Green Koans Case 14: Avalokiteshvara Becomes a Bee

Clark Strand

Avalokiteshvara once became a bee in order to liberate the worms and insects living in the sewers of Varanasi. Why didn’t the bodhisattva liberate the people of the city first?

(also known as Kuan-yin, Kannon, or Chenrezig) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This bodhisattva appears prominently in many Mahayana Buddhist texts, including the Lotus and Heart Sutras.

Once became a bee. A reference to the Karandavyuha Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text commonly accepted as the first scriptural reference to the mantra OM-MANI-PADME-HUM (“Behold! The Jewel in the Lotus”). The sutra probably originated in Kashmir during the 4th or 5th century C.E. and shows the influence of Hindu scriptures (in which Vishnu and Siva also become bees).

To liberate the worms and insects. According to the Karandavyuha Sutra, Avalokiteshvara became a bee so that, through the sound of its buzzing, he could recite the formula Namo Buddhaya Namo Dharmaya Namah Samghaya (“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha”). Upon hearing this, the worms and insects destroyed the “twenty-peaked false view” of individual existence and achieved rebirth in Sukhavati, the Pure Land.

Varanasi. This city is also known as Benares. Situated on the banks of the Ganges, it is considered holy by Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus. To the latter, it is the most holy city of all. According to Wikipedia, “It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and probably the oldest of India.” Being the axis mundi (world center) of Hindu cosmology, all Hindus are expected to visit Varanasi at least once to pour the ashes of their deceased ancestors into the river.

What kind of bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara, letting worms and insects into the Pure Land without being reborn as a human being first? Whoever heard of such a thing? Hasn’t he read the sutras? Doesn’t he know there are millions of people in the world up top just dying to get in?

What are we supposed to tell those human beings who want a bugless, wormless Pure Land, that’s what I want to know. What a letdown! What a colossal failure this Compassionate Bodhisattva is!

The Bodhisattva
Has no idea what you mean
By “organic food”—
Don’t you know what you’re eating?

Don’t you know what’s eating you?

Read all the Green Koans.

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Frankfarmerqh's picture

Thank you for the post and the discussion. I am new to Zen, but it has already revolutionized my life. I have tons of blind spots yet and you really help me to get my ideas straight. I do my best to start living a brand new quality life without making any harm. Thus, I even use crossword maker instead of buying paper ones in order to protect the environment. Big things start small right?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you , Clark, for clarifying the koanic modus operandi. Most of my life experience has been based on a straightforward "up-frontedness". I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

Play ball... 

ClarkStrand's picture

It's one of the things I always liked about the Nichiren school. But Zen also has its uses, and the koan as a tool offers a good model for asking questions...and seeing what answers there are, if any.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"What a colossal failure this Compassionate Bodhisattva is!"

Methinks you give Perceiver of The World's Sounds (aka "Avalokiteshvara") short shrift. He/she is one of the hardest working bodhisattvas in the universe. In the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva shape-shifts 33 times, assuming whatever form is necessary to help relieve people's suffering. And lots of folks believe his/her latest gig is as the current Dalai Lama, the latest in a string of re-incarnated Dalai Lamas dating from the 15th Century!  

Give the guy/gal a break!

ClarkStrand's picture

Specifically, it takes a while to get a feel for the style of koan discourse. Commentaries and verses often employ irony to get their point across. The point here, if I were to explain it, would be to contrast the normative teachings of Buddhism with the way the world actually works. In fact, many Buddhists really do believe that worms and insects are implicitly "lower forms" of life--inferior existences into which one falls as the result of sinful karma. Likewise, many Buddhists believe that one can become enlightened (or, alternatively, attain birth in the Pure Land) only in a human form. Some go so far as to insist "only in a male human form." Many Zen-style koan commentaries are meant to poke holes in ideas of that kind.

prisca10's picture


"What kind of bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara, letting worms and insects into the Pure Land without being reborn as a human being first?" 

Aways wanting to be first in line.


"Whoever heard of such a thing? Hasn’t he read the sutras?" 

It is unimaginable for "thinking" human beings to conceive of the earth as the finest and foremost sutra.  No other sutra can match it.


"What are we supposed to tell those human beings who want a bugless, wormless Pure Land, that’s what I want to know." 

What kind of Pure Land would this be, without bees to pollinate flowers, without spiders to spin webs, without ants to build ant hills?  What a terrible loss that would be!


ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Priscilla. When you write, "What kind of Pure Land would this be, without bees to pollinate flowers, without spiders to spin webs, without ants to build ant hills?" you point towards a reality that is more than purely hypothetical.

The "bugless, wormless Pure Land" referred to in the commentary is not an exercise in imagination, it is a description of what is happening now with the radical loss of biodiversity going forward into this century. Although biological science may understand the interconnection between our species and the insects and worms that dwell "below us" in the shadows, the average person still does not. It therefore seems reasonable to despise them or to ignore their fate, as if they had nothing to do with us.

The Green Bodhisattva knows that, on the contrary, such beings have everything to do with our lives. In fact these beings who dwell in the shadows are essential to all life. In the koan they dwell in the sewers below the city. In truth, they are the foundation of the "city" and all the life contained in it. They are "lower beings" only by virtue of their sheer numbers. There are many of them relative to human beings and other more biologically complex species for just the same reason that there are more bricks in the base of a pyramid than at any other level. Without those bricks and those species, there would be no pyramid, there would be no life.

The position of such beings in the greater design (represented here by their placement in the sewer) does not make them less significant, however. Remove the capstone of a pyramid, and the rest of it will still remain, take a giant RAID bottle and annihilate all the insects at the bottom, and the whole vast structure will topple overnight. In most cases such beings can survive well enough without us. We cannot survive without them, and without them this land can never be the Pure Land.