Bodhisattva of the Alexander Technique

by Nickolas Knightly

The bodhisattva with 1000 arms can be a helpful figure for students of the Alexander Technique. This bodhisattva is an icon of non-doing, and allowing it to work on us can help us see more clearly into the nature of the four skills.

There is a classic story about a grasshopper and a centipede. The grasshopper sees the centipede and is taken aback. "How is it possible," he asks, "that you can walk with all those legs?! How on earth do you do it?!" The centipede stops and says, "I don't know." The grasshopper insists on knowing. He says, "Come now! Don't keep it a secret! Tell me! I must know how you do it. If you really don't know, then think about it! I want you to tell me how you control all those legs." The centipede starts thinking about it, and after a few minutes he realizes he can no longer walk. He is totally confused, and now he can't get his legs to work at all.

Imagine what a grasshopper would think of the bodhisattva with 1000 arms. These are not just insect legs, but human arms, each with human hands capable of sophisticated movement. The image is so baffling that we too should become like the grasshopper and marvel at it. Or maybe we gloss over it, viewing it as just another religious image. What kind of religious image is it? What is a bodhisattva, and who is this bodhisattva with 1000 arms?

In a nutshell, a bodhisattva is an "enlightenment being," one who has vowed to attain enlightenment for the sake of helping all sentient beings. They sit in meditation to save all sentient beings, they practice compassion for the sake of all sentient beings, they follow the Way for the sake of all sentient beings, and when they die they vow to keep returning to the world of samsara until all sentient beings are free. The very essence of a bodhisattva is compassion.

Some bodhisattvas are very well known. Avalokiteshvara may be the most famous of them all. He is known by many names and manifests in many forms. In Tibet he is known as Chenrezig. The Dalai Lama is viewed as a manifestation or emanation of Chenrezig. In China the most famous form of this bodhisattva is Kwan Yin, a female version. In Japan, Kwan Yin is called Kannon. Any of these versions of Avalokiteshvara may manifest in the form of a being having one thousand arms, one of 108 forms through which he may manifest.

Here are links to a couple images of this bodhisattva. The first link contains an explanation of how the bodhisattva came to have 1000 arms:

That's the background. To get into the substance of why this bodhisattva is an icon for the Alexander Technique, let's return to the question of how we look at such an image in the first place. I'm going to do a smart thing and turn to Zen Master Takuan. His comments on this figure get right to the point, and one could hardly find a better source. The following long quote is taken from Immovable Wisdom, a translation of Takuan's writings done by Nobuko Hirose. The title is well chosen. One could say the Alexander Technique seeks to cultivate a wisdom that is immovable but not fixed. We all have it, we just tend to cover it up. Takuan touches on this in his discussion of the thousand-armed bodhisattva, in this case appearing in male form (you might ask why this bodhisattva of compassion needs weapons):

Senju Kannon (the thousand-armed Kannon) is represented with a thousand arms, each arm holding a different weapon, but despite having a thousand arms, if his mind ‘stops' with the one that uses a bow, for example, all the remaining 999 arms will be of no use whatever. Only if his mind does not ‘stop' with the use of one arm can his other arms work efficiently and the thousand weapons be useful.

As for Kannon, how can it have a thousand arms on one body? This figure is intended to show us that when a man realizes immovable wisdom, even with as many as a thousand arms on one body, he is able to use each and every one in one way or another.

. . . . Ordinary people regard Kannon with reverence for no reason. They simply believe in Kannon as an extraordinary being because it has a thousand arms and eyes on its body. Some people with superficial knowledge deny Kannon and say, ‘How can one have as many arms and eyes as a thousand on one body? It is a lie.' Not only do they deny Kannon, but they abuse Buddhism. But one who knows Buddhism more deeply will neither blindly believe nor deny it. Because one understands the reason for things and pays respect, so one believes in Kannon.

Buddhist teaching often manifests its principles in a form. This is also the case with all other Way, especially Shintoism (the old indigenous religion in Japan). These figures are symbols and a means of teaching. One who sees and thinks only on the surface is ordinary. On the other hand, one who abuses Buddhism is worse. Everything has its reason. One must see behind phenomena. This school, that school, there are many schools, but they all boil down to this.

One thing I find so surprising in Takuan's comments is the way they echo Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that our mythologies are poetry mistakenly read as journalism. If you read the Bible or stories from ancient Greek religion as journalism you may be tempted to say, "It's a lie!" Or, you may accept this or that image as real, and it may lead you to look at images revered by other cultures and say, "It's a lie!" Campbell felt the images of all great mythologies (i.e. past and present religions) were metaphoric of human potential. These images are telling us what we are. If you believe in Kannon the way Takuan suggests, with intelligence and doubt rather than "blind" faith, you will see for yourself.

There are ways of getting at this rather directly. In lessons I tell students that every touch of the teacher only stands in for a hand which is already there, one that remains when the teacher's hand goes away. Every one of us has a thousand-armed bodhisattva standing behind us, waiting to help us accomplish any task. You can say, "It's just a joke," or even, "What a stupid story." But, you may also begin to trust that image, in a way that preserves doubt, so that you start to pay very close attention. When you do that you will discover the true message in it. The proof is in action. Try it, and you will notice a change. You can also try to see that you yourself are a thousand-armed bodhisattva.

Take a moment for a quick experiment. Place your hands in your lap. Look at your computer keyboard. You are going to adjust the position of the keyboard. If you have a laptop, you are going to adjust the position of your whole computer. This is your intention. It's not a goal. You are not stuck on it. Don't let it stop the mind. Instead, notice the room. Become aware of the space above and below and to the sides of you. Now, imagine in that space that there are one thousand arms coming out of your back, 500 on each side, some of them very high up, so they can reach way over your head. You are going to touch the keyboard with all of those hands. So take a moment and let them all get coordinated. Really try to sense it. Then, let them come forward, along with the two hands you are used to having. They all come together. They are all yours. If you practice this carefully, the quality of your movement and contact with the keyboard cannot help but change.

This is in fact a very deep and challenging practice. Try it for a week. You will find it hard to remember that you have all those arms. You will notice your mind ‘stopping' again and again. Just as Takuan tells us, we see that all those other 998 arms become useless. Indeed, even the two that stop the mind become less capable, less powerful, less compassionate, less wise. You can also try the practice of imagining a thousand-armed bodhisattva standing behind you at all times helping you in every activity. Again, it is not an easy practice. The mind wanders and stops. Then the bodhisattva can no longer help us. We end up trying to do everything on our own, and we suffer for it. I recommend that as a student of the Alexander Technique you should believe in this bodhisattva, in the way Takuan indicates, and allow it to teach you things that lie at the heart of the Technique.

If you have read this far, you will enjoy a very special treat (assuming you haven't seen it already). There is a group of 21 dancers from China who bring the thousand-armed bodhisattva to life. They are only able to do this by means of non-doing. They are members of the Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, and all of them are deaf and mute. They take their timing cues from a bodhisattva who stands off stage. The second link is a still image of them. Notice that each hand has an eye in the middle of it. When you first start watching the video, you may think you are seeing one woman standing in front of some kind of video screen. Not so. It's all live, all carefully coordinated. Pass it around. Maybe we can get them to come to the States.

"Dance of the Thousand-Armed Bodhisattva":

The second is for a still image of the Thousand-Armed Bodhisattva:


Nickolas Knightly is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique offering private and group lessons, workshops, and lectures. He specializes in working with artists, dancers, spiritual practitioners, NGO's, and sustainable businesses. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique