Question: We saw a four-face 48-arm Contemplator Of The World’s Sounds Bodhisattva (观世音菩萨) statue. Why is it portrayed thus?
Answer: The four faces represent looking at all directions with Great Compassion (大悲) [and Great Wisdom (大智)]. The arms represent reaching out in all directions with all kinds of skilful means (方便) to guide sentient beings (众生) to Buddhahood (佛果). In a sense, the faces looking represent Aspiration (愿) or intention, while the arms stretching represent Practice (行) or action.
As to why there are 48 arms, it could be just the sculptor’s design decision, thus not portraying more arms individually, which will require more time, effort and skills. Also, as the Bodhisattva has 12 Great Vows (大愿), the 48 arms should represent these vows, with which she reaches out, with one set for each face.
The highest number of arms usually portrayed in such images have 1,000 arms (千手观音), to represent similarly – ‘reaching out in all directions with all kinds of skilful means to guide sentient beings to Buddhahood’. Sometimes, perhaps for the convenience of sculpting, some hands are portrayed bigger as the ‘main’ ones, with many others smaller.
This does not mean that the Bodhisattva has 12, 48 or 1,000 skilful means only. The many arms in all cases represent innumerable skilful means, that are capable of reaching out to innumerable sentient beings at the same time. This is the greatest and truest spiritual multi-tasking!
Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!