A beloved goddess who often graces the altars of Chinese temples, Kuan Yin (also: Quan Yin, Kwan Yin, Guan Yin) is regarded as the goddess of mercy. Legend suggests she was a bodhisattva (enlightened being) who renounced her right to enter through the Gates of Paradise, when the cries of anguish from those suffering on Earth prompted her to return. Forsaking her gift of eternal bliss, she instead assumed the role of compassionate protector of man. It’s believed that Kuan Yin originated as a male archetype patterned after Avalokiteshvara, an Indian bodhisattva, whose story is similar.
The image of Quan Yin as a woman started around the 12th century. This has been attributed to the writings in the scriptures of the Lotus Sutra which suggested that Avalokiteshvara could take any form required to end anguish and suffering. It was also believed that he possessed the ability to grant children. This very likely caused artists of the time to depict the bodhisattva as a “mother goddess.” Her role as patron of women and bringer of comfort to the sick and suffering, further solidified the female imagery. This female representation became the popular notion in China, though some cultures believe Kuan Yin to be a man, both man and woman, or simply a spiritual being.
Kwan Yin is known by many different names. She is “salvation from misery… the great mercy, great pity… salvation from anguish… thousand arms and thousand eyes.” Along with Manjusri and Samatabhadra she is one of the Three Great Beings who possess powers over nature and the animals. Kuan Yin statues and sculptures in China most often depict the goddess as a beautiful woman in white, flowing robes. She is usually seen with a white hood over her head and carrying a vase of “holy dew.” Other popular portrayals include statues of Kuan Yin holding a child, standing on dragon or clutching a rosary. She is also seen in many of the iconic Buddha poses (mudra) such as lotus, earth touching and teaching.
Her popularity has increased over the centuries and she is viewed as a protector of sailors, farmers and those who travel. Especially popular in South China, she is worshipped at temples with the belief that she has the power to grant a family a son or beautiful daughter. She is viewed as a standard of beauty in the Chinese culture and those wishing to pay compliment to the parents of a young girl might refer to her as a “Kuan Yin.”
Like Buddhists, Taoists also incorporated Kuan Yin into their religion. She is worshipped in the same manner and her various incarnations and disposition as the embodiment of compassionate are the same. Additionally, some modern new age movements have included Kuan Yin in their teachings. Many have drawn a comparison between the Virgin Mary and Kuan Yin who share a common symbolism as compassionate souls. During the Edo period in Japan when Christianity was outlawed, many Christians worshipped the Virgin Mary in the guise of Kuan Yin statuary. She continues to be a popular figure around the world as a symbol of compassion and caring.
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