The Images of Kuan Yin

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, also known as Kuan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan, Gwan-Eum in Korea,  Chenrezig in Tibet and Quan-Am in Vietnam, is a hugely popular figure around the world, and not only among Buddhists.  Kuan Yin, whose name means She Who Hears the Cries of the World, can take any form, in any place and time, to aid those who call on her.  Though she’s had a number of gender manifestations, it’s the feminine embodiment of mercy that has inspired the most sincere devotion, particulary from women.

Kuan Yin’s appeal is that she responds to the heartfelt needs of ordinary people.  She is accessible to the most ordinary and the most lowly.  She is the friend you call upon in times of trouble.  She is the hand that guides.  She is familiar and she is family.  It is in this that the strength of Kuan Yin lies – and all this is based upon her basic attribute of compassion, derived from the Lotus Sutra.

Kuan Yin has many titiles and many manifestations.  Also, there are many key symbols of Kuan Yin.  Each symbol reminds the worshippers of the powers and compassion not just of Kuan Yin but of Buddhism itself.   Following are some major forms that Kuan Yin takes and the roles associated with these forms.

The most famous and widespread image probably is that of the White Clad Kuan Yin.  Kuan Yin sits draped in white, sometimes with her right leg raised upon her left.  Her head is often covered and her cloak flows to the ground, covering her completely.  In one hand she usually has a rosary – a symbol which appears in almost all the female forms of Kuan Yin.  In the other she holds either a sutra, usually thought to represent the Lotus Sutra, or a vase.  The Lotus Sutra refers back to the origin of her powers and compassion.  The vase symbolizes her pouring out her compassion upon the world.

It is also usual for her to be seated or standing upon a lotus flower, or to have such a flower in her hand or nearby.  The lotus is of course one of the most important of Buddhist symbols.  It stands for the flowering of the mind and being freed from the murk of this world.  For just as the lotus flower is rooted in the mud and dank waters of the pool but flowers only in the light, so through Buddhist teachings can be the individual reach enlightenment, especially if helped by a compassionate Bodhisattva.

The images of the child-bearer Kuan Yin (or the child giver Kuan Yin) vary enormously.  Sometimes they are simply a variation of the White Clad Kuan Yin.  In such instances, Kuan Yin usually has a child with her, either in her arm or running beside her, normally a boy.  She is invariably accompanied by her rosary, and she also has her willow branch and/or  the lotus Sutra.

Still within the basic form given by the White Clad Kuan Yin is her role as the Willow Branch Kuan Yin.  The willow branch is an important Chinese symbol of Buddhist virtues.  It is renowned for its ability to bend in the most ferocious winds and storms and to spring back into shape again.  The ‘weeping’ willow also symbolizes the compassionate concern for the ills of this world which are exemplified in the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism, most notably in the Lotus Sutra.  The willow also has magical powers.  It is believed that demons cannot bear the presence of the willow.  For all these reasons, the willow branch has become one of the key symbols of Kuan Yin.

Kuan Yin standing with a peacock represents her role as protector of all creatures.  This image reminds us of her role as protector of all life and of the Buddhist teachings about the importance of all lives, in whatever form or shape.  Kuan Yin riding upon a strange creature (which looks a bit like a lion) represents the ruler of the Earth, as its protectress and guardian.

The Thousand-Armed, Thousand-Eyed Kuan Yin is truly extraordinary.  It represents her all-embracing compassion for the world and her constant gaze upon the suffering of all.  In fact, most Thousand-Armed, Thousand-Eyed Kuan Yins have slightly fewer than that – anywhere from 30 to 50.  For example, many statues have 40 arms, for each arm is capable of saving 25 worlds or timespans, thus making 1,000.  In the center of each palm there is an eye.  In China, 42 arms are frequently shown, each holding a symbol.  In Japan the number 38 is most common, again holding various symbols.

Another popular style is that of Kuan Yin of the Southern Seas.  Here, the slender form of the White Clad Kuan Yin is combined with swirling waters, leaping fish or placid seas.  The Southern Seas Kuan Yin is a very popular image to this day.  It can often be seen in the homes, shops and workplaces of these Chinese who have migrated from the coastal regions of China.  For to these people, it is as protectress on the seas that Kuan Yin is most important.

A form which rather surprises some from the West is that of the Armed Kuan Yin.  In these depictions, Kuan Yin looks like a warrior, clutching and firing a crossbow, bow and arrow and carrying a fierce-looking shield.  This, however, represents Kuan Yin’s role as protectress and combatant in the struggle against evil, demons and ignorance.  At a deeper level, these Kuan Yin‘s weapons symbolize the need to kill off the powers within one’s self which restrict the ability of the soul to rise above the material and mundane and reach towards the light of salvation offered by Kuan Yin.  (Source:  “KUAN YIN – Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion,” ByMartin Palmer and Jay Ramsay with Man-Ho Kwok)

Although Kuan Yin’s story has undergone transformations over the centuries, what stands out throughout — whether as male Avalokitesvara, or male/female Kuan Yin — is her heart of compassion for all suffering life.  While paying homage to Kuan Yin, we also learn from Kuan Yin, to be like Kuan Yin, and to have Kuan Yin’s heart, the heart of compassion that accepts everything, even the things we don’t like or agree with.  With Kuan Yin’s heart, we see the world not through the eyes, but through our heart-mind.  And, we take responsibility for our own mind and actions.  Whoever has the Kuan Yin’s heart, the heart of compassion, is like Kuan Yin.   Kuan Yin represents the compassionate aspect of our “original mind.”  As long as we practice with a vow to help others, we are the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion.


My Appreciation

I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Mrs Lily Lin for her inspiration to me.  On the New Year Day, January 1st, 2012,  I visited Hsi-Lai Temple, and also visited its museum where an exhibition titled “3-Dimension Paper Art – The Manifestations of Great Compassion” was being held.  It’s a great joy to have the opportunity to see those amazingly beautiful  images of 88 Bodhisattvas and  Buddhas which have been elegantly created by the talented artist Mrs Lily Lin. I went back again to the temple twice to see the incredible creation of  88 Bodhisattvas and Buddhas before the exhibition was over.  With Mrs Lily Lin’s deep inspiration, I did more research on the subject of the Great Compassion Mantra and I decided to introduce this subject to my website.  With a joyful heart, I did the Chinese ink painting of 88 Bodhisattvas and Buddhas during January, February and March of 2012.  (Note:  Hsi-lai Temple is located at Hacienda Heights, Los Angeles County, Southern California.  It is the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere.

The Sanskrit version of the Great Compassion Mantra is difficult for the beginners to recite.  Below are  the Romanized Chinese character version of the Great Compassion Mantra which are taken from  the book titled “The Buddhist Liturgy” published by Hsi-Lai Temple, and my  88 Chinese ink paintings of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.  The Great Compassion Mantra (Da Bei Zhou) consists of 88 verses.  Each verse contains a Bodhisattva or a Buddha as the protector, except Verse No. 43.  I added a Bodhisattva for Verse No. 43.

(Spring Liao, 03/18/2012)


The following is an extract from the “Great Compassionate Dharani Sutra.” (By:  Hsi-Lai Temple)


Namo Great Compassionate Avalokitesvara!!

I vow to quickly learn all Dharmas.

I vow to soon obtain the eye of wisdom.

I vow to quickly emancipate all beings.

I vow to soon acquire expedient means.

I vow to quickly sail on the boat of prajna.

I vow to soon cross the ocean of suffering.

I vow to quickly obtain the path of precepts and dhyana.

I vow to soon reach the summit of nirvana.

I vow to quickly abide in the shelter of the unconditioned.

I vow to soon acquire the body of the nature of Dharma.

If I encounter a mountain of knives, those knives shall break.

If I encounter boiling water, the water shall dry up.

If I encounter the hells, the hells shall vanish and dissipate.

If I enounter hungry ghosts, they shall become satiated.

If I encounter asuras, their hatred shall subside.

If I encounter animals, they shall attain great wisdom.