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Avalokiteshvara and the paramitas

The diversity of manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, and the range of implements in her thousand hands, indicates the importance of skillful means directed to suffering beings. We can use this principle by being willing to vary our approach to different people and developing sensitivity to the true needs of others. Of course this implies empathetic listening, carefully and patiently considering the cries of beings and also the subtler sounds around us.

Another element of this archetype of compassion is immediate, unconditional response. Responding unhesitatingly with whatever comes to hand, trusting our best intention, can help develop the skillfulness that actually helps in the situations that confront us. By intimately studying how we ourselves exist, by settling in and seeing that we are not separate from others, we can be free to respond when and how it would be useful. We can leave things alone, as did Bodhidharma, without reacting unconsciously from prejudices or the reflexes of conditioning.

The paramitas most emphasized by Avalokiteshvara are generosity, skillful means, patience, and powers.

The generosity of Avalokiteshvara is in his natural, unconditional responsiveness, reaching back in the night. But his immediate impulse to be there when someone calls his name is also informed by self-examination, by intimate awareness of how the self exists. Giving leads to more complete giving. We learn generosity by being generous.

Skillful means
Avalokiteshvara's generosity is interwoven with her practice of skillful means. The image of the Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara implies that the implements are numerous and available. Such proficiency is less a matter of acquiring knowledge and technology than of intuition and practice, of learning to use whatever may come to hand and trusting our own intention and responses.

The paramita of patience is relevant because we must also realize the limits of our current practices of generosity and skillfulness in order for them to develop. This is the patience of simply observing and contemplating the activities or sounds of the world. We see such patience in Bodhidharma gazing at a wall for nine years. This patience is not passive, unconscious waiting but rather an active, ready attention to our life.

The transcendent practice of powers is most fully embodied by Avalokiteshvara in the many stories about her miraculous assistance of people in distress. Not only does she respond generously and skillfully, but she has extraordinary powers to apply to diverse situations. The persistent application of skillful giving of itself seems to naturally bring forth such unusual capacities. These endowments may not be a function of magic but of clarified intention reflecting the needs of the beings before us.