Guanyin or Guan Yin is the most commonly used Chinese translation of the bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara.
Guan Yin also refers to the bodhisattva as adopted by other Eastern religions such as Taoism, where she is revered as an immortal, as well as Chinese folk religions, where the mythical accounts about Guanyin’s origins do not associate with the Avalokiteśvara described in Buddhist sutras.
In English, she is often known as the “Goddess of Mercy” or the Mercy Goddess. The Chinese name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World“.
Some Buddhists believe that when one of their adherents 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.
Guanyin is often referred to as the “most widely beloved Buddhist Divinity” with miraculous powers to assist all those who pray to her, as is said in the Lotus Sutra and Karandavyuha Sutra.
Guan Yin and the Thousand Arms
In the Karandavyuha Sutra, Avalokiteshwara is called “The One With A Thousand Arms and Thousand eyes” and is described as superior to all Gods and Buddhas of the Indian pantheon.
The Sutra also states that “it is easier to count all the leaves of every tree of every forest and all the grains of sand in the universe than to count the blessings and power of Avalokiteshwara“.
This version of Avalokiteshwara with a thousand arms depicting the power of all Gods also shows various Buddhas in the crown depicting the wisdom of all Buddhas. It is called Senju Kannon in Japan and 1000 statues of this nature can be found at the popular Sanjusangendo temple of Kyoto.
One Buddhist legend from the Complete Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas presents Guanyin as vowing to never rest until she had freed all sentient beings from saṃsāra or cycle of rebirth.
Despite strenuous effort, she realized that there were still many unhappy beings yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. The Buddha Amitābha, upon seeing her plight, gave her eleven heads to help her hear the cries of those who are suffering.
Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokiteśvara attempted to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that her two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitābha came to her aid and appointed her a thousand arms to let her reach out to those in need.
Many Himalayan versions of the tale include eight arms with which Avalokitesvara skillfully upholds the Dharma, each possessing its own particular implement, while more Chinese-specific versions give varying accounts of this number.
In China, it is said that fishermen used to pray to her to ensure safe voyages. The titles Guanyin of the Southern Ocean and “Guanyin (of/on) the Island” stem from this tradition.
Legend of Miaoshan
Another story from the Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain describes an incarnation of Guanyin as the daughter of a cruel king who wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man.
The story is usually ascribed to the research of the Buddhist monk Jiang Zhiqi during the 11th century. The story is likely to have its origin in Taoism.
When Chiang penned the work, he believed that the Guanyin we know today was actually a princess called Miaoshan, who had a religious following on Fragrant Mountain. Despite this, there are many variants of the story in Chinese mythology.
According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miaoshan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.
The king asked his daughter what were the three misfortunes that the marriage should ease. Miaoshan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age.
The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever.
When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miaoshan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all of these. Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labor and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.
Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her the toughest chores in order to discourage her.
The monks forced Miaoshan to work all day and all night while others slept in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores.
Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miaoshan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.
In one version of this legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to one of the more hell-like realms of the dead.
However, instead of being punished like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin played music, and flowers blossomed around her. This completely surprised the hell guardian. The story says that Guanyin, by merely being in that Naraka (hell), turned it into a paradise.
A variant of the legend says that Miaoshan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father’s orders, his ax shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miaoshan down with arrows but they all veered off.
Finally, in desperation, he used his hands. Miaoshan, realizing the fate that the executioner would meet at her father’s hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her.
It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms.
While there, she witnessed first-hand the suffering and horrors that the beings there must endure, and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth.
In the process, that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yama, the ruler of hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.
Another tale says that Miaoshan never died, but was in fact transported by a supernatural tiger, believed to be the Deity of the Place, to Fragrant Mountain.
The legend of Miaoshan usually ends with Miaozhuangyan, Miaoshan’s father, falling ill with jaundice. No physician was able to cure him. Then a monk appeared saying that jaundice could be cured by making medicine out of the arm and eye of one without anger.
The monk further suggested that such a person could be found on Fragrant Mountain. When asked, Miaoshan willingly offered up her eyes and arms. Miaozhuangyan was cured of his illness and went to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the person. When he discovered that his own daughter had made the sacrifice, he begged for forgiveness.
The story concludes with Miaoshan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Guanyin, and the king, queen and her two sisters building a temple on the mountain for her. She began her journey to a pure land and was about to cross over into heaven when she heard a cry of suffering from the world below.
She turned around and saw the massive suffering endured by the people of the world. Filled with compassion, she returned to Earth, vowing never to leave till such time as all suffering has ended.
After her return to Earth, Guanyin was said to have stayed for a few years on the island of Mount Putuo where she practiced meditation and helped the sailors and fishermen who got stranded. Guanyin is frequently worshipped as patron of sailors and fishermen due to this.
She is said to frequently becalm the sea when boats are threatened with rocks. After some decades Guan Yin returned to Fragrant Mountain to continue her meditation.
Guan Yin and Shancai
Legend has it that Shancai (also called Sudhana in Sanskrit) was a disabled boy from India who was very interested in studying the Dharma.
When he heard that there was a Buddhist teacher on the rocky island of Putuo he quickly journeyed there to learn. Upon arriving at the island, he managed to find Guanyin despite his severe disability.
Guanyin, after having a discussion with Shancai, decided to test the boy’s resolve to fully study the Buddhist teachings. She conjured the illusion of three sword-wielding pirates running up the hill to attack her. Guanyin took off and dashed to the edge of a cliff, the three illusions still chasing her.
Shancai, seeing that his teacher was in danger, hobbled uphill. Guan Yin then jumped over the edge of the cliff, and soon after this, the three bandits followed. Shancai, still wanting to save his teacher, managed to crawl his way over the cliff edge.
Shancai fell down the cliff but was halted in midair by Guanyin, who now asked him to walk. Shancai found that he could walk normally and that he was no longer crippled.
When he looked into a pool of water he also discovered that he now had a very handsome face. From that day forth, Guan Yin taught Shancai the entire Dharma.
Guan Yin and Longnü
Many years after Shancai became a disciple of Guanyin, a distressing event happened in the South China Sea. The third son of one of the Dragon Kings was caught by a fisherman while swimming in the form of a fish.
Being stuck on land, he was unable to transform back into his dragon form. His father, despite being a mighty Dragon King, was unable to do anything while his son was on land. Distressed, the son called out to all of Heaven and Earth.
Hearing this cry, Guan Yin quickly sent Shancai to recover the fish and gave him all the money she had. The fish at this point was about to be sold in the market. It was causing quite a stir as it was alive hours after being caught.
This drew a much larger crowd than usual at the market. Many people decided that this prodigious situation meant that eating the fish would grant them immortality, and so all present wanted to buy the fish. Soon a bidding war started, and Shancai was easily outbid.
Shancai begged the fish seller to spare the life of the fish. The crowd, now angry at someone so daring, was about to pry him away from the fish when Guanyin projected her voice from far away, saying “A life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it.”
The crowd, realising their shameful actions and desire, dispersed. Shancai brought the fish back to Guanyin, who promptly returned it to the sea. There the fish transformed back to a dragon and returned home. Paintings of Guanyin today sometimes portray her holding a fish basket, which represents the aforementioned tale.
But the story does not end there. As a reward for Guanyin saving his son, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter, a girl called Longnü (“dragon girl“), to present Guanyin 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 Guanyin, asked to be her disciple so that she might study the dharma.
Guanyin accepted her offer with just one request: that Longnü is 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 crippled.
Guan Yin and the Filial Parrot
The Precious Scroll of the Parrot tells the story of a parrot who becomes a disciple of Guan Yin.
During the Tang Dynasty a small parrot ventures out to search for its mother’s favorite food upon which it is captured by a poacher (parrots were quite popular during the Tang Dynasty).
When it managed to escape it found out that its mother had already died. The parrot grieved for its mother and provides her with a proper funeral. It then sets out to become a disciple of Guan Yin.
In popular iconography, the parrot is colored white and usually seen hovering to the right side of Guan Yin with either a pearl or a prayer bead clasped in its beak. The parrot becomes a symbol of filial piety.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.