The bodhisattva has one pair of hands at rest. One pair of hands is praying. 500 pairs of hands are acting in coordination with 500 pairs of eyes. This is a lacquered wood statue of the Thousand-armed and Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara, from the 17th century, and it is on display at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. In China she is known as Guanyin, in Japan as Kannon.

Perhaps the meaning of the hands at rest is that you cannot be of real service until you become calm, tranquil…unflusterable. You learn how not to become irritated by frustration or the pettiness of others. You recognize that the emotional responses to frustration and pettiness that were modeled for you by others, and which are accepted as appropriate behavior by a vast majority of people, are unnecessary and counter-productive to your own self-development toward a life of service.

The hands above the hands at rest are hands in prayer. The implication seems to be that after you attain to a state of tranquility it may be easier to connect with God through prayer. It is as if trying to pray while you are agitated or perturbed or in the middle of some ridiculous conflict is like trying to send God messages through a bad wifi connection. It is as if you are sending connection requests to God and God is ghosting you. My guess, based on the limited theology I have bothered to study, coupled with my extensive experience as a drama queen, is that God does not like drama. The hands in prayer above the hands at rest would seem to mean that the fastest way to get God to “friend” you is by knocking off all drama. I believe the Bodhisattva of One-Thousand Arms implores us to knock off all drama.

Once you have become calm and can reach and hear God more easily, the hands in action and in coordination with the eyes may mean that now one can begin more meaningful work in the world. You are now ready to become a servant of the good. The thousand eyes and the thousand arms could represent a type of raw power, but a raw power for benevolent change in others and our world: doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason and getting pro-social results. The hands working with the eyes implies maximum engagement in the world and the frenzy of meaningful, effective and positive outcomes this entails. This is real power, as the only real power is the power to change evil into good and darkness into light. The power of positive change is action, all forms of malicious decisions are just harmful forms of motion.

So we see hands at the side of the bodhisattva, perhaps representing our default state or how we have been molded by others; hands at rest, showing we have attained stillness; hands in prayer, showing we are open to greater influences than permitted by human will; and hands in action, showing the intense power that kindness and goodness can wield.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) is also a lacquered wood sculpture at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, and it is from the 16th century. It is the same bodhisattva. She has the look of fierce earnestness and compassion on her face. One might read sorrow as well. I think I traveled to Hanoi to see one of the best images of this bodhisattva I have ever seen. One pair of her hands is clasped in prayer. She is engaged in witnessing the suffering of others in a prayerful manner, and we see that she suffers from witnessing suffering. This is, of course, what happens to all of us who are not sociopaths: when we witness someone in pain, we feel a type of pain as well, which often motivates us to take action to end the pain in the other person. This statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara seems to be about this process of engaging in suffering in order to eliminate suffering.

She, too, has multiple arms, signifying her desire to reach as many creatures in pain as she can. Remember that a bodhisattva desires the enlightenment of all beings and wishes for all to enter into a state of Nirvana. Dostoyevsky marveled that we could imagine or intuit a God that cared about us unconditionally and encouraged our development as humane actors. Yet, in the Christian version of salvation, we are each left to our own devices. Some Christians even believe it is decided before we are born whether we will be saved or damned. We are expected to go about our self-development as rugged individualists, and our inner growth is to be celebrated as a personal victory. As the old spiritual goes, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself.”

The bodhisattva teaches that there is a possibility for a community of seekers who are concerned about each other, want to work for the best for everyone, and that we are all tied together through compassion and shared pain. We can be open to the pain of others to better serve the needs of others. We are responsible for each other and the only reason for self-development is to be a positive influence on others who are striving for serenity and meaningful action themselves. Dostoyevsky marveled that we could imagine a Christian God and a type of salvation from sin. The awareness of and belief in a Bodhisattva of Mercy is more marvelous yet.