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date: 20 September 2020

Avalokiteśvara: The Bodhisattva of Compassion

Summary and Keywords

Avalokiteśvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The worship of bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment) is one of the most distinctive features of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Whereas early or mainstream Buddhism recognizes only two bodhisattvas—the Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the future Buddha—there are a number of bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna to whom one can appeal for help and guidance. Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia.

Keywords: Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva, Guanyin, Mahāyāna Buddhism, The Lotus Sutra, Devarāja

Avalokiteśvara is known by different names in Asia. In China, it is Guanyin (Perceiver of Sounds), shortened from Guanshiyin (Perceiver of the World’s Sounds) or Guanzizai (Lord Perceiver). Under Chinese influence, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have also used the same names (Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse’um in Korean, and Quanam in Vietnamese). He is called Lokeśvara (Lord of the World) in Cambodia and Java; Lokanāntha (Protector of the World), in Burma; Nāth Dėviyō, in Sri Lanka; and Chenresi (One Who Sees with Eyes) in Tibet.

The different names and identities the bodhisattva assumed reflect the fact that different cultures made different choices in representing him. In Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, Avalokiteśvara has been very much identified with royalty. But in China and countries having historical and cultural connections with China, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam, Guanyin is regarded as the exemplar of wisdom for meditators and as the “Goddess of Mercy,” who is particularly kind to women. Although bodhisattvas transcend gender or other worldly distinctions, they, like the Buddha, are depicted in scriptures and art as male. But Guanyin underwent a dramatic transformation from male to female in China, an evolution that accounted for why the bodhisattva acquired this nickname.

Avalokiteśvara in India

Buddhist scholars and art historians do not agree about the exact dates when the cult of Avalokiteśvara appeared in India. Both Marie-Therese de Mallmann and Gregory Schopen put the beginning of the cult in the 5th century.1 But Nanadana Chutiwongs suggests that literary and iconic data show that Avalokiteśvara appeared in north and northwest India no later than the 2nd century of the Common Era (ce), and by the 5th century, he was already widely worshiped there.2 The uncertainty about the beginning of the cult of Avalokiteśvara in India is a reflection of the ongoing debates about the origin and early history of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is not clear when the earliest textual references to the bodhisattva appeared.

Two factors account for the difficulty of a definite dating. One is the lack of devotional narratives datable to a period earlier than the 5th century. The other is because earlier images of Avalokiteśvara do not have inscriptions that provide his identity. However, there is a traditional consensus that he is first mentioned in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra, the Mahāvasru, and the Lotus Sutra, all of which have long been believed to have been written before 300 ce. Moreover, an incomplete triad with Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara to his left was discovered in Taxila, in 1961. It has a Kharoşthī inscription. Based on the script of the inscription, some scholars date the triad to the 2nd century ce. Even though the question of when Avalokiteśvara first appeared in Indian cultic life cannot be settled, all evidence confirms that, by the 5th century, his presence was well attested by contemporary reports. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian, who traveled to Mathurā in about 400 ce, reported that the Mahāyāna monks worshiped Avalokiteśvara by making offerings to his image. By the time Xuanzang traveled in the northwest, during the years 630–645, the cult was firmly established, and he provided eyewitness accounts of Avalokiteśvara images that responded to prayers of devotees from all walks of life, from kings, to monastics, and ordinary people.

Avalokiteśvara in South and Southeast Asia

All the Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of Burma, shared the ideology of the cult of the “divine king” (devarāja) in which the ruler was identified with a deity, Hindu or Buddhist. The most famous example is the construction of Angkor Wat, one of the largest stone temples in the world, during the 12th and 13th centuries in Cambodia. Angkor Wat was regarded as a dwelling place for deities including the divine kings. The pantheon is a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist deities and the deified kings, exemplified by the Devarāja. The cult of Lokeśvara reached its zenith under Jauyavarman VII (r. 1181–ca. 1218) who built the Bayon temple complex at the center of the royal city Angkor Thom. He made Buddhism the state religion. At the Bayon, there are large towers bearing huge faces that are believed to be images of the deified king in the form of Lokeśvara. Not only the king was identified with the bodhisattva, but his first wife, Queen Jayavajadevi, might also be represented posthumously by a statue usually identified as Tārā, the bodhisattva’s attendant.3

Similarly, since the 15th century, Avalokiteśvara was worshiped as the guardian deity of the country, by the Ceylonese rulers and the Javanese kings in the pre-Islamic 13th to 15th centuries.4 In Tibet, Avalokiteśvara is worshipped as the patron deity of the country, and the most famous ruler, King Srong-bstan sgam-po (d. 649) and the Dalai Lama are believed to be the incarnations of Avalokiteśvara.5 The royal symbolism came quite naturally in a context with no pre-existing or competing symbolism. There is, therefore, a common tradition in Asia that Avalokiteśvara is a legitimizing symbol for the royalty.

Avalokiteśvara/Guanyin in China

The bodhisattva is not connected with royalty in China. This is because the Chinese royal ideology and symbolism were already established before the introduction of Buddhism in the 1st century ce and thus did not allow similar developments in China. The Chinese emperor received his legitimation through the Mandate of Heaven, which was first formulated in the Zhou dynasty (1122–256 bce). The Confucian ideology dominated the Chinese understanding of royalty throughout China’s imperial history. Although individual rulers might use Buddhist ideas periodically, to legitimize their rules, their efforts were limited and did not last long. For instance, the Northern Wei emperor Wencheng (r. 453–465) had five Buddha caves carved at Yungang, each Buddha representing a prior emperor, thus symbolizing his desire to create a theocracy. The female Emperor Wu Zetian (r. 684–704) claimed to be Maitreya, and Emperor Qianlong (cr. 1736–1765) claimed to be Manjuśrī Bodhisattva. Except for the late 19th-century Qing Empress Dowager Cixi, who dressed up as Guanyin for amusement and dramatic effect, no ruling emperor claimed to be the incarnation of Guanyin.

The bodhisattva is known in China by two names: Guanyin or Guanshiyin and Guanzizai. These two different names are translations from two different spellings of the bodhisattva. Guanshiyin was the translation for Avalokiteśvara, whereas Guanzizai was the translation for Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara was used in scriptures coming into China from Kucha, such as those translated by Kumārajīva (344–413) and other Central Asian missionaries, while Avalokiteśvara was found in scriptures originating in India, such as those translated by Xuanzang (600–664), who obtained the texts during his long sojourn there.

There are numerous Buddhist scriptures connected with Guanyin. The bodhisattva appears in more than eighty sutras. This is by no means an exhaustive list, for the esoteric sutras connected with Guanyin alone number eighty-eight, and they occupy 509 pages of the Taisho canon (volume 20), the modern edition of the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka, printed during 1922–1933 in Japan. The role of Avalokiteśvara varies widely in these sutras, translated from Indic languages into Chinese, ranging from a walk-on bit player of the attending entourage surrounding Śākyamuni Buddha to the leading star of his own grand dramas of universal salvation. The faces of the bodhisattva in canonical scriptures, as in art and other mediums, is thus highly multivocal, multivalent, and multifaceted. The different roles Avalokiteśvara assumes in the scriptures might reflect the increasing importance of his stature in India. On the other hand, they might also reflect different cultic traditions about the bodhisattva. At least three separate and distinct cults can be identified: that of a compassionate savior not bound to a specific place as represented by the Lotus Sutra, that of the chief helper of Amitābha Buddha found in the Pure Land sutras, and that of a sage connected with the holy island Potalaka, as seen in the Avatamsaka Sutra and some esoteric sutras. The three cultic traditions developed independently.

Prior to the translation of the Lotus Sutra in the 3rd century, there was no Chinese deity to compare with Guanyin, who was not only a universal and compassionate savior, but also easily accessible. This sutra was translated into Chinese six times. Of these, the 406 version by Kumārajīva is most famous and followed by all East Asian Buddhists. The gospel of the “Universal Gateway,” the twenty-fifth chapter of the sutra, preached a new and democratic way of salvation. The bodhisattva assumes thirty-three forms to deliver people from mortal dangers and lead them to spiritual salvation. There was no specific thing a person had to do to be saved. One did not need to become a scholar learned in scripture, or a paragon of virtue, or a master proficient in meditation. One did not have to follow a special way of life, take up a strange diet, or practice any ritual. The only requirement was to call his name with a sincere and believing heart. This was a new deity who would help anyone in difficulty. There was no discrimination on the basis of status or gender. And the benefits of worshiping him were both spiritual and worldly. Although there were goddesses in China before the appearance of Guanyin, none of them seemed to have enjoyed lasting and continuously active cults. There was thus a religious vacuum in China that Guanyin could conveniently and comfortably fill.

Buddhism thus supplied the necessary symbols and ideals to the host countries. In accommodating itself to the different religious and cultural traditions in the various Asian countries, new and different forms of Buddhism developed. In the case of Sino-Japanese Buddhism, the creation of the Tiantai (Tendai), Huayan (Kegon), Pure Land (Jōdo), and Chan (Zen) schools are prominent examples. Although the Chinese based their main teachings and practices on some scriptures translated from Indic languages, the specific emphases and formulations reflected the native modes of thought and cultural values. This process of domestication created diversity in the pan-Asian Buddhist tradition. Guanyin’s transformation into the compassionate “Goddess of Mercy” in China is an example of this process.

The indigenous sutras also helped to promote and disseminate the belief in Guanyin in China, just as the translated sutras, miracle stories, new images of Guanyin, pilgrimage, and rituals devoted to the bodhisattva did in their different ways. In recent decades, scholars began to reevaluate the traditional distinction between the sutras translated from Indic languages and those composed in China. Attitudes toward yijing (“suspicious scriptures”) or weiing (“spurious scriptures”) have undergone revision. These scriptures are seen as creative attempts to synthesize Buddhist teachings and to adapt them to the Chinese cultural milieu.

Indigenous sutras are closely connected with miracle stories. The origins of two very popular scriptures are good examples. While the King Kao’s Guanshiyin Sutra, first mentioned in 664, was supposed to result from a miracle, the Divine Spell of the White-Robed Great Being, which can be dated to at least the 11th century, promises to create one. The former concerns how a wrongly imprisoned soldier is saved from certain death by execution as a result of his faithful chanting of the sutra, which Guanyin (in the form of a monk) teaches him in a dream. The latter, on the other hand, offers a methodical direction of securing a miracle. Both emphasize the chanting of the text and the dhārāņi contained therein.

Compilations of miracle stories began in the 4th century, not long after the first translation of the Lotus Sutra by Dharmaraksha, in 286. Miracle tales about Guanyin are an important and enduring genre in Chinese Buddhism. They have been collected down the ages and are still being produced and collected today. Miracle tales served as a powerful medium for transforming and domesticating Guanyin. Because the stories related real people’s encounters with the bodhisattva in specific times and places, and under critical circumstances, Guanyin was no longer the mythical figure mentioned in the sutras, but rather became a “real presence.” Miracles happened to vouch for Guanyin’s efficacy (ling). They worked because there was the relationship of ganying (sympathetic resonance) between the sincere devotee and the bodhisattva. Both concepts have deep cultural roots in China.

Many miracle tales mention images of Guanyin. In the most popular version of the origin myth of King Gao’s Guanshihyin Sutra, the hero was Sun Jingde, a common soldier who was wrongly sentenced to death. Sun worshiped an icon of Guanyin that he kept in his room. When he managed to finish chanting the sutra that a monk revealed him in a dream one thousand times prior to his beheading, the executioner’s knife broke into three sections. Although the executioner changed the knife three times, the same thing happened. When Sun was pardoned and returned to his room, he saw three cuts made by a knife on the neck of the Guanyin image. The implication is clearly that the icon bore the blows of the knife, thus sparing Sun. This was supposed to have happened to him between 534 and 537 ce. Other stories relate similar happenings. Instead of going to a temple to worship Guanyin, these early devotees carried the icons on their bodies as talismans. Since they were worn inside the hair or on top of the crown, they must have been small and light. Indeed, a number of tiny gilt bronze images of Guanyin, some measuring only two centimeters or so, have survived and can be seen in museums. When we view them in the light of such miracle tales, we might speculate that they were small because they were intended to be used as personal talismans. Icons were also sometimes created for such devotional use as a result of miraculous deliverances.

There is a close relationship between the devotees and icons of Guanyin revealed in some early miracle tales. Buddhist art, like all religious art, is intimately connected with the spiritual lives of the faithful. Sculpted and painted images of Guanyin are icons first and foremost, although they can, of course, be appreciated as beautiful objects of art. New forms of Guanyin appearing in devotees’ visions of the bodhisattva as contained in some later miracle tales served as effective media for the domestication and transformation of Guanyin. While most early miracle tales refer to Guanyin as a monk when he appears in the dreams or visions of the devotee, the bodhisattva gradually appears either as a “person in white” (baiyiren), indicating perhaps his lay status, or as a “woman in white” (baiyifuren), indicating her female gender. There is clearly a dialectic relationship between the changing forms of the bodhisattva appearing in the devotees’ visions and dreams and the development of new iconographic representations. Changing visions of Guanyin led to new artistic representations of the bodhisattva. Conversely, an image of Guanyin depicted with a new iconography could also predispose the devotees to see him/her in this way in their visions and dreams. What Hu Yinglin (1551–1602), scholar and bibliophile, had to say about this is worth repeating here. In the preface to a collection of fifty-three forms of Guanyin together with eulogies that he compiled, he pointed out that all statues and paintings of Guanyin made in his time depicted the bodhisattva as a woman. He offered an explanation for this: “Because all the Guanyin images nowadays are in the form of a woman, people no longer dream of the bodhisattva as a man. Since people no longer see Guanyin appear in a male form in their dreams, they come to think that the bodhisattva is really a woman. But dreams are produced by the mind and verified by the eye. Since the bodhisattva seen by the eye and thought of by the mind is not male, Guanyin naturally manifests herself as a female in dreams.”6

Miracle tales about Guanyin provide strong evidence that Guanyin has been worshiped in China by both monastics and laymen and women. In fact, the cult cuts across all social classes. Miracle tale collections were compiled by both monks and literati. The collections included stories about people from diverse walks of life who, for a brief moment, experienced a salvific encounter with Guanyin, and their lives were changed forever. Buddhist sutras glorifying Guanyin received verification from such tales. Scriptural teachings were no longer doctrinal and abstract, but became practical and concrete through the living testimonies of real men and women. At the same time, through their tales about their dreams or visions of Guanyin, the devotees helped to make the bodhisattva take on increasingly Chinese manifestations. The foreign Avalokiteśvara was, in the process, gradually changed into the Chinese Guanyin.

The intimate and dialectical relationship between visions, media, and iconography highlights the role of art has played in the cult of Guanyin. Art has indeed been one of the most powerful and effective media through which the Chinese people have come to know Guanyin. It is also through art that one can most clearly detect the bodhisattva’s gradual, yet undeniable sexual transformation. Buddhist scriptures always present the bodhisattva as either masculine or asexual. Guanyin usually appears as a monk not only in early miracle stories and in the dreams and visions of the faithful, but wonder-working monks such as Baozhi (425–514) and Zengjie (617–710) are also incarnated as the bodhisattva. The statues of Guanyin in Yüngang, Longmen, and Dunhuang, as well as Guanyin images painted on the frescoes and banners of Dunhuang, like those of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, appear masculine, sometimes wearing a thin moustache that clearly indicates his masculine gender.

The deity underwent a profound and startling transformation beginning sometime during the 10th century, and by the 16th century, Guanyin had become not only completely Chinese but also the most beloved “Goddess of Mercy,” a nickname coined by the Jesuit missionaries who were much impressed by the similarities between her iconography and that of the Madonna. Of all the imported Buddhist deities, Guanyin is the only one who has succeeded in becoming a genuine Chinese goddess. So much so that many Chinese, if they are not familiar with Buddhism, are not even aware of her Buddhist origin.

The Chinese created indigenous forms of Guanyin, just as they composed indigenous sutras. In time, several distinctive Chinese forms of Guanyin emerged from the 10th century onward. They are the Water-Moon Guanyin, White-Robed Guanyin, Child-Giving Guanyin, Guanyin of the South Sea, Fish-Basket Guanyin, and Old Mother Guanyin. The creation of new iconographies of Guanyin might be connected with the regional character of Chinese Buddhism and Buddhist art. The new icons were also closely connected with Buddhist theology, ritual, and devotion. The Water-Moon Guanyin was an indigenous iconography that appeared before the White-Robed Guanyin and served as a prototype for the latter. The White-Robed Guanyin gave rise to a cult of fertility in late imperial period. With her own indigenous scriptures, rituals, and miracle stories, she came to be known colloquially as the “Child-Giving” Guanyin. Feminization of Avalokiteśvara in China was thus inseparable from the domestication and regionalization of the bodhisattva. The appearance of the Guanyin of the South Sea (Nanhai Guanyin) coincided with the construction of Putuo Island as the Chinese Potolaka, the sacred island home of the bodhisattva described in the Avatamsaka and other esoteric sutras. In this iconography Guanyin is always attended by the Dragon Princess and Sudhana on either side and a white parrot hovering over her on the upper right. There is no scriptural basis for such arrangement. Although both the Dragon Princess and Guanyin appear in the Lotus Sutra in chapters 12 and 25, respectively, they do not appear together. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, Guanyin is the 28th “Good Friend” from whom Sudhana seeks instruction. As for the white parrot, it is not mentioned anywhere in the sutras. Thus, if one follows the traditional way used by art historians who always try to trace each component of a painting or image to its scriptural source, one will not succeed in solving the puzzle. On the other hand, legends, pilgrimage records, and precious volumes about Putuo provide copious and illuminating explanations for such iconography. Similarly, the origin of the Fish Basket and Old Mother Guanyin cannot be found in Buddhist scriptures either. They have to be traced to local legends preserved in drama and precious volumes in the former case, and in the mythology of certain sectarian new religions in the latter case.

The creation of images of Guanyin unauthorized by scriptures is not a unique phenomenon. In cave and cliff sculptures since the early 7th century, we can find Guanyin paired with Dizang (Kştigarbha). This pairing is not attested by any scripture. A conventional explanation of why the two bodhisattvas are worshiped together is that, while Guanyin takes care of people when they are alive, Dizang takes care of them after they die. They play different roles in the work of salvation, and the dual worship is the result of a division of labor. The canonical basis of Dizang worship is the Scripture on the Ten Wheels, which exists in two versions. The Great Extended Scripture on the Ten Wheels (Da fangkuang shilun jing) is an anonymous translation known in north China no later than the 6th century. The Scripture on Dizang and the Ten Wheels in the Great Mahāyāna Compendium (Tasheng daji Dizang shilun jing) is a revised translation attributed to the famous monk Xuanzang. There are striking similarities in the depictions of Guanyin and Dizang in these two texts. Dizang, like Guanyin, is very much concerned with saving people from all kinds of problems and also, like Guanyin, is connected with the Pure Land. Since this is the case, instead of a division of labor, the two work jointly on behalf of beings and enable them to achieve these identical goals.

Dizang became exclusively identified as the savior of beings in hell when the Scripture of Dizang’s Original Vow (Dizang benyuan jing) superseded the Scripture on Ten Wheels in popularity. The pairing of the two is therefore due to the new role Dizang came to play. This is a case where indigenous sutras overshadowed esoteric sutras, which presented Guanyin as a savior of beings in hell. The translation of the Scripture of Dizang’s Original Vow has traditionally been attributed to the 7th century Khotanese monk Śiksanānda, but it is most likely composed in either Khotan or China. Although it was not introduced into the canon until the Ming, it was definitely already in circulation by the 10th century. The Scripture of Past Vows calls upon its reader to recite it for the dying, to relieve their suffering and secure a better rebirth. But a number of esoteric sutras introduced into China several centuries earlier already attributed the power to cure illnesses, to enable a person die a good death, and to save beings from hell to Guanyin when one recites the dhāraņīs revealed by him. One of the earliest such scriptures centering Guanyin as the universal savior is the Qing Guanyin jing, translated during 317–420. The chanting of the dhāraņīs revealed therein will save a person from all manner of disasters. If one is faithful and dedicated in chanting the dhāraņīs, he will be able to have a vision of Guanyin while alive and, having been freed from all sins, will not suffer rebirth in the four woeful realms of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, and asuras. Because Guanyin playfully travels in all realms of rebirth, even if a person is so unfortunate as to be born in hell or as a hungry ghost, Guanyin is right there to help him. The bodhisattva is said to suffer in hell in place of the sinner, and by bestowing sweet milk, which issues forth from his fingertips, the hunger and thirst of hungry ghosts are also satisfied. The Sutra of the Divine Dhāraņī on the Eleven-Headed Guanyin Spoken by the Buddha (Foshuo Shiyimian Guanyin shenzhou jing), translated in the latter half of the 6th century, is another important example. The sutra calls for a daily routine of bathing in the morning, followed by reciting the dhāraņī 108 times. The result is the gaining of ten rewards in one’s present life, including not suffering from any disease and not suffering a sudden death. Moreover, the following four compensations will become one’s own: (a) seeing innumerable buddhas before one dies; (b) never falling into hell; (c) not being harmed by any animal; and (d) being reborn in the land of the Buddha Amitāyus.7 Another group of esoteric scriptures glorifying the Thousand-Handed Guanyin present the bodhisattva as the savior of beings in the six paths including hell, When one recites the dhāraņī, consisting of 84 phrases known as the Great Compassion Dhāraņī (Dabeizhou), one will obtain even more extensive worldly and spiritual benefits than those described above. Because the esoteric Guanyin plays an almost identical role as Dizang, it makes sense that it is either the Eleven-Headed or the Thousand-Handed Guanyin who appears together with Dizang in the Dunhuang banners. This is not a division of labor; rather, they join forces in alleviating the sufferings of beings in hell and enabling them to be reborn in the Pure Land.

The pairing of the two not only appear in the illustrated copies of the Scripture on the Ten Kings recovered from Dunhuang, but were evoked together in Buddhist mortuary rituals for the benefit of the dead ancestors. These ritual texts were created from the Song to the Ming dynasties, or the 11th to the 17th centuries. For instance, in the ritual text Cibei Liang Huang baochan (Compassionate Precious Penance formulated by Emperor Wu of Liang, preface dated 1138), the presiding priest asks both Dizang and Guanyin to descend to the consecrated space three times. An even more important mortuary ritual, created in the 10th century and has remained popular down the ages, is that of feeding hungry ghosts (shishi). Guanyin and Dizang collaborate in the ritual. At the beginning of the ritual, a picture of the hungry ghost Burning Face (Mianjan), the putative originator of the ritual, is placed on the altar facing the assembled monks. When the ritual begins, the Great Compassion Dhāraņī and a hymn praising Guanyin are chanted before the altar. After “fixing the area of the five directions,” accompanied by an invocation to five different Buddhas, Guanyin is invoked directly. The presiding monk makes a mudrā called “Guanyin meditation mudrā,” through which the celebrant enters into the Guanyin samadhi. Thus identified with Guanyin, the main action of the ritual is performed by Guanyin in the person of the celebrant. The highlight of the ritual arrives when the priest, as Guanyin, makes the mudra of “opening up the gate of hell.” He visualizes three red rays emitting from his mouth, hands, and chest, which open up the gates of hell. The three rays represent three powers that can destroy the three categories of sins of the body, speech, and mind committed by beings in hell. At this point in the ritual, Dizang is invoked to lead the dead to come forth, to accept the offerings in response to the call of the chief celebrant. This is accomplished by several mudrās. After the invited ghosts are helped to repent by the “mudrā of repentance,” the presiding monk transforms water into nectar by performing the “mudra of sweet dew.” He then enables them to drink it by performing the “mudrā of opening up the throat.” He visualizes a green lotus held in his left hand, from which “sweet dew” flows out for the ghosts to drink, just as Guanyin is described as doing in the Karaņdavyūha, the esoteric sutra famous for its six-syllable mantrā “Om Manipadme Hūm.”

The two bodhisattvas therefore collaborate in helping people both in life and in death. When and how did they become specialized in only one sphere? The clue can be found in art and temple architecture. An unusual visual example is provided by the pair, seated side-by-side on separate lotus pedestals, in a small niche attached to the larger Number 1 niche located at Pantuo si in Qiunglai, Sichuan. There is no inscription, but the larger #1 niche, which contains the Amitābha triad, is dated 820. There are two groups of smaller figures on relief under the images of the two bodhisattvas. On the right side, beneath Dizang, there are four figures in a flaming rocky landscape, which is clearly meant to represent a vignette of a Buddhist hell. A human head bobs in a large cauldron over blazing fire and others are being cut by knives. On the left side, beneath Guanyin, four figures are swept up in swirling waves of a rushing river or turbulent sea, praying to Guanyin for help.8 A more explicit example of how people assign different functions to the two bodhisattvas can be seen in temple architecture. Based on surviving examples of floor plans of temples dated to the Liao and Jin (11th–12th centuries), separate halls dedicated to the four bodhisattvas (Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, Guanyin, and Dizang) were built flanking the main buddha hall. The floor plan of Shanhua si in Datong, Shanxi shows Wenshu Hall (no longer standing) facing Puxian Hall, while Dizang Hall faces Guanyin Hall. But the Guangsheng si, built in the 16th century, retained only the two halls dedicated to Dizang and Guanyin facing each other. Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra were no longer provided with their own independent halls. This arrangement remains to this day. In many temples today Guanyin Hall faces across from Dizang Hall. The Ten Kings and scenes of hellish punishments would be depicted in Dizang Hall, while we may find images of Niangniang (Ladies) in Guanyin Hall. With a set up like this, it is clear that worshipers pray to Dizang as savior of hell and to Guanyin as granter of health, fertility and long life. As Dizang became the sole guardian of beings in hell, Guanyin gave up this part of his original functions and became the chief protector of people in life. The relationship between the pair underwent changes through time. Although there is no scriptural basis for worshiping Guanyin and Dizang together, there is, nevertheless, a logic grounded in the existential needs of the faithful.9

There is another example to attest the creation of an indigenous pantheon not based on scriptures. Around the 16th century, Guanyin was provided with an animal mount so that the Three Great Beings (San Dashi) could all ride on their respective animals. Just as Mañjuśrī rides on the lion and Samantabhadra rides on the elephant, Guanyin rides on a mythical animal called hou. The artists who created such new forms of Guanyin showed the same freedom as the writers of the indigenous sutras. They tried to present the bodhisattva in a way that would respond to the needs of the faithful. As Dizang came to care for the faithful after they died, Guanyin assumed the role of caring for them during their life. This, of course, is a sharp change for the role Guanyin played in the religion and art of the Pure Land. As the attendant of Amitābha Buddha, Guanyin would welcome the dying to the Pure Land. This was the way the bodhisattva was depicted in the banners from Dunhuang, some of which identified him as the “Bodhisattva Who Leads the Way (Yinlu pusa).”

The indigenization of Guanyin reached completion with the legend of Miaoshan, who came to be seen as the human manifestation of the bodhisattva. We do not know how early the legend began, but the first written record of it was dated 1100, a “life” of Princess Miaoshan written by an official and carved on a stele at the request of the abbot of a temple in Honan, which was a pilgrimage center for Guanyin worship. The legend presents Miaoshan as the third daughter of a king. She is pious from childhood and dedicated to religious cultivation. Unlike her older sisters, she refuses to marry the husband chosen by her father, for which she suffers persecution. However, when the king becomes mortally ill and no medicine can cure him, she offers her eyes and hands to be made into a life saving potion. Finally, Miaoshan manifests herself as the Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Eyed Guanyin when the royal party led by the king and queen comes to offer thanks as pilgrims. In this famous legend, the bodhisattva is provided with a name, a birthday, a family, and a biography, none of which are found in Buddhist scriptures. Her birthday, the nineteenth day of the second month, has become the most important holy day for the faithful, just as the birthdays of all Chinese gods and goddesses are similarly regarded. Clearly, this transformation fits the Chinese model of divinity. Since the Chinese religion does not posit a sharp distinction between the transcendent and the immanent, human beings can become gods, and gods can appear on earth as human beings. Lao Zi, for instance, was already deified in the second century and was believed to have transformed himself many times to teach people about the Dao. Stories about Daoist immortals, those fabulous beings who straddle the boundary between the human and the divine, serve as another rich resource for such imagination. The legend of Miaoshan anchored Guanyin to China by making her conform to the Chinese model of divinity. It also provided a charter for marriage resistance. Buddhist women could and did follow Miaoshan’s example in refusing to get married and carrying out their religious practices, either at home or by joining the sangha.

The cult of Guanyin was created and transmitted in China through various media. Canonical and indigenous scriptures, miracle stories, ritual, and pilgrimage, as well as art and literature have all contributed to the process. While each medium promoted Guanyin, it transformed the bodhisattva at the same time. Thus, while Guanyin was represented and perceived as a monk prior to and during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the bodhisattva was increasingly feminized and eventually turned into Venerable Mother Guanyin in the Qing (1644–1912). These media, moreover, never existed or functioned in isolation, but constantly interacted and influenced each other. Visions of devotees and pilgrims were reflected in and inspired by the contemporary iconography. Indigenous scriptures, miracle accounts, ritual practices, and popular precious volumes reinforced each other. The development and evolution of the cult was fueled by such dialectical interactions among these media.

Since Avalokiteśvara became a feminine deity only in China and, furthermore, this happened only after the Tang, it is necessary to offer some hypothetical explanations. Instead of seeking the clues in native goddesses, which is inconclusive at best, it has to be examined in the context of new developments in Chinese religions, including Buddhism, since the Song (960–1279). The emergence of the feminine Guanyin must also be studied in the context of new cults of other goddesses, which, not coincidentally, also happened after the Song dynasty. The appearance of the feminine Guanyin in indigenous sutras, art, and miracle stories, and the legend of Miaoshan occurred in the 10th to the 12th centuries. It was during these centuries that Neo-Confucianism was established as the official ideology, functioning very much like a state religion. These events did not happen by coincidence, nor were they independent of each other.

The reason that the feminine Guanyin and other new goddesses appeared at this particular time might be connected with the antifeminist stance of established religions, chief of which, undoubtedly, was Neo-Confucianism. This was the hegemonic discourse and ruling ideology of China during the last one thousand years. Neo-Confucianism was a philosophy and a system of political thought, but it was also an ideology sustaining the lineage and family system. In one sense, then, the new goddess cults can be seen as similar responses to this totalistic system of belief and praxis, but in another way, the feminine Guanyin might be viewed as the model and inspiration for the other goddesses. Organized Buddhism and Daoism did not fare much better. Despite the Chan rhetoric of non-duality and the Daoist elevation of the feminine principle, these did not translate into actual institutional support for women. We cannot name any women who became a prominent Chan master or Daoist priestess.

Having said that the birth of goddesses might have been in response to the overwhelmingly masculine character of the three religions, it is also to be noted that some of these new goddesses did reflect the belief in universal sage-hood and enlightenment as espoused by Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Just as the emperors Yao and Shun were not born sages, but became so, this apparently was also the case for gods and goddesses. Wang Gen (1483–1540) could salute everyone he met as sages because they were potential sages, if not actual ones. Can we also say that the street was full of bodhisattvas and goddesses?

Did the female Guanyin offer more options to Chinese women? It is often assumed that when a religion provides goddesses to worship, it can empower women. When Avalokiteśvara was transformed into Guanyin, the “Goddess of Mercy,” new forms and expressions of religiosity became available to women and men in China. But as long as the traditional stereotypical views about women’s pollution or inferiority remained unchallenged, the feminine images of Guanyuin had to be either more or less than real women. They were not and could not be endowed with the characteristics of a real woman. For this reason, the White-Robed Guanyin, though a fertility goddess, is devoid of sexuality. Real women, in the meantime, together with their male countrymen, worshiped Guanyin as the “Child-Giving” Guanyin who saw to it that the family religion would never be disrupted by the lack of a male heir.

Avalokiteśvara in Japan and Tibet

Avalokiteśvara enjoyed popularity in Japan equal to that in China. There is space to offer only a few examples. Prince Shōtoku (c. 573–622), the legendary founder of Japanese Buddhism, was closely identified with the bodhisattva. The famous statue housed in Hōryūji, known as Kuse Kannon, was believed to have been built in conformity to the prince’s size. Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of the new Pure Land School, Jōdoshinshū, worshiped Shōtoku as the manifestation of Kannon. Kannon also came to be conceived as feminine by the 12th century in Japan. In a climactic dream that led Shinran to break away from the Pure Land establishment and that initiated married priesthood, Kannon appeared to him and authorized his marriage to the nun Eshinni, who was thought to be the incarnation of Kannon. An important form of Kannon devotion is to go on the pilgrimage circuit to the thirty-three Kannon temples in the western part of the main island of Japan. This has remained very popular down the ages. Images of the thirty-three forms of Kannon are often depicted in a set in Japan. They are primarily feminine and not based on the Lotus sutra, but on Chinese legends.

In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is venerated as the manifestation of the bodhisattva. The six-syllable Buddhist formula Om Maņipadme Hūm is the most important and well-known mantrā associated with Avalokiteśvara, who is Tibet’s patron deity. It is carved or painted onto rocks and hills or written on prayer flags. The favorite form of lay devotion is to spin the prayer wheels while chanting the mantrā. Prayer wheels contain printed forms of the mantrā. These refer to the large drums that line the walls outside monasteries; the worshipers turn the drums as they circumambulate. Prayer wheels can also be in the form of small cylinders that individuals hold in their hands and whirl with their wrists. Ordinary Tibetans who are not interested in doctrinal subtlety recite the six-syllable formula in order to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. For religious practitioners, the mantrā is a form of the name of Avalokiteśvara and the innermost heart of Avalokiteśvara. By chanting the mantrā, one hopes to see Avalokiteśvara and appropriate the bodhisattva’s power, enabling one to develop great compassion and achieve liberation.10

The various forms that Avalokiteśvara assumes in Buddhist Asia reflect the nature of Buddhism in its long history of encountering with various indigenous cultural and religious traditions in the region. For this reason, the bodhisattva is a most eloquent and successful representative of the religion.

Review of Literature

Existing literature in both Western and Asian languages, as indicated by the following works for further reading, consist roughly of two kinds: art historical and textual. Studies of the iconography of the bodhisattva in different Buddhist regions predominate. Other textual studies discuss the roles and functions of the bodhisattva in Buddhist scriptures. A comprehensive study of Avalokiteśvara in the pan-Buddhist culture is necessary and awaits future scholarly endeavor.

Further Reading

Boisselier, Jean. “Precisions sur quelques images Khmeres d'Avalokiteśvara.” Arts Asiatiques 11.1 (1965): 75–89.Find this resource:

Brough, John. “Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara in An Inscribed Gandhāran Sculpture.” Indologia Tanrinensia 10 (1982): 65–70.Find this resource:

Bunnag, Jane. “The Way of the Monk and the Way of the World: Buddhism in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.” In The World of Buddhism. Edited by Richard Gombrich, 159–170. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.Find this resource:

Chutiwongs, Nandana. “The Iconography of Avalokiteśvara in Mainland Southeast Asia.” PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit, Leiden, 1984.Find this resource:

Holt, John C. Buddha in the Crown: Avalokiteśvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Jessup, Helen Ibbitson, and Thierry Zephir, eds. Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia Millennium of Glory. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997.Find this resource:

Kapstein, Matthew. “Remarks on the Mana bKa‘-’bum and the Cult of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet.” In Tibet Buddhism: Reason and Revelation. Edited by Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson, 57–93. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Mallmann, Marie-Therese. Introduction a l’Etude d’Avalokiteśara. Paris: Annales du Musėe Guimet, 1948.Find this resource:

Schopen, Gregory. “The Inscription on the Kushan Image of Amitābha and the Character of Early Mahāyāna In India.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10 (1987): 99–138.Find this resource:

Studholme, Alexander. The Origins of Om Maņipadme Hūm: A Study of the Kāraņdavyūha Sūtra. Albany: State of New York University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Suchan, Thomas. “Dynamic Duo: Tang and Song Imagery of Paired Bodhisattvas from Sichuan.” Paper presented at the Fourth International Convention of Asian Scholars, Shanghai, China, August 2005.Find this resource:

Yü, Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Yü, Chün-fang, and Yao Chongxin. Forthcoming 2016. “Guanyin and Dizang: The Creation of a Chinese Buddhist Pantheon” Asitische Studien.Find this resource:

Zwalf, W., ed. Buddhism: Art and Faith. London: British Museum, 1985.Find this resource:


(1.) Marie-Therese de Mallmann, Introduction a l’Etude d’Avalokiteśara (Paris: Annales du Musėe Guimet, 1948); Gregory Schopen, “The Inscription on the Kushan Image of Amitābha and the Character of Early Mahāyāna In India,” Journal of the Internaional Association of Buddhist Studies 10 (1987): 99–138.

(2.) Nanadana Chutiwongs, “The Iconography of Avalokiteśvara in Mainland Southeast Asia.” (PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit, Leiden, 1984).

(3.) Helen Ibbitson Jessup and Thierry Zephir, eds. Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia Millennium of Glory (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997) 304; Jane Bunnag, “The Way of the Monk and the Way of the World: Buddhism in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia,” in The World of Buddhism, ed. Richard Gombrich (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984) 161; W. Zwalf, ed. Buddhism: Art and Faith (London: British Museum, 1985) 176.

(4.) John C. Holt, Buddha in the Crown: Avalokiteśvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(5.) Matthew Kapstein, “Remarks on the Mana bKa‘-’bum and the Cult of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet,” in Tibet Buddhism: Reason and Revelation eds. Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992) 57–93.

(6.) Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 194.

(7.) Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 54–55.

(8.) Thomas Suchan, “Dynamic Duo: Tang and Song Imagery of Paired Bodhisattvas from Sichuan,” (paper presented at the Fourth International Convention of Asian Scholars, Shanghai, China, August 2005).

(9.) Chün-fang Yü, and Yao Chongxin, “Guanyin and Dizang: The Creation of a Chinese Buddhist Pantheon,” Asitische Studien, forthcoming, 2016.

(10.) Alexander Studholme, The Origins of Om Maņipadme Hūm: A Study of the Kāraņdavyūha Sūtra (Albany: State of New York University Press, 2002), 106–108.