Know your Buddhist gods: Guanyin

I’m getting tired of hearing crunchy hippy New Age types insist that Buddhism is just about “getting in touch with yourself” through meditation and doesn’t have any of those wacky supernatural beliefs like the “Western” religions do. It’s especially irritating when people insist that Buddhism is atheist. Several key sects of Buddhism recognize the existence of gods, and I think it’s time we hold them accountable for that. Thus, the “Know your Buddhist gods” series. Let’s dig in!

The first Buddhist deity we’re going to look at is Guanyin (or Kwan Yin, or Kannon, or any number of other similar names depending on which language you’re coming from and what your transliteration conventions are).

One site explains:

Kwan Yin is the most important female figure in many Buddhist traditions. She is the goddess of compassion. In Buddhism gods are impermanent higher beings who are still subject to rebirth, they are not absolute power deities or creators, as in the western use of the term God. Kwan Yin is a rebirth of the bodhisattva Avolikiteshvara, a monk from a previous eon who was reborn in a heavenly realm and filled with compassion for all living beings. One legend states that Avolikiteshvara chose to be reborn as a beautiful woman to marry a famous king and convince him to become a Buddhist.

This deity isn’t always female, though:

Guanyin is the Chinese name for Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. However, folk traditions in China and other East Asian countries have added many distinctive characteristics and legends. Avalokiteśvara was originally depicted as a male bodhisattva, and therefore wears chest-revealing clothing and may even sport a moustache. Although this bare-chested and moustached depiction still exists in the Far East, Guanyin is more often depicted as a woman in modern times. Additionally, some people believe that Guanyin is androgynous (or perhaps neither).

The British Museum in London has a 14th century Japanese statue of Kannon, which they highlight on their website with this description:

Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara) was one of the principal bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism in east Asia. In Jōdo (‘Pure Land’) Buddhism he often appears with the bodhisattva Seishi (Sanskrit: Mahasthamaprapta) flanking the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha) in a triad welcoming the souls of the dead into the Western Paradise. In this statue, Kannon is shown in traditional welcoming posture and originally held a lotus flower which had the power to carry the faithful to paradise.

I realize that the Buddhist term bodhisattva isn’t exactly analogous to the Abrahamic understanding of what it means to be a god. However, the Greco-Roman, Egyptian, or Norse pantheons don’t really jive either — and I think the vast majority of us agree that those should count as “gods” in a reasonable definition. A supernatural “higher being” that is “filled with compassion for all living beings” and “[welcomes] the souls of the dead into … Paradise” certainly sounds like a god to me.

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  1. Carl de Malmanche

     /  May 26, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Good article.
    When you look into some of the pantheist deities, quite often there is a kind of distant supreme being – but the culture often describes them poorly and they’re not used in normal day to day as they don’t really have human culture relevance. Also they aren’t as anthromorphic like the most of the rest of the normal gods.

  2. Interesting post!

    To clarify, do you think gods are indispensable to any Buddhist sects in the way that, say, Jesus is indispensable to Christian sects?

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