There are various forms of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan). The four-armed form is shown here. There is also a 1000-armed form — the many arms symbolizing compassion in action. And in the far east, Avalokiteshvara turned into the female Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin.
Om, as I’ve explained before, has only a mystical meaning — suggesting primordial reality. Mani means jewel, while Padme means lotus. Hum, like Om, has no conceptual meaning. Overall, the mantra is suggestive of the bringing together of the qualities of wisdom (the lotus) and compassion (the jewel).
Just as the lotus can exist in muddy water without being soiled, so wisdom can exist in an impure world without becoming contaminated.
The mantra is often “translated” as “Hail to the jewel in the lotus” but the Sanskrit simply can’t mean that. The central element, manipadme, seems properly to be a name, Manipadma (“The Jewel Lotus One”) with the -e ending signifying the vocative case, meaning that Manipadma — is being invoked (“O Jewel Lotus One”). If this is the case, assuming that the mantra is in classical Sanskrit, then Manipadma would have to be a feminine figure, but it’s unknown which figure that would be! Some have suggested that it might be an invisible consort of Avalokiteshvara. If the mantra was originally in a non-Sanskrit language with different grammatical rules, however, and the vocative -e ending was applicable in that language to a masculine figure, then Manipadma could be Avalokiteshvara himself. The mantra would them mean “Om, O Jewel Lotus One, Hum” — the “Jewel Lotus One” being Avalokiteshvara.
And the Dalai Lama points out that just as a jewel can relieve poverty, so the compassionate mind takes away the poverty of unhappiness that exists in the world and replaces it with the wealth of wellbeing.
This is probably the best known Buddhist mantra. I swear I remember hearing it chanted on an episode of the BBC Sci-fi series, Dr Who, when I was a young kid back in the 1960s, and even before that, in the 1940’s it featured on an American radio show called the Green Lama.
This mantra is very widely chanted in Tibet, and not only chanted but carved onto stones, printed onto flags, and embossed onto prayer wheels. The illustration above shows the mantra’s six syllables, which from left to right are: Om Ma Ni Pa Dme Hum.
Tibetans find Sanskrit hard to pronounce (so do westerners, actually, but in different ways) and so Tibetans pronounce “Padme” as “peh-may”.