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Guanyin – Chinese Buddhist Goddess


Quanyin Image at Wat Phanan Choeng Ayutthaya Thailand


Background and History
  • Guanyin is a Chinese Buddhist goddess. However, she was not always a goddess and her origins in India originally depict the figure as a divine figure named Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is a an accomplished religious being who has promised to delay their own personal enlightenment in favor of repeatedly returning to the Earth to assist others in reaching enlightenment. The male bodhisattva known as Avalokiteshvara in India and Tibet is better known through his incarnation as the Dalai Lama, the religious leader and figurehead of Tibet. As Buddhist concepts traveled from India into China, many ideas were changed and extrapolated to make them conform to ancient Chinese society, which was very Daoist and Confucian. Eventually, the qualities of the Buddhist Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva merged with a Chinese goddess who possessed similar qualities. As such, a new goddess emerged that came to be called Guanyin. In Chinese, her name means “she who hears the cries of the world,” pointing back to her nature as a savoir figure for those who are in need and seeking enlightenment.
  • During the medieval period in Chinese history, Guanyin became associated with Daoism as well as re-appropriated by Buddhists. For everyone, Guanyin is known as the goddess of mercy and is now popularly revered as a protector for those enduring harsh environments, such as fisherman journeying into a storm. For Daoists, she is not a goddess but rather a powerful saintly woman who has achieved immortality, which for Daoism is akin to attaining enlightenment.
  • In Japan, Guanyin is worshiped as Kannon and sometimes may be confused with the Christian figure of mother Mary. Guanyin’s history is deeply rooted in cultural developments and the human tendency to require protection and mercy in times of dire need. As such, Guanyin is a powerful goddess that has mass appeal for most people within society.

Role in Chinese Society

  • From the 3rd century onwards when Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into China, the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, was widely popular and influential within Chinese society. Chinese society at the time was heavily Daoist and Confucian and lacked a divine figure that allowed forgiveness and taught compassion. Guanyin in her male or female form is a savior of souls on earth. She saves them and brings them to the land of compassion, known in Buddhism as the Pure Land where everyone has easy access to the teachings of the Buddha and may attain enlightenment within a single lifetime, a feat nearly impossible on earth.
  • Her role as the goddess who saves those in need is one that has remained popular throughout the ages. From her inception until the present, Guanyin uses her thousand- arms to save men and women descending into hell realms by sacrificing herself and her
  • own enlightenment. Some devotees find that belief and faith in gods and goddesses may be in decline in the modern era. Guanyin has the unique ability to transcend modernism because she’s a valuable figure for so many. Temples devoted to her emphasize her motherly aspects who is both beautiful and kind. Clothed in white and sometimes holding a child, Guanyin appeals to non-Buddhists as well as Buddhists. One interesting modern characteristic associated with Guanyin is vegetarianism since she protects all beings and not just humans.



Quanyin Image Xian China