The Six-armed Mahakala: compassion beyond despair

One of the most memorable passages from Ken's many teachings for me is from the class Ken gave called Working with Fear from January 2005. This is where he tells the traditional story of the origin of the Six-armed Mahakala. It begins at around 29 minutes into the podcast.

Ken describes how Avolokiteshvara, the embodiment of awakened compassion, falls into despair at the vastness of the world's suffering. Through the help of Amitahba, he moves through despair into a kind of fierce determination. That's what Mahakala represents.

 The Six-armed Mahakala (from: Asian Tsunami: Working with Fear 00:29:01.50 - 00:35:25.00)

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The story begins with Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of awakened compassion. Early in his career, he took the bodhisattva vow from Buddha Amitabha, the buddha of boundless light, who is the manifestation of awakened compassion at the Buddha level. Avalokiteshvara promises to work for the welfare of beings without stop, and if he should stop or succumb to despair, May his head will burst into a thousand pieces.

For three immeasurably long eons, he works providing the beings with everything of which he can think. Then he looks and he sees even more beings suffering. He sees reactive emotions are even stronger. He sees they are suffering from poverty. All need help very, very quickly. He can’t understand. Things are worse off than before. He sits and says, "What’s the use?" Then his head bursts into a thousand pieces.

His guru Amitabha shows up and says, “Well, you broke your vow. What are you going to do now?” It’s not recorded how he is able to talk when his head is in pieces. Avalokiteshvara says, “I need to do something.” So Amitabha heals him, and the thousand pieces become a thousand arms each with an eye looking at suffering. This is the origin of thousand armed form of Avalokiteshvara with 13 heads looking in all directions at all times.

Avalokiteshvara is not content, because he’s seen the vastness of the world’s suffering. In contemplating that, a blue black hung takes form in his heart. The syllable hung is a symbol of the five pristine awarenesses. The blue-black hung manifests as the Six-armed Mahakala. So the Six-armed Mahakala manifestation compassion -- compassion that is beyond despair.

If you look at the story, it’s about when you begin to touch into compassion. As you begin to help people, you see more and more how much suffering there is and how difficult it is to really help. The suffering’s far more pervasive than you thought. Avalokiteshvara had the impression it was worse than before, but really it is that you see more and more deeply. When you open to that, really open to that, we find in ourselves the blue-black hung -- that natural knowing that in some takes the form of quiet determination. One might say fierce determination that brooks no obstacle. Nothing stops it from doing what needs to be done. It has a clarity that cuts right through through all the red tape of bureaucracy, the inhibitions of individuals, the cultural conditioning that teaches us to ignore certain suffering as not counting. That’s what the Six-Armed Mahakala represents.