Mercy me, It’s Guanyin!
The Compassionate God
Is she a he or a she? Or does he just look like a she? Or perhaps she was always a she and never a he in the first place; it’s sometimes hard to tell. With the opened shirt and lipstick any one of us could have made the same mistake. Plus it was dark and we’d all had a bit to drink.
Known variously as Guan Yin (觀音), Kwan Yin, or sometimes as Kwun Yum in Hong Kong, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara – to give her her full Buddhist title – is generally regarded as one of the chief benevolent gods in the East Asian pantheon.
A god of compassion, the name Guanyin is usually translated from the Chinese Guanshiyin as ‘she who observes the cries of the world’. Indeed, so compassionate is Guanyin, that having earned the right to leave this mortal realm upon attaining her enlightenment, she vowed to postpone her elevation to Buddhahood until she’d cleansed the world of all its suffering and pain.
Not exactly a weekend job. But in her mission to protect the vulnerable, heal the sick, comfort the distressed and generally act as cure-all to every man, woman and child on earth, Guanyin has made herself one of the most popular Chinese gods around.
The Early 70s Bowie of Chinese gods
Like the first god in our series, Guan Yu, Guan Yin is a god whose broad appeal is evident wherever you go. In street shrines and temples, whether specifically dedicated to her or not, a Guan Yin statue, particularly in Hong Kong, is never far away.
Originally depicted as a male figure, with his bare chest on show but sadly without the rug and medallion I’d so love to see, Guanyin was very much the early 70s Bowie of Chinese gods. But while the androgyny of his early days can, on occasion, still be found, Guanyin is now largely known as a female god.
Usually dressed in white flowing robes, she is often shown holding a vial of purifying liquid in her left hand in order to cleanse the suffering of those who call upon her. In her right, she sometimes holds a willow branch to help banish illness and grant requests. On her crown is an image of the Amitabha Buddha, while more often than not, she is seen seated in the middle of a lotus flower, another symbol of purity in the Buddhist tradition.
As the Divine Mother, Guan Yin is also regarded as the giver of life and bestower of children. Her hands, if cupped, represent feminine fertility, while particularly in temples, she is often shown holding or surrounded by children. People pray to Guan Yin for healing and guidance, for forgiveness and when hoping to conceive. She can appear in many forms as the situation demands and is even depicted in one Buddhist legend with a thousand hands and eyes in order that all the suffering existing in the world can be perceived at once.
Where can I see Guanyin?
In Hong Kong, though many temples contain shrines to Guanyin, there are several temples dedicated specifically to her worship. The most well-known temple is probably the the Kwun Yum Temple in Hung Hom. There is also Lin Fa Kung Temple in Tai Hang, a Grade I historic building at the site of which Guanyin was said to have appeared on a lotus shaped rock and helped the local villagers overcome their recent disasters.
There is also the Kwun Yam Shrine at the Tin Hau Temple in Repulse Bay, with its oversized, gaudy statues overlooked by the hotel complexes and looking out to sea; while there is a large Goddess of Mercy statue in the main courtyard of the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin.
In China, the most sacred place for Guanyin worship is at Putuoshan, near the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism in China and a site of pilgrimage for devoted Buddhists for over a thousand years.