I would like to discuss Kannon's (Avalokiteshvara's) compassion as
seen in the thought of Rev. Nikkyo Niwano (1906-99), the founder of
Rissho Kosei-kai. What I would like to demonstrate in this essay is
that in Rev. Niwano's thinking, on one level, Kannon's compassion is
unconditional, a transcendent love that saves people in times of urgent
difficulty if they really believe in Kannon and invoke the name of
Kannon, and, on a more advanced level, Kannon's compassion is a
practical model to be followed by everyone in order to help others who
are suffering in this world. In addition, for Rev. Niwano, Kannon's
compassion is more than ordinary sympathy, which tends to have human
attachments and cravings; it is more a balanced combination of wisdom
and compassion. I will describe how, in the context of the Lotus Sutra,
Kannon's compassion in the thirty-three bodies of manifestation can be
understood as the active forms of the Eternal Buddha's preaching of the
The title of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra is "The Universal Gate of
the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World." The bodhisattva
Regarder of the Cries of the World is called Kanzeon Bosatsu in
Japanese, and this is usually shortened to Kannon Bosatsu. This chapter
has been circulated in East Asia as a separate sutra. In China, Korea,
and Japan, it was well known as the Kannon Sutra. Faith in Kannon has
long been popular among ordinary people in those countries. In Tibetan
Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has been revered as a manifestation of Kannon.
Chapter 25 explains how the name of the bodhisattva Regarder of the
Cries of the World (Avalokiteshvara) came to be and makes the claim
that all people who are suffering and who call upon the bodhisattva's
name will be delivered instantly from all of their sufferings.1
Basic Faith in Kannon's Grace
Traditionally, once you chant the name of Kannon, you will be delivered
instantly from all your sufferings and be rewarded with your worldly
wishes and desires. The phrase "Keep in mind the powers of the Cry
Regarder" appears thirteen times in this chapter.
The idea of chanting "Namu Kanzeon" (Hail to Kannon), or "Keep in mind the powers of the Cry Regarder," has a close relationship with the chanting of "Namu Amida Butsu"
(Hail to Amitabha Buddha) in Pure Land practice. Traced to its origins,
this idea is related to the prayers of invocation to gods in Hinduism,
by means of which people's wishes or desires are fulfilled, as seen in
the Atharva Veda. Kannon's compassion is naturally understood as
something like a deity's grace.
Bestower of Freedom from Fear
In the Lotus Sutra, it is written: "This Regarder of the Cries of the
World, this great one, is able to bestow freedom from fear on those who
are faced with a frightening, urgent or difficult situation. This is
why in this world everyone gives him the name Bestower of Freedom from
Fear" (The Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, trans. Gene Reeves, 365).
In his final book, Shabyo mui (Last Full Message), Rev. Niwano introduced Kannon's miraculous power
as experienced by Ven. Etai Yamada, head priest of the Tendai Buddhist
denomination. In the terminal phase of the Pacific war, Ven. Yamada was
onboard a transport ship from Okinawa to mainland Japan with fifteen
hundred pupils. The transport ship lacked even one escort ship.
Phrases of the Kannon Sutra came to his mind. "If there are hundreds
of thousands of billions of beings who . . . go out to sea and have
their ships blown off course by a fierce wind to the land of the ogre
demons, and if among them there is even a single person who calls the
name of Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva, all those
people will be saved from difficulties caused by the ogres. . . . Or if
you are drifting around in a great ocean, / Threatened by dragons, fish
and various demons, / Keep in mind the Cry Regarder's powers / And you
will not drown in the waves!" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 360, 366-67).
On the transport ship from Okinawa to Kyushu, Ven. Yamada devoted
himself to chanting the Kannon Sutra wholeheartedly. After reaching
their destination safely, he had no doubt that what the sutra says is
the truth. After that, Ven. Yamada, who had a thorough knowledge of
Tendai doctrine, stopped giving lectures on the linguistic meanings of
the sutras. He said that at the age of fifty, he became awakened to the
fact that if we simply believe in and practice the sutras, we are
embraced by the power of the Buddha.
It is important to know that Ven. Yamada prayed not only for his own
safety but for that of all fifteen hundred pupils. One of the most
characteristic acts of compassion of this bodhisattva is to bestow
freedom from fear.
Sharing the Same Sorrow and Suffering, and Making Oneself a Vicarious Sacrifice.
The Japanese word jihi is usually translated as compassion. It is more than human sympathy. The ji of jihi is often used as a translation of the Sanskrit maitri, meaning friendship, or giving pleasure or comfort (yoraku). The hi, often a translation of the Sanskrit karuna, means sorrow, or hearing the cries of suffering, taking suffering away from someone (bakku). I think the Latin word pietas is close to karuna in meaning.
As the name of Kannon shows, regarding the cries of the world is
seen as one form of compassion, sharing the same suffering and pain out
Wherever and whenever people are experiencing suffering and agony and call his name, "Namu Kanzeon,"
this bodhisattva will immediately hear their cries and they will be
freed. Not only will he hear their cries, this bodhisattva will appear,
immediately responding to their needs, in a manifestation appropriate
to help them.
As both the name of Kannon and his thirty-three bodies of
manifestation suggest, the action of this bodhisattva is only sympathy
oriented; it comes out of sharing the same pain and suffering.
Naturally, this suffering comes down to making oneself a vicarious
In folk and religious stories of miraculous experience in Japan,
many compassionate figures of Kannon can be found. Among the
thirty-three bodies of manifestation in the sutra, a mother figure does
not appear. Yet often this bodhisattva is depicted as a mother figure
in popular culture. There are two types of mother figure: Hibo Kannon
and Jibo Kannon. The former is a mother who is compassionate from
sorrow and pity; the latter, from love and mercy.
The former is like the mother taking on her child's pain and
suffering, experiencing them whenever possible so as to make of herself
a vicarious sacrifice. The mother's compassion comes especially from
the oneness between herself and her child.
Commenting on Kannon's great pure vow that is as deep as the sea,
Rev. Niwano claimed that this vow is nothing but the spirit of making
oneself a vicarious sacrifice based on compassion. It is
quite understandable that in the history of Japanese folk religions,
bodhisattva statues representing vicarious sacrifices (migawari bosatsu) have been popular.
Kannon's Compassion in the Context of Bodhisattvas Making Vows
Kannon's Compassion Understood in Terms of "Other Power"
Rev. Niwano maintained that Kannon's compassion should not be superficially understood only in terms of "other power" (tariki).
He tried to caution people who expect Kannon to be a transcendent and
supernatural power who saves suffering people if they worship him. If
you pray to Kannon by invoking his name and are delivered from some
mental or physical suffering, such a salvation is only temporary.
Suffering in this life is always coming and going, as long as we live.
Real "salvation lies in our awareness of the existence of the Eternal
Buddha, who is omnipresent both within and outside us." Until
we realize that our own life is enabled by the Eternal Buddha, we
cannot be free of suffering. Once we feel that we are always and
already with the Eternal Buddha, we can be in a profound state of
peace. Kannon's compassion must lead people to awaken to this ideal
state of mind.
Kannon as a Model of Compassion
Rev. Niwano stressed the point that bodhisattvas should be models for
us, not objects of worship. His idea was that we should visualize an
image of Kannon and want to be like this bodhisattva and perform as
this bodhisattva does. That is the real compassion that human beings
Rev. Niwano understood Kannon in the context of bodhisattvas making
vows. I think this is in keeping with the real intention of the Lotus
Let me explain in more detail. First, the main idea of the Lotus
Sutra is that all living beings can become buddhas through practicing
the bodhisattva way. The main line of bodhisattvas in the Lotus Sutra
comprises a group of beings who, out of compassion toward people
suffering in this world, have made a vow to help them. In the Lotus
Sutra, there are two types of bodhisattvas: those who have made a vow
to save this world, like the bodhisattvas who spring up out of the
earth in chapter 15, and those who tend to be objects of worship and
have some divine authority to save people. We can be like mother Kannon
for her children. From Rev. Niwano's point of view, the former are the
authentic bodhisattvas in the Lotus Sutra. I agree with him in the
sense that such a view is much more comprehensible.
The authentic bodhisattvas of the Lotus Sutra are working together,
sharing the same sadness and suffering. The story in chapter 15 tells
of innumerable bodhisattvas emerging from the earth, entrusted with a
task by the Eternal Buddha. They are the so-called apostles of the
Buddha, responsible for this saha-world, this world of suffering.
This story was interpreted by Rev. Niwano to mean that the experience
of being under the earth is a hardship that can be shared with the
people of this world. Therefore, those who have been given the mission
to spread the teachings are people who have experienced hardship before
and can be sympathetic with the suffering of others.
An important concept of the bodhisattva is sharing "the same sadness and the same suffering" (dohi-doku).
It symbolizes those who have had much suffering and hardship during
their lives but then have awakened to their own buddha-nature and have
had some real power to help and benefit others. These bodhisattvas are
those who help people become compassionate by making the Buddha's
compassion real. Compassion is sympathy for those who suffer. In Rev.
Niwano's understanding of compassion, sharing the same sadness and the
same suffering, Kannon is in the line of the innumerable bodhisattvas
emerging from the earth.
Japan Should Be a Nation of Kannon
Rev. Niwano also insisted that not only can an individual be a
bodhisattva, but Japan should also be a Kannon nation. He said: "To
gain true international affection and respect, Japan should play the
role of the compassionate bodhisattva by discerning the needs and
desires of other nations and extending a helping hand to them in ways
suited to each situation. Obviously this entails a certain amount of
sacrifice, but only the stingy flinch at self-sacrifice. One of the
great merits of Regarder of the Cries of the World is the compassion to
feel the suffering of others as if it were his own."
Compassion Is Teaching the Dharma
In the Lotus Sutra, what is the compassion of the Buddha? There are three principles of teaching the Dharma.
In chapter 10, "Teachers of the Dharma," we find this idea:
"Medicine King, after the extinction of the Tathagata, if there are
good sons or good daughters who want to teach this Dharma Flower Sutra
for the four groups, how should they teach it? Such good sons or good
daughters should enter the room of the Tathagata, put on the robe of
the Tathagata, sit on the seat of the Tathagata, and then teach this
Sutra everywhere for the four groups.
"To enter the room of the Tathagata is to have great compassion for
all living beings. To wear the robe of the Tathagata is to be gentle
and patient. To sit on the seat of the Tathagata is to contemplate the
emptiness of all things" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 218).
From the perspective of the history of Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra tries to teach the reality of all things (shoho jisso)
instead of the emptiness in other Mahayana sutras. One of the messages
in the Lotus Sutra is to realize the truth of emptiness while living in
this actual world. Such a realization of emptiness is not nihilistic
but, rather, a creative and compassionate way of life. These lines
suggest that great compassion for all living beings must come with the
contemplation of the emptiness of all things. Such compassion is not
just human sympathy--it must be free from attachments and delusions.
Here, the room of the Tathagata is great compassion. This means that
the heart of the Buddha is compassion. In early Buddhism as well as in
the Mahayana, to teach the Dharma is an act of compassion. The Lotus
Sutra says the same. This is affirmed in the following verse in chapter
7, "The Parable of the Fantastic Castle-City": "Out of your great
compassion, we beg you-- / Open wide the gates of nectar / And turn the
unexcelled dharma-wheel!" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 187).
The idea that the Eternal Buddha's compassion is expressed in
teaching the Dharma can also be found in the closing words of chapter
16, "The Lifetime of the Tathagata":
"I always know which living beings / Practice the way and which do
not. / In accord with what they need to be saved, / I share various
teachings for them. / I am always thinking: 'How can I lead all the
living / To enter the unexcelled way / And quickly perfect their
Buddha-bodies?'" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 290-91).
Professor Yoshiro Tamura pointed out that in the Lotus Sutra the
eternal life of the Buddha is revealed in the bodhisattva way and
through the historical appearance of the Eternal Buddha in this world.
In other words, the historical Buddha is the human form in which the
Eternal Buddha appeared in India, and the acts of this historical
Buddha were those of a bodhisattva. Not only the historical Buddha but
also the Eternal Buddha continues to follow the bodhisattva way.
In the final words of chapter 16, the Buddha's deep compassion is
expressed as the Buddha's bodhisattva way, teaching the Dharma. The
eternity of the Buddha is not everlasting quietude. The eternity or the
eternal life of the Buddha is revealed in the concrete and the
practical activities of the bodhisattva way, that is, in teaching or
preaching the Dharma. The eternal Buddha keeps this in mind and watches
over all the living and leads all toward buddhahood by preaching the
Dharma. This idea is related to the manifestation of Kannon in
thirty-three bodies. Instead of simply teaching the Dharma in words,
Kannon appears as an appropriate body, helping suffering people to
overcome their fear. This is precisely teaching the Dharma by appearing
as a compassionate body.
Real Compassion is Integrated with Wisdom: Penetrating Wisdom
In the title of chapter 25 is the term fumon (universal gate, or gate open to all), which is a translation of the Sanskrit term samata-muk, which means "all-sidedness" or "facing in all directions."
The manifestation in thirty-three bodies signifies an open gate through
which all people can be saved. It signifies universal salvation. This
can be reaffirmed by the following phrases found toward the end of the
chapter: "Viewing all [living beings] with compassionate eyes, / His
[Kannon's] ocean of accumulated blessings is immeasurable" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra,
369). The compassion of Kannon is universal and the same for all living
beings, even though his appearances are concrete and fitted to a
particular person in a particular situation.
The manifestation of the thirty-three bodies of Kannon is called fumon-jigen--salvation
open to all through means of a needed body. The meaning of this term is
translated by Rissho Kosei-kai as "the manifestation of compassion for
all." Responding to the need of all living beings who are
suffering anytime and anywhere, Kannon appears as a suitable figure for
their sake. Thus, in order to fulfill this task in various situations,
Kannon's compassion must come with the kind of wisdom that can
penetrate the desires, understandings, and talents of people and their
The miraculous power of Kannon is the power of wisdom to perform
freely and without hindrance in the manner most appropriate to various
situations. It is more than human sympathy. This sympathy comes with
the exceptional wisdom to use the appropriate skillful means.
Kannon's compassion is integrated both with wisdom and with
practice. As his name suggests, the bodhisattva looks at each living
being and his or her situation without hindrance. Kannon's virtue is
expressed in the following verse: "True regarder, pure regarder, / Vast
wisdom regarder, / Compassionate and kind regarder-- / Always called
upon, always looked up to! / His pure and spotless radiance / Is a
wisdom-sun, destroying all kinds of darkness" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 368-69).
Rev. Niwano commented on this paragraph, saying that Kannon's
compassion is more than human sympathy. It is an integration of both
compassion and wisdom.
Rev. Niwano thought that the image of merciful Kannon who gives
worldly benefits to the people in terms of a deity's grace is not an
authentic one. The central idea of the Lotus Sutra lies in bodhisattvas
making vows. The compassion of Kannon is grasped in the forms of
sharing the same pain and suffering and vicarious sacrifice. Rev.
Niwano understood that from the perspective of the comprehending of
bodhisattvas, Kannon's compassion is not a merely passive and receptive
response through which human beings are to be saved but a positive and
active practice through which they accomplish the Buddha's vow to save
all living beings. Therefore, Kannon's compassion is a practical model
for us, and real compassion is to become like Kannon. The real
compassion of Kannon lies in penetrating wisdom, which sees clearly the
hearts and situations of all suffering beings. Real compassion is more
than human sympathy; it is integrated, being free from attachments and
delusions. It must be the middle way. Compassion is nothing but the
Buddha's vow to save all living beings by teaching the Dharma.
 The genesis of Kannon's name, according to Keisho Tsukamoto's Hokekyo no seiritsu to haikei
[Source Elements of the Lotus Sutra], stems from the three extant
Chinese translations corresponding to the Sanskrit text of the Saddharma-pundarika sutra. In the Sho Hokke version, it is Kozeon (Light of the Cries of the World), but in the other two versions, the Myohorenge-kyo and the Tenpon Myohokke-kyo,
it is Kanzeon (Regarder of the Cries of the World). Other sutras use
various forms of the name, including Kannon, Kanjizai, and
Kanzeon-jizai. The word jizai means "freely independent without
any hindrances." Tsukamoto aligns himself with a hypothesis that this
bodhisattva's name originated under the influence of the Hindu supreme
god Ishvara. Philologically speaking, the name Avalokiteshvara is a
combination of the word Avalokita (regard) and the name of the god Ishvara.
 Tsukamoto, Hokekyo no seiritsu to haikei, 427-28.
 Nikkyo Niwano, Shabyo mui, 30-31.
 "His great vow is as deep as the sea, / Unfathomable even
after eons. / Serving many hundreds / Of billions of buddhas, / He has
made a great pure vow." (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 366.)
 Nikkyo Niwano, Buddhism for Today, 377-78.
 In reference to the mentioned story: "Inexhaustible Mind
Bodhisattva said to the Buddha, 'World-Honored One, now I should make
an offering to Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva.' Then he
took from his neck a necklace of many valuable gems worth a hundred
thousand pieces of gold and presented it to him. . . . But Regarder of
the Cries of the World Bodhisattva would not accept it then." But then,
out of sympathy for those in the assembly, Regarder of the Cries of the
World Bodhisattva accepted the necklace, and "dividing it into two
parts, offered one part to Shakyamuni Buddha and the other to the stupa
of Abundant Treasures Buddha" (Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra, 365). Kannon can be considered an apostle of the Buddha.
 Nikkyo Niwano, "Unlimited Manifestation of Compassion," Dharma World May/June 1988: 3.
 Tamura, Hokekyo, 115-77.
 Hiroshi Kanno, Hokekyo nyumon (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2003), 180-81.
 Rissho Kosei-kai calls the present time the years of the manifestation of the spirit of the open gate (fumon-jigen no jidai).
Rev. Niwano said on the fiftieth anniversary of Rissho Kosei-kai's
founding on March 5, 1988: "We have now entered the eleventh year since
we proclaimed the Unlimited Manifestation of Compassion as Rissho
Kosei-kai's guiding principle. This means that we have entered a new
decade with that lofty goal. Keeping in mind this goal and the fiftieth
anniversary of the founding of Rissho Kosei-kai, which we celebrated on
March 5, I should like to reexamine the spirit of 'Unlimited
Manifestation of Compassion' and reaffirm our resolution to abide by
it. It means that we can show the compassionate heart to others by our
Kanno, Hiroshi. Hokekyo nyumon [An Introduction to the Lotus Sutra]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2003.
Nakamura, Hajime. Jihi [Compassion]. Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1956.
Niwano, Nichiko. Asu ni mukau [Looking toward Tomorrow]. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1986.
------. Shinden o tagayasu [Cultivating the Field of the Heart]. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1998.
Niwano, Nikkyo. Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. New York: Weatherhill, 1961.
------. Shabyo mui [Last Full Message]. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1993.
Tamura, Yoshiro. Hokekyo [The Lotus Sutra]. Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1969.
The Threefold Dharma Flower Sutra. Translated by Gene Reeves. Tokyo: International Buddhist Congregation of Rissho Kosei-kai, 2008.
Tsukamoto, Keisho. Hokekyo no seiritsu to haikei: Indo bunka to Daijo Bukkyo [Source Elements of the Lotus Sutra]. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1986.
Michio T. Shinozaki, former director of the
General Secretariat of Rissho Kosei-kai, is president of the
organization's Gakurin seminary in Tokyo. He received a Ph.D. in
religious studies from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, in
1988. He has contributed a number of articles on Buddhist ethics to
This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.