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I wanted to know how it is that Avalokiteshvara answered Shariputra in the Heart Sutra. I thought Avalokiteshvara was a cosmic being representing the compassion of all Buddhas. As such he would not be a person who found himself in the Buddha's presence as He delivered his Dhamma discourses, right? So, does Avalokiteshvara speak through the power of the Buddha or is just that Avalokiteshvara's compassion is "part" of the Buddha since he is indeed fully enlightened?

Who is it that answers Shariputra? Is the one abiding in the Prajnaparimita Gotama Buddha? I don't really understand.

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  • Can you provide a link to Heart sutra ? I am unable to find one. Thanks. Oct 13, 2023 at 8:33

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There are two parts to this question that need to be addressed in order to answer you:

Is it the case that “Avalokiteshvara was a cosmic being representing the compassion of all Buddhas” or was he a bodhisattva/mahasattva who was present when the Buddha taught?”

And, does “Avalokiteshvara speak through the power of the Buddha or is just that Avalokiteshvara's compassion is "part" of the Buddha since he is indeed fully enlightened?”

In the first matter, clearly, in many Mahayana sutras Avalokitasvara is present as the Buddha taught. But was he a ‘cosmic being’ that presumably would not be present in that way? Although he has and continues to be depicted that way, there is some evidence that this is an inappropriate characterization that leads those that hear him being described as the “lord of the world” to also believe that he would not be present in the way that you and I might have been present if we were alive when the Buddha taught. According to Alexander Studholme in his book, “The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum: A Study of the Karandavyuha Sutra:”

"Avalokitasvara eventually became Avalokiteśvara, it seems likely, due once again to the force of another folk interpretation of the name, here based upon the identification of the bodhisattva as a lokeśvara. This is a generic term meaning, literally, “lord” (-īśvara) “of the world” (loka-), applied to a wide range of supernormal beings in Indian religious thought. Bearing in mind, then, that very few people would ever have seen the name of the bodhisattva in written form, it is quite understandable that the pronunciation of the -asvara ending should have slipped to the homophonic -eśvara, thereby producing a name—Avalokiteśvara—that would actually have seemed a more appropriate title for a being understood to be a great lokeśvara."

There is no need to confuse the bodhisattva/mahasattva Avalokitasvara as a “lord of the world.” And if that is let go of, then we can see this bodhisattva/mahasattva for what he was: a realized being and the perfect embodiment of “Great Compassion” (Mahākarunā), which is the activity or function of Emptiness.

In his description of his meditative practice leading to his enlightenment, he says:

First, because I did not listen to sounds and instead contemplated the listener within, I can now hear the cries of suffering beings throughout the ten directions, and I can bring about their liberation. (Surangama Sutra)

This power that he accomplished by discarding sound at this point in his practice in order to contemplate the meditator, which is to say, meditating upon the nature of hearing—given the presence of uncaused, unborn, and unending inner spontaneous sound—Avalokitasvara disengaged himself from both sense organs and their perceptions, enabling the direct realization of this all-embracing (Mahākaruṇā) Buddha naturing of all living beings and actual things. This is the nature of ‘mind’, which is the necessary direct insight for further progress along the path.

But the most important point of his statement is this: using the practice that is described by Avalokitasvara very quickly results in what I describe as an alchemical change in the practitioner, which is normally only accomplished much, much later along the path to enlightenment. Here at this very early stage in his practice, Avalokitasvara attests to being able to hear the cries of suffering beings and respond to them so that they can be liberated from their suffering. This is the result of having used inner spontaneous sounds, which are nothing other than the intrinsic Emptiness. They are not a manifested phenomenon of Emptiness, but rather the resonances or reverberations of the activity of Emptiness manifesting (dharmata) the world and all beings and things.

You see, by initially meditating on these sounds and using them to break free of sense perceptions and senses in order to have a direct experience of this intrinsic naturing, your hearing faculty is very quickly liberated from, and no longer constrained to, sensed sound. Hearing the cries of suffering beings is not the same as our mundane hearing sounds of crying. I cannot stress this point enough, but only those that have accomplished this hearing will truly understand this.

Although this might seem to be off the point, I bring his description and my commentary on it in order to point out the answer to your question: “does Avalokiteshvara speak through the power of the Buddha or is just that Avalokiteshvara's compassion is ‘part’ of the Buddha since he is indeed fully enlightened?”

Avalokitasvara does speak through the power of the Buddha, but only in the sense that the Buddha is the expression of Emptiness here in this world, as is Avalokitasvara. The result of enlightenment is the removal of our ignorance that blocks the true way the world ‘works’ from our view and understanding. Once that ignorance is let go, like removing blinders from one’s eyes, we realize directly that all beings, all teachings, all compassion, is the direct functioning of Emptiness.

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In the original Heart Sutra, Guanyin does not speak.

Speech in Buddhist texts follows strict conventions. In Sanskrit verbs like āmantrayati, āha, or avocat are used. And this is mirrored in Chinese. These conventions are absent from the standard Heart Sutra text, which was the original.

This is because, the lines addressed to Śāriputra are copied from the Pañaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Pañc). We can go and find them (and I have) and in that context he is being addressed by the Buddha. In other words, the lines specifically addressed to Śāriputra (as indicated by his name in the locative case: śāriputra).

Interesting, the early commentary by Woncheuk (T 1711), who was well aware that the lines were copied from Pañc, also understood the Buddha to be speaking these lines.

Later, when the text was expanded, the missing elements were added to the text appear to be an authentic sutra. As well as adding the "Thus have I heard", the editor also made it appear that Guanyin was speaking the lines.

I will be publishing a paper on this in 2024.

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In my understanding, Sariputta (aka Shariputra, aka Sharadvatiputra) was long gone ("dead") by the time Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was undergoing his training.

Shariputra left a large legacy of teachings, mostly in the style of Abhidharma analysis and enumeration of various dharmas and mental/emotional phenomena.

This teaching was seen by some of the advanced students to be misleading, because it focused (or should I say, obsessively hung up) on theoretical categorization, neglecting the higher teaching of Buddha such as the signlessness and 'atammayata'.

As a response to Shariputra's students' obsession with psychological theory at the expense of actual liberation, the advanced practitioners formulated the teaching of Prajnaparamita which focuses on transcending the basis of all suffering and entering true suchness.

So when Avalokiteshvara addresses Shariputra, he addresses him posthumously so to speak. It's a figure of speech, "hey Shariputra, I wish I could talk to you and explain how confused you were about the true meaning of Buddha's Liberation" - that's the idea.

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  • I'm curious, why do you think Sariputta was long dead?
    – user13375
    Jun 17, 2021 at 12:53
  • Because, at least based on available historical evidence, prajnaparamita literature's timeline doesn't start until around 100BCE, and Sariputta lived several centuries before that.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:02
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    I agree with the thrust of what you are saying for sure. I guess my point is that it is unnecessary to speculate about the mortal status of Shariputra or the existence of Avalokiteshvara in the heart sutra as that is just elaboration missing the point, yes?
    – user13375
    Jun 17, 2021 at 15:41
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    Yup, that's it, exactly
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 17, 2021 at 15:43
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    This answer reminds me of the old Zen quote: a donkey that carries 200 holy books is still a donkey.
    – user17652
    Jun 18, 2021 at 14:17

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