Dan Brown made the phrase “sacred feminine” a household term in his bestseller The Da Vinci Code; the concept, however, has been in existence for centuries and is a central aspect of ancient, pre-Christian religions. Guanyin, from Chinese Buddhism, is comparable to Mother Mary, an embodiment of mercy and infinite compassion.
Chinese Buddhists believe that Guanyin is the female aspect of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of Compassion. It has been debated that Guanyin’s origins go back to Taoism, the indigenous religion of China. As Mahayana Buddhism began to filter into China from the 1st century CE, Taoist deities were co-opted into Buddhism – a deliberate tactic, perhaps, on the part of Buddhists to gradually phase out the older religion.
Notwithstanding the debate over her history, the fact remains that Guanyin is greatly revered across Buddhist communities in Asia. She is known as Kannon in Japan, Gwan-eum in Korea, Kuan Eim in Thailand and Dewi Kwan Im in Indonesia. To Tibetan Buddhists, she is Tara, born from a single tear shed by Avalokitesvara.
Between the 10th and 13th centuries, Guanyin’s features in Chinese iconography were distinctly masculine. Over time, she acquired an androgynous form and eventually morphed into a goddess-like figure.
In contemporary iconography, Guanyin is depicted as an ethereally lovely, white-robed goddess. A popular representation has her standing on a lotus petal. Her head, encircled by a halo, is slightly tilted, intent on catching the smallest plea for help. The material used to sculpt the statue symbolizes her many virtues – jade for virtue, marble for constancy and porcelain for innocence.
Depending upon the various schools of Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin may be seen in solitary meditation or seated by the side of a Buddha, with another bodhisattva accompanying them.
As a symbol of compassion, Guanyin is popularly linked with vegetarianism. Her image is often seen in the interiors of vegetarian restaurants in China and Buddhist literature on vegetarianism.
Guanyin in folklore
Guanyin’s sphere of influence is all-encompassing. She is a symbol of unconditional love, kindness and mercy, shielding and caring for the sick, the unwanted, the unlucky and the poor. As one who protects women and children, she is linked to fertility as well. In certain coastal and river regions of China, she is the patroness of fisherfolk and sailors. Traders and businessmen see Guanyin as the goddess of good fortune.
During the mythical Great Flood, it is believed that Guanyin sent a dog down to earth with rice grains clinging to its tail; ever since she has been worshiped as a rice goddess.
In another well-known legend, Guanyin vowed never to rest until she had liberated all sentient beings from the cycle of samsara (rebirth). So strenuous was this challenge that her head split into pieces. Amitabha Buddha came to her rescue, giving her eleven heads with which to listen to the pleas of sufferers. Hearing their cries, she extended her two arms out to them. Their numbers were too vast, her arms broke into smithereens. Amitabha again came to her rescue, giving her a thousand arms so that she may reach out to all who invoke her name. Statues and paintings of the thousand-armed Guanyin can be seen in Tibetan and other East Asian iconography.