Avalokitesvara Buddhism


The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Hindi: अवलोकितेश्वर, Avalokiteśvara "lord who observes from above", Chinese: 觀世音, Guānshìyīn or 觀音, Guānyīn (Guanyin), Shanghainese: Kueu (sy) in, Korean: 관세음, Gwanseeum, Japanese: 観音, Kan'non or Kanzeon, Tibetan: Chenrezig, Vietnamese: Quán Thế Âm, Indonesian: Kwan Im, Khmer: លោកេស្វរ, Lokesvara), is arguably the most revered and popular great bodhisattva among Great Vehicle Buddhists. He is also used as a yidam (guardian deity) in Tantric meditations.

A protean and syncretic Bodhisattva (he can represent all the other Bodhisattvas), embodying ultimate compassion, he can be feminine in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, in the form of Guan Yin, however his Japanese form, Kannon, sometimes has masculine features.

He is considered the protector of Tibet where King Songtsen Gampo and later the Dalai Lamas are seen as his emanations. This is also the case with other tulkus such as the karmapa.

Also named Padmapāṇi or Maṇipadmā in Sanskrit, he is invoked by the famous Mahayana mantra, Om̐ Maṇipadme hūm (Sanskrit: ॐ मणिपद्मेहूम्).


The name "Avalokiteśvara" (अवलोकितेश्वर) means "the Lord who watches us ". It is composed of the prefix "ava" (अव) "downward " + "lokita", (past participle of the verb "lok" (लोक्)) "see, look (observe)" + "īśvara" (ईश्वर) "Lord" = "" Ava-lokita-īśvara" which becomes "Avalokiteśvara" (because following the sandhi rule in Sanskrit (external in this case), the vowels "a + ī = e" (अ + इ = ए), when they are respectively final and initial letters of two words that follow each other).

It seems, however, that its earliest name was Avalokita-svara"who observed the sound (or words)," as indicated by its earliest translation into Chinese: kuìyīn 闚音 and others such as Guanyin, as well as a fifth century Sanskrit manuscript. The Chinese form 觀世音 Guānshìyīn, for example, used by Kumarajiva in his translation of the Lotus Sutra, and which would translate into Sanskrit as "*Avalokita-loka-svara," "who observed the sound of the world," is not confirmed by any Sanskrit source; one hypothesis put forward by Lokesh Chandra is that the Chinese translators intended to make explicit loka, which may have been implicit in avalokita in Sanskrit. According to Chandra, the slippage of svara into īśvara could be due to a Shivaite influence. In 646, the famous pilgrim and translator Xuanzang explained that it should be translated as Guānzìzài 觀自在 (zizai means Īśvara), indicating that Avalokiteśvara was the prevalent form in his time. According to Seishi Karashima, svara meant in Gandhari also smara, "thought" and Avalokitasvara "the one who observes thoughts" and this meaning of svara in this Middle Indian language (a Prakrit) was forgotten in the later translation of the texts into Sanskrit.

In its Tibetan name, Chenrézig, Chen means the eye, re the corner of the eye and zig voir.

Early representations of Avalokiteśvara

In China: Guanyin

Mainland China

Following its penetration into China, Avalokiteśvara was increasingly feminized, becoming definitive under the Song. It was also mainly in female form that he took root in Japan. An important deity in China, Guanyin joined her nature as a bodhisattva to that of a goddess of popular religion, counted by Taoism among the immortals. She is invoked as a protector in daily life, particularly in favor of children and sailors, and as a spiritual liberator of the deceased or lost souls. On the Chinese mainland, her most renowned place of worship is Pǔtuóshān 普陀山 in Zhejiang. He is credited with the Dàbēizhòu 大悲咒, "incantation of great compassion" (Sanskrit:Nilakantha Dharani) , which helps to free grieving souls.

Avalokiteśvara is also present in the Chinese world in its Tibetan form as Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has many followers there.

In Tibet: Chenrezi

Chenrezi (spyan ras gzigs) is the Tibetan name for Avalokiteśvara; a fully awakened Buddha and Amitabha's glory body, he takes on the aspect of the bodhisattva of compassion; the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are considered emanations of him. He is invoked universally by Tibetan Buddhists, notably by reciting the mantra om mani padme hum. Thukje Chenpo which means "great compassion" is another name of Avalokitesvara.

He exists in several aspects, with 2, 4 or even a thousand arms, one or eleven faces, alone or in union with a goddess, etc., according to the Tantras with which he is associated. Different aspects are indicated by Patrul Rinpoche in his Treasure of the Heart of Awakened Beings.

According to Lama Anagarika Govinda, in Tibetan mysticism, "Avalokiteśvara, the all-compassionate one, whose mantra OM MANI PADME HÛM constitutes the highest expression of that wisdom of the heart which courageously descends into the depths of the world and even into the infernal abysses to transmute the poison of death into the elixir of life. Yet Avalokiteśvara himself takes on the aspect of Yama, God of death and Judge of the dead, to make the finite the receptacle of the infinite, to transfigure it into his light, to sanctify it, and to liberate it from the dead rigidity of isolation from the great life of the spirit."

In Mongolia

Adapted from Vajrayana Buddhism, after the Mongol invasions of Tibet, at the time of the Mongol Empire, and then the Yuan Dynasty, in the thirteenth century, Avalokiteśvara there is called in Buryat Ariyaa baala Buryat of Russia: Арьяа-Баала).


In the Chinese world, and particularly in Taiwan where religious practice has not suffered political hindrance, Guanyin is one of the deities to whom people most often turn for help. In 1981, on the island of Formosa, she had 572 temples, slightly more than the great Taiwanese goddess Mazu.

Only a portion of these temples are exclusively Buddhist (sì 寺); most belong to the large network of folk religion temples. The mode of worship depends on the administration of the temple, taken in hand sometimes by bonzesses, sometimes by laymen. Some temples only keep a Buddhist space at the back of the building reserved for the reading of the sutras, while in the main hall divinations, exorcisms, or the burning of paper money are practiced; food offerings are at least partly meaty; the goddess, like all Chinese deities, makes her rounds of inspection of the "parish" during the festivals The statues of different temples are sometimes linked together by hierarchical or kinship relations expressing the social relations between the communities of worshippers or the administrators of the temples.

In Buddhist temples, Guanyin typically has the appearance of a "standard" bodhisattva dressed in loose drapery, meditating with half-closed eyes on a lotus beside the Buddhas, and his feminine physique is not very accentuated. In other temples, her feminine appearance is evident; she sometimes wears a noblewoman's costume instead of the usual loose dress; her face may be adorned with human colors (rosy cheeks) or similar to that of popular deities (e.g., black); she often stands on a small lotus. She is accompanied by folk Buddhist figures (shàncái and liángnǚ 善才良女, two exemplary converts of each sex, or the eighteen luohans -arhat), as well as the soil god and the child-giving goddess, usual occupants of folk temples. Sometimes she shares her place of worship with another important deity.

In almost all cases, she is dressed in white and holds in her hand the bottle containing the water that purifies, a branch of willow (an apotropaic plant in China) or a sūtra, unless her empty hand makes a Buddhist gesture of protection. Another feature common to almost all of his places of worship is their function of helping the deceased: ancestral tablets or even funeral ashes can be found there. Guanyin, who according to popular tradition rules with Amitabha over the paradise of the "Pure Land of the West", plays an important role in the pudu, a liberation ceremony accompanied by a feast offered to wandering souls during the Ghost Festival.

In Korea: Gwanseeum-bosal, Gwaneum

In Korean, Avalokitesvara is known by different names: Gwanseeum (관세음), Gwaneum (관음), Gwangseeum (광세음), Gwanjajae (관자재), Gwansejajae (관세자재) etc. Gwanjajae is the closest translation of the Sanskrit word avalokiteśvara, but Gwanseeum is the most famous name (from Chinese Guanshiyin) and accompanied by bosal (보살) which means bodhisattva.

The name is broken down into Gwan (to see, observe), Se (world), Eum (sounds). Gwanseeum (Gwaneum for short) therefore means "[He who] listens to the sounds of the world". Also, when one invokes his name with all his heart, Gwanseeum-bosal is supposed to hear these prayers and deliver from all sufferings.

In Korea, Gwanseeum is the most popular of all the great bodhisattvas, and he especially represents the ultimate compassion for all living beings. The phrase "belief in Gwaneum" (관음신앙) expresses his popularity well.

According to the Lotus Sutra if one keeps his name well and calls him fervently, one will not be burned in a great fire, nor drowned, nor tormented by evil spirits. Knives, sticks, handcuffs, balls, all will be broken. Gwanseeum not only frees all the hearts of beings from anxiety and fear, but it also frees from the three poisons of lust, anger, and ignorance (namely ignorance of Buddha law which leaves beings without light (Korean:무명 moumyeong).

It is said that through Gwanseeum, one will have a child, son or daughter as desired. Therefore, all beings can attain the great liberation (해탈, enlightenment or nirvana), if they keep his name all the time, pay homage to him and pray to him with all their heart.


Gwanseeum-bosal usually holds a budding lotus flower in the left hand, and a ritual vessel containing purifying water (Korean 감로병, 정병 淨甁, Sanskrit Kundika) in the right. The lotus symbolizes the Buddha nature guarded in every being (sattva). In its fully blossomed form it signifies the realization of Buddhahood, while in its budded state it figures the blossoming of this Buddha-nature in an anxiety-free future. As for the water in the vase, it purifies beings, relieves them of all illnesses, pain and anguish, and thus symbolizes immortality.

Unlike the other bodhisattvas, in the center of Gwaneum's headdress is usually a representation of Amitabha Buddha.

It saves those who are persevering, taking on thirty-three different forms.

In Korea, the six most famous Gwaneum are:

Seong-Gwaneum (Korean 성관음, Sanskrit Aryavalokitesvara) : Avalokitesvara.
Cheonsu-Gwaneum (Korean 천수관음, Sanskrit Sahasra-bhuja Sahasra-netra) : Avalokitesvara with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes, who sees all and helps all beings. Often depicted with 42 arms each holding a symbolic object of 42 mantras.
Sibilmyeon-Gwaneum (Korean 십일면관음, Sanskrit Ekādaśamukha): eleven-faced bodhisattva who helps teach beings. There is one Buddha in the center, three generous Buddhas in front, three angry ones on the left, three smiling ones on the right, one big laugh behind.
Yeoeuiryun-Gwaneum (Korean 여의륜관음, Sanskrit Cintāmani-cakra): holds a magic bead (Korean 여의주 Yeouiju, Sanskrit Chintamani) that fulfills a vow and a wheel of jewels that symbolizes setting the dharma in motion, and thus preaching.
Madu-Gwaneum (Korean 마두관음, Sanskrit Hayagrīva): angry horse-headed bodhisattva meant to scare away evil spirits.
Junje-Gwaneum (Korean 준제관음, Sanskrit Cundi'): the mother of all Buddhas, symbol of purity.

A seventh bodhisattva, Bulgonggyeonsak-Gwaneum (Korean 불공견삭관음, Sanskrit Amoghapāśa), who has a fishing net in his hand to save beings, is often added to this list. Of the whole series, Seong-Gwaneum is the main form, and the others are his emanations. However, Sibilmyeon-Gwaneum, Cheonsu-Gwaneum, as well as Yangryu-Gwaneum (Korean 양류관음, with a willow branch in hand, a symbol of healing and wish fulfillment, appear most frequently in Korean history.

In Korea, the belief in Cheonsu-Gwaneum spreads from around the 7th century, with many miraculous stories, such as the blind child who regained his sight thanks to Gwanseeum-bosal. After the Goryeo period (고려), this belief becomes even more generalized with the Cheonsu-gyeong sutra (천수경) which exists only in Korea, as well as famous mantras like the Great Compassion Mantra (Korean 신묘장구대다라니, Sanskrit Nilakhanta Dharani). This sutra is used especially during prayers, and this in most temples until today.

Belief in Gwaneum in Korean history

Baekje period (18 BC - 660)

The belief in Gwaneum in Korea appears in the Three Kingdoms period, around the end of the life century. According to the sutra entitled Yukgwa's Miraculous Stories of Gwanseeum (육과, Chinese 陸果), the monk Baljeong (발정, 發正) visited the popular Gwaneum temple in China's Wolju region (Chinese 越州地方) between 502 and 519.

In 583, another monk, Illa (일라, 日羅), went to Japan in order to tell Prince Shōtoku about Gwanseeum-bosal. In 595, the Japanese commissioned a Korean craftsman to make a statue of Gwaneum. Gwaneum is the main statue in Hyakusai-ji temple (Korean 백제사 Baekje-sa, 百濟寺 ), and it shows the belief in this bodhisattva that was passed on to Japan and became very popular at that time.

Silla period (57 BC - 935)
After producing a thousand statues of Gwaneum and praying, Sopanmulim (a minister of Queen Jindeok) has a son who will take the name of Jajang and become a great monk in Korea. Jajang plays an important role in making Silla a Buddhist kingdom.

However, the one who developed the belief in Gwaneum in the country was another great monk named Uisang. He went to China, and on his return to Korea, he prayed in a cave by the East Sea to see Gwanseeum-bosal. After seven days, he throws his meditation cushion into the sea, after which the eight gods, e.g. the sky dragon (천룡, Naga in Pali), give him a crystal rosary and a magic wish-fulfilling pearl (여의주 Yeouiju, Chintamani). However, he does not see Gwanseeum-bosal. So he prays for another seven days, after which he finally sees Gwaneum. The latter tells him to build a temple in a place where a pair of bamboos (Korean 쌍죽, Chinese 雙竹) grows. Uisang then builds the Naksansa Temple, one of the three holy places of Gwaneum, with a statue of the bodhisattva, and he leaves the crystal rosary and the pearl there.

The great monk Wonhyo, who also wanted to see Gwaneum, failed because the sea was very rough. But he finally saw Gwanseeum-bosal, after praying at Mount Geumsan in the south of the country. In 683, he built a temple first called Bogwang-sa, before it took the name of Boriam, which is another of the three holy places of Gwaneum.

Goryeo Period (918 - 1392)
In the early Goryeo period, monk Hoejeong (회정) makes Bomun-sa temple in Ganghwa on the west coast famous after seeing Gwanseeum-bosal there.

In 1185, as soon as Yujaryang, a state official, pays homage to Gwaneum in front of his cave in Naksan-sa, when suddenly a blue bird pops up and drops a flower. Today, it is still said that if one prays there passionately, then the blue bird (the bird of Avalokitesvara, 관음조) appears.

In the first third of the xiii century, the time of King Chungsuk, the publication by the monk Yowon of the book entitled Beaophwa Yeongheom-jeon (법화영험전, 法華靈驗傳) containing a hundred miraculous stories shows that the belief in Gwaneum was becoming increasingly widespread.

Joseon period (1392 - 1897)
Before becoming the first king of the Joseon dynasty under the name of Taejo, Yi Seonggye prayed to Gwaneum for a hundred days in Bogwang-sa temple. After that, Gwanseeum-bosal gave him, during a dream, the Gumcheok (금척), a magical golden instrument in the form of a ruler that cures a sick person or restores life to a dead person. As a thanksgiving for his accession to the throne, Yi Seonggye renames a mountain with the name Geumsan (금산, Golden Mountain), so that it remains as it is even after ten million years.

In 1660, the temple of the temple took the name of Boriam (보리암), and it was elevated to the status of a royal temple (원당 Wondang). Today if you invoke Gwaneum with all your heart at this place, you will get the great liberation, enlightenment.

Many miraculous stories are still told about this temple, such as the story of the three Buddhist nuns Myoryeon, Boryeon, Beopryeon who will play an important role in a great victory during the Japanese invasion in 1592 (Imjin War, 임진왜란), by helping General Yi Sunsin build a roofed boat, the origin of turtle boats (Geobukseon 거북선).

The prayer in Cheonsu-Gwaneum lasted until the end of the Joseon period, and it continues today.
Holy places of Gwaneum
The most famous Gwaneum shrines in Korea are the three temples of Honglyeon-am (the cave where Uisang saw Gwanseeum-bosal after prayer) at Naksansa Temple in Yangyang on the east coast, Boriam in Namhae on the south coast, and Bomunsa in Ganghwa on the west coast .

To these three, Hyangilam in Yeosu is often added. There are many other places throughout the country that also have stories about wish fulfillment through Gwanseeum-bosal. In particular, there is a very popular list of thirty-three Gwaneum holy places.

It can also be noted that in most Korean temples, independent palaces were built especially for Gwanseeum-bosal in the name of Wontong-jeon or Gwaneum-jeon.

In Japan: Kannon

In Japan there are no less than 33 forms of Kannon (Kanzeon, Kanjizaï) which have given rise to one of the most famous pilgrimages in Japan. The main form takes the Chinese form of Guanyin, from which it keeps the spelling. It arrived with Chan Buddhism, after passing through Korea, in the Japanese version of Chan, Zen.

Among these 33 forms, six are more particularly known and correspond to the 6 worlds of Kāmaloka:

Shō Kannon (聖観音, skt Ārya avalokiteśvara?): main form with a lotus in one hand ;
Jūichimen Kannon (十一面観音, skt ekadaśa mukha?) : Eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara ;
Senju Kannon (千手観音, skt Sahasrabhuja ārya avalokiteśvara?) : Avalokiteśvara with a thousand arms ;
Nyoirin Kannon (如意輪観音, skt Cintāmaṇi cakra?) : Avalokiteśvara with the jewel wheel that satisfies all desires ;
Juntei Kannon (准胝観音, skt Cundī?), "the pure one" or, for the tendai, Fukūkensaku Kannon (不空羂索観音, skt Amoghapāśa?), Avalokiteśvara with the lace, "She who fishes for humans to take them to enlightenment" ;
Batō Kannon (馬頭観音, skt Hayagrīva?) depicted with a horse's head in the headdress, sometimes considered the irritated form of the bodhisattva Bikuchi (skt Bhrikuti), "She who frowns".
Kannon is the origin of the name of the company Canon.

In countries practicing Theravada

In Sri Lanka, Avalokiteśvara is known as Natha-deva.


His feminization was most likely first spontaneous and popular. His image in Hindu iconography and statuary ─ beardless face with fine features, curly bun, embryonic chest, graceful figure, sometimes earrings and necklace ─ far removed from Chinese male representations, coupled with his compassionate nature, must have decided rather quickly on his sex change among the ordinary devotee. Canonical justification for this, however, can be found in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sutra (en) and the Lotus Sūtra, which mention the bodhisattva's ability to take on multiple aspects as well as his function as child giver.


Like all Chinese deities she has been given an earthly biography, which exists in a few different versions, the most widespread being that which makes her a princess, herself a reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara. The goddess Mazu, who plays a protective role like her, is sometimes considered one of her avatars.

Princess Miàoshàn 妙善 was the daughter of a Sumatran king who chose to become a nun rather than marry the wealthy party chosen by her father. He had ordered the monks to make her work day and night in order to discourage her, but the animals around came to her rescue and she was always able to accomplish the task required, no matter how important it was. Exasperated, her father decided to set fire to the monastery. Miaoshan extinguished the fire with her hands without suffering any burns. Her father finally had her put to death. On her way to heaven, she looked down and saw the suffering of the world. She decided to stay there to save the souls in distress.

A variant of the story offers an explanation for the existence of the "Guanyin of a Thousand Hands and a Thousand Eyes" (Qiānshǒu qiānyǎn Guānyīn 千手千眼觀音) whose cult, launched by the installation at the Xiāngshān Temple 香山 of a Tantric effigy, dates to the Tang.

When her father fell ill, Princess Miaoshan sacrificed her arms and eyes to ask for his cure. Immediately after her sacrifice, she briefly appeared endowed with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes before returning to her intact body.

Mantra of Guanyin

The mantra of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (ch. Guānyīn púsà línggǎn zhēnyán 觀音菩薩靈感真言) is:

Om maṇi padme hum.
Mahājñāna cittotpāda,
cittasya na-vitarka,
sarvārtha bhūri siddhaka,
na-purāṇa na-pratyutpanna.
Namo Lokeśvarāya svāhā.
The six-syllable mantra of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is the best known and most recited mantra: Om Maṇi Padme hum.

In Taiwan Guanyin is sometimes simply named fózǔ 佛祖, "Buddha-ancestor," an honorific appellation for any deity from Buddhism. Fozu without further specification most often refers to Guanyin, the most popular of the Buddhist deities.

The table opposite summarizes the forms that her name takes in the various Asian countries where she is present.

Similarities with the Marian cult

The image of Guanyin bears a certain resemblance to that of the Virgin Mary; this fact is sometimes exploited for the purpose of syncretism or ecumenism (e.g. by the Taiwanese humanitarian NGO Chuzi, or the Buddhists of the Philippines). In Japan under the Tokugawa, Christians began to worship Marian statues in the guise of Kannon (Maria Kannon) to escape persecution. These statues bear the mark of a cross in an inconspicuous place.

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