Introduction to Chenrezig:
Embodying Compassionate presence
For anyone who begins to explore the Buddhist world, perhaps the most familiar deity they will meet is the buddha of compassion – known in Tibet as Chenrezig, in India as Avalokiteshvara and in China as Guanyin. For the Tibetans in particular, Chenrezig is hugely significant primarily because H.H. Dalai Lama is considered the embodiment of Chenrezig in the human world. It is very common to hear Tibetan lay people, walking along with malas (rosaries) in their hands, quietly muttering the mantra of Chenrezig: OM MANI PADME HUNG. Their devotion to both the Dalai Lama and Chenrezig is a profoundly supportive presence in their lives.
Many lay Tibetans who have not had the opportunity to have formal education within the monasteries often hold the view that Chenrezig is a god that has manifested in the world to serve sentient beings out of his great compassion. The Dalai Lama then holds the place of a god incarnated. Those who have been through a deeper education into the principles of Buddhist philosophy will not see Chenrezig as a god, but rather as an aspect of our innate buddha-nature that we can each awaken. The Dalai Lama then becomes a man who has gradually awoken to that innate buddha potential and is able to embody the qualities of Chenrezig in the world to serve others.
The primary quality that Chenrezig embodies is mahakaruna, “great compassion”. As I have said, Chenrezig is seen as the buddha of compassion, but he is also sometimes described as the bodhisattva of compassion and this has a subtly different connotation. We understand a bodhisattva as one who aspires to fully awaken in order to liberate sentient beings from suffering. A bodhisattva’s heart intention, known as bodhicitta or the awakening mind, is rooted in two ingredients. The first of these is a deeply felt compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings; the second is the knowledge of our potential to awaken to our innate buddha-nature. This combination is a powerful cocktail that gives a bodhisattva the courage and determination to take on the challenges of the path to awaken to serve others. Chenrezig could be said to personify or symbolise the deep sense of compassionate bodhicitta that a bodhisattva holds in the heart towards all living creatures. Hence he is known as the bodhisattva of compassion.
There is a very dynamic aspect of compassion that energetically seeks to eliminate the suffering of another and will actively engage in the world to do so. But there is also another side to compassion, one I wish to call compassionate presence, that is often more subtle and nuanced. As I have found in my work as a psychotherapist, compassionate presence is possibly the most healing quality we can offer another. The quality of our parents’ holding as we enter into this life is very significant in how safe and comfortable we feel as we grow. Our parents’ capacity to offer compassionate presence and love to us as an infant, and from the moment of conception through birth and into our early years of life, can determine how we develop our sense of self. For many of us this early experience was not ideal and we may have lacked the safe compassionate environment we needed. As children, our sensitivity to the undercurrents and emotional dynamics of the environment in which we grow up can have a considerable impact upon us. As a consequence, we will often introject an inner environment that is not kind and compassionate. but harsh, anxious and critical. When we lack self-compassion, it can also be a challenge to hold a sense of compassion towards those we live amongst and work amongst.
In so many aspects of our life, the need for compassion and kindness is important but often lacking. In our working environment, when compassion is present we can more easily relax and be ourselves with our qualities and our difficulties. A compassionate environment brings a feeling of safety and trust; we can be more open and responsive to others we work with and allow vulnerability to be acceptable. We can feel supported and comfortable knowing we don’t have to be perfect or always do the right thing to be acceptable. When compassion is absent in our work environment, it will often feel unsafe, threatening, competitive and aggressive. People will be more reactive, insecure and stressed, feeling the need to perform or defend themselves to justify their value and acceptability. Vulnerability and the need for support is then unacceptable, and the need to appear competent is crucial.
A world pervaded by the presence of compassion could be an extraordinary place and, as H.H. Dalai Lama wrote in his book Beyond Religion, we could all be much happier, healthier, and less stressed and insecure. Within the Buddhist tradition, compassion is considered perhaps the most important quality we can cultivate. This is often emphasised in our relationship to others but is equally important in our relationship to ourselves – where it can often be lacking. Within the tantric tradition, Chenrezig is one of the primary deities that support the awakening of our innate potential for compassionate presence towards both self and others.
We first meet the presence of Chenrezig in India when, as Avalokiteshvara, he was one of the leading disciples of the Buddha, renowned for his role in voicing the Heart Sutra. Over time, however, a shift began to happen; Avalokiteshvara “evolved” from being a venerated disciple of the Buddha to a revered deity that embodies the bodhisattva’s ideal of compassion. In the deity Chenrezig we recognise a sublime manifestation of compassionate presence that can become an important resource in our lives.
Today the main source of the Chenrezig practice comes from Tibet. In the Tibetan tradition there are many different forms of Chenrezig as well as ways of practice. Within this book I will focus upon the familiar four-armed aspect as the primary source. Over the many years of being involved in this practice both personally and in teaching others, I have increasingly discovered ways of meditation that can suit our Western disposition. In the West we are psychologically very different to the Tibetans and have very different needs in terms of healing and transformation. I am aware that as young Tibetans move out into the world this difference may be less marked. However, in my own experience and through the experience of those I teach, I have increasingly seen how this practice can be brought alive to meet our own psychological process.
The practice of Chenrezig is a weave or matrix of creative ways of meditation that can respond to and potentially heal and transform many aspects of our psychological wounding. In this book I wish to particularly look at the root of much of the suffering we experience in our lives – suffering that is often the result of early emotional wounding. I will emphasise the way in which compassionate presence is important in the gradual healing and transformation of that root of suffering, to bring a deeper sense of well-being from which to live our lives. It is through this inner healing that we can then begin to truly open to our natural potential to feel compassion for others and hold them also with compassionate presence. The deepening experience of Chenrezig helps facilitate this healing and also enables our capacity for compassion to grow to its natural fruition of bodhicitta and the bodhisattva’s way of life.
In this book I will describe many ways of meditation that grow out of a very simple basic form. My intention is to offer ways that may enable some of our core wounding to begin to heal so that we can be ready and able to embody the qualities of a bodhisattva in the world to serve others. If you find these practices helpful in addressing some of your own inner process, let them become a resource in your life. Many of the insights in my understanding of the practice of Chenrezig have come from the responses and experience of those I have taught and mentored. For this I am truly grateful. I have also always felt guided by the inspiration of H.H. Dalai Lama who was one of my main teachers when I lived in Dharamsala. He is such a clean, clear embodiment of compassion manifesting in the world. He is a genuine inspiration of how our practice of Chenrezig can draw us closer to gradually embodying compassionate presence in our lives in whatever way is most beneficial.