Guanyin (Avalokitesvara)

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Guardians of Hell
The Great Emperor of Fengdu
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Perfect Men and Immortals
Guanyin (Avalokitesvara)
The Eight Immortals
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Explanation of the name Guanyin

The Buddhist scripture the Universal Salvation Chapter of the Lotus Sutra of the Sublime Dharma ( 妙法蓮花經普門品 Miaofa Lianhuang Jing Pumen Pin ) records that in a dharmic gathering, Bodhisattva Wujinyi asked Sakyamuni: " why does the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin have such a name?" The Bodhisattva Guanshiyin answered herself: " I attained Buddhahood in the endless kalpa, and was named Dingguang Buddha. But I felt sympathy for the worldly people suffering various disasters, and so reincarnated myself as the Buddha Guanshiyin. Whenever someone is confronted with miseries and calls the name of the Bodhisattva Guanyin, the Bodhisattva will know of it and save him from sufferings immediately. All will be saved. So I am named the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin".


In the Tang Dynasty, because of the taboo on the character ' shi' in the name of the Taizong emperor Li Shimin, Guangshiyin's name was changed to Guanyin, which is still the case today. Before the Yuan Dynasty, the Bodhisattva Guanyin from India was a male. In the Yuan dynasty, painter Zhao Mengfu's wife Guan Daosheng began to depict Guanyin as a female, thinking that he was as merciful as female. She also wrote the Stories of Guanyin's Enlightenment ( 觀音成道記 Guanyin Chengdao Ji ) and said that Guanyin was the third princess of the Miaozhuang Kingdom , and that her name was Miaoshan (her two sisters were named Miaoyin and Miaoyuan). She was born vegetarian and served the Buddha when she grew up. She determined not to marry, so her father asked her to do ten difficult things. If she could not fulfill them, she would have to marry. The difficult things included using a bamboo basket to carry water to fill a pond, weaving one hundred chi dresses in one night, etc.. Miaoshan prayed to heaven and many gods descended to earth to help, so she completed the ten tasks at the right time. The king could no longer stop her. Later, she attained Dao under the help of the Grand White constellation, and then she delivered her parents and sisters, who all attained the right fruit. In Daoism, Bodhisattva Guanyin is called the Independent Celestial Reverend in the Grotto Heaven. The History of the Song Dynasty, Records of Emperor Huizong records: in the first year of the Xuanhe reign, the Buddhist patriarch was changed into the Golden Immortal of Grand Enlightenment, arhats into Reverends and Guanyin into Guanyin dashi, and they were all absorbed into Daoism.

Save all sentient beings

Bodhisattva Guanyin once vowed to deliver all sentient beings. She will be the last one to attain the Dao when everyone is saved. So Bodhisattva Guanyin has been called Bodhisattva instead of Buddha for thousands of years. Lu Dongbin also made the same pledge: "deliver all people in the world to attain the Dao, then I will begin to cultivate for immortality." The two sages have manifested such warm-heartedness and self-sacrifice. Such great and selfless personalities can be our models.

Belief in Guanyin originated in Buddhism. Guanyin's image has undergone a long process of evolution

Guanyin is also called Guanshiyin or Guanzizai. He is the foremost Bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism. Guanyin worship is extremely popular among common people; they call her Most Merciful and Most Compassionate Bodhisattva Guanyin Who Helps the Needy and Relieves the Distressed ( 大慈大悲救苦救難觀世音菩 Daci Dabei Jiuku Jiunan Guanshiyin Pusa ), though they don't know very much about his life story.

His Chinese name is based on the Sanskrit pronunciation of" Avalokitesvara", which means " self-dependent". It is also translated as Guanshiyin. Different translations of his name are the result of different explanations in Buddhist scriptures. From its influence among the Chinese, the explanation of the Lotus Sutra ( 法華經 Fahua Jing ) is most acceptable. It says: " Buddha tells the Wujinyi Bodhisattva: Countless living creatures are suffering. I heard that there is a Bodhisattva Guanshiyin. If you call him Bodhisattva Guanshiyin, he will save people by observing their voices. " (the literal meaning of the Chinese characters ' guan' and ' yin' is ' to observe voices'). Based on that saying, the name Guan-shi-yin means to save people from suffering by following their voices, because he is capable of saving people by observing their voices. But a voice can only be heard, how can it be observed? As a matter of fact, a Bodhisattva has the magic ability of using his Six Roots ( 六根 Liugen ) of sensation interchangeably: his ears can hear and his eyes can listen, it is nothing unusual. Guanyin's occult technique ( 法門 Famen ) is called the Dharma Gate of Deliverance Through Compassionate Deeds. The Flower Garland Sutra ( 華嚴經 Huayan Jing ) states that the Shan-cai Boy once visited Guanyin and asked for suggestions as to what occult technique he should learn. Guanyin told him: " The occult techniques the Bodhisattva should learn are endless. Among them, I practice the Dharma Gate of Deliverance Through Compassionate Deeds" ( 大悲行解脫法門 Dabei Xing Jietuo Famen ). So Guanyin is called the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate Bodhisattva Guanyin Who Helps the Needy and Relieves the Distressed. Incantations and confessions related to him are called Compassionate Incantations and Compassionate Litanies.

In Buddhist scriptures, Guanyin has vast magic powers and is capable of saving people by listening to their voices and liberating them from sufferings. So people contribute their piety to Guanyin. When Chinese believe in Buddhism, few want to reach the state of nirvana. They are interested in the idea of rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss in the West, but they are mostly concerned with practical benefits and solving present problems in this life instead of waiting to get salvation after death. These are characteristics of religious beliefs among the Chinese. Guanshiyin's image precisely meets such psychology. So Guanyin is enshrined from the Potala Palace ( 布達拉宮 Budala Gong ) in the West to Putuo Mountain in the East Sea (Potala and Putuo are all named after the pronunciation of the dwelling of Guanyin), and even in people's houses.

Guanyin's image has undergone much evolution in China. The Chinese have remolded Guanyin according to their own understanding and wishes. In Indian legends, Guanyin and Dashizhi are Amita Buddha's assistants at his two sides; they are called the Three Sages of the West. Guanyin was originally male and dwelled on an Indian Mountain. When he came to China, he gradually became a female and was called " Goddess Guanyin". Guan Daosheng (Zhao Mengfu's wife) in the Yuan Dynasty wrote a brief biography, in which she said that Guanyin was the third daughter of the Miao-zhuang-yan kingdom, and that her name was Miaoshan. The Comprehensive Collection of Investigations into the Divinities of the Three Doctrines since their Origin, published in the Yuan Dynasty, recorded that Guanyin was the third princess of the Miao-zhuang kingdom in Beique. Her name was Miaoshan. The Jade Emperor conferred on her the title of the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate Bodhisattva Guanyin Who Helps the Needy and Relieves the Distressed. It was evidently an expression of Chinese thinking. In Indian Buddhism, the celestial emperor is a guardian of the Buddha while in China, religious power and theocracy were never above the worldly emperor's power. Many Immortals' and monks' titles were conferred by the emperors. So it is understandable that Guanyin's image has changed. The idols of Guanyin in Chinese Buddhist temples were molded after the Yuan Dynasty, almost all of them with female appearances. Buddhists explain that Bodhisattva is not differentiated between male and female. If it is convenient to show him as a male, his appearance will be male. If it is convenient to show her as a female, her appearance will be female. As the worship of Guanyin is so popular, people use their own understanding to make images of Guanyin. He thus has rich images, such as Guanyin in the Sea, Guanyin in White, Guanyin with a Fish Basket and Guanyin with a Thousand Hands and Eyes.

Guanyin is enshrined in Daoist temples to satisfy believers' needs. This is also the result of the concept of the Oneness of the Three Religions

The religious beliefs of the Chinese are utilitarian. The Chinese don't care about Immortals, Buddhas or Bodhisattvas; nor do they care whether it is Daoism or Buddhism. There is no strict limitation as to what kind of incense to burn and to which god to kowtow to. This is unlike Western religious followers, who will not worship other gods once they choose a certain religion. Though Buddhism and Daoism have their own traditions of gods, they have influenced each other in the long run. In some temples constructed by villagers, there are Daoist immortals, Bodhisattvas, and ancestral spirits in one temple. Bodhisattva Guanyin is the most popular goddess in Buddhism. Zhao Yi, who lived in the Qing Dynasty, said that Guanyin, Lord Emperor Guan and Lu Dongbin received most of the incense burned by the people. Lu was originally a Daoist, and Emperor Guan was an important spiritual general in Daoism. He was honored as lord Emperor in the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Guan's temples can certainly be called Daoist. The Buddhist Guanyin cult was also absorbed by Daoism to meet the needs of followers.

There was once a Red Temple in Shanghai, officially called the Temple for the Protection of Peace. Daoists once bought that property from Buddhists, and the former Guanyin idol remained there. That temple was destroyed in a fire. When the Daoists rebuilt it, they remolded a new Guanyin. However, when they cleared away the ruins of the burnt old temple, they found the former Guanyin. So they enshrined both Guanyins in the same temple. This shows that enshrining Guanyin in Daoist temples meets the demands of followers. Daoism's acceptance of Guanyin is also the result of the concept of the Oneness of the Three Teachings. Tao Hongjin, the Daoist master of the Southern Dynasty, absorbed elements of Buddhism and shared a good relationship with Confucianism. Buddhism and Daoism have influenced each other since the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing periods. People know more of Daoism's acceptance of Buddhist elements and less of Buddhism's acceptance of Daoist elements. Actually, they have borrowed from each other. For example, the Daoist stellar god of the Big Dipper was absorbed into a secret sect of Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty. Monk Yi Xing wrote of the " Big Dipper Guarding the Dharma" ( 北斗護魔法 Beidou humo fa ) in the time of Tang emperor Xuanzong. It was a technique of making sacrifice to the Big Dipper by means of fire. Guanyin's integration into Daoism is another example. During the time of the Northern Song, Jin and Yuan Dynasties, the concept of the Oneness of the Three Doctrines was elaborated, and became an acceptable or tolerable idea. There were some conflicts during the period of Song emperor Huizong, but they ended when by the end of the Northern Song. The Complete Perfection Tradition called for the Oneness of the Three Teachings from the very beginning, and had groups named after the Three Teachings, such as the Three Teachings Golden Lotus Society, the Three Teachings Jade Florence Society, the Three Teachings Equality Society, etc.. Such a concept was an important basis for accepting the Bodhisattva into Daoism. The Complete Perfection tradition was successful in this respect.

In short, the Guanyin cult originated in Buddhism and was absorbed by Daoism, and underwent changes during its spread among the common people. The Guanyin cult thus has a strong sense of folklore.