Guan Yin (or Guanyin) is the bodhisattva who is most often associated with compassion. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who is well on the pathway to reaching enlightenment, but is just on the cusp of enlightenment. A bodhisattva is one who is driven by a great compassion, and has both the wish to reach enlightenment and Buddhahood, and also wishes to help as many others on the path to enlightenment as possible while following their own journey.
Guan Yin is typically depicted as being female, and her name is short for Guanshiyin, which means “One who is observing the sounds of the world.” Many Buddhists believe that when a follower of Buddhism departs this world, Guan Yin hears the anguish they are in and she places them inside of the heart of a lotus. She then helps to guide them along the next pathway on their journey.
In English, Guan Yin is most commonly referred to as the Goddess of Mercy, which is understandable given her reputation for the compassion that she embodies. In some texts, Guan Yin is set to have her origins in Avalokiteśvara, but there are some texts in various teachings of Buddhism that do not relate her to Avalokiteśvara, and actually depict Guan Yin as being a male bodhisattva.
In fact, the original meaning of Avalokiteśvara’s name actually fits the understanding that Buddhists have for the role that a bodhisattva has. When depicted as a male bodhisattva, he is wearing clothing that is traditionally fitting for a man, and he may also be depicted with facial hair. While in some teachings of Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara is still depicted as a man, in more modern teachings, Guan Yin is definitely depicted as a woman. This has led to both a lot of confusion, but it has also led to the ideas that perhaps Guan Yin is androgynous, or neither male or female.
In fact, in the Lotus Sutra, Avalokiteśvara is described as being an enlightened bodhisattva who is able to take on any form. The form could be male, female, child, adult, human, or even a non-human being. This shape-shifting is said to have been Avalokiteśvara’s method of reaching out to sentient beings and helping them to gain a better understanding of the dharma. There are thirty-three known and recognized manifestations of Guan Yin, and several of these depictions are manifestations that are female. It should be noted that the gender of Guan Yin is inconsequential as the ultimate reality that we all face is that gender is a preconception we need to let go of in order to attain true enlightenment. Guan Yin is considered to be the real personification of kindness and compassion, which is often interpreted as being a mother figure to all who are in need of the kindness and compassion that she is able to bestow on her followers. In some monasteries and temples, the image of Guan Yin is of a young male who is depicted as looking down, which is representative of the idea that Guan Yin watches over and protects the world.
Illustrations and statues also often depict Guan Yin as wearing a long white flowing robe, and wearing the necklaces and other jewelry typically reserved for royalty. In her right hand she is typically holding a willow branch, and in her left hand she is holding a jar that contains the purest water. Upon her head she wears a crown that depicts an image of the Amitabha Buddha.
There are, of course, several variations of the depiction of Guan Yin, and they tend to vary by region. For example, in the Fujian region of China, Guan Yin is most popularily depicted as a maiden who is wearing clothing fashioned from popular styles during the Tang Dynasty, and is carrying a fish basket. She is also very often depicted in several other popular manners.
· In the company of a snow-white parrot. · Depicted alone. · Standing atop a giant dragon. · Flanked by two warriors. · Flanked by two children.
The two children are said to be her two acolytes who came to visit with her when she was deep in meditation atop Mount Putuo. The boy is referenced as being Shancai, and the child is referenced as being named Longnu. The two warriors that she is often depicted with are said to be the bodhisattva Skanda, and the historically important general Guan Yu. In the tradition of Buddhism, Guan Yin and other bodhisattvas and Buddha are depicted in illustrations or statues with Skanda and Guan Yu, both of whom are said to be protectors of the temple and the Buddhist faith itself.
Guan Yin is often also shown in a meditative position, or sitting by the side of one of the Buddha.
A more recent school of thought by some New Age followers of Buddhism is that Guan Yin is not only just a bodhisattva, or someone to be worshipped, but is the focus of the devotion itself. This can often cause some confusion amongst followers of different teachings.
In one of the Buddhist legends surrounding Guan Yin, she is said to have made a vow to never rest and never take the final step to enlightenment until she had successfully freed all sentient beings from reincarnation. This ultimately means that she vowed to help all sentient beings to attain their own enlightenment before she was ready to reach her own nirvana. Despite her intense effort, Guan Yin came to the conclusion that there were entirely too many unhappy sentient beings she still needed to save. The immense needs of so many caused her head to split into eleven pieces. The Buddha Amitabha saw her plight and took pity on her, while also having admiration for her vow. He gave her eleven heads so that she could better hear all of the cries made by those who are suffering and are in need of the compassion that she embodies. Upon hearing all of the cries and feeling all of the suffering, Guan Yin tried to reach out to all of those who were in need of her compassion and help. She found that her two arms shattered in the process. Buddha Amitabha saw her plight and once against came to her aid. He gave her one thousand arms so that she would be able to better reach out to those who were in need. This is why Guan Yin is often also depicted as having a thousand arms and eleven heads.
We have some beautiful Guan Yin statues including this Gold-Plated Guan Yin statue, and this Copper Guan Yin statue.