ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP
THE CREATION OF GODDESS OF MERCY FROM AVALOKITESVARA
Avalokitesvara/Guanyin occupies a unique place in the Mahayana Buddhist
pantheon. Buddhist sutras speak of several bodhisattvas but it is
Avalokitesvara/Guanyin who is revered and adored by followers of both
Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism and by all art lovers. He/she has acquired a
status equal to the Buddha and sometimes his importance surpasses even the
Buddha's. The Westerners know the deity as the Chinese goddess of love and
compassion. If Buddhism has been the greatest contribution of India to world
religions, the transformation of Indian Avalokitesvara to Guanyin-the
Goddess of Mercy -is the creation and contribution of China to the Buddhist
world. Despite three major setbacks suffered by Buddhism in Chinese history,
the symbol of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy however had continued to prosper
and flourish and has rightly been called the "cult of half Asia".1
the Mani Kambum it is related that Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara emerged
as a ray of white light from the right eye of Amitabha after the latter had
given himself up to earnest meditation and hence regarded as his spiritual
son. The Bodhisattva brought forth the prayer "Om mani padme hum",
"Oh! the jewel (of creation) is in the Lotus!"
Avalokitesvara/Guanyin formulation has not been free from controversy,
almost from the inception. The Chinese word "Guanyin" is an
abbreviation of "Guanshiyin" which denotes "seeing the voice
of the world" if rendered literally. Is this meant to be a translation
of Avalokita, Avalokita svara or Avalokitesvara? The name Avalokita means
"viewed", "beheld" and can be used in the masculine,
feminine and neuter genders. Avalokita-svara means the hearer of voices of
the suffering beings while Avalokitesvara conveys the existence of a Lord
who is omniscient in observing all the activities, including sufferings of
humanity. Such a deity can be called as the lord who looks in every
direction or "Regarder of cries of the suffering beings".
Kumarajiva's and Xuanzang's translations as Guanshiyin, Guanzizai continued
for some time but it was the term Guanyin which found favour ultimately.
many Sutras have spoken the greatness of the Bodhisattva. it is in the Saddharma
pundarika sutra (Miaofa lianhuajing) -- jewel among the Mahayana Sutras
--where Avalokitesvara's virtues have been extolled in a special chapter.
The chapter itself became so important that it was treated as a separate
sutra called the Avalokitesvara sutra. The importance of the Avalokitesvara
Sutra came to be known when a King fell ill and he was asked to recite
this particular Sutra. The King was cured and thus faith in the Sutra was
generated and the Bodhisattva too gradually came to occupy the central
popularity of Avalokitesvara is due to the personification of karuna (compassion)
and prajna (wisdom). While wisdom makes the Bodhisattva close to the
human minds, compassion makes him/her close to the human hearts. All other
deities possess these two qualities to a certain degree, but for
Avalokitesvara/Guanyin, being their perfect representation, it is easier for
him/her to assimilate the attributes of other Brahmanical deities like
Brahma, Vishnu and Siva thus becoming the most powerful of all spiritual
powers, the father and mother of all.
who is a male Bodhisattva in India was transformed into a goddess in a
Chinese male oriented society. A preliminary statement can be made here,
that sinicization of Buddhism led to the creation of the Goddess of mercy
with Chinese characteristics from a male deity with Indian characteristics.
What brought about this change in the gender of this Bodhisattva and why?
This transformation of a male deity from India into a female Goddess of
mercy in a strongly patriarchal Chinese society both at the terrestrial and
celestial levels has surprised many. Celestial because for any woman to gain
entrance into the Paradise of Amitabha, she should shed her female form and
assume a male form. For a female divinity to have grown in the terrestrial
level in a male dominated society, and to have given rise to a cult is
equally strange. It is not that there were no goddesses prior to the
introduction of Buddhism in China. Only they were not as important.
The transformation does not appear to have come about suddenly. The male Bodhisattva was gradually given an ambiguous form so that people saw what they desired to see. If we examine the iconographic representations of the goddess in China and elsewhere, the paintings and statues of this Bodhisattva initially did not reveal this change. The female anatomy was conspicuously absent, but from a graceful body structure one could feel the feminine element. At the same time the male characteristics of moustache and beard were also visible in the form of tendril like lines. Even these vanished in the sculptures of the Dazu caves where they appear to be completely female.
Visions and Legends of Guanyln
visions, naturally formed images, efficacy, configuration of multiple
images, pilgrim sites, legends, miracles, configuration of multiple images,
folklore and last but not least, the reign of Empress Wu Zetian of Tang
Dynasty, appear to be the factors which contributed to the creation of the
Goddess of Mercy. Although they seem to be exclusive of each other they are
in fact interlinked, making it a process of "cause and effect" for
the evolution of the goddess.
"creation of Goddess of mercy" symbolic of maternal love and
infinite compassion can be traced to the 5th century and not as late as 11th
or 12th centuries as made out by many scholars. The encyclopedic Fayuan
zhulin which was compiled in 668 mentions that Guanyin manifested
himself in feminine form in AD 479 to rescue his devotee Peng Zujiao from
chains. There was another instance when that Bodhisattva had manifested
himself in the female form to heal the "dissolute and emaciated
Northern Qi emperor Wen Cheng (reigning 561-65 AD). With the translation of
the Cundi devi dharani sutra in the seventh century, the feminine
aspect of Guanyin in the form of Cundi-Avalokitesvara (chun tie-guanyin),
"mother of seven kotis of Buddhas" was established in China.
the annals of Tianzhu, Guanyin is said to appear in the form of a woman in
white in the dream of Qian Liu (852- 932 AD), the founder of the Wu Vue
kingdom, and told him that his kingdom would survive the chaotic Five
Dynasties period for he was compassionate and averse to killing. She also
told him that he could find her on Mount Tianzhu in Hangzhou. Later, when he
became the king he dreamt of the same lady who asked him for a place to stay
and promised to be the tutelary deity of his kingdom. Upon inquiries the
king found out that the only white robed Guanyin image was in the Tianzhu
Monastery and the image housed in the Monastery was that of the feminine
the year AD 939, it was said that while meditating, monk Daoyi saw a bright
light coming from the stream. When he looked up he found a wooden piece with
a strange fragrance. He gave the wood to a local artisan for making an image
of Guanyin. The artisan cut open the wood and found a ready-made
"naturally formed image" of the deity. The bodhisattva's face was
compassionate and beautiful. The artisan planned to keep this image and make
one from ordinary wood. But Guanyin appeared in the dream of Daoyi and
warned him of the deception. The artisan had to part with the ready-made
image. Some years later Daoyi had another dream in which a "white-robed
person" told of the arrival of a monk from Luoyang the following day
and that he, Daoyi should ask him for the relic of the Buddha that was
amongst the latter's possessions. The next day the monk came and Daoyi asked
for, the relic. The monk saw the image and was greatly moved and offered the
relic1o be installed in its crown. Guanyin himself is said to have appeared
as a white-robed person in Daoyi's dream and predicted about the monk's
of Guanyin as a beautiful lady to vision-seeking pilgrims added another
dimension to the popularity of the goddess. The Chaoyin dong (Cave of Tidal
Sound) in Mount Putuo is the foremost place where the pilgrims had visions
of the Bodhisattva. With the passage of time places like the Diamond Boulder
and the Purple Bamboo Grove were also regarded as Guanyin's preaching sites.
The Fozu Tongji has the following passage from the Cao-an lu (Record
of a grass hut) written by Nanhu Daoyin during the period 1165-73 AD:
pu-to is in the great ocean. It is situated southeast of Jin [Ning-po],
about a thousand kilometres by the water route. It is no other than the
mountain called Potalaka that is declared by the Hua yen Jing to be
the 'isolated place at the end of the ocean' where kuanyin Bodhisattva
lives. It is also no other than the Mount Potalaka that is declared by the Dabei
Jing to be the place where the palace of Kuanyin in which Sakyamuni
Buddha reveals the heart-seal of the Mantra of Great Compassion is located.
The Cave of Tidal Sound is on the island. Ocean tides pound in and rush out
day and night making deafening noises. In front of the cave is a stone
bridge on which pilgrims stand facing the cave to pray. If they are sincere,
they sometimes can see the Great Being sitting leisurely. Or they will see
Sudhana come forward as if to welcome them. Other times one will see the
pure vase of green jade or the Kalavinka bird flying as if performing a
dance. Some six or seven li from the cave there is a large monastery.
Merchants, diplomats and tribute bearers sailing to and from the various
countries in the Eastern Sea would come here to pray for safety. Those who
are reverential and sincere all receive protection without fail."
was the Cave of Tidal Sound where Guanyin appeared to pilgrims as mentioned
in the early accounts of the island. From the Song dynasty onwards,
important officials and well known persons who visited the islands wrote
about it. A collection of poems and essays left by the visitors are
collected in the island gazetteers. Besides important people, ordinary
pilgrims and even illiterate ones have also helped by word of mouth
repeating stories they had heard or marvels they had themselves witnessed.
Stories were of great help in making Guanyin a goddess. Emperor Wenzong of
Tang (AD 827-39) loved to eat clams. Fishermen on the southeast sea coast
were burdened with the task of supplying clams to the emperor. One day a
huge clam was served that could not be opened by a knife. When the emperor
knocked on the shell the clam opened by itself and inside was a portrait of
Guanyin. The emperor was astonished and preserved the shell in a sandalwood
box. He consulted a Chan master who explained to him that the appearance was
to kindle his faith so that he would be judicious and love the people. The
Lotus Sutra says that for those who need to be saved by the Bodhisattva,
Guanyin appeared as a Bodhisattva to preach the dharma. The emperor said
that he had seen the form but had not heard the preaching. The Chan master
asked the emperor if he believed what he saw and the latter replied in the
affirmative. The master said that if there was faith then the emperor had
already heard the preaching. From that day onwards the emperor stopped
eating clams and ordered the installation of Guanyin images in the
monasteries of the country.
Guanyin with the fish basket is based upon the legend of a Chan believer and his daughter Lingzhao who was believed to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara carrying a bamboo basket. The story goes thus -In the year AD 817 of the Tang dynasty a beautiful girl in the countryside was much sought after for marriage by eligible young men. As the number of men who were eager to marry her was large, she adopted a novel method for selecting a suitor. She put forth a condition that she would marry the person who would memorize the Guanyin chapter of the Lotus Sutra in one night. Twenty men succeeded in doing this but because there were still too many for the marriage, she again made a request that these twenty should learn by heart the Vajracchedika sutra overnight. Once again there was a sizable number of men who had achieved the feat. The girl's third condition was that he who memorized the entire Lotus Sutra in just three days could marry her. A man named Ma Lang was the only one who could accomplish this and so the marriage was to take place. Just as the marriage ceremony was to commence the girl took ill and died. Soon after the burial an old priest visited Ma Lang and requested him to dig up the grave. The coffin contained only pieces of golden bones. The old priest said that the girl was a manifestation of Guanyin who had come to lead people to salvation. After saying this the old man too vanished. From then on the people of the district became Guanyin devotees.
the years, the story of a girl (actually Guanyin) who successfully resisted
her father's attempt to get her married, sought her own destiny while
bringing succour to the suffering people grew into a legend. Many variations
of this story have also been extant from time to time as the Chinese
reincarnation of Guanyin. The most popular text however is the one written
by the Buddhist monk Puming of the Tianzhusi after a vision he experienced
in 1103. The version given by Vu Chengxue can be summarised as follows:
story of Miaoshan in various forms had found an immense appeal and had a
wide circulation. This legend no doubt offered women in China a role model
to defy parental marriage arrangements while observing the path of piety.
At another level, the legend of Miaoshan had many important lessons for the women. First is the filial piety which Miaoshan exhibited. Instead of resenting the wicked persecutor, she returned to her father when he was seriously ill. There is an element of sacrifice in giving up her arms and eyes. And above all, it had a great appeal to women as it symbolized the independent female spirit and the willingness to suffer in the face of pressures from the family.
of Images Into Female Guanyln
Chinese mythology had been dominated by male gods and masters, the presence
of female divinities has always been a part of Chinese folk belief. Amongst
them can be recognized four divinities whose collective popularity extends
from ancient times to the present. They are Nuwa, the legendary
creatress of humans, Xiwangmu the Queen Mother of the west, Guanyin
the Goddess of Mercy and Tianhou the Empress of Heaven. These four
divinities have an interesting and significant relationship and collectively
they represent a continuing "spiritual potency" and significance
to the masses, religious and political groups.
most revered as the mother goddess. She created the first human beings, the
nobles from yellow soil and base men from straw. She battled against floods
and destroyed monsters. Nuwa not only created beings but also constantly
changed shape, an attribute associated with Guanyin too.
represented as a beautiful lady attended by the "Daughters of
Jade". It is to be noted that in the early versions of the legend both
Nuwa and Xiwangmu looked rather alien to the natives of China but by and by
were totally integrated into the superstructure of ruling hierarchy and
rationalized in the popular belief of the oral literature. But the Buddhist
divinity Guanyin which was foreign in origin appeared to have overtaken both
these feminine divinities as well as Tianhou.
Forgiveness, mercy and compassion in the Chinese context were seen as primarily feminine characteristics. During the Tang Dynasty Guanyin has been portrayed as a Goddess and a companion to Amitabha, Lord of the Western Paradise. This led to Guanyin's association with the Western Paradise and thence to the sharing of the characteristics with the Taoist Queen Mother of the west -Xiwangmu. Later the characteristics of goddess Tianhou were also absorbed by Guanyin and the latter was looked upon as a goddess of sailors and a protectress of those at sea.
Guanyin (Guanyin of Moon and Water)
concept of the Shuiyue Guanyin arose from the eminent Tang poet Bai Juyi's
poem "Ode to the portrait of Shuiyue Guanyin" expressing
his devotion for the "Moon's reflection in Water form of Guanyin" (Shuiyue
Guanyin). The poem reads as follows:
the white light.
I set my sight
egos are vanishing.
disciple Bai Juyi
devotion under your feet.
are my cynosure
after life forever."
The poem was represented in a painting by the famous Tang artist Zhou Fang. Although it is one of the thirty three forms of Guanyin, it is not based on the scriptures. The Dunhuang manuscript P. 2055 mentions that Zhai Fengda copied the Sutra for the Shuiyue Guanyin as a mark of wishing good luck to his late wife. But unfortunately the original is no longer to be found. There is no documented base for the Sutra in Buddhist Scriptures and it is difficult to ascertain whether this sutra was from India or the creation of the natives. It was after about a century that the artists of Dunhuang took a fancy to the concept of the Shuiyue Guanyin.
who gifts sons to mothers) is another form of Guanyin and regarded to be a
Chinese creation -at least adaptation. The Lotus Sutra states that a woman
desirous of a male child should only pray to Avalokitesvara and her wish is
granted. The concept of Songzi Guanyin may have its origin in the Indian
goddess Hariti. Hariti, a Hindu goddess was said to be originally an ogress.
The legend, according to Samyuktavastu, said that once Hariti decided
to capture and eat up all the children in Rajagriha. All the children
disappeared and there were bitter lamentations. The bereaved parents went to
the Buddha and requested him to make Hariti harmless. Buddha remained silent
but the next morning after his round with the begging bowl asking for alms
he went to Hariti's abode and finding the five hundredth and the youngest
son Priyankara there. He hid him inside his begging bowl. On her return
Hariti found that her favourite son was missing and asked the remaining 499
sons for the whereabouts of the youngest one. They had no knowledge of the
Buddha's act. In great despair Hariti started hunting for him till her
search brought her to the Buddha where after paying her respects to the
Buddha she asked about her son. The Buddha replied that she must first
promise to follow his precepts and give the people of Rajagriha assurance of
security to which she readily agreed. The Buddha then converted her, and she
in turn became the "Protectress of Children".
a conceptual level "child giving" was not restricted to Guanyin
alone but was a function of earlier goddesses also. But the very same role
seems to have been appropriated by Guanyin subsequently. In another instance
Songzi Guanyin is said to be associated with Yaoji, the Taoist goddess,
daughter of Xiwangmu. In this form the "Princess of Fairy Clouds
watches over women in their confinement and cares for them during their
Getty has cited the case of "Songzi Guanyin" who was looked upon
as "Dispenser of Fecundity" and for whom there was an extant cult
of those desiring children.4
She agrees that Songzi Guanyin was the female form of Avalokitesvara with a
child in the arms as a symbol of the quality of "Giver of
Children". The transition to the female form with its flowing robes was
therefore a "natural convergence".
conclusion that could be drawn is that in Chinese society even an
"imported deity" like Guanyin was subjected to "profound
transformation" expressive of the underlying need for mythical feminine
symbols in the context of dominant hierarchy. The local folk traditions seem
to have accepted the female transformation consistent with the traditions of
local goddesses. Guanyin seems to have absorbed all the local beliefs and
traditions in a big way.
it be said that Guanyin became more popular in China as her all pervasive
qualities offered solution to the problems faced by women in China
particularly in a sociological order fixed by Confucian ideals and carried
on for centuries? There appears to be some force in this argument. Barbara
Reed in her study has said that in popular Chinese beliefs, the blood of
both menstruation and child birth is spiritually polluting.5
Guanyin responds to women because of their sex and is said to possess power
to save women from sexual attacks, physical, emotional and social suffering.6
thirty three manifestations of Avalokitesvara/Guanyin in the Saddharmapundarika
became popular cults in Sui (581- 617) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.
These manifestations according to Prof. Lokesh Chandra indicate the
assimilation of Indian and indigenous deities and beliefs and is a
"The incorporation of Buddhist goddesses into Guanyin and the natural
propensity of women towards feminine forms, not to speak of several other
factors led to Guanyin in female form becoming dominant in China especially
after the Tang and more often the Song Dynasty".
Dunhuang murals bear witness to the trend of painters making the images of
Bodhisattvas more feminine and worldly in order to "please the
viewers". The thirty three manifestations of Guanyin kindled the
imagination of painters resulting in a plethora of Guanyin images. Besides
the painters, perhaps the whims and fancies of the common people also played
an important role in depicting Guanyin as a goddess.
many legends interwoven with local folklore on the miraculous powers of
Guanyin are extant in China. The iconographic models of Guanyin seen in
various manifestations all over China and in places where overseas Chinese
are in large numbers is a testimony to its popularity and the faith the
people have in the powers of Guanyin.
generalized observations can be made from the depiction of Avalokitesvara /
Guanyin and the ideas and concepts that were sought to be conveyed by the
extant images. These include:-
French Sinologist Maspero has suggested an explanation for the
transformation of Avalokitesvara into a female form. Mahayana Buddhism had
always considered enlightenment as the conjunction of wisdom and compassion.
Symbolically, in Tantric Buddhism, wisdom is considered to be male and
compassion female. With the introduction of Tantric Buddhism in 8th century
made popular by many Tantric masters who were active at that time, all the
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were provided with female consorts.
evolution of Guanyin as the goddess of mercy has been explained by John
Blofeld as related to Tara. Tara is looked upon as "a beautiful female
divinity able to manifest herself in twenty-one different forms for the sake
of succouring sentient beings." Tara has two main functions: to rescue
human beings from woes, to assist them in ridding themselves of the
delusions binding them. Blofeld believes that these are the same functions
of Guanyin also. According to him such an attractive being supported by
Buddhist texts would not have been overlooked by the Chinese unless they had
some other means of portraying compassion. The Chinese have always been
disposed to envisage friendly divinities in idealized human form, and the
beautiful Tara now as a sweet faced matron, now as a winsome maiden would
have been very appealing. As Guanyin the Bodhisattva of compassion could not
be ignored, the mediator and the artists would have hit upon the idea of
visualizing Guanyin in a form similar to Tara's and he cites three early
paintings where the posture and mudras were akin to Tara's. These images
belong to an era "where the forms of Tara and Guanyin began to
In his book "Hinduism and Buddhism" Sir Charles Eliot states that the creation of female Guanyin was probably "facilitated by the worship of Tara and Hariti, the fatter is frequently represented as caressing a child." In his view the Chinese religious sentiment required a Madonna and it is not unnatural if the god of mercy who is reputed to assume many shapes and to give sons to the childless came to be thought of chiefly in a feminine form.
aspect that needs to be examined is the Chinese history during the Sui
times. Yang Jian the founder of the Sui Dynasty, and who ruled as Emperor
Wen was born in 541 in a Buddhist temple. Until the age of 12 he was brought
up by a Buddhist nun whom he fondly called as the preceptor (A-che-Ii, Acharya
in Sanskrit). Emperor Wen's queen Wen Xian came from a devout Buddhist
family and was herself an ardent Buddhist who used to arrange Sutra reading
in the palace in the evenings. Emperor Wen and his queen earned the name of ersheng
--Twin-Sages. In the year 602 the empress died. The empress had been a
strong influence on the emperor. On her death the court historian promptly
declared her a Bodhisattva. In view of the strong influence of the empress
on the administration and the spread of Buddhist ideology it is possible
that the Bodhisattvaization of the empress could have marked the beginning
of feminization of Bodhisattva.
remarkable example of feminine eminence a hundred years later was Empress Wu
Zetian. Although according to the Confucian beliefs having a woman rule
would be as unnatural as having a "hen crow like a rooster at
daybreak", during the most glorious years of the Tang dynasty a woman
did rule and ruled successfully. Women of this period enjoyed more freedom.
They did not bind their feet nor lead submissive lives. Being born into a
rich and noble family Wu was taught to play music, write and read the
Chinese classics. When she was only thirteen she was recruited to the court
of Emperor Taizong. When she was just an obscure imperial lady, she was
loved by the young prince who later became Emperor.
the death of Taizong, Gaozong retrieved Wu from a nunnery back to the
palace. Wu, who was twenty seven years of age worked her way into the inner
circle of the Emperor and by her ruthless manipulations became the favourite
concubine of Gaozong. In time she gave birth to the sons he wanted and
succeeded in deposing Gaozong's wife Empress Wang: As mother of the future
emperor of China she became very powerful.
Gaozong was a weak character both physically and intellectually. Wu on the
other hand proved to be a genius in sorting out the knotty problems of the
Tang Empire. When the emperor suffered a crippling stroke she took over the
administrative duties of the court and a position equal to the emperor. Just
as the Sui Emperor Wen and his wife Wen Xian were called then, Wu and
Gaozong became er-sheng (twin sages). Actually, beneath the surface
of this "twin-sagehood' of Gaozong's ruling machinery there was
only one authority i.e. Empress Wu.
order to challenge Confucian norms against ruling by women, Wu began to
elevate the position of women. She had scholars to write biographies of
famous women. She said that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother
does over her children. Inspite of her ruthless climb to power, her rule
proved to be benign. After the death of Gaozong she became the first (and
eventually the only one) female "Son of Heaven" in Chinese
history. Some of the titles that she arrogated to herself were "Sacred
Emperor of the Golden Cakra", " Shengmu" (Holy
Mother), "Her Majesty fro~ the Phoenix Throne", etc.
her reign Empress Wu placed Buddhism over Taoism as the state religion. She
invited the most gifted scholars to China and built Buddhist temples and
cave sculptures. Chinese Buddhism achieved its highest development under her
reign. The Fengxian temple is the largest and most representative grotto at
Longmen. It is said that after Wu Zetian was conferred with the title of
empress she donated a year's worth of money ordinarily used for cosmetics 1°
build this temple in order to enhance her prestige. The seated Buddha in the
centre of the temple is a huge statue and has the appearance of a kind and
gentle woman. It could be because Wu had donated the money to carve this
particular Buddha hence the womanish face. Similarly the concept of Shengmu
(Holy Mother) was also Wu's creation. As she was keen to be deified she
had many statues cast to her liking. The impetus given by her for making
innumerable images in female form resulted in the popularization of Guanyin
as a goddess. As proof of this, one has to see the statues in the caves of
Dazu (named after one of Empress Wu's reign eras) especially of Shengmu and
several Guanyin images which have a distinctly royal bearing and feminine
looks. Perhaps this was an important reason for scholars like Kenneth Chen
to place the beginning of feminization of Guanyin to the Tang period.
scholars have sought to prove that Pandaravasini (clad in white) was
the precursor to the White-robed Guanyin and have thus tried to explain the
feminization of Guanyin. There is also the suggestion of transformation of
Tara into the female Guanyin. But there is no evidence of Tara being
transformed into female Guanyin or that Pandaravasini is actually
White-robed Guanyin. Absence in intermediate figures in space and time
indicative of a gradual evolution from either Tara or Pandaravasini into
Guanyin the goddess in China is the strongest evidence against such a
hypothesis. An important aspect that negates the above theory is that the
emergence of "White-robed Guanyin" in China was after a gap of
four to five centuries after the appearance of Tara in India. If the colour
white symbolised purity, Guanyin could have been shown dressed in white
holding a white lotus seated or standing on a white lotus base and there was
no need for sexual transformation.
The entry of Tantric Buddhism gave rise to a bewildering variety of forms of Guanyin in the beginning. All varieties of forms from strongly masculine to feminine and the ambivalent forms of Guanyin were noticed in the Buddhist pantheon of China. This indicates people's unquestioned faith in such forms and various miracles seen in many Chinese texts played a decisive part in carrying on worship of the different beautiful female forms of Guanyin. In fact such representations were codified by many legendary miracles experienced by people and more so by women who looked upon the Goddess for alleviating their sufferings and get them their wishes.
of Cult Sites
can be said that the Guanyin cult took root in China only when Guanyin
became associated with certain sites and when people began to go on
pilgrimages to these places. The deity's popularity in China led to the
growth of cultic centres in various places. Miracles firmly anchored the
Bodhisattva to these sites resulting in a rich fare about the almighty
Goddess of Mercy in oral literature.
first centre for Guanyin was Xiangshan. The Xiangshan monastery had an image
of the 1,000 armed and 1, 000 eyed Guanyin in Dabei Pagoda (Pagoda of the
Great Compassionate one). It was described as being made in person by a
human manifestation of Dabei.
has an image of Guanyin which was also made by human manifestation of Dabei.
Tianxiansi was a nunnery. In the era of 618-628, when the nuns wanted to
have an image of the great Compassionate One painted on the wall they were
in need of a good artist. In response to the call, a couple accompanied by a
young girl arrived there and the girl who did the painting was apparently a
manifestation of Guanyin.
the sex of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (only in China) depends on the founding
myths of pilgrimage sites. Pilgrimage sites vary in importance for two
reasons. In some sites Guanyin may have appeared in person and performed
miracles for common benefit. Some other sites may already have a miracle
working image of Guanyin and thus become very well known to people all
round. The Dabei pagoda near Xiangshan monastery belongs to the first
Chronicle of the Upper Tianzhu tells us the "spontaneously found"
image of Guanyin which turned out to be a discovery by monk Daoyi. From this
account it appears that the image housed in Upper Tianzhu Monastery must
have been the feminine white robed Guanyin. The white robed Guanyin became
very popular from the 10th century onwards after Putuoshan became famous as
Guanyin's abode and the iconography of white robed Guanyin began to be
increasingly merged with that of Potalaka Guanyin.
in the images and portraits of Guanyin and efforts to preserve and
disseminate them were important mechanisms in linking Guanyin to a Goddess.
Depiction of Guanyin in a like manner in different media undoubtedly helped
its universal acceptance. Gazetteers have recorded tales of visions of
Guanyin in Putuo shan in the female form with acolytes Longnu and Shan
Cai. Shrines and pilgrimages form a hen-and-chicken chain-reactions to
make the Guanyin cult an everlasting living culture in and outside China.
In India, Avalokitesvara was the
product of assimilation of important Hindu deities, while in China the
symbol absorbed all the characteristics and functions of indigenous
goddesses as well as Buddhist goddesses like Tara and Hariti.
Buddhist pantheon in China over a period of time had adopted many symbols
some originally from India and later many other characteristics which are
purely Chinese. The emergence of Moon and Water depiction of Guanyin is one
such example which indicated absorption and assimilation. Another feature
has been the introduction of yin symbols (for example - moon, water,
vase) from the yin-yang polarity of Chinese thought. The assimilation
process was then complete. If the symbols were to indicate certain ideas of
the artist (not necessarily of the perceiver), the icons of Avalokitesvara
in India, Nepal and China including Tibet give rise to innumerable
interpretations. The introduction of tantric Buddhism gave yet another
dimension to the whole concept with a variety of new and esoteric divine
images have thus undergone considerable expansion in China and have exceeded
the boundaries of Buddhism. The deity was no longer an exclusive Buddhist
religious symbol but had become a popular cultural hero/heroine to both
Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Buddhist influence spread to other non-Buddhist
realms in the daily life and culture of the Chinese though the period cannot
be specified. Therefore the multiple images of Guanyin should be seen as the
multireligious and cross-cultural symbol which was definitely feminine with
many additional attributes.
mighty support given by Empress Wu to Buddhism helped the Empress to promote
herself as a compassionate Bodhisattva. It could be safely said that the
female form gained momentum during her time underwent a long process of
transformation gradually and steadily that Guanyin came to be accepted
universally as a goddess. Many legends and folklore helped in popularising
the goddess. The story of Daoyi's discovery of a piece of fragrant wood
floating in the water near South Wutai mountain led to the first occurrence
of Baiyi Guanyin while the Upper Tianzhu Monastery in Hangzhou undergoing a
major revival. The Baiyi Guanyin enjoyed widespread I popularity from the
tenth century onwards. Paintings and statues, tales and myths of Guanyin
temples from Northern Song (960-1127) were proof of the importance of the
Baiyi Guanyin and the emergence of Putuo Shan as a famous Guanyin site.
multi-cultural engineering, the East Asians ultimately settled for an
Avalokitesvara in the form of Guanyin, a graceful and powerful feminine
symbol to demonstrate most effectively the quintessence of the Bodhisattva
-Absolute Compassion. 9
C.N. ray, "Kuan-yin, the
cult of half Asia"., History of World Religions, Vol. 16,
Susan Naquin and Chun-fang Vu
(ed), Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. University of
California Press, 1992.
Glen Dudbridge, The Legend of
Miao-shan, Oxford University Publishers, 1978.
Alice Getty, The Gods of
northern Buddhism, Dover Publications, 1988.
Barbara Reed, "The Gender
Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva," in Buddhism, Sexuality and
Gender, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi 1992.
This is not restricted to
Chinese society alone. This belief is also prevalent in India. In China
in a popular tale associated with Putuo island, Guanyin rescues a
menstruating girl in need.
Lokesh Chandra, The Thousand
armed Avalokitesvara, IGNCA/ Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1988.
The Chinese word for fish
is yu and is phonetically identical with the word meaning abundance.
According to Wolfram Eberhard in the book Hidden symbols in Chinese
life and thought, this symbolizes wealth. A picture showing a child
with a fish would mean "May you have an abundance of high-ranking
9. Maspero H."The Mythology of Modem China," in J. Hackin (ed.), Asiatic mythology; New York, 1932, pp. 352-58.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher.
Published in 1998 by
Gyan Publishing House
5, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj,
New Delhi - 110 002.