Map of Putuoshan

More information about Guanyin




Who is Guanyin ?

The Tibetan is said to be the descendent of a male Monkey and a female Rock-demon. This was probably invented by outsiders when they witness the Tibetan custom of covering or painting their faces 
to protect themselves from harsh weather conditions. Later on, in the writing of the great 5th Dalai Lama, the story changed the Monkey to Avalokitesvara, a disciple of Amitabha Buddha. (Amitabha is sometimes found on his/her head, which is an easy way of identifying this bodhisattva).The great 5th Dalai Lama further claimed that the Tibetan King, Srong-tsan-gam-po (Songtsen Gampo), was a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, and his Han wife, princess Wen-Cheng, was the reincarnation of the goddess Tara or Mother-savior. This becomes an important story of Tibet. Even today, the palace of Dalai Lama in Lhasa is called `Potala Palace'. Note that `Potala' is the residence of Avalokitesvara which in Han Character is `Putuo', hence the name of the island, Putuoshan.

The Chinese people changed the name of Avalokitesvara to Guanyin. Metaphorically, guan means looks on, yin means sound (of prayers). In Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin has been popular among ordinary worshipers for the belief that the buddha is able to save people from poverty, disease and sorrow. The Chinese bodhisattva (Buddhistic prophet) to whom childless women turn for help. He manifests himself in any conceivable form wherever a being needs his help, especially when someone is menaced by water, demons, fire, or sword. Guanyin is one of the four great bodishattvas of Buddhism. Guanyin is a savior and deliverer, a sea goddess prayed to by sailors in a storm, the bestower of children and the idealization of all that is considered gentle, graceful and compassionate in women.Guanyin has a profound influence on traditional Chinese culture. According to a Buddhist sutra, whenever those in distress murmur Guanyin's name, the Goddess will never fail to come to their rescue. That's why Guanyin is also known as the 'Goddess of Great Mercy'.  Avalokiteshvara is the spiritual son/daughter of Amitabha Buddha and serves as his "right-hand man." 


Man or woman ?

Iconographically, Avalokiteshvara is potean. He appears in diverse forms and yet mainly as a male figure in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. When Avalokiteshvara was brought to China in the fifth century, the Chinese made him their own, but over several centuries, through miracles attributed to him, along with indigenous female life stories and images, they transformed him into the female Guan Shih Yin or Guanyin. It could be because of the fact that in India the father is the one that gives his love to the family and the mother is the symbol of wisdom and in China it is the reverse. Of all the great Buddhist deities, only Guanyin underwent a sexual transformation. Since the Yuan Dynasty, the image has gradually been converted into that of a young woman, a stunning beauty holding a holy vase in her hand, pouring out holy water to save the multitude.



Beside the image of Guanyin as a stunning beauty holding a holy vase, she has been often depicted as the Thousand Armed, Thousand Eyed Guanyin, and later in a form inspired by the Virgin Mary figures from the West. In many representations, Guanyin has a child on one arm or appears in the company of a maiden who holds a fish basked. In other depictions Guanyin is shown standing on clouds or riding a dragon in front of a waterfall. As Guanyin of the South Sea, he / she stands on a cliff in the midst of flaming waves and rescues shipwrecked persons from the sea. He / She usually holds a lotus blossom or a willow twig and a vase containing heavenly dew or the nectar of immortality.


Outside China

Guanyin is also worshipped in Japan as the goddess Kannon by both Buddhist and Shinto groups. Another famous incarnation of Avalokitesvara is Chenresig, the principal deity of Tibet who is manifested in every Dalai Lama.


Story of the thousand arms and eyes

According to Chinese accounts, Avalokitesvara was manifested in Guanyin, the third daughter of King Zhuang of the Spring and Autumn period (770-460 BC). Her father wanted her to get married but she wanted to become a nun. The old man punished her for her willfulness by making her clean out toilets in the temple but she would not relent. So he ordered her execution by sword. The sword broke into a thousand pieces so her father ordered her strangled to death while she was sleeping. This approach finally worked but Guanyin’s arrival in hell caused the underworld to turn into a paradise. Yama, the king of hell, did not appreciate this renovation at all and sent her back to the land of the living. She was transported to the tiny mountain island of Putuo Shan off the coast of Zhejiang Province. Guanyin lived on the island for nine years, healing the sick and saving mariners from shipwreck. Putuo Shan is consequently one of the sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism and still attracts pilgrims from all over Asia. While Guanyin was doing good deeds, her wicked father fell ill but the ever-compassionate Guanyin cut off her arms and plucked out her eyes to use as ingredients for a medicine that saved the old codger’s life. To show his gratitude he ordered the construction of a statue in her honor telling the sculptor to make the statue quanshou quanyan meaning "with completely formed arms and eyes." The sculptor was probably from Henan and he misunderstood. He made the sculpture with qianshou qianyan "a thousand arms and eyes." From that day on, Guanyin has been represented with a lot of arms and eyes.


Why on Putuoshan ?

 According to the Garland Sutra, "The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara lives in the Putuo Mountain." It is said that Sudhana, another Bodhisattva has gone all the way to Putuo Mountain to pay homage to Avalokitesvara. Hsuan Tsang, the celebrated monk of the Tang Dynasty also paid visit to Putuo Mountain on his pilgrimage to India. Because the Putuo Mountain in India looked similar to China's Mount Putuo, Mount Putuo of Zhejiang Province eventually became the domain of Avalokitesvara.


Guanyin of the South Sea
Guanyin of the South Sea (Nanhai Guanyin) usually sits on a rock with a bomboo behind her, or circled by a full moon. She either carries a vase with willow branches in her hand, or such a vase is placed by her side. She is attended by a boy and a girl. She can also be depicted as riding on waves or standing on the top of a big fish. A white parrot is inevitably seen hovering on the upper right side of her, carrying prayer beads in its mouth. Image of Guanyin bestowing a son

The Shancai Lungnu baojian, tells the story how Guanyin recruited her two attendants and the white parrot. Sudhana, one of Guanyin's two attendants, was now the son of a prime minister named Chen, who lived in the ninth century. He was already fifty but still had no son, so he and his wife went to Puoto to ask Nanhai Daishi (Great Being of the South Sea) for a son. Knowing that he was not destined to have a son, Guanyin granted him the Boy Who Attracts Wealth (Zhaocai Tongzi), an attending fairly serving under the Heavenly Official Who Bestows Blesings (Cifu Tianguan), so that the father could benefit from the future enlightenment of the boy. Guanyin asked the immortal Huanglong Zhenren (True Man of the Yellow Dragon) who appeared at a cave near the boy's home to become the boy's master, and she gave the boy the Dharma name Sudhana. Three years passed and the boy did well, without going home even once. In order to test him, the master told him to take care of the cave while he went away visiting friends. Since this was the eve of the father's sixtieth birthday, Sudhana, who was feeling very lonely, decided to go home for a visit. But even before he left the mountain, he was trapped by a snake demon who cried for help with a girl's voice. After Sudhana released her, she reverted to the form of a huge python and decided to eat him, having been starved for eighteen years. After much discussion as to whether people return favor or with ingratitude, calling the famous philosopher Zhuangzi as witness, among others, Guanyin saved Sudhana and tricked the snake demon crawling back into the small bottle that originally imprisoned her. She then put the snake in the Cave of Tidal Sound and told her to purge herself into Dragon Princess and the poisonous heart into the night-illuminating pearl, which she offered to Guanyin. In the meantime, Guanyin had also recruited the white parrot.



The Chinese Feminine Forms of Guanyin

Buddhist Door

Sandy Boucher

The Creation of Goddess of Mercy from Avloketesvara

For information or reservation call or send an e-mail to Chen Zhongyu ((0580)6091227) in Putuoshan.


Last modification: 10/11/2003

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