Guanshiyin Bodhisattva holds a very important position in Buddhism. Some people say Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is Chinese, while others say he is another nationality. Some people say this Bodhisattva is a man, while others say the Bodhisattva is a woman. Now I will tell all of you: Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is neither Chinese nor any other nationality. Where is he from then? He can be found everywhere throughout space and the Dharma Realm, and yet there is no place where he is. He manifests in response to different kinds of beings, appearing in whatever form is most appropriate to speak Dharma for living beings. Therefore, his appearance is not fixed.
Guanshiyin Bodhisattva appears in the body of a Buddha to cross over all the living beings who are meant to become Buddhas. He also appears in the body of a Bodhisattva in order to cross over all the living beings who are meant to become Bodhisattvas. He also manifests the body of a heavenly king to cross over all living beings. In general, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva appears in whatever form a living being needs to see in order to be crossed over, and comes to speak Dharma for that kind of living being.
In Buddhism, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva goes everywhere to teach and transform living beings. He wants to cross over all living beings and cause them to bring forth the resolve for Bodhi. He first contemplates to see what a living being likes and then caters to his likings. When he caters to that person's likings, the person feels happy and is glad to listen to whatever Dharma he speaks. Thus he successfully crosses over that living being. So I said Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is not necessarily male or female; he is both male and female, but that's just his transformation. In his fundamental identity, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is thus and unmoving, just like the Buddhas. What is more, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva became a Buddha a long time ago by the name of Light of Proper Dharma Tathagata. Now he is manifesting as a Bodhisattva to come teach and transform living beings.
He appears as a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, but he also appears in other religions as personages of those religions. There is a white-robed figure known in Christianity as the Holy Mother. Who was the Holy Mother in fact? She was just Guanshiyin Bodhisattva coming to teach and transform that class of living beings. He appeared as a person in white robes and the Christians all said that was the Holy Mother, but in fact it was Guanshiyin Bodhisattva appearing to inspire those living beings to bring forth resolves. Sooner and later, they would come to understand the Buddhadharma, and after they understood the Buddhadharma, they would bring forth the Bodhi resolve. That's the inconceivable state of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva's inexhaustible, wonderful functioning.
Today I will briefly explain the name of Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, the "Bodhisattva Who Contemplates the Sounds of the World."
What is contemplation? It refers to a contemplative wisdom, the wisdom that is able to contemplate. The sounds of the world are the state that is contemplated. The wisdom that is able to contemplate is used to contemplate the state that is contemplated—all the states within this world, all the sounds. The sounds include sounds of suffering, sounds of happiness, wholesome sounds, evil sounds, good sounds, bad sounds. Guanshiyin Bodhisattva observes all the various sounds of the world. He fulfills all wishes. No matter what living beings seek from Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, he will grant their wishes for sure.
The Chinese character shi (¥@ ) for "world" can also refer to "period of time," as in the three periods of time—past, present, and future. Guanshiyin Bodhisattva contemplates the past causes and conditions, present causes and conditions, and future causes and conditions of all living beings. Observing the causes and conditions in the three periods of time for each living being, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva employs whatever method is suitable for saving and teaching that being. He uses the spiritual powers he has accomplished through cultivation to rescue living beings. Thus, he is called the One Who Contemplates the Sounds of the World.
Pusa is an abbreviated transliteration of the Sanskrit word "Bodhisattva" in Chinese. The meaning is translated thus: "Bodhi" means enlightenment and "sattva" means sentient being, so it means "one who enlightens sentient beings," and also "an enlightened one among sentient beings." What is meant by "sentient being"? It refers to any living thing endowed with awareness, sentience, breath, and blood. Guanshiyin Bodhisattva used to be the same as all of us, but because he cultivated without fear of suffering or hardship and became enlightened, he is an enlightened one among sentient living beings. Moreover, he uses the wisdom of his enlightenment to further enlighten all of us living beings. Such a one is called a Bodhisattva.
Bodhisattvas have another name: They are called beings with a great resolve for the Way. They have the greatest resolve for the Way. Beings with a great resolve for the Way are Bodhisattvas. Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is such a being.
Before they become Buddhas, Bodhisattvas are called living beings, but they are enlightened living beings, not confused ones. When confused beings encounter any kind of state, they cling to it and fail to awaken. No matter what situation they come across, they cannot see it for what it is and let go of it. Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is able to see through and let go of all matters. Since he is not attached to anything, he is enlightened. Not only is he himself enlightened, he can also enlighten all other unenlightened beings. Therefore, he is called Guanshiyin Bodhisattva. That's a general explanation of the Bodhisattva Who Contemplates the Sounds of the World.
A talk given in September, 1968, at the Buddhist Lecture Hall, San Francisco, during the Shurangama Sutra lecture series