Why Heads Explode

And How to Keep Yours Intact

Tom Nickel
5 min readSep 10, 2023
Avalokiteshvara, lots of arms, rearview, public domain image

Avalokiteshvara’s story begins in northern India, about 100 generations ago. He was a person like you and me — he could be our great-great-great-great-great … (you get the idea) grandfather.

He even looks great on the walls of the Ajanta Caves, in murals painted in over two thousand years ago.

Avalokiteshvara at Ajanta Caves, wikimedia commons

He was a person who perfected himself so that he could act just right toward everybody and everything all the time.

It was hard for Avalokiteshvara at first.

Even though he had made progress gradually, it was still a bit overwhelming when he finally reached the Max Compassion skill level. There were so many challenges calling for his attention he didn’t know where to begin.

He wanted to help so much that his head completely exploded.

You might know the feeling.

We are aware that billions of people can’t count on the basics of life, that whole species are exiting, and our planet is jtst a small part in even larger dynamics. But out my window all I can see is trees and sunshine and a blue September sky with just a few clouds.

Even if I could see the larger dynamics, what would I do?

It’s enough to make your head explode.

For anyone clinging to a comfortable life preserver in the dire straits we are floating through and always have been, the dissonance is increasingly tough to take.

Fortunately, Avalokiteshvara had a buddy who’d been there and understood what’s needed when heads explode. His name was Amitabha, and he was another human who had reached perfection.

Amitabha got right to work making a super power out of a disability. He put Avalokiteshvara back together with new heads — ten of them — and then he put an elevnth head on top to remind his friend that Amitabha was always there for him.

That ought to handle it, right? Nope. Even with all the heads, he’d still need to act.

So Amitabha gave him 1,000 arms, with 1,000 hands — and an eye in each one. It helps to see what you’re doing when you’re out there being compassionate all over the place.

Avalokiteshvara, wikimedia commons

I think this story was made up, told, and retold to help bring out the best in us — the compassion we are all capable of.

Avalokiteshvara became popular over and over as the story spread like classic reruns on late night tv. Tibetans have their own version of the thousand-arms. So do Sri Lankans.

The story crossed the Indian Ocean where it was brought to people in Southeast Asia.

Centuries after its birth in India, the story reached southern China, with the gender fluid main character now represented as a female.

Chinese Buddhists called her Guanyin because the quality of compassion was predominantly feminine in their culture.

Guanyin,Avalokiteshvara, wikimedia commons

Avalokiteshvara’s gigantic faces at Angkor Wat, carved at the peak of the Khmer Empire in about 1000AD are uncategorizable.

They could be male or female.

Avalokiteshvara at The Bayon in Angkor, wikimedia commons

Right now would be a good time for the story to become very popular again.

It is hard to see a reversal in our ways and an overall reduction in suffering coming through political channels.

I’m not suggesting an Avalokiteshvara cult. I’m suggesting Avalokiteshvara action — with a good back story if anyone asks.

Compassion doesn’t mean feeling everyone’s pain or fixing everyone’s problems. It means helping people figure out on their own the deeper reasons for whatever’s going on.

But when someone’s life is washed away by a sudden tsunami of change, they need safety more than they need deeper reasons at that moment.

Compassion also means getting the timing right.

We tend to suck at helping and at being helped. We are deeply conditioned to muddle through on our own, for good reasons. We are kind of on our own, each one of us.

The Avalokiteshvara story tells us that is not the whole picture.

There is something true about our separateness but there is also a way that we’re all one, all interconnected in such depth and detail that the lines where we each begin and everything else ends get blurry when you look at it carefully.

It’s easy to feel separate. Being actively aware that we are also all-one is the part that needs reminders. Maybe that’s why people painted murals and carved enormous stone figures of compassion throughout history. And Amitabha made himself the eleventh head.

Avalokiteshvara and Guanyin apps?

Compassion field effects must have always been the goal. The stories we tell and the way we act have consequences. We all go around emanating a little personal consequence-field all the time. To me, the more compassion we put into that field, the better.

We can do this, because all that’s required is putting more compassion into our own field, not trying to shape someone else’s. Putting more compassion into our own consequence field is the way to shape someone else’s, as it turns out.

I see compassion proficiency as the paramount skill going forward.

When people thought of an embodiment of compassion 2500 years ago they did not imagine mobile devices sending our thoughts and feelings anywhere instantly, but they knew the connection was there.

I don’t think they saw Avalokiteshvara as a super hero who might save them. I think they saw non-binary protagonists working through us. Mutual aid is what we actually do in the hardest times, at least for a while.

What can we do?

We can make compassion normal by being compassionate.

Image by David Denton

Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Mahayana Buddhism.

Tom and Abdulrazak Gurnah were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.

Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and hosts events on mortality and grief.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos