Ding-hwa HSIEH

Guanyin takes good care of her devotees.

Guanyin 觀音, or Guanshiyin 觀世音, is one of the most popular deities worshipped among Chinese Buddhists. During the process of domestication, this Indian male deity was transformed into a female divine savior, characterized by great mercy and compassion (daci dabei 大慈大悲); she is known for her ability to bestow miracles on her devotees.

Guanyin (or Guanshiyin) is the Chinese name for Avalokite’svara, a male celestial bodhisattva (deity) in Indian Buddhism. Literally guan means “to perceive” or “to look on,” and [shi]yin refers to the “[world’s] sounds” of prayers. In China Guanyin is known as a goddess characterized by great mercy and compassion; she is efficacious in response to anyone who sincerely prays to her or calls out her name for help.

Two Mahayana Buddhist scriptures are particularly responsible for popularizing Guanyin worship in China. One is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Scripture (Saddharmapundarîkâ-sûtra; Chinese: Miaofa lianhua jing), especially the version translated by Kumârajîva (344–413?) in 406 CE. Guanyin is said to be a compassionate deity who assumes various forms in the world to save people from suffering. This chapter, entitled “Universal Gate” (pumen), later became an independent text known as the Guanyin Scripture. The other scripture is the Longer Pure Land Scripture (Sukhâvatîvyûha-sûtra; Chinese: Wuliangshou jing), translated into Chinese around the third century CE. Guanyin here is the chief assistant to Amitâbha Buddha, the Buddha worshipped in Pure Land Buddhism. With the wide appeal of the Lotus Scripture and the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism, Guanyin worship has developed into one of the most prominent religious practices in Chinese Buddhism.

In the beginning Guanyin as shown in paintings or sculpture was either masculine or asexual. Gradually, however, this Indian male deity was transformed into a distinctively Chinese goddess. One theory among modern scholars to explain the sexual transformation of Guanyin is that Târâ, the white-robed goddess of mercy in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, may have influenced the Chinese projection of a female Guanyin. The most recent theory, however, suggests that the feminization of Guanyin should be seen as a result of the sinicization of Indian Buddhism by incorporating various images and myths of goddesses in Chinese Daoism and folk religions. Whatever the case may be, representations of Guanyin clearly have become predominately feminine since the tenth century.

Apocryphal scriptures and miracle tales about Guanyin started to circulate during the fifth century and continue to be widely read by Buddhists today. As Guanyin’s popularity increased, she was also associated with many indigenous local legends. By far the best-known legend is that of Princess Miaoshan in Honan, which began to be told as the life story of Guanyin around the eleventh century. Miaoshan, a king’s third daughter, was a devout Buddhist who refused to marry. After her angry father killed her, she miraculously revived and returned to Earth to cure her father’s illness by sacrificing her eyes and hands. She later manifested herself before her parents as a divine being with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

Guanyin is believed to embody the power to bring women sons, save fishermen from calamities at sea, cure the sick, and protect the faithful from harm on a daily basis. As a beloved goddess of great mercy, she has many images; aside from the White-robed Guanyin (baiyi Guanyin) and Son-granting Guanyin (Songzi Guanyin), there are the Water-moon Guanyin (Shuiyue Guanyin), Fish-basket Guanyin (Yülan Guanyin), and Guanyin of the South Sea (Nanhai Guanyin) residing on Mount Potalaka. To this day devotion to Guanyin is flourishing not only among east Asian Buddhists but also throughout the Buddhist world.

Further Reading

Blofeld, J. (1988). Bodhisattva of compassion: The mystical tradition of Kuan Yin. Boston: Shambhala.

Dudbridge, G. (1978). The legend of Miao-shan. London: Ithaca Press.

Paul, D. Y. (1985). Women in Buddhism: Images of the feminine in the Mahâyâna tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tay, C. N. (1976). Kuan-yin: The cult of half Asia. History of Religions, 16(2), 147–176.

Yü Chünfang. (2001). Kuan-yin: The Chinese transformation of Avalokite’svara. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Hsieh, Ding-hwa. (2009). Guanyin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 957–958. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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