Buddhism A–Z
Who is Guanyin in Buddhism?
Guanyin Seated on a Rock, 18th Century, China, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The bodhisattva Guanyin is regarded in Buddhism as the embodiment of compassion. Known as “she who hears the cries of the world.” Guanyin embodies the bodhisattva’s commitment to forgoing their own enlightenment until all sentient beings are freed from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Origins of Guanyin

Guanyin originated in India as Avalokiteshvara, the male bodhisattva of compassion. She has since adopted many names, identities, and forms. Sometimes, the bodhisattva appears as a female, male, or androgynous being. She has a multitude of names across Asia: Guanyin (Chinese, “perceiver of sounds”) in China, Kannon in Japan, Kwan Um in Korea, and Chenrezig in Tibet.

Guanyin is also seen as the protector of women, children, sailors, fishermen, anyone in trouble, and the sick, disabled, and poor. She holds special reverence for people of various faiths, including Daoists and Confucianists, and is an object of worship throughout East Asia.

Buddhist Depictions of Guanyin

In Buddhist iconography, Guanyin is often depicted seated in a posture of royal ease, leaning on her left arm, one foot up, with her elbow resting gracefully on a bent knee. She is perfectly at peace, despite her vow to save all sentient beings.

She is also often depicted as a serene figure holding a vase containing the waters of compassion, with which she responds to the cries and pleas of sentient beings in suffering. In some representations, she holds a willow branch, symbolizing her ability to bend or adapt without breaking, akin to the qualities of flexibility and resilience. Occasionally, she is depicted holding a lotus flower.

Another popular depiction is the “Guanyin of the Thousand Arms and Eyes,” symbolizing the bodhisattva’s ability to perceive the suffering of all beings and reach out to help them. According to legend, Guanyin tried so strenuously to alleviate the suffering of beings that her head split into eleven pieces. Wanting to help, Amitabha Buddha awarded her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the world, but when she heard all the cries and reached out to address the needs of so many, her two arms shattered. This time, Amitabha gave Guanyin a thousand arms.

Buddhism A–Z

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