Our Lady of Mercy

Guanyin is known as the Goddess of Mercy, although since she’s primarily revered in Buddhism she’s technically a bodhisattva instead of a goddess. She’s essentially the Chinese version of Avalokitasvara, the personification of compassion in Indian Buddhism.

Avalokitasvara is depicted as male, however, while Guanyin is typically female. The sex change might be the result of the Song Dynasty association of Guanyin with Miao Shan, the daughter of the cruel king Miao Chuang Yen, who ruled around the eighth century BC. The king tried to force his daughter into marriage, but she took a dislike to her intended husband, and decided to become a nun instead. In order to dissuade her, the king forced her to take on extra back-breaking work at the temple, but the animals helped her out, as they later would numerous Disney princesses. So he tried to burn down the temple, but Miao Shan was able to put out the fire with her bare hands. The king then ordered her execution, but none of the executioner’s tools worked on her.

Legend says she was either carried away from the site on a tiger or she willingly descended into Hell due to taking on the guilt of the executioner. Regardless, she ended up returning to the world of the living to save her father, who could only be cured of jaundice with medicine made of the arm and eye of a person without anger. She was then all set to enter Heaven, but heard the cries of the suffering on Earth, and decided she had to stay and help them. In fact, her Chinese name means “observing the cries of the world.” To that end, the celestial buddha Amitābha gave her eleven heads and 1000 arms, often shown with an eye in each finger, in order to better observe those in need.

Of course, she usually doesn’t appear to people in this form, and can in fact take on whatever shape she wants. This conveniently removes the gender problem, as she can be a man if she wants to.

You may recall that she appears in the movie Ponyo as Granmamare, the manifestation of the sea, probably referencing her role in coastal areas as the protector of sailors and fishermen. Her Japanese name is Kannon, and apparently the camera company Canon was named after her. I’m not sure what cameras have to do with compassion, but there you go. She’s also depicted in the fourth tallest statue of the world, standing at 354 feet tall and located on the South China Sea in the Chinese province of Hainan.

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6 Responses to Our Lady of Mercy

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    Perhaps the cameras are many eyes to observe the world…
    Secret Catholics in Japan (at the time when that carried the death penalty) would sometimes have statues of the Virgin Mary disguised as Kannon for use in their devotions.

    • Nathan says:

      That makes sense about the cameras being eyes, although that could just be a coincidence. Guanyin/Kannon is often shown holding a baby, so I guess that disguise wouldn’t be too hard to pull off.

  2. ubu507 says:

    Great post! Who is the author of “Journey to the West?”

    • Nathan says:

      Thanks! The author is Wu Cheng’en (well, probably; there’s some doubt on this point), and I’m reading the complete English translation by Anthony Yu. It’s published in four volumes, and I’m close to finished with the second.

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