Different Forms of Avalokitesvara
Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva that is believed to embody the compassion of all Buddhas. This representation is not taken lightly because compassion for all sentient life is the foundation that Buddhism is built on. As a result, the physical nature of Buddha statues that depict Avalokitesvara have wide variations depending on their geographical location.
For example, the bodhisattva of compassion can be depicted as either male or female. Indeed the Buddhist canon states that “bodhisattvas can assume whatever gender and form is necessary to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha”. This popular bodhisattva is sometimes depicted with normal male or female human features. However, Avalokitesvara is also frequently depicted with ultra human characteristics such as a 1000 arms and 11 heads.
It is important to make note of the fact that the ultra human representations of Avalokitesvara are not meant to be frightening. Instead, the bodhisattva of compassion was given these ultra human features in order to work harder to free all sentient life from suffering. For example, having many arms will allow work to be done much faster and more efficiently. Additionally, multiple heads will allow the bodhisattva to effectively observe the suffering of all sentient life.
The Masculine Origins of Compassion
In Buddhism, compassion has historically been associated with the masculine sex. For example, the vajra is a mystical weapon that is wielded by the guardian deity Indra. Additionally, the vajra is a symbol used in Vajrayana Buddhism that represents the male aspect of compassion or skillful means. In contrast, the ghanta (bell) symbolizes the feminine aspect of wisdom.
These two symbols are often combined by deities who are seen holding one in each hand to symbolize the primordial union of compassion and wisdom. For example, our Vajradhara Buddha statue is depicted holding a ghanta in one hand and a vajra in the other. Additionally, his hands are crossed in front of his heart representing this primordial union.
A more explicit depiction of the primordial union of compassion and wisdom is seen in “Yab Yum”. Buddha statues depicting Yab Yum display a male deity in sexual union with his consort. Typically, the male deity is sitting cross legged on the ground while his consort is sitting on his lap holding him in a sensual embrace. This style of Buddha statue is common in India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
Male Depictions of Avalokitesvara
Geographical regions that adhere to the conservative nature of Theravada Buddhist beliefs stick to the principle that compassion is considered a masculine attribute. As a result, depictions of Avalokitesvara in these countries are indeed male. This is evident in many Buddhist countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. In Cambodia, Avalokitesvara is depicted as the male deity Lokesvara. The unmistakably masculine depiction of Lokesvara is seen below. Additionally, this depiction of Avalokitesvara is found nearly 200 times at the Bayon temple complex in Cambodia.
In Tibet they adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism. However, Vajrayana also maintains the conservative Buddhist principle that compassion is a male attribute. Therefore, in Tibet Avalokitesvara is commonly known as Chenrezig and the depiction is masculine.
When Did Avalokitesvara Become Guan Yin?
Buddhism gained in popularity during the first millennium and began to spread to the Far East. For Avalokitesvara this would mean that his masculine depictions would become feminine. Mainly, this is because the Chinese associate compassion with the female sex rather than male. As a result, Avalokitesvara would become known as Quan Yin and in this geographical region he would be depicted in female form.
Buddha statues of Guan Yin commonly depict her holding a vase which she is tipping over. The vase is filled with special water which she is liberally dispensing. Additionally, the water has healing properties that will prolong life and relieve suffering. Buddhists believe that all suffering has it’s origins in the defilements of body, speech and mind. The special water, also known as the “dew of compassion” has the power to heal all defilements that lead to suffering.
In her other hand Guan Yin is typically holding a willow branch between her index finger and thumb. The willow branch is used to cure sickness and fulfill the wishes of her devotees.
Guan Yin Buddha Statue – Kek Lok Si
Taoist Origins of Guan Yin
Additionally, in some parts of China the origins of Quan Yin are believed to be in Taoism and not Buddhism. Therefore, it is possible that her new female form is not only due to compassion being associated with the softer sex. Instead, she is believed to be associated with one of the eight immortals of the Taoist pantheon. Since only one of the eight immortals is considered to be female, it is easy to guess which one Quan Yin is believed to be. This female immortal is known as He Xian’gu and she lived during the reign of the Tang Dynasty in China.
Thousand Arms & Eleven Heads
To the delight of Buddhist art lovers, Avalokitesvara is sometimes depicted very extravagantly. Sometimes the bodhisattva is depicted with a thousand arms and eleven heads.
Multi Arm Guan Yin – Perak Tong Cave Temple
However from the perspective of Chinese Buddhists, Quan Yin is most commonly depicted in a flowing white gown dispensing the “dew of compassion” from her vase. There are certainly Chinese Buddhist sculptures and paintings that display the more extravagant multi arm and multi head depictions (see above). However, it seems that the most common depiction of Quan Yin is that of an elegant woman.
Elegant Guan Yin – Kek Lok Tong