Avalokitesvara’s One Missing Arm

Chinese porcelain statue of Avalokitesvara (“Lord who looks down”) in her female form; the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.

For me, who we are as human beings are defined by the stories we choose in our lives. These narratives weave the fabric of our existence. They define who we are; they shape how we are growing; they are how we will be remembered. They illustrate our values and priorities. They give us perspective and meaning and define our purpose and place in the universe. They can make us laugh and they create the bonds with our fellow travelers on this life journey.

Our narratives include our own autobiography, our memoir, and our family legends. They are more than a true record of history, because sometimes objective details can get in the way of painting the larger picture that reveals the important truths. But the majority of our narrative are stories, myths, allegories, parables, morality tales that are important to us, and how we choose to tell these stories.

I have my own lifetime adventures and family legends, but I also tell the tales of civil rights battles, scientific and artistic achievements and philosophical journeys. As a writer, I am an avid reader and love story-telling in all media. Some important spiritual narratives in my life come from stories like The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Taoist stories have long been an important part of my narrative toolbox, and now as a very new student of Zen Buddhism with Roshi Enkyo O’Hara at Village Zendo, I’m learning a whole new perspective and dimension. I think of enlightenment as a direction, not a destination. For me, it’s like health or happiness. One doesn’t really ever become “completely healthy” but through practice, one can become healthier, or happier, or more enlightened.

Perhaps that is why I am inspired by the Buddhist stories of the bodhisattva (??; pronounced bo-dee-SAHT-vah) or enlightened beings, because I think each of us can choose to be a bodhisattva and through practice become more enlightened and help others along this same path.

The way I tell the story of Avalokitesvara (pronounced Avah-lo-kee-TESH-varah; also called Kwan Yin in China), this was a person who had so much compassion, so much empathy and awareness, such a desire to “give a helping hand to those in need” that the universe gave her one thousand helping hands and arms to be able to help those in need.

Avalokitesvara did not get an infinite number of arms to instantly help all those in need. For me, this is an important part of the story that tells us that you can’t help everybody, but you can help a lot more people and do a lot more good than anyone would realistically or rationally believe one could.

In the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams” the motto was “If you build it, they will come.” Perhaps the corresponding Avalokitesvara motto would be “If you really want to, you can help.”

I have experienced that the universe really does provide this sort of 1000-arm super ability to help people who put their whole being into helping others. When my husband Vinny was at his lowest point with “weeks to live” in home hospice care. He had dementia and was in a hospital bed in our living room, on oxygen and morphine and in a diaper, he still had an unstoppable desire to help others. If someone came to visit who really needed a haircut, Vinny would will himself to get out of bed and steadied by the home health aide, would give a beautiful, transformative precision hair cut. You could literally see the life-force, which I think of as chi, flowing through Vinny’s body for the rest of the day. Helping others was his miracle cure.

With this as part of our personal narrative, you can imagine why we wanted a statue of Avalokite?vara for our household altar. But Vinny and I live on disability incomes these days, and all the statues I found were beyond our price range. Then, one day, I found a beautiful one in a local shop near the Village Zeno for only $28. The shop owner considered this statue to be nearly worthless because it was broken and imperfect.

I could see that this Avalokitesvara once had twenty-four helping hands and arms, and now only had twenty-three. It certainly had become broken and imperfect. But aren’t we all broken and imperfect? Vinny and I are perhaps more imperfect and broken than most:

I have been living with HIV/AIDS for 26 years, and have hepatitis C, diabetes, lower back degeneration, extreme fatigue and half-dozen serious medical conditions that I need to tell each new “-ologist” as they get added to my medical team.

Vinny has been living with HIV/AIDS for 20 years, has hepatitis B, and narcolepsy (which is kind of ironic being a Buddhist, that literally means “awake one”) and because of end-stage liver disease was in home hospice care with “weeks to live” from 2001. They kicked him out of the hospice program in 2006 not because he got better, but because his coverage was exhausted.

Vinny and I may be badly broken, but we’re not done yet. I think a somewhat broken and imperfect Avalokitesvara is the perfect symbol to motivate us each day as we dedicate what’s left of our lives to helping others.

[This was written for publication in the Village Zendo Journal, December  2009 © Mark de Solla Price]