We were caught in a downpour in Hong Kong. We took shelter under the awning of a souvenir shop outside the Po Lin Monastery. As we waited for the rain to slow down I peered at the souvenirs. A strange feminine-looking Buddha statue caught my eye. I curiously asked the lady at the shop who that was. “Lady Buddha,” she said.
Who was Lady Buddha? This was the first time I was hearing that term. In the monastery too, I caught sight of sculptures of a female Buddha. That evening as I shopped for souvenirs, I found another figurine of a Lady Buddha, this time reclining with a hand under her head, akin to how Vishnu would look on his Shesh Nag. Eager to learn more about the Lady Buddha, I began reading all that I could gather about this avatar.
The Concept of a Female Buddha
A bodhisattva is any person who is on the path towards becoming a Buddha, but has not yet attained it. In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who has generated bodhicitta, which is an enlightened mind which seeks compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. Various traditions within Buddhism believe in specific bodhisattvas. In Chinese Buddhism, the four Great Bodhisattvas are Avalokiteśvara (Great Compassion), Manjusri (Great Wisdom), Kshitigarbha (Great Vow) and Samantabhadra (Great Practice).
Of these, Avalokiteśvara is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Avalokiteśvara is depicted in different cultures as either male or female. In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara has evolved into the female figure called Guan Yin. Guan Yin, is short for Guanshiyin, which means “one who perceives the sounds of the world”. She is worshipped as the Goddess of Mercy or Compassion. Some Buddhists believe that when one of their dear ones departs from this world, they are placed by Guan Yin in the heart of a lotus, and then sent to the western pure land of Sukhāvatī.
The meaning of Avalokiteśvara
There can be several ways of splitting the word Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit. Ava means “down”, and lokita, means “to notice, behold, observe”, and finally īśvara, means “lord” or”ruler”. In accordance with Sanskrit grammar rules of sandhi a+īśvara becomes eśvara. Combined, the word means “the lord who gazes down (at the world)”. The word loka (“world”) is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied. However when scholars such as Hiuen Tsang translated this into Chinese, they believed that the original word in fifth century texts was “Avalokitasvara” and the last part of the word was svara or “sound” and not isvara. They called this boddhisatva Guānzìzài in Chinese. This means “one who looks down upon sound” or one who listens to the cries of people who need help. In other words, “one who perceives the world’s lamentations or cries”. The interpretation as isvara probably is a later modification under the influence of Shaivism in the seventh century.
The many manifestations of Avalokiteśvara
A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitasvara are described in the Lotus Sutra, of which seven are female forms. Avalokiteśvara was originally depicted as a male bodhisattva, and therefore wears chest-revealing clothing. Although this depiction still exists in the Far East, Guan Yin is more often depicted as a woman in modern times.
In India, Avalokiteśvara is worshipped as Padmapani. The famous fresco holding a lotus in his hand in the Ajanta Caves is that of Padmapani. Avalokiteśvara is worshipped as Nātha in Sri Lanka. In Nepal, Avalokiteśvara is called Seto Machhindranath or Karunamaya.
In China, there are several names of the female manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, many of which are simply different local pronunciations of Guan Yin or Guanshiyin. She is called Kwan Yin or Gwun Yam or Gun Yam in Cantonese, while the name is written as Kwun Yam in Hong Kong and Kun Iam in Macau. In Japanese, Guan Yin is pronounced Kannon or more formally Kanzeon. It is sometimes spelled as Kwannon, and led to the naming of the famous camera company Canon after Guan Yin. Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia all have their different versions of Guan Yin.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Tara appears as a female bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, and as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism. It is believed that Tara came into existence from a single tear shed by Avalokiteśvara. Tara manifests as Green Tara (Shyama Tara or Khadiravani) who is usually associated with protection from fear. The other version is White Tara (Sita Tara or Saraswati) who is associated with longevity and compassion.
Presently, Guan Yin is most often represented as a beautiful, white-robed woman. Guanyin is also depicted holding an infant to emphasize the relationship between the bodhisattva, maternity, and birth. This resembles the Madonna and Child iconography seen in Christianity.
In Buddhist literature, the place where a bodhisattva achieves enlightenment is known as a bodhimanda. This usually is a site of pilgrimage. Just as the Bodhi Tree is the bodhimanda for Gautam Buddha, Mount Putuo is the site of pilgrimage by people who worship Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Buddhist and Tamil scriptures record that the home of Avalokiteśvara is in Mount Potalaka in the Pothigai Hills in Tirunelveli in Tamilnadu (India). The name of Mount Putuo in China is perhaps a derivative of Mount Potalaka in Tamilnadu.
The Legends of Guan Yin
There are several legends surrounding this Goddess of Compassion. According to one legend, Guan Yin was a beautiful Indian princess who forsook marriage and a luxurious life and preferred to live in a convent to become a bodhisattva. Eventually she became enlightened and sought to alleviate mankind’s suffering through her compassion. Having achieved enlightenment, she was granted the right to enter Buddhist Heaven or Nirvana. As the story goes, when she reached Heaven’s gates Guan Yin heard the cries of despair of someone back on earth. Upon hearing that sad cry, she quickly returned to earth, and vowed to stay there to help all those who suffer, to achieve the same level of enlightenment that she had, so that they too could enter Nirvana.
Guan Yin is immensely popular among Chinese Buddhists and she is generally seen as a source of unconditional love and, more importantly, as a saviour. Due to her symbolization of compassion, Guan Yin is associated with vegetarianism. She is generally regarded as the protector of women and children. She is also seen as a fertility goddess capable of granting children to couples. An old Chinese superstition goes that if woman wishes to have a child she offers a borrowed shoe to Guan Yin. After the child is born, the shoe is returned to its owner along with a new pair as a thank you gift.
The Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara
Another legend is from the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas. In this story,Guan Yin vows to never rest until she has freed all living beings from saṃsāra or cycle of rebirth. Despite all her efforts, she realises that there were still many unhappy beings to be saved. This stress of hearing the lamentation of thousands of needy people causes her head to split into eleven pieces. The buddha Amitābha, upon seeing her plight, gives her eleven heads to help her hear the cries of those who are suffering. On hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara attempts to reach out to all those who need her help, but finds that her two arms are shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitābha comes to her aid and gives her a thousand arms to let her reach out to those in need. You might have seen this video below on social media, where a hearing-impaired group of dancers depicts the one thousand armed Bodhisattva Guan Yin though dance.
Guan Yin with Shancaiand Longnü
In Chinese art, Guanyin is often depicted either alone, standing atop a dragon, accompanied by a white cockatoo and flanked by two children. The two children are Longnü and Shancai, who came to her when she was meditating at Mount Putuo.
Shancai (called Sudhana in Sanskrit) is believed to be a disabled boy from India who was interested in studying the dharma. He journeyed to Putuo despite his disability on learning that a bodhisattva resided there. When Guan Yin learnt of his wish, she decided to test his resolve to study the Buddha’s teachings. She conjured the illusion of three sword-wielding pirates running up the hill to attack her. Guan Yin ran to the edge of a cliff, the three illusions still chasing her. Seeing that his teacher was in danger, Shancai hobbled uphill. Guan Yin then jumped over the edge of the cliff, and the three bandits followed her. Shancai jumped off the cliff too, but was rescued midair by Guan Yin, who now asked him to walk. Shancai found that he could now walk normally. When he looked into a pool of water he also discovered that he now had a very handsome face. From that day on, Guan Yin taught Shancai the entire dharma.
Another story goes that the third son of one of the Dragon Kings was swimming in the form of a fish in the South China Sea. He was caught by a fisherman and brought to the shore. Being stuck on land, neither he nor his mighty father were able to transform him back into his dragon form. Distressed, the son called out to all of Heaven and Earth. Hearing this cry, Guan Yin quickly sent Shancai to buy the fish with all the money she had. The fish which was being sold in the market caused quite a stir as it was alive hours after being caught. Many people felt that eating the fish would grant them immortality, and so everyone started bidding to buy the fish. Shancai was easily outbid.
Shancai then begged the fish seller to spare the life of the fish. The crowd, now angry that someone could be so daring, was about to pry him away from the fish, when Guan Yin projected her voice saying “Life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it.” At this the crowd felt ashamed and dispersed. Shancai brought the fish back to Guan Yin, who promptly returned it to the sea. There the fish transformed back to a dragon and returned home.
But the story doesn’t end there. As a reward for saving his son, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter, Longnü, to present Guan Yin with the Pearl of Light. The Pearl of Light was a precious jewel owned by the Dragon King that constantly shone. Longnü, overwhelmed by the presence of Guan Yin, asked to be her disciple so that she might study the dharma. Guan Yin accepted her offer with just one request: that Longnü be the new owner of the Pearl of Light. In popular iconography, Longnü and Shancai are often seen alongside Guanyin as two children. Longnü is seen either holding a bowl or an ingot, which represents the Pearl of Light, whereas Shancai is seen with palms joined and knees slightly bent to show that he was once disabled.
It was very interesting to discover this feminine form of divinity. The word Buddha literally means “The Enlightened One”. There is a Buddha hidden within each one of us. There is no reason why she cannot be female.
(All pictures used in this post are from Wikimedia Commons)