Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who is the Bodhisattva Guan Yin?

Next to the various Buddhas, Guan Yin is certainly one of the most important and popular sacred figures in Buddhist tradition. This Bodhisattva began life, mythically speaking, as a male guardian figure named Avalokiteshvara, the “Lord Who Looks Down.” Known in China as Guan Yin and in Japan as Kannon, he was originally one of Vairochana’s (the central figure among the Five Transcendent Buddhas) attendants, presiding over the cosmic northwest. Avalokiteshvara came to be particularly associated with compassion when paired with the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who represented wisdom. Boundless in his care for all, the compassionate one has appeared with multiple heads and arms—one of the few Bodhisattvas to be commonly so depicted.

As Mahayana communities grew in China, Guan Yin’s perfect compassion gradually transformed him into a female Bodhisattva. With a thousand arms and eleven heads, Guan Yin often has a decidedly feminine countenance. But she appears more often as a kindly woman smiling gently and inclined slightly toward her devotees. In more recent times people have begun to call her more ordinary human manifestation the “Goddess of Mercy,” a convenient but misleading epithet that resulted from Buddhism’s interaction with Chinese popular religious lore. In Japan, the thousand-armed, eleven-headed Kannon often appears in multiple images within the same temple, sometimes even as a life-sized sculpture. Popular lore claims that each Kannon has a different face to symbolize this Bodhisattva’s undivided attention to every single person on Earth.


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