Thirty-two Kinds of Responses

Yutang Lin

The salvation activities of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara are well known for his "thirty-two kinds of responses." The so-called "thirty-two kinds of responses" refer to the multiple transformations of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara that are individually chosen to be appropriate for the salvation and guidance of certain sentient beings that are at the juncture of receiving help. According to traditional Buddhist classifications, from Buddhas, Pratyeka-Buddhas, Sravakas, heavenly gods, Buddhist practitioners, and all sorts of worldly classes of people, to gods and ghosts that protect the Dharma, there are thirty-two (or thirty-three) kinds of sentient beings. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can appear as one of anyone of these thirty-two kinds of sentient beings to carry out his mission of converting beings to the right path. In this article the basic theory, the display of supernatural powers due to attainment, and their implications will be expounded so as to provide model and guidance for Dharma practices.

A. Fundamental Theory

According to Buddhist teachings, there is no absolutely independent existence of anything; instead, all things are mutually dependent as causes and conditions to one another to collectively form phenomena. In other words, all are in limitless oneness. When this fact is not recognized but instead a certain part is grasped as "self," then antagonism would arise and functions become full of hindrances. Furthermore, activities aiming at promotion of self-interests would bring about all sorts of karmic hindrances. Consequently, such beings would be engulfed in sorrows for long, long time, transmigrating in the six realms from life to life and experiencing all sorts of sufferings.

If the teaching that originally there is indeed no "self" could be comprehended, then it would be possible to resume the state of harmonious union with all things in limitless oneness. In limitless oneness there is neither spatial nor temporal boundaries of any kind. Therefore, it would be possible to understand events in the past or in the future, and also be able to render help to sentient beings in any spatial or temporal sphere. In oneness of all there could be no worldly considerations but only a natural outpouring of complete and thorough empathy. Furthermore, since the causes and conditions of sufferings in the world are thoroughly understood, therefore the ultimate goal of all sorts of activities is the ultimate emancipation of all sentient beings from all sufferings. Thus the emphasis is on helping sentient beings to comprehend and realize non-self so that they may return to the state of limitless oneness of all.

B. Freedom of Attainment

The thirty-two kinds of responses of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara are natural outcomes of his perfect attainment of original limitless oneness. Out of limitless oneness there is a spontaneous outpouring of boundless great compassion and mercy that is based on the realization of oneness of all. Using the freedom from any limitation that is the result of such attainment Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can appear in any specific form that is appropriate for the salvation and guidance of particular sentient beings toward ultimate enlightenment.

The classification of sentient beings into thirty-two (or thirty-three) kinds was made in accordance with traditional Buddhist teachings. The real significance of its totality is to include any kind of sentient beings. Therefore, we should understand the thirty-two kinds of responses of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as signifying that he can appear as any kind of sentient beings in order to carry out appropriate salvation activities. The thirty-two kinds of responses also signify that there is no sentient being of any form or kind that is outside the limitless compassionate care of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

From the standpoint of limitless oneness of all, the distinction between sentient and non-sentient is also not part of the original state. Therefore, the real import of the thirty-two kinds of responses should also include non-sentient forms such as "mountain, forest, stream, plain, river, pond, spring, well," etc. This point was revealed by Sakyamuni Buddha in the "Sutra of Earth Treasure," and that could serve as evidential support here.

Furthermore, since there is originally limitless, then the appearances of Bodhisattva need not be limited to newly created forms; instead, he could simply produce applications through existing sentient beings or non-sentient objects. For example, some tantric gurus may not have achieved complete attainment, and yet, as long as they had obtained proper lineage transmissions, had maintained genuine Bodhicitta, and had committed no breach of silas, then they can transmit the blessing of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas through rituals of tantric initiation. Furthermore, as taught in the "Universal Gates Chapter," "If there were someone who maintained repetition of the name of this Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, this person were floated away by huge water, and called out the name of this Bodhisattva, then this person would reach shallows." It teaches that when sentient beings encounter dangerous situations they could receive blessing of protection by whole-heartedly chanting "Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara." The blessing of the Bodhisattva would change the course and consequence of the floating away. Thus we know that the limitless power and ability that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas possess after their attainment of ultimate selflessness can help sentient beings reduce karmic hindrances, relieve difficult circumstances, increase merits and wisdom, and achieve awakening and attainment.

All in all, having attained limitless oneness a Bodhisattva is capable of transforming completely at will into any form to suit the needs of sentient beings, without being bounded by restrictions to any kinds.

In Buddhist works the wondrous completeness of Buddha's preaching is often described as "one sound illustrates completely while beings comprehend according to their respective levels." The meaning is that the speeches of Buddha would benefit all beings but to each kind of beings the benefits are relative to their comprehension of the teachings. As to the thirty-two kinds of responses of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, following the same reasoning, the situations should be similar. Namely, any transformation of the Bodhisattva would be recognized by various sentient beings differently as this or that. Furthermore, various salvation activities of the Bodhisattva would benefit different sentient beings to various degrees.

C. Epitome for Practices

What are demonstrated through the thirty-two kinds of responses are not only the wisdom and supernatural powers of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara but also his boundless compassion that cares for sentient beings to all minute details. According to the level of spiritual maturity, the habitual disposition, and the needs of all sorts of sentient beings the Bodhisattva provides help and guidance. Furthermore, many sentient beings have heavy karmas and deep-rooted propensities so that it is not only very difficult to help them change toward liberation but also very easy for them to digress or regress soon. Consequently, they would cause the Bodhisattva to render help and guidance repeatedly through many lives. We should contemplate as just described above in order to appreciate gradually the limitless profoundness of such compassion and the inconceivable wonders of such wisdom and supernatural powers.

In order to follow the epitome of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's thirty-two kinds of responses while conducting Dharma practices a practitioner should always maintain mindful intention that is universally extensive to all sentient beings in all directions in the past, present and future. The initial intention should be for the ultimate liberation of all beings. Chanting, recitation, prostration, meditation, visualization, whatever the practice is, think of it as being performed simultaneously by all beings. At the end of a practice session the merits thus accumulated should first of all be dedicated toward the ultimate enlightenment of all beings. In this way one would be following the thirty-two kinds of responses fully in its spirit throughout one's practices.

A practitioner should pay special attention to the point that "all sentient beings" refers to all sentient beings in all directions in the past, present and future. Only with such understanding could one gradually transcend the preconditioned view of a spatial and temporal frame to resume original oneness that has neither spatial nor temporal limitations.

D. Guidance in Activities

In daily life a practitioner should understand that all sorts of sentient beings that one comes across might all be regarded as among the thirty-two kinds of responses of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Furthermore, irrespective of one's likes or dislikes, their actions might all be viewed as means employed by Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara to teach one about "no self" and "no attachment," and thereby one might receive training and exercises in gentleness, patience, accommodating, and tolerance so as to attain liberation from sorrows.

To imitate the thirty-two kinds of responses a practitioner should renounce prejudices and selfish considerations. Instead, the guiding principles of one's activities should be shaped in view of how best to achieve the ultimate goal of enabling sentient beings to attain enlightenment with regard to transcending their respective propensities and situations. Therefore, a practitioner should maintain a pure mentality of devoting to humble service.

As to a practitioner's responses to other sentient beings in daily life, they should be appropriate in accordance with the Buddhist teachings and the situation of the sentient beings in order to follow the spirit of the thirty-two kinds of responses. This is different from ordinary people's playing multiple roles in worldly ways that are based on self-interests. The appropriate actions and speeches are carefully chosen just in order to achieve proper and effective guidance on the path toward enlightenment.

With regard to other religions or worldly teachings one may apply the same reasoning as explained above to be tolerant to them, and to make use of them so that they might become a transient step or means toward the ultimate liberation. All in all, once the spirit of thirty-two kinds of responses is thoroughly comprehended, then one might lively apply anything and everything at appropriate junctures.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara exhibits thirty-two kinds of responses so as to enable the ultimate enlightenment of each and every sentient being. In propagating the Dharma we could, of course, employ all kinds of means to reach out to sentient beings. Nevertheless, we need to reflect often and regularly on the ways adopted so as to make sure that they would indeed be helpful toward enlightenment. Otherwise, claiming to follow the spirit of thirty-two kinds of responses one could easily become polluted by worldly ways and no different from the worldly multitude. When one is thus immersed in worldly sorrows, then it would become a pitiful case of cheating others through self-deceit.


Based on my Chinese article expounding the same topic that was written on April 9, 2002 this essay is written. May it serve as a small token of my gratitude to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara for his appearing as White Garment Guan Yin (a female appearance of Avalokitesvara in white clothing that is well known in Chinese tradition) to grant me blessings so as to enable me to perform the fire puja to Guan Yin.


In the night of April 9, 2002 the Chinese article expounding the same topic was written. In the morning of April 10, 2002 I saw in a dream two consecutive scenes; they are described respectively below:

I reached under a round table and pulled out a stack of gold leaves from inside a big vase. As soon as I stood straight up a man by the name "Salvation Continuous Rain" embraced my feet from behind and lifted me up to put me down on the table. In the center of the round table there is a large vase, and I deposited the stack of gold leaves into that vase.

My interpretation: a stack of gold leaves indicates that this article is a golden teaching. Pulling it out from the vase under the round table means that it is obtained from the Dharma treasure that is hidden in the Dharmadhatu. Through the lift from the Bodhisattva that continuously grants blessing nectars to beings I am able to install this teaching into the central Dharma treasure that is on the conspicuous side of the Dharmadhatu.

Then I saw a man wearing a large hat that signifies the position of a captain. He was supervising the unloading of the last huge bundle of goods from a ship. As soon as that was completed he walked to the rear of another ship, and from there looked to the front of the ship to make sure that it was a straight line, then he went aboard that ship, replaced the old captain hat on his head with a new captain hat, and spoke in a new language to the crew to announce that he was now in command.

My interpretation: Bodhisattva serves diligently. As soon as one mission is completed he would immediately choose a righteous Dharma vehicle, assume a new title and position of guidance, and employ a new language that suits his followings so as to lead them safely across the dangerous oceans. This is exactly in accordance with the spirit of the thirty-two kinds of responses. The dream is recorded as it took place. My explanations are added to illustrate the continuous teachings that came from the compassionate blessing of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

April 16, 2002
El Cerrito, California

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