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Enlightenment Will Help You Find Your Own Answers
Not many surnames have had the honor of being deified. Louie pronounced
"Lui" in Cantonese and "Lei" in Mandarin meaning Thunder is one of the
exceptions. So, Steve, you must forgive homonyms because your surname
"Fong" sounds very "square" to me.
>From the Freer Gallelry of Art
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
copyright 1993 by Jan Stuart, Assistant Curator, Chinese Art
GuanYin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion
Endowed with an infinitely merciful disposition, GuanYin, the
Bodhisattva of Compassion, is one of the most beloved and frequently
depicted figures in Chinese Art. GuanYin, which literally means
"Regarder of the Cries" [of the World], is the same deity that Indian
Buddhists call Avalokiteshvara. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being
who rejects the salvation of nirvana to remain in the world to allay
suffering and to help others attain enlightenment.
The earliest mention of the Bodhisattva of Compassion occurs in the
Lotus Sutra, an Indian sacred Buddhist text, which was first translated
into Chinese in 286. The sutra recorded GuanYin's vow to rescue anyone
threatened by murder, fire, shipwreck, or other danger. GuanYin could
assume one of more than thirty guises to aid a victim. This power of
transmutation gave artists a wide choice of forms with which to depict
A cult devoted to GuanYin arose in China during the period of social and
political unrest between the 3rd & 6th centuries. In the role of Savior
from Perils, GuanYin offered appealing comfort. Although a bodhisattva
is an attendant to Buddha, GuanYin became an independent focus of
According to the Lotus Sutra, the Bodhisattva of Compassion possesses
the power of bestowing male progeny, another attribute that endeared the
deity to the Chinese. In imperial times, they believed that family
continuity and prosperity depended on a male heir. By the 16th century,
GuanYin in the rolse of Bestower of Sons was a commonly invoked deity,
and women regarded GuanYin as their special benefactor.
Another sacred text, the Pure Land Sutra, describes GuanYin as both an
emanation and an emissary of the Buddha of Infinite Light, who is known
in India as Amitabha. GuanYin's headdress often bears an image of the
Buddha Amitabha as the lord of the Western Paradise. Devotees of Pure
Land Buddhism believe that GuanYin escorts the souls of deceased
believers to a blissful rebirth in the Western Paradise.
In China, the earliest depictions of GuanYin conformed closely to
canonical sources and to Indian visual prototypes. The oldest Chinese
images are 5th century gilt bronzes of GuanYin as the Lotus Bearer,
known in India as Padmapani. Gradually, representations of GuanYin
developed that assimilated native Chinese legends, departing from Indian
models. GuanYin of the Fish Basket, for example, is a late Chinese
development of GuanYin as a maiden who carries carp in a basket. The
image incorporates features from a traditional Chinese goddess, YuLan,
who is a protector of fishermen.
Between the 6th & 9th centuries, the most popular form of GuanYin was as
the Compassionate Savior. In this guise, GuanYin was depicted either
seated or standing and holding a bottle of heavenly dew and a willow
sprig. A touch of the willow sprinkled with the dew cures all mental and
physical ills. When Esoteric (Vajrayana) Buddhism, which employes
elaborate rituals and magic spells, was introduced to China in the 7th
century, new images of GuanYin as a multiarmed and/or multiheaded deity
appeared. One of these, GuanYin of Eleven Heads, has multiple heads to
indicate achievement of all the stages of enlightenment.
Around the time thatEsoteric Buddhism was embraced in China, renewed
contact with India stimulated a fresh approach to art in China that
incorporated elemonts from India's sensuous figure style. The
constricted waist and fleshy stomach of the Freer Gallery's early 8th
century GuanYin of Eleven Heads is radically different than the
treatment of the human body seen in earlier images. The Tang Dynasty
(618-907) witnessed a vogue for plump, gracefully poised figures, which
impart a human presence that welcomes the approach of a believer.
Because bodhisattvas have transcended the illusory notion of self,
including the concept of gender, Tang Dynasty sculptors depicted GuanYin
with both masculine and feminine traits, including a soft, pliant body.
In India, bodhisattvas have always been depicted as male, but the
Chinese slowly transformed GuanYin into a deity with a female
appearance. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), devotees began to think of
the deity as a woman. After the mid-Song Dynasty, GuanYin was rarely
depicted without flowing robes and/or jewelry that imparted a feminine
In the 8th century a new form of the Bodhisattva of Compassion called
GuanYin of the Water Moon originated in China. This type of GuanYin was
especially important in the Chan/Zhan (in Japanese,Zen), or meditative,
school of Buddhism. GuanYin of the Water Moon and GuanYin the
Compassionate Savior share certain attributes, such as the willow wand
and the bottle of heavenly dew held in the hands.
GuanYin of the Water Moon is usually depicted with a giant halo that
also represents the moon and reminds the Buddhist believer that all
phenomena are unreal and as illusory as moonlight on water. The Freer
painting "GuanYin of the Water Moon" represents an early and formal
image of the deity. Most images portray GuanYin of the Water Moon in
communion with nature, seated on a rocky ledge over water and surrounded
by luxuriant vegetation (especially bamboo). The sense of spiritual
harmony with nature also appears in other images of GuanYin that became
popular in the Song Dynasty, such as GuanYin in a White Robe and GuanYin
of the Southern Seas, which later became popular images in Korea and
The rocky ledge alludes to the bodhisattva's earthly paradise. According
to the Lotus Sutra, GuanYin lived on Mount Potalaka, which the Chinese
believe corresponds to the island called PuTuoShan, off the coast of
ZheJiang Province in southern China. PuTuoShan is still a major center
of GuanYin worship.
The power of GuanYin as the ultimate embodiment of compassion earned the
deity a prominent place in Chinese culture, which is marked by a vast
repertoire of serenely beautiful paintings and sculpture that convey the
bodhisattva's all encompassing altruism.
John Blofeld. Bodhisattva of Compassion:
The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin.
(Guanyin). Goulder, Colorado:
Angela F. Howard. "Highlights of Chinese of Chinese
Buddhist Sculpture in the Freer Collection." Orientations (May 1993)
Miyeko Murase. "Kuan-yin (Guanyin) as Savior of Men."
Artibus Asiae 33 (1972) 39-74
This guide is made possible by a generous contribution from the James