I am a traveling devotee of Kannon. Since I have many opportunities
to travel in my work, I visit statues of Kannon everywhere my travels
Although there are many Kannon statues that I have become deeply
attached to, the most compelling one is definitely the Kogenji Temple
Eleven-Headed Kannon (a National Treasure) close to Lake Biwa near
Kyoto. I have seen it many times while traveling; its elegant features
and its softly pursed mouth show an exquisite tenderness, yet there is
also forcefulness. Within the expression of contemplation and calmness,
there is an overflowing intelligence and benevolence. Contemplating the
image, my mind clears and becomes calm. As I contemplate it, I always
recall the word semui. It means "bestowing fearlessness." That is the special quality with which the Buddha and Kannon save us, saying "Fear not."
I know a person who has suffered a series of misfortunes in life. He
lost his mother when he was in primary school and went to work right
after junior high school. He has a timid personality, so when an
unethical employer accused him falsely of a crime, he was forced to
leave his job. From then on, no matter what he did, jobs didn't pan
out. He drifted from job to job, and whenever he thought he'd gotten
settled, the company would go out of business. He became ill, and then
his father died. Yet he persevered. He was about in his mid-thirties
when he told me, with a sunny expression, "I'll be fine. I've got a job
in a nice place. It's just a small factory in town, but the owner and
his wife are both good people. It looks like I'm settled from now on.
I've been working here for a half year, and for the first time in my
life I have someone working under me. Since I'm not getting any
younger, I'm even thinking about getting married." It was a short while
later that he lost the use of his fingers in a machinery accident.
Something should be done about this, an outside observer might think, but life does not move so smoothly.
When he was in his fifties, I happened to see him again, and he told
me, "I've been worshiping Kannon." He said there was someone who had
been teaching him, and for the past three years, in his spare time, he
had been sitting silently and praying to Kannon. He found himself
complaining, saying, "O Kannon, if you are the bodhisattva who saves
people, why do you make me suffer?" Or imploring, "O Kannon, I beg you
to restore my body."
"But that's not how it works, is it?" he said.
"Now, I am able to realize that praying to Kannon has nothing to do
with complaining or imploring; rather, it means paying reverence to
oneself," he said.
He said this casually, but from just that much I got a sense that I
could understand his hardships, the depth of his psychological
troubles, and the peace of his now-saved mind. That had been his
reality, resulting from a combination of many causes and conditions.
Complaining got him nowhere. He made up his mind to accept his reality
at face value and to live on with a positive attitude. There is no
doubt that this happened after he entrusted everything to Kannon.
He and Kannon had become one.
I thought, "The belief in the 'mindfulness of the power of Kannon'
in the Kannon Sutra has become a central part of his life." In
Buddhism, the word nen (mindfulness) can mean "to recall." But
it's not recalling something that has been forgotten but etching
something in one's mind so that it won't be forgotten. For instance,
the feeling of being in love is comparable to nen. Asleep or
awake, one cannot forget the loved one. The loved one is recalled many
times, and one's whole life is caught up with love.
That is how nen works, and so to be "mindful of the power of
Kannon" is to always be mindful of Kannon, to live with Kannon every
day of our lives. The process of living like that is itself a testament
to the belief in Kannon.
I recalled the Zen priest Teikei Denson (1648-1735), who said,
"Kannon is not a different being. He is you and everyone." Just so,
Kannon had encouraged my friend, had become one with him, and had saved
him, pure and simple.
However, Kannon is a bodhisattva who also imparts benefits in this world gained through the observance of Buddhist teachings.
Not only in Japan but in China and India as well, Kannon's
compassion saves us in very tangible ways. Even if you are dropped into
a burning pit of fire, "if you mindfully recall Kannon's power," the
fire pit will change into a cool pond; if you are adrift on the seas,
"if you mindfully recall Kannon's power," the waves will not drown you.
If you are pushed off a cliff, you will stop in midair, and if someone
tries to cut off your head, the sword will break into pieces. These are
some examples of "salvation from the eight difficulties" that are
mentioned in the Kannon Sutra.
In fact, from early times, it has been understood that these
accounts of Kannon's benefits in this world are metaphors. It goes
without saying that in reality, a person who is dropped into a pit of
fire will burn to death, that it would be an impossibility even for
Kannon to literally turn a pit of fire into a cool pond. But that is
not what the sutra is really saying. The interpretation is that the
"fire" refers to our desire; Kannon saves us from destruction in the
flames of our burning desire.
This is an easily understood interpretation. Somebody, such as the
acquaintance I mentioned earlier, laments the misfortunes and physical
disability that have befallen him; he is tormented by the desire to
have his original body back; his mind is saved, and he comes to accept
his actual reality and can now live each day with a positive attitude.
He was thus saved from the flames of desire, the interpretation goes.
But I disagree with this. Why should it be wrong to cry out, when
about to be burned in flames, "O Kannon, help me"? We cannot avoid, as
we go through life, praying constantly for things. Along with prayers
asking, "Please strengthen my devotion," there are certainly also
prayers that implore, "Save me!" Historically speaking, Kannon was
originally prayed to in India to obtain benefits in this world. In the
course of the evolution of Buddhism, the level of devotion to Kannon
has been raised, and he has become the bodhisattva who leads us to
satori (enlightenment). But he has not lost his original character of
bestowing benefits in this world, and it is for this reason that many
people believe in him in Japan as well.
Another very important thing to realize is that it is the very fact
that Kannon is the bodhisattva who becomes one with us and saves us
that makes it possible for us to receive benefits in this world through
Until he retired in March 2006, Yasuaki Nara served
first as president and later as chancellor of Komazawa University,
Tokyo, where he is now a professor emeritus. The author of numerous
books on Buddhism, he received a Litt.D. from the University of Tokyo
in 1973 and taught the history of Buddhist culture at Komazawa
This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.