From Bodhisattva to Goddess: Guanyin and Chinese Buddhism

Guanyin or Guanshihyin is the Chinese name for Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who has been worshiped throughout the Buddhist world. A Chinese saying aptly describes the great popularity of this savior bodhisattva: “Every body knows how to chant Omituofo, and every household worships Guanyin.” Under Chinese influence, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese have also used the same names (Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse’um in Korean and Quan-am in Vietnamese) and worshiped her. However, the cult of Avalokiteśvara is, of course, not limited to East Asia, but exists all throughout Asia. Called Lokeśvara (Lord of the World) in Cambodhia and Java, Lokanatha (Protector of the World) in Burma, Natha Devio in Sri Lanka, and Chenresi (spyan-ras-gzigs, “One Who Sees with Eyes”) in Tibet, Avalokiteśvara might not be identified by the same name, but all the South, Southeast, and East Asian Buddhist cultures have known and worshiped this bodhisattva.

The bodhisattva has also become well known in the United States and Europe, the combined result of feminism and the immigration of Buddhist teachers to the West. Although Buddhism was introduced to the United States in the nineteenth century, political events in Asia since World War II greatly facilitated the religion’s westward movement. When China became Communist in 1949, many Chinese monks escaped to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the United States. Similarly, while most Tibetan lamas escaped to India, some came to the United States when Tibet was occupied by China in 1959. With the end of Vietnam War in 1975 and the arrival of new immigrants from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries since the 1980s, people in America have been exposed to many forms of Buddhism, as well as the different names and identities of the bodhisattva. Avalokiteśvara is present in all these Buddhist traditions. In addition, American feminist scholars have become interested in uncovering a goddess tradition – either in the West prior to the rise of patriarchal Christianity or in the deities of non-Western religious traditions. In the latter case, Guanyin, together with Tara, Kali, and Durga, are the favorite candidates for such citations. The contemporary focus on Guanyin as a great “goddess” is understandable, for this is how most East Asians see her. I was also first introduced to this deity as such by my maternal grandmother. Many blanc de Chine porcelain statues of Guanyin made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on display in museums (where many Westerners first encountered the deity) are decidedly feminine. However, Avalokiteśvara has never been worshiped as a goddess in India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, or Southeast Asia. Nor indeed was Guanyin perceived to be feminine by the Chinese at first, for many paintings from Dunhuang dating to the tenth century clearly show him with moustaches. The sexual transformation from the masculine Avalokiteśvara to the feminine Guanyin seems to be a unique Chinese phenomenon.

Bodhisattvas are beings dedicated to the salvation of everyone. In carrying out this noble task, they choose to become buddhas instead of seeking personal nirvana as arhats do. As such they form new cultic objects for Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, while the early Buddhists only worship the historical Buddha, and use the term “bodhisattva” to refer only to the Buddha’s previous lives before his final enlightenment. Indeed, the early Buddhist belief in a very limited numbers of bodhisattvas, namely Śakyamuni Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the Future Buddha, and the Mahayana belief in many bodhisattvas and the corresponding call for all people to give rise to bodhicitta (the thought for enlightenment spurring one onto the path of the bodhisattva) is one of the most significant differences between the two Buddhist traditions. If Avlokiteśvara is worshiped in all the Buddhist countries, what does this do to this received wisdom?

I can think of at least two reasons why the cult of Avalokiteśvara succeeded in taking root in so many countries in Asia. First of all, next to the Buddha, Avalokiteśvara was one of the few bodhisattvas whose cult enjoyed a continuous popularity in India. From the early centuries of the common era until Buddhism disappeared from Inida sometime in the 13th century, Avalokiteśvara retained the devotion of the faithful. New texts and new artistic forms developed with time. Because India was the homeland of Buddhism, the prominence of Avalokiteśvara there resulted in his being welcomed and accepted into other Buddhist countries. The second reason for the bodhisattva’s success outside of India was related to the very nature of Buddhism as a religion. Just as Buddhism coexisted with Vedic Brahmanism and Hinduism in India, it also did not try to replace the indigenous religions in the host countries where it was introduced.

Although the bodhisattva is the embodiment of compassion, different cultures have made different choices in representing him/her. China and countries having historical and cultural connections with her, such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam identify Guanyin as the exemplar of wisdom for meditators and the “Goddess of Mercy” who is particularly kind to women, while in Sri Lanka, Tibet, and southeast Asia, Avalokiteśvara has been very much identified with royalty. 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. The 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, represented by the Devarāja. The cult of Lokeśvara (Lord of the World) reached its zenith under Jayavarman 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. In Tibet, Avalokiteśvara is worshiped as the patron deity of the country and the Dalai Lama is believed to be his incarnation. The royal symbolism came quite naturally in a context with no pre-existing or competing one. There is, therefore, a common tradition in Asia that Guanyin is a legitimizing symbol of the royalty.

It is therefore clear that Guanyin did not have to become a goddess. Why then in China was the bodhisattva not connected with royalty? Was it because the Chinese royal ideology and symbolism were already established before the introduction of Buddhism in the first century of the common era 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.

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. The good news of the “Universal Gateway” preached a new and democratic way of 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 gods and goddesses in China before the appearance of Guanyin, none of them seemed to have enjoyed lasting and continuing 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 East Asian Buddhism, the creation of Tiantai (Tendai), Huayan (Kegon), Pure Land (Jōdo) and Chan (Zen) schools is a prominent example. Although the Chinese based their main teachings and practices on some scriptures translated from India languages, the specific emphases and formulations reflected the native modes of thought and cultural values. This process of domestication created diversity n the pan Asian Buddhist tradition. I would like to use the case of Guanyin’s transformation into the compassionate “Goddess of Mercy” in China as an example of this process.

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 amount to eighty-eight and occupy 509 pages of the Taisho canon (volume 20), the modern edition of the Chinese Buddhist Tripitaka printed during 1922-1933 in Japan. Avalokiteśvara’s roles vary widely in these sutras translated from Indic languages into Chinese, ranging from a walk-on bit player of the attending entourage surrounding Śakyamuni Buddha to the leading star of his own grand dramas of universal salvation. The faces of the bodhisattva in canonical scriptures, just 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.

In the study of Chinese Buddhism in general and that of Guanyin in particular, the traditional emphasis has been on locating the main sutras and on the elucidation of their doctrines. Therefore, in any discussion of the Guanyin cult, the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Thousand-handed and Thousand-eyed Sutra, the Surangama Sutra (Leng-yen ching 楞嚴經) and the Pure Land sutras (Larger and Smaller Sukhavativyuha sutras and the Meditation sutra)  occupy pride of place. This is most appropriate, for Guanyin indeed is a main protagonist in these scriptures. These four sutras are also the ones which have received most attention from the Chinese people, regardless whether they are Buddhists or not, for the past many centuries. The Lotus Sutra teaches that by calling on the name of the bodhisattva, one can obtain both worldly and spiritual benefits. The Heart Sutra encaptulates the highest truth of sunyata in Mahayana Buddhism in a few easily memorable paragraphs. The Thousand-handed Sutra serves as the basis for the popular ritual of repentance, Tabei Chan (the Ritual of Great Compassion Repentance), created by the T’ien-t’ai master Siming Zhili 四明知禮 (960-1028), one of the most frequently performed ritual down the ages. It also contains the dharani known as Dabeizhou (Great Compassion Dharani) which is chanted daily by the faithful. The Surangama Sutra reveals the meditation method practiced by Guanyin and finally, the Pure Land sutras present Guanyin as the chief attendant of Amitabha Buddha of  the Western Paradise. However, this method of picking and choosing a specific scripture as the focus using the above criteria might not be the most fruitful way to study the cult of Guanyin. A sutra does not become a part of a “canon” based on its doctrinal contents alone. Conversely, a “canonical” work does not automatically guarantee its popular reception or longevity. For despite the importance of scriptures, to which the Buddhist elite have traditionally granted the only normative authority, it would be naïve to assume that the texts were ever universally studied by the faithful, or that what they describe and prescribe was ever completely followed by believers. One must pay equal attention to the ideal picture found in texts and to the reality of the people’s actual practices provided by epigraphical, art historical, ritualistic, and literary, data. In order to achieve a lasting authority and fame, a sutra must be promoted by other mediums such as miracles, rituals, art, etc. Famous monks who wrote commentaries and other noted practitioners who advocated either the chanting of the text or to follow the meditation methods recommended by it are also necessary. In other words, it is essential that we pay equal attention to the historical and social contexts in the reception and transmission of a particular Buddhist scripture as we do to its doctrinal contents and soteriological message.

Anyone who visits a temple in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Mainland China can find posters, pamphlets, brochures and books on the side tables or stacked on bookshelves along the walls of the main hall. They are printed by lay devotees and are placed there for visitors to browse through or take home for later reading. This is one way to generate merit. I believe the indigenous sutras 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 i  chin疑經 (“suspicious scriptures”) or wei ching 偽經 (“spurious scriptures”) have undergone revision. Beginning in the 1970s, Makita Tairyo牧田諦亮 has in his various studies alerted us to the positive value of these texts. Instead of dismissing them as “forgeries,” he regards them as valuable documents revealing contemporary understandings of Buddhism. In recent years, his interpretation has been adopted by other scholars who also see these scriptures as creative attempts to synthesize Buddhist teachings and adapt them to the native 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 (Kao wang Guanyin jing), first mentioned in 664, was supposed to result from a miracle, the Divine Spell of the White-robed Great Being (Baiyi Tashi Shenzhou) 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 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. Compilation 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. It has been collected down the ages and is still being produced and collected today. Miracle tales served as a powerful medium for transforming and domesticating Guanyin. Because the stories relate 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 happen to vouch for Guanyin’s efficacy (ling). They work because there is the relationship of kanying (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 the King Gao’s Guanshihyin Sutra, the hero was Sun Jingde 孫敬德.  Sun worshiped an icon of Kuan-yin that he kept in his room. When he managed to finish chanting the sutra that had been revealed to 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 statue. The implication is clearly that the icon bore the blows of the knife, thus sparing Sun. This was supposed to have happened to Sun between 534 and 537 C.E. 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. Art historians usually take them to be votive images made by humble people who could not afford larger ones. 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 deliverance.

The close relationship between the devotees and icons of Guanyin revealed in some early miracle tales brings me to another obvious point which needs to be, nevertheless, reiterated. Buddhist art, like all religious art, is intimately connected with spiritual lives of the faithful. Sculpted and painted images of Guanyin are first and foremost icons, 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 appear as either a “person in white” (baiyiren白衣人), indicating perhaps his lay status, or “woman in white” (baiyifuren 白衣婦人), 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. But conversely, an image of Guanyin depicted with a new iconography could also predispose the devotees see him/her in this way in their visions and dreams. What Hu Yinglin 胡應麟 (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.”

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 are also incarnated as the bodhisattva. The statues of Guanyin in Yünkang, 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.

But the deity underwent a profound and startling transformation beginning sometime during the tenth century, and by the sixteenth 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 al 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.

Chinese created indigenous forms of Guanyin, just as they composed indigenous sutras. I discussed the Water-moon Guanyin, White-robed Guanyin, Child-giving Kuan-yin, Guanyin of the South Sea, Fish-basket Kuan-yin, and Old Mother Guanyin extensively in my book. I will summarize my findings briefly. In the case of the Water-moon, White- robe, and Child-giving Gaunyin, I argue that they are variation of the same iconography. This is of course in contrast to the conventional view held by art historians who distinguish them as separate icons based on style. I further argue that the creation of new iconographies of Guanyin was connected with the regional character of Chinese Buddhism and Buddhist art. The new icons were also closely connected with Buddhist theology, ritual, and devotion. In fact, the Water-moon Guanyin, an indigenous iconography that appeared before the White-robed Guanyin and served as a prototype for the latter, was a good example for both the points I made. 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 domiestication 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 Buddhist  rationale for such arrangement, for there is no scriptural basis for putting Guanyin together with both the Dragon Princess and Sudhana, not to mention the white parrot, together. Although both the Dragon Princess and Guanyin appear in the Lotus Sutra in chapter 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, precious volumes about Pu-tuo provide copious and illuminating explanation 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 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 temples and cave sculptures after the 11th century we can find Guanyin paired with Dizang (Kshitigarbha) or Guanyin accompanied by Lohans. Both groupings are not attested by any scripture. Moreover, around the 16th century, Guanyin was provided with an animal mount so that the Three Great Beings (San Tashih) could all ride on their respective animals. Just as Manjusri 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 die, 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 Amitabha 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 引路菩薩)”.

The indigenization of Guanyin reached completion with the legend of Miaoshan who came to be seen as the human manifestation of the bodhisattva. The story of Princess Miaoshan is full of drama and pathos. Of the various stories transforming the Indian bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara into the Chinese female Guanyin , this is without doubt the most successful. By the late imperial period the story had become widely known among the common people through drama, story telling as well as public chanting of the Precious Scroll of Incense Mountain, particularly among women audience. It is no wonder that many people came to know Guanyin through the story of Princess Miaoshan. When I did research on my book on Guanyin, I interviewed many women pilgrims in different parts of China. While there might be some minor differences in details, the story they told me was basically the same as the one I first heard from my grandmother when I was a young girl. It goes something like this:

Miaoshan was the third daughter of King Miaozhuang. She was by nature drawn to  Buddhism, keeping vegetarian diet, reading scriptures by day, and meditating at night from an early age. The king had no sons and hoped to choose an heir from among his sons- in-law. When Miaoshan reached the marriageable age, however, she refused to get  married, unlike her two elder sisters, who had both obediently married the men chosen bytheir father. The king was greatly angered by her refusal and punished her harshly in different ways. She was first confined to the back garden and subjected to hard labor. When, with the  aid of gods, she completed the tasks, she was allowed to go to the White Sparrow Nunnery to undergo further  trials in the hope of discouraging her from pursuing the religious path. She persevered, and the king burned down the nunnery, killed the five hundred nuns, and had Miaoshan executed for her unfilial behavior. While her body was safeguarded by a mountain spirit, Miaoshan’s soul  toured hell and saved beings there by preaching to them. She returned to the world, went  to Xiangshan, meditated for nine years, and achieved enlightenment.

By this time the king had become seriously ill with a mysterious disease that resisted all medical  treatment. Miaoshan, disguised as a mendicant monk, came to the palace and told the dying king that there was only one remedy that could save him: a medicine concocted with the eyes and hands  of someone who had never felt anger. She further told the astonished king where to find suc