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Bronze statue of Bodhisattva Guan Yin

Guan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Buddha-in-Training


Buddhism is usually regarded as a religion which is led by one master – Buddha. However, there are many more ancient legendary masters in this belief system and both male and female characters are honored by Buddhists.

Guanyin (Guan Yin) is a bodhisattva - a person who is motivated by supreme compassion and is ‘a potential Buddha in training.’ She is associated with Mahayana Buddhists. This individual is commonly known as the “Goddess of Mercy,” and her main aspect is compassion.

Her teachings, legends about her life, and her key personality feature still inspire the Buddhist masters and the doctrine. Some see her as the mother form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Although Guanyin is now depicted with a female representation, this figure was regarded as male in India, and slowly transformed to have a female image in China. She is known for her kindness and can also be regarded as an icon of femininity in modern Buddhism.

Guan Yin and a dragon. (thawornnurak /Adobe Stock)

Guan Yin’s mixture of male and female characteristics led her to became one of the most widely beloved Buddhist figures. According to the ancient followers she had powers to make miracles happen and came to the aid of people who chanted the famous Karandavyuha Sutra and Lotus Sutra.

Guan Yin in Chinese Buddhism and Folklore

The modern figure of Guanyin contains all the positive aspects of womanhood and femininity, but she's more like a mother than a wife. This image was based on Confucian concepts of life and morality. Guanyin became popular in Chinese Buddhism and she also strongly influenced Chinese folklore.

She became a bridge between complicated intellectual concepts and the simple people who followed the lady in white with more attention than they gave a philosopher. In ancient times, Chinese society was based on ideas of purity, so Guan Yin easily became an iconic female symbol. However, she also contained strong masculine aspects, which were also important to the eastern Asian people. According to the Jeong-Eun Kim:

''The Guanyin figures bearing a mustache clearly indicate the masculine aspects of the bodhisattva, and in the visual arts Guanyin was depicted as a young Indian prince throughout India and many Southeast and Central Asian countries. Even in China, until the late Tang dynasty, there was no change in his depiction as a male deity as we can see from the hanging scrolls of Dunhuang. The Guanyin’s images as a male deity still show canonical evidences derived from the Lotus Sutra and numerous Buddhist scriptures (the Buddhist sutras) and traces of common iconographic elements attributed to the image of Avalokiteshvara. However, the Chinese began to develop “new Guanyin” images which did not bear such Buddhist canonical foundations, but, rather, bore distinctive indigenous characteristics. One may regard Shuiyue Guanyin or Water-moon Guanyin as the beginning of the Chinese transformation of Avalokiteshvara. One of the earliest dated Water-moon Guanyin paintings found at Dunhuang is done in mid-10th century. She is holding a willow branch in one hand and a water bottle in the other, which formed distinctive attributes of Guanyin during the Tang and later dynasties.''

Marble carving of Bodhisattva Guan Yin. (stockphoto mania /Adobe Stock)

A Legendary Goddess of Compassion

There are many legends about Guan Yin. One of them talks about a disabled boy from India named Shancai (or Sudhana). The legend says that he was very interested in studying dharma (Buddhist teachings) and he learned about Guanyin.

He got so inspired that he decided to travel to a dangerous area full of rocks and find where she lived. Shancai wanted to learn more and get closer to the ideas linked to the goddess. Due to his impressive personality, Guanyin decided to both help and test him.

Thus, she made Shancai see that his teacher was in danger by creating the illusion of three pirates running up the hill to attack the goddess. When Shancai saw it, he wanted to save her – even if it meant sacrificing himself. He wasn't able to run fast enough and he fell down the rocky cliff edge which was beside the road up to where Guanyin was located. However, his bravery inspired Guanyin to award him by healing his body and making it so he could walk.

Sudhana learning from one of the fifty-two teachers along his journey toward enlightenment. Sanskrit manuscript, 11-12th century.

Sudhana learning from one of the fifty-two teachers along his journey toward enlightenment. Sanskrit manuscript, 11-12th century. (Public Domain)

Another story speaks of Chen Jinggu from Quanzhou in Fujian. It says that when people didn't have money to buy a bridge, they asked the good Guan Yin for help. She appeared in front of them as a beautiful maiden on a boat.

She said that she would marry the man who could hit her with a piece of silver from the edge of the water. Of course many men wanted to try, so she was able to collect a lot of money, which she planned to offer the people for their bridge. But one of the famous Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin, helped one of the men to hit Guanyin with the silver.

Guanyin vanished, but left a drop of her blood in the water. A woman drank this and bore a baby – Chen Jinggu. This story also contains a snake, which used men sexually and murdered women. The snake became Chen Jinggu’s enemy. Many years later Liu asked Chen Jinggu to marry him, but she didn't want to. She preferred to improve her Taoist skills, but eventually she had a romance with Liu and got pregnant.

The bad snake killed her baby and Chen Jinggu had to abort the fetus. However, with the goddess’ support she was able to try to kill the snake. In some versions of the tale Chen Jinggu kills the nasty snake because she is good and the goddess helps her. In other texts, Chen Jinggu dies because she wasn't a good student and didn't have enough power.

Guan Yin in Today’s World

Nowadays, the popularity of the current Dalai Lama (who is a head of only one path of Buddhism) has brought many new followers to Buddhism around the world. However, many aspects of Buddhism are often misunderstood or exaggerated. The structure of Buddhism is quite complicated, but it can be also explained by universal rules which connect all of the world’s religions.

Guan Yin represents one of the most important of these beliefs. Next to kindness, compassion is one of the things which connects people worldwide – no matter their nationality, skin complexion, religion, or anything else. Thus, she is one of the symbols that unites not only Buddhists, but everyone who follows a similar mental path.

The Chinese goddess statue named Guan Yin, that Thai representation of the Chinese kindness God. Quan Yin, Kuan Yim. (PRASERT /Adobe Stock)

Guanyin is worshiped in the famous Shaolin Temple, but also has other big temples dedicated to her, such as Sensoji, Shitennoji, Mahabodhi, Ajanta Caves, and many other temples in India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan.

Top Image: Bronze statue of Bodhisattva Guan Yin (Avalokiteshvara) sitting in the lotus position, having put hands in knowledge-mudra. Source: Dymov /Adobe Stock

By Natalia Klimczak


Guan Yin, available at:

White-robed Guanyin: The Sinicization of Buddhism in China Seen in the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara in Gender, Iconography, and Role by Jeong-Eun Kim, available at:


Wisdom embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan; with contributions by Lawrence Becker, Arianna Gambirasi, Takao Itoh, Mechtild Mertz, Won Yee Ng, Adriana Rizzo, and Mark T, Wypyski, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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