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Bodhisattva Guanyin; 11th/12th century AD.

The Great Powers of Guanyin: An All-Seeing, Compassionate Inspiration

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.

Guanyin’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 supported people who chanted the famous Karandavyuha Sutra and Lotus Sutra.

An Inspiration for Compassion

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 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 Guanyin 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.''

The bodhisattva (Guan Yin), Northern Sung dynasty, China.

The bodhisattva (Guan Yin), Northern Sung dynasty, China. ( Public Domain )

A Legendary Goddess of Compassion

There are many legends about Guanyin. 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 related to the goddess. Due to his impressive personality, Guanyin decided to support him 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, so 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 about Chen Jinggu from Quanzhou in Fujian. It says that when people didn't have money to buy a bridge, they asked the good Guanyin 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 hit Guanyin.

Zhang Lu's painting of Lü Dongbin, early 16th century.

Zhang Lu's painting of Lü Dongbin, early 16th century. ( Public Domain )

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 for 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.

Guanyin 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.

Guanyin, sitting in the lotus position.

Guanyin, sitting in the lotus position. ( Public Domain )

Guanyin 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.

Guanyin is worshiped in the famous Shaolin, but also in 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: Bodhisattva Guanyin; 11th/12th century AD. Source: ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Guan Yin, available at:
http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/Chinese_Customs/Guan_Yin.htm

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: https://web.archive.org/web/20060701134547/http://www.fsu.edu/~arh/events/athanor/athxix/AthanorXIX_kim.pdf

THE UNIVERSAL DOOR OF GUANSHI YIN BODHISATTVA, available at:
http://www.buddhistdoor.com/OldWeb/resources/sutras/lotus/sources/lotus25.htm

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:
http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15324coll10/id/62659

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