaning is a bit more esoteric—I have personally always thought of OM as “sacred everything,” and HUM as associated with power and clearing psychological obstacles, but please see below for more authoritative translations.

The challenge is that there are just nouns and seed syllables in the mantra (not verbs, subjects and objects, and so on). So the intended meaning isn’t as set in stone as with a sentence like “I’m headed to the bank,” and this leads to a rich variety of interpretations.

Chenrezig Mantra: Different Interpretations

Again, I found Wikipedia very helpful in summing up Western scholarship on this topic, and it moves in a number of different directions:

  • A sense of sacredness: “In the lotus made of jewels.” To me, this is related to the divine, sacred quality of compassion: it’s like an enormous lotus flower that is also a jewel. It’s a bit like how strawberry lemonade tastes like both together, and is its own very good thing.
  • Addressing a deity: Manipadma (“jewel-lotus,” possibly an epithet for male Avalokiteshvara) or Manipadmi (“lotus-jewel,” possibly either a female manifestation or consort of Avalokiteshvara). To me, this makes the connection between the mantra and the deity him-/herself.
  • An erotic interpretation: “O, she with the jewel in her lotus.” This reading might seem like a stretch or off-the-wall, but I will mention that, in my exploration of Chenrezig, I have been personally surprised by the erotic power of compassion and compassion practice. There is an element of blissful connection that reminds me of sexual energy, or that might be sexual energy in its purest, most basic form.

Looking into these different interpretations, I don’t find them conflicting or eye-rolling. Rather, I find they reinforce and deepen my sense of compassion itself. The six-syllable mantra seems, to me, to carry all these meanings, and more—just like water is clear, flowing, heavy, and more.

Trungpa Rinpoche translates each syllable of the Chenrezig mantra as follows:

OM—the auspicious beginning (a “germ” syllable)
MANI—the jewel
PADME—the lotus
HUM—receiving the power, holding (a “germ” syllable)

He then gives the external meaning of the mantra as “Hail to the jewel in the lotus, so be it.” (He also, unconventionally, adds the Sanskrit HRIH as a seventh syllable.) He continues, “In fact, the words carry a plurality of meanings corresponding to different levels of awareness,” which makes me feel comfortable continuing to explore my own plural understanding that has developed over time.

Discovering Chenrezig in Sound: Closing Reflections

In general, when I began exploring Chenrezig, I sometimes felt surprise at the lack of emphasis on this deity within Shambhala, especially given his prominence in Tibetan Buddhism generally.

More recently, I’ve found that Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on Avalokiteshvara are extremely profound and helpful: they expand on and clarify the independent exploration I’ve been doing, like looking at a map of the park I’ve been exploring.

It also recently emerged that Trungpa Rinpoche wrote an Avalokiteshvara sadhana while in Tibet, so there’s yet more to explore there. I’m sure if I had the sadhana I would find it quite illuminating.

For me, meeting and discovering Chenrezig has been a learning process, comprising all the elements above and more. I have a long way to go: as you can tell, I haven’t said much about Chenrezig’s visual iconography itself (such as the wish-fulfilling jewel he holds in his four-armed form), as I am often slower to connect with these visual elements. But I’m quite grateful for what I’ve learned of compassion just from exploring centuries of sound and meaning—that’s how I often learn best, and what’s there is exceedingly rich.

Thank you for reading!

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

4 thoughts on “Meeting Chenrezig in Sound: Understanding Chenrezig’s Name and the Meaning of the Chenrezig Mantra

  1. Thanks Frederick. You should definitely receive the transmission for the Avalokiteshvara Sadhana as VCTR presents him in this sadhana of nonmeditation with a single seed syllable recitation from a vajrayana perspective.

  2. Hi Frederick, thank you so much for this wonderful article! I also am quite “attached” to the mantra of Chenrezig, “Om Mani Padme Hum.” I was given this mantra by the 16th Karmapa at the beginning of my dharma journey (as a student of Chogyam Trungpa, who invited HHK here first in 1974.
    This mantra plays in my mind, possibly in the background, continuously. Whenever I see a hurt animal or bug, as you mentioned, it springs out of my lips! HHK mentioned that we should say this mantra upon takeoff and landing of an airplane, and again, this is an automatic response for me in those situations, and any other that has any anxiety or uncertainty attached to it. Lots of resounding love for this exploration!

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2024-05-25 12:17:12