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Dear Reader, this is Ferrebeekeeper’s 500th post!  We have gone to some crazy places on this blog and I wanted to thank you so much for joining me.  Together we braved the Scythian steppes and walked among ruthless mounted warriors. We went back in time to the Ordovician, when the oceans were ruled by giant tentacle monsters.  Fearlessly you have gone with me down to the black mansion—the ghastly hell of Chinese mythology where brutal torture spans across lifetimes.  We have even stared into the ever-hungry black hole which lies at the center of the spinning galaxy.

Contemporary Chinese Portrayal of Guanyin

For our 100th post we celebrated with Oshun, the beautiful Afro-Caribbean love goddess. For the 500th post, however, I wanted to write about a goddess even more transcendent and inspiring–Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.  East Asian deities can be a stern and pitiless group, but Guanyin is the counterbalance to that.  As the bodhisattva associated with kindness, she is uniquely venerated in China, Japan, and the other Buddhist nations of East Asia.  Guanyin protects the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble. She has vowed never to rest until all sentient beings are free from samsara—the endless painful cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Long ago Guanyin obtained Buddhahood—she apotheosized beyond this world to Nirvana—but then she turned back from absolute tranquility and bliss in order to help all other knowing entities transcend suffering.

Avalokiteshvara statue (8th century, Sri Vijayan period, Thailand)

As a principle goddess of the most populated region of Earth, Guanyin has many names and attributes. In South Asia, where Buddhism originates, Guanyin was Avalokiteśvara a male bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of Buddha.  As a fundamental force of existence Avalokiteśvara could actually be male, or female, human or animal, or none of the above.  In the Tang and Song dynasties, as Buddhism became the dominant religion of China, Guanyin gradually became associated with the motherly goddess of kindness and her form changed into what we know today.  In Chinese Guanyin was originally called “Guanshiyin”, which means, “Attending to the cries of the world” however her name was shortened during the Tang dynasty (because it violated the naming taboo of Emperor Taizong–who was born Lǐ Shìmín).  Taoists worship Guanyin as well, but they believe she was a Chinese woman from the Shang dynasty who found a path to immortality and now looks after the weak.

In Vietnam she is revered as “Quán Âm”

Guanyin is almost always portrayed standing or sitting on a water lotus as an allusion to the Lotus Sutra texts (additionally, adherents to Pure Land Buddhism believe that she sequesters the souls of fallen believers in a lotus and wafts the flowers to Western Paradise).  She is usually portrayed in a flowing white dress holding an object in both hands.  In some traditions she bears a vase of perfectly pure water and a willow branch, while in other iconography she holds rice, tea, or a pearl.  Guanyin is traditionally portrayed with a Chinese crown and an Indian royal necklace. Sometimes she is accompanied by two warriors or by two children.  Occasionally she is shown with a dragon or a parrot (the little parrot’s story is touchingly sad and merits its own post).

Guanyin

In some statues and paintings of Guanyin she is pictured with 11 heads and a multitude of arms.   The story behind this highlights the overwhelmingly merciful nature of Guanyin.  Despite her utmost divine efforts, Guanyin realized that there were countless unhappy beings still in need of her aid. Her struggles to comprehend the problems and suffering of so many caused her head to burst into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (who rules the paradise of the Pure Land) caused each of these fragments to reform into a complete head, with which Guanyin was able to hear the cries of the innumerable suffering souls. She tried to reach out and help the beings who needed her aid, but her two arms also shattered into fragments. Once more, Buddha came to her aid and magically granted her a thousand arms with which to relieve suffering.

Giant Guanlin statue at Wat Plai Laem in Thailand

Divinities reflect the deepest aspirations and emotions of their believers.  The fact that Guanyin, goddess of love and compassion, is one of the most popular divinities in China, reflects a happy truth concerning human nature.

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