The compassionate Buddhist goddess Guanyin is one of the major deities of Buddhism

Guanyin, spelled also Guan Yin and Kwan Yin, is the goddess of mercy in the Buddhist religion. Her full name, Guanshiyin, means the “observer of sounds or cries in the world.” While Buddhism has one spiritual master, the Buddha, he is accompanied and complemented by many other masters. Guanyin’s primary role is that of compassion. She is considered bodhisattva, an enlightened being who forgoes or delays entering paradise so they can help others reach enlightenment as well. Guanyin is one of the most famous bodhisattvas, as her compassion is at the forefront of her persona.

Guanyin is often seen as a mother figure, as mothers are the ultimate in compassion toward their children. To Guanyin, all humans are her children. Her compassionate nature inspires her followers as they turn to her for guidance, help, and miracles when they chant the Lotus Sutra and Karandavyuha Sutra, ancient Buddhist scriptures. She is one of Buddhism’s major deities, popular in China, India, Korea, Japan, and Malaysia.

Guanyin is not necessarily male or female

While today Guanyin is typically represented as female, this was not always the case. Her early depictions in India were male, often with an open chest and mustache. For this reason, representations of Guanyin are still sometimes male. It was in China that her transformation to female slowly occurred. This transformation happened over the course of a thousand years. By the 12th century, her depictions became mostly female.

Monumental statue of Guanyin, Mount Putuo
pzhuzi / Wikimedia Commons

Still, Guanyin is seen as an androgynous figure. In the Buddhist scripture Lotus Sutra, Guanyin is explained to have the ability to take on any form. This could mean male, female, old, young, or even human or non-human. In total, the goddess has 33 forms that she takes on, and seven of them are female. It is more common to see her in the present day represented as a beautiful female in a white robe.

How Guanyin became the goddess of compassion and mercy

In ancient times, an ambitious Chinese king with three daughters urgently sought to marry them off to prosperous families. However, his youngest daughter, Miao Shan, was not happy with this plan. She preferred to follow a spiritual path to become a Buddhist nun and help provide the world with salvation. Her father did not support this goal, instead disowning her and sending her into exile. He clearly did not have any sympathy for her wishes.

Years later, the king fell fatally ill. He was visited by a monk who advised him to seek out a potion distilled from the eyes and arms of someone who would be willing to provide that gift to him. His two oldest daughters refused to do it, despite their father’s pleas. At that point, the monk told the king of a bodhisattva of compassion and urged him to send a messenger to the mountain where she lived to ask for her help. He agreed.

What he didn’t know was that the monk was none other than his youngest daughter Miao Shan, who had become a bodhisattva after many years of intense spiritual training. She had previously heard of her father’s troubles and decided to take the form of a monk and go to him. Upon the arrival of the king’s messenger, she transformed into her true state and told the messenger that her father’s illness was punishment for the sins of his past.

Miao Shan’s sacrifice

Yet, as his daughter, the compassionate Miao Shan said it was her duty to help him. So she gave the messenger her eyes and severed her arms for him to bring back to the king. Upon the messenger’s arrival, the monk reappeared in the palace to cook up the potion, which did indeed provide the king with a full recovery. The king was so grateful to the monk, though the monk told him that his gratitude was best directed to the one who made the sacrifice.

Healed, the king traveled to the bodhisattva’s mountain. Seeing his daughter there, without eyes and arms, which she had given up for him, at the center of hundreds of followers, left him in a beautiful shock. Tears rolled down his cheeks. It was then he finally realized all the suffering he must have caused her by disowning her. However, Miao Shan was not bitter, and took him in willingly, telling him to live compassionately from this point forward, practicing Buddhism. Then suddenly, a flash of light overcame them, and Miao Shan’s eyes and arms were restored as she transformed into the divine bodhisattva Guanyin.

In modern Buddhism, Guanyin serves as a symbol of femininity. She is not only known for her compassion and mercy, but also her kindness.

The legend often also implies that Guanyin’s manifestation after the light gave her a thousand eyes and arms, so that she could reach out to everyone in the world who suffered. Thus, she became known as the goddess of compassion. Now, she is an obvious choice for people to turn to when they are troubled.

The feminine aspects of Guanyin

In modern Buddhism, Guanyin serves as a symbol of femininity. She is not only known for her compassion and mercy, but also her kindness. All of these qualities help her to connect people regardless of their worldly attributes, like nationality, religion, class, or skin color. She is a figure who mediates and unites all.

When Guanyin is depicted, her eyes are soft and kind to help show humans the kindness and compassion she can offer them. She even shows them relief from the feeling of self-hatred, as compassion to the self is just as important as compassion to others. Compassion toward others begins with compassion toward to self, after all.

The image of Guanyin in today’s world extends far beyond her femininity. The idea is that she serves as a bridge between the intellectual and the simple.

Guanyin offers a space to be weak, to cry. It is a space without shame to allow humans to admit their depth of distress within her arms. In this way, her femininity is more strongly associated with her role as a mother than a wife.

Guanyin’s compassion and mercy extend beyond the realm of humans. For this, she is associated with vegetarianism, as she loves all beings, including animals.

She has often been compared to the Virgin Mary

No woes are too big to bring to Guanyin.

Many times, Guanyin is associated with the Virgin Mary, serving a similar role in Buddism as the Virgin Mary does in Christianity. She is a maternal figure, tender and strong for her “children.” She provides a sense of security, release from self-doubt, and unconditional love and forgiveness, just as a mother. In turn, after seeking her guidance, humans can come out with the strength to face the difficulties in life head-on.

No woes are too big to bring to Guanyin. She has willingly taken on the role of helping humans with any and all troubles, no matter if it is related to love, career, health, or family, and is fierce in her devotion to loving them, protecting them, and guiding them on the right path. It is not uncommon to see Guanyin depicted holding an infant to further remind us of her motherly energy and role as a bodhisattva.

Guanyin’s role in contemporary society

The image of Guanyin in today’s world extends far beyond her femininity. The idea is that she serves as a bridge between the intellectual and the simple. While in earlier eras, it was easy to ignore a woman’s abilities beyond her pure femininity, modern philosophy has taught us that compassion is much more complex than lending an ear in times of trouble.

As such, Guanyin also encompasses certain masculine qualities, such as morality, reason, strength, and protectiveness. It cannot be denied that these aspects are needed in compassion and mercy as much as tenderness and understanding. By bringing together both the feminine and masculine, her ability to be compassionate is deepened. These dual traits no doubt also contribute to her androgynous depiction at times.

Guanyin and feng shui

As a helper and protector, Guanyin has often been brought into both ancient and modern feng shui practices. Her maternal and compassionate nature makes her an ideal goddess to look over a room, Furthermore, Guanyin’s watchfulness brings a calm and peaceful energy, as she helps to provide safety.

Because of this, it has become common to see a statue of Guanyin in rooms where feng shui has been utilized. Her statue is often moved depending on the energy of a room at particular years or seasons to neutralize any negative energy which might be around. Many people place their Guanyin statue near to or facing the front door, not only to present a feeling of welcoming, but also for the energy of protection.