|Chinese wood carving of Guanyin; Shanxi Province (A.D. 907–1125)|
|alternative Chinese name|
|Quốc ngữ||Quan Âm
Quán Thế Âm
Guanyin (Chinese: 觀音; pinyin: Guānyīn; Wade-Giles: kuan-yin, Japanese: Kannon, Korean: Gwan-eum) is the bodhisattva associated with compassion as venerated by East Asian Buddhists, usually as a female. The name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin (觀世音, pinyin: Guānshìyīn, Wade-Giles: kuan-shih yin) which means "Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World".
It is generally accepted (in the Chinese community) that Guanyin originated as the Sanskrit Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर), which is her male form. Commonly known in English as the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin is also revered by Chinese Daoists (Taoists) as an Immortal. However, in Daoist mythology, Guanyin has other origination stories which are not directly related to Avalokiteśvara.
Guanyin's origin is debated among scholars. The root of this debate lies in the history of religion in China. China's indigenous religion is Daoism. It is possible that Guanshi'yin originated as a Daoist deity, the Queen Mother of the West. With the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism to China in around the fourth to fifth centuries AD, Daoism and Buddhism became religious rivals in China. The Buddhist tactic was to change, and even supplant, indigenous Daoist deities in favor of Buddhist deities. Over the centuries, this trend has had the effect that it is now virtually impossible to determine Guanshi'yin's true origin. The official Buddhist view is that Guanyin originated with the male Avalokiteśvara, though Guanyin's origin may be more complex than this simple, linear derivation. While it is certain that the name "Guanshi'yin" is derived from the name "Avalokiteśvara", the image of the Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese Bodhisattva (along with her femininity) may be at least partly derived from other sources.
Due to devotional popularity of Guanyin in East Asia, she is known by many names, most of which are simply the localized pronunciations of "Guanyin" or "Guanshiyin":
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Guanyin is the Chinese name for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. However, folk traditions in China and other East Asian countries have added many distinctive characteristics and legends. Avalokiteśvara was originally depicted as the Buddha when he was still a prince, and therefore wears chest-revealing clothing and may even sport a moustache. However in China, Guanyin is usually depicted as a woman. Additionally, some people believe that Guanyin is both man and woman (or perhaps neither).(link here)
In China, Guanyin is usually shown in a white flowing robe and usually wears necklaces of Indian/Chinese royalty. In the right hand is a water jar containing pure water, and the left holds a willow branch. The crown usually depicts the image of Amitabha Buddha, Guanyin's spiritual teacher before she became a Bodhisattva.
In some Buddhist temples and monasteries, Guanyin's images are occasionally depicted as a young man dressed in Northern Song Buddhist robes sitting gracefully. He is usually depicted looking or glancing down, symbolising that Guanyin continues to watch over the world.
There are also regional variations of Guanyin depictions. In the Fujian region of China, for example, a popular depiction of Guanyin is as a maiden dressed in Tang dynasty style clothing carrying a fish basket. A popular image of Guanyin as both Guanyin of the South Sea and Guanyin With a Fish Basket can be seen in late 1500s Chinese encyclopedias and in prints that accompany the novel Golden Lotus.
In Chinese art, Guanyin is often depicted either alone, standing atop a dragon, accompanied by a white parrot, flanked by two children, or flanked by two warriors. The two children are her acolytes who came to her when she was meditating at Mount Putuo. The girl is called Long Nü and the boy Shan Tsai. The two warriors are the historical character Guan Yu who comes from the Three Kingdoms period and the mythological character Wei Tuo who features in the Chinese classic Canonisation of the Gods. The Buddhist tradition also displays Guanyin, or other buddhas and bodhisattvas, flanked with the two said warriors, but as bodhisattvas who protect the temple and the faith itself.
In Chinese Buddhist iconography, Guanyin is often depicted as meditating or sitting alongside one of the Buddhas and usually accompanied by another bodhisattva. Which buddha or bodhisattva usually depends upon which school it represents. In the Pure Land school, for example, Guanyin is frequently depicted as standing alongside Amitabha Buddha and bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta. Temples that revere the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha usually depict him meditating alongside the Buddha and Guanyin.
Along with Buddhism, Guanyin's veneration was introduced into China as early as the 1st century CE, and reached Japan by way of Korea soon after Buddhism was first introduced into the country in the mid-7th century. Some Daoist records claim Guanyin was a Chinese female who became immortal during Shang Dynasty.
More recently in Europe and America, a new wave of believers have spread a devotional cult beyond Buddhism, Daoism and folk traditional beliefs. Guanyin is not only a bodhisattva or a god but a focus of devotion by some Eastern New Age movements.
Representations of the bodhisattva in China prior to the Song Dynasty (960–1279) were masculine in appearance. Images which later displayed attributes of both genders are believed to be in accordance with the Lotus Sutra, where Avalokitesvara has the supernatural power of assuming any form required to relieve suffering, and also has the power to grant children (possibly relating to the fact that in this Sutra -unlike in others- both men and women are believed to have ability to achieve enlightenment). Because this bodhisattva is considered the personification of compassion and kindness, a mother-goddess and patron of mothers and seamen, the representation in China was further interpreted in an all-female form around the 12th century. In the modern period, Guanyin is most often represented as a beautiful, white-robed woman, a depiction which derives from the earlier Pandaravasini form.
One Buddhist legend from the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas (Chinese: 南海觀音全撰; pinyin: Nánhǎi Guānyīn Quánzhuàn) presents Guanyin as vowing to never rest until she had freed all sentient beings from samsara, reincarnation. Despite strenuous effort, she realized that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha, seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokitesvara attempted to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that her two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha came to her aid and appointed her a thousand arms with which to aid the many. Many Himalayan versions of the tale include eight arms with which Avalokitesvara skillfully upholds the Dharma, each possessing its own particular implement, while more Chinese-specific versions give varying accounts of this number.
In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her to ensure safe voyages. The titles Guanyin of the Southern Ocean (南海觀音) and "Guanyin (of/on) the Island" stem from this tradition.
Another story from the Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain describes Guanyin as the daughter of a cruel king who wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man. The story is usually ascribed to the research of the Buddhist monk Chiang Chih-ch'i in 1100 AD. The story is likely to have a Daoist origin. Chiang Chih-ch'i, when he penned the work, believed that the Guanyin we know today was actually a Buddhist princess called Miaoshan (妙善), who had a religious following on Fragrant Mountain. Despite this, however, there are many variants of the story in Chinese mythology.
According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miao Shan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.
The king asked his daughter what were the three misfortunes that the marriage should ease. Miaoshan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age. The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever.
When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miao Shan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all these.
Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labor and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.
Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her very hard chores in order to discourage her. The monks forced Miao Shan to work all day and all night, while others slept, in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.
In one version of this legend, when she was executed, a supernatural tiger took Guanyin to one of the more hell-like realms of the dead. However, instead of being punished by demons like the other inmates, Guanyin played music and flowers blossomed around her. This completely surprised the head demon. The story says that Guanyin, by merely being in that hell, turned it into a paradise.
A variant of the legend says that Miao Shan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father's orders, his axe shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miao Shan down with arrows but they all veered off.
Finally in desperation he used his hands. Miao Shan, realising the fate the executioner would meet at her father's hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there she witnessed firsthand the suffering and horrors beings there must endure and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.
Another tale says that Miao Shan never died but was in fact transported by a supernatural tiger, believed to be the Deity of the Place, to Fragrant Mountain.
The Legend of Miao Shan usually ends with Miao Chuang Yen, Miao Shan's father, falling ill with jaundice. No physician was able to cure him. Then a monk appeared saying that the jaundice could be cured by making a medicine out of the arm and eye of one without anger. The monk further suggested that such a person could be found on Fragrant Mountain. When asked, Miao Shan willingly offered up her eyes and arms. Miao Chuang Yen was cured of his illness and went to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the person. When he discovered that his own daughter had made the sacrifice, he begged for forgiveness. The story concludes with Miaoshan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Guanyin, and the king, queen and her two sisters building a temple on the mountain for her. She began her journey to heaven and was about to cross over into heaven when she heard a cry of suffering from the world below. She turned around and saw the massive suffering endured by the people of the world. Filled with compassion, she returned to earth, vowing never to leave till such time as all suffering has ended.
After her return to Earth, Guanyin was said to have stayed for a few years on the island of Mount Putuo where she practised meditation and helped the sailors and fishermen who got stranded. Guanyin is frequently worshipped as patron of sailors and fishermen due to this. She is said to frequently becalm the sea when boats are threatened with rocks. After some decades Guanyin returned to Fragrant Mountain to continue her meditation.
Legend has it that Shan Tsai (also called Sudhana in Sanskrit) was a disabled boy from India who was very interested in studying the Buddha Dharma. When he heard that there was a Buddhist teacher on the rocky island of Putuo he quickly journeyed there to learn. Upon arriving at the island, he managed to find Bodhisattva Guanyin despite his severe disability.
Guanyin, after having a discussion with Shan Tsai, decided to test the boy's resolve to fully study the Buddhist teachings. She conjured the illusion of three sword-wielding pirates running up the hill to attack her. Guanyin took off and dashed to the edge of a cliff, the three illusions still chasing her.
Shan Tsai, seeing that his teacher was in danger, hobbled uphill. Guanyin then jumped over the edge of the cliff, and soon after this the three bandits followed. Shan Tsai, still wanting to save his teacher, managed to crawl his way over the cliff edge.
Shan Tsai fell down the cliff but was halted in midair by Guanyin, who now asked him to walk. Shan Tsai found that he could walk normally and that he was no longer crippled. When he looked into a pool of water he also discovered that he now had a very handsome face. From that day forth, Guanyin taught Shan Tsai the entire Buddha Dharma.
Many years after Shan Tsai became a disciple of Guanyin, a distressing event happened in the South Sea. The sons of one of the Dragon Kings (a ruler-god of the sea) was caught by a fisherman while taking the form of a fish. Being stuck on land, he was unable to transform back into his dragon form. His father, despite being a mighty Dragon King, was unable to do anything while his son was on land. Distressed, the son called out to all of Heaven and Earth.
Hearing this cry, Guanyin quickly sent Shan Tsai to recover the fish and gave him all the money she had. The fish at this point was about to be sold in the market. It was causing quite a stir as it was alive hours after being caught. This drew a much larger crowd than usual at the market. Many people decided that this prodigious situation meant that eating the fish would grant them immortality, and so all present wanted to buy the fish. Soon a bidding war started, and Shan Tsai was easily outbid.
Shan Tsai begged the fish seller to spare the life of the fish. The crowd, now angry at someone so daring, was about to prise him away from the fish when Guanyin projected her voice from far away, saying "A life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it."
The crowd, realising their shameful actions and desire, dispersed. Shan Tsai brought the fish back to Guanyin, who promptly returned it to the sea. There the fish transformed back to a dragon and returned home. Paintings of Guanyin today sometimes portray her holding a fish basket, which represents the aforementioned tale.
But the story does not end there. As a reward for Guanyin saving his son, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter, a girl called Lung Nü ("dragon girl"), to present Guanyin with the Pearl of Light. The Pearl of Light was a precious jewel owned by the Dragon King that constantly shone. Lung Nü, overwhelmed by the presence of Guanyin, asked to be her disciple so that she might study the Buddha Dharma. Guanyin accepted her offer with just one request: that Lung Nü be the new owner of the Pearl of Light.
In popular iconography, Lung Nü and Shan Tsai are often seen alongside Guanyin as two children. Lung Nü is seen either holding a bowl or an ingot, which represents the Pearl of Light, whereas Shan Tsai is seen with palms joined and knees slightly bent to show that he was once crippled.
The Precious Scroll of the Parrot (Chinese: 鸚鴿寶撰; pinyin: Yīnggē Bǎozhuàn) tells the story of a parrot who becomes a disciple of Guanyin. During the Tang Dynasty a little parrot ventures out to search for its mother's favorite food upon which it is captured by a poacher (parrots were quite popular during the Tang Dynasty). When it managed to escape it found out that its mother had already died. The parrot grieved for its mother and provides her with a proper funeral. It then sets out to become a disciple of Guanyin.
In popular iconography, the parrot is colored white and usually seen hovering to the right side of Guanyin with either a pearl or a prayer bead clasped in its beak. The parrot becomes a symbol of filial piety.
Due to her symbolising compassion, in East Asia Guanyin is associated with vegetarianism. Chinese vegetarian restaurants are generally decorated with her image, and she appears in most Buddhist vegetarian pamphlets and magazines.
In Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin/Kuan Yin/Kannon/Kwannon is synonymous with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the pinnacle of mercy and compassion. Among the Chinese, Avalokitesvara is almost exclusively called Guanshiyin Pusa (觀世音菩薩). The Chinese translation of many Buddhist sutras has in fact replaced the Chinese transliteration of Avalokitesvara with Guanshiyin (觀世音) Some Daoist scriptures give her the title of Guanyin Dashi, and sometimes informally as Guanyin Fozu.
In Chinese Buddhism, the popular myth and worship of Guanyin as a goddess by the populace is generally not viewed to be in conflict with the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's nature. In fact the widespread worship of Guanyin as a "Goddess of Mercy and Compassion" is seen as the boundless salvific nature of bodhisattva Avalokitesvara at work (in Buddhism, this is referred to as Guanyin's "skillful means", or upaya). The Buddhist canon states that bodhisattvas can assume whatsoever gender and form is needed to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha. With specific reference to Avalokitesvara, he is stated both in the Lotus Sutra (Chapter 25/妙法蓮華經觀世音菩薩普門品第二十五/miào fǎ lián huá jīng guān shì yīn pú sà pŭ mén pǐn dì èr shí wŭ/"Perceiver of the World’s Sounds" or "Universal Gateway"/kanzeon bosatsu fumon hon), and the Surangama Sutra to have appeared before as a woman or a goddess to save beings from suffering and ignorance. Some Buddhist schools refer to Guanyin both as male and female interchangeably.
Also in Mahayana Buddhism, to which Chinese Buddhism belongs, gender is no obstacle to Enlightenment. The Buddhist concept of non-duality applies here. The Vimalakirti Sutra in the Goddess chapter clearly illustrates an Enlightened being who is also a female and deity. In the Lotus Sutra a maiden became Enlightened in a very short time span. That bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is also the goddess Guanyin is not seen as contradictory.
Given that bodhisattvas are known to incarnate at will as living people according to the sutras, the princess Miao Shan is generally viewed as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara.
Guanyin is immensely popular among Chinese Buddhists, especially those from devotional schools. She is generally seen as a source of unconditional love and more importantly as a savior. In her bodhisattva vows, Guanyin promises to answer the cries and pleas of all beings and to liberate all beings from their own karmic woes. Based upon the Lotus Sutra and the Shurangama sutra, Avalokitesvara is generally seen as a savior, both spiritually and physically. The sutras state that through his saving grace even those who have no chance of being Enlightened can be Enlightened, and those deep in negative karma can still find salvation through his compassion.
In Pure Land Buddhism, Guanyin is described as the "Barque of Salvation". Along with Amitabha Buddha and the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, She temporarily liberates beings out of the Wheel of Samsara into the Pure Land, where they will have the chance to accrue the necessary merit so as to be a Buddha in one lifetime.
Even among Chinese Buddhist schools that are non-devotional, Guanyin is still highly venerated. Instead of being seen as an active external force of unconditional love and salvation, the personage of Guanyin is highly revered as the principle of compassion, mercy and love. The act, thought and feeling of compassion and love is viewed as Guanyin. A merciful, compassionate, loving individual is said to be Guanyin. A meditative or contemplative state of being at peace with oneself and others is seen as Guanyin.
In the Mahayana canon, the Heart Sutra is ascribed entirely to the bodhisattva Kuan Yin/Kwannon. This is unique, as most Mahayana Sutras are usually ascribed to Shakyamuni Buddha and the teachings, deeds or vows of the bodhisattvas are described by Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Heart Sutra, Guanyin/Avalokitesvara describes to the Arhat Sariputra the nature of reality and the essence of the Buddhist teachings. The famous Buddhist saying "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" comes from this sutra.
The Shaolin Monastery historically worshiped a deity known as Kinara, a dharmapala, as their patron saint and progenitor of their famous Shaolin staff method. Kimnara was originally called "Narayana" (not to be confused with Vishnu), which was a name for the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. However, Shaolin considered Vajrapani's Kimnara form to be an emanation of Guanyin.
Guanyin is an extremely popular Goddess in Chinese folk belief and is worshiped in Chinese communities throughout East and South East Asia. Guanyin is revered in the general Chinese population due to her unconditional love, compassion and mercy. She is generally regarded by many as the protector of women and children. By this association she is also seen as a fertility goddess capable of granting children. She is also seen as the champion of the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble. Some coastal and river areas of China regard her as the protector of fishermen, sailors, and generally people who are out at sea, thus many also come to believe that Mazu, the Daoist goddess of the sea, is a manifestation of Guanyin. Due to her association with the legend of the Great Flood, where she sent down a dog holding rice grains in its tail after the flood, she is worshiped as a rice goddess. In some quarters, especially among business people and traders, she is looked upon as a Goddess of Luck and Fortune. In recent years there have been claims of her being the protector of air travelers.
Some syncretic Buddhist and Christian observers have commented on the similarity between Guanyin and Mary of Christianity, the mother of Jesus Christ. The Tzu-Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist organization, also noticing the similarity, commissioned a portrait of Guanyin and a baby that resembles the typical Roman Catholic Madonna and Child painting.
During the Edo Period in Japan, when Christianity was banned and punishable by death, some underground Christian groups venerated the Virgin Mary disguised as a statue of Kannon; such statues are known as Maria Kannon. Many had a cross hidden in an inconspicuous location.
According to one belief, she was born as Princess Miao Shan to a childless king and queen. Upon expressing her wish to become a Buddhist nun to her father, he disowned her. Without her father's blessing, Miao Shan proceeded to become a nun in a Buddhist monastery. Her father had paid the nuns at the monastery to abuse Miao Shan severely so that she would leave and come back home. The nuns accepted the money and proceeded to treat Miao Shan terribly. They forced her to sleep on the floor and do all the chores around the monastery by herself. However, upon realizing her intense devotion to the Buddha's teachings, they relented and stopped abusing her. From then on, they treated her as a sister and friend. When her father realized that the nuns weren't abusing Guan Yin any more, he became absolutely furious and set the monastery on fire. Guan Yin put out the fire by pricking her the roof of her mouth with a long pin, which let out a stream of blood that proceeded to spray on the monastery, saving all the nuns inside. Her father was enraged upon seeing the miracle of Guan Yin and strangled her with a silken cord. As Guan Yin died, she took all of her father's sins on her, and proceeded to go to the hell realms. However, wherever she went in hell, demons fled and cool streams and beautiful flowers sprouted. Effectively, she was turning hell into a paradise by her very presence! This terrified the king of hell, Yama, who felt as if he was losing his kingdom. He sent Guan Yin back to earth, where she went to live on Mount Pu'to Shan in China.