Arguably one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism, if not Mahayana Buddhism overall, is that of Kannon Bodhisattva. Originally the Sanskrit name was Avalokiteśvara.
If you are visiting temples in Japan, or have an interest in Japanese religion, it really helps to know who Kannon is. The name “Kannon” is the Japanese pronunciation of Guan-Yin, as he/she is popularly known in China, but this Bodhisattva also goes by the name Kanzeon as in Kanzeon Bosatsu (観世音菩薩) which means “He/she who perceives the cries of the World”. In Korea, he is known as Gwan Eum (관음) or Gwan Eum Bosal (관음 보살).
In any case, Kannon Bodhisattva is first introduced in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra wherein the Bodhisattva is described as a great savior to those suffering in the world:
“Good son! If there were countless hundreds of thousands of billions of livings beings experiencing suffering and agony who heard of this Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva [Kannon], and wholeheartedly called his name, Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva would immedlately hear their cries, and all of them would be freed.”
—The Lotus Sutra, 25th Chapter, Gene Reeves translation
And so on. Thus in Japanese Buddhism, people often recite namu kanzeon bosatsu as praise of Kannon. In temples, people make offerings and pray to Kannon for any variety of things, from the mundane, to the deeply spiritual. This may seem strange to Westerners who perceive this as a form of Buddhist idolatry, but in fact it is in keeping with the Mahayana Buddhist notion that the suffering of others is our suffering as well. We cannot exist independently of others, so a Bodhisattva strives to help all beings before reaching full-enlightenment and Nirvana himself.
Later in the same chapter, the Buddha describes how Kannon Bodhisattva appears as a teacher in various forms to teach and lead others to wisdom and awakening:
“Good son, if living beings in any land need someone in the body of a buddha in order to be saved, Regard of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva [Kannon] appears as a buddha and teaches the Dharma [the Buddhist teachings] for them…For those who need someone in the body of a shravaka [a monastic disciple of the Buddha] in order to be saved, he appears as a shravaka and teaches the Dharma for them. For those who need someone in the body of a Brahma king [hindu god] in order to be saved, he appears as a Brahma king and teaches the Dharma for them.
“…such are the blessings attained by this Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva [Kannon] and the various forms in which he travels around in many lands to save the living. This is why all of you should wholeheartedly make offerings to Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva. This Regarder of the Cries of the World Bodhisattva, this great one, is able to bestow freedom from fear on those who are faced with a frightening, urgent or difficult situation. This is why in this world everyone gives him the name Bestower of Freedom from Fear.”
This passage is a very interesting one, and can probably be interpreted a few ways. Kannon can be seen as a great bodhisattva who has accumulated so much wisdom and merit, that he has transcended physical form to help all beings as they need it. Or, Kannon embodies the compassionate teacher in our lives, who has helped us grow as a person spiritually. Or, Kannon is us the Buddhist follower, who strives in his/her own way to benefit others. Many interpretations above, but they all agree that Kannon tirelessly strives to help others through wisdom and compassion, which are the essence of Buddhism. For this reason, among others, Kannon is a very popular figure of devotion from both lay people and clergy.
Lay people often recite short verses of praise before an altar such as namu kanzeon bosatsu (南無観世音菩薩, “praise to Kannon Bodhisattva”), or those in esoteric traditions might recite dharanis either taught by Kannon or mantras used in public services such as on arorikya sowaka. Some people also meditate upon image of Kannon in various forms too. All of these practices bring Kannon Bodhisattva to mind, and helps a disciple become one with Kannon in a sense.
This is the main altar at Sensoji Temple (a.k.a. Asakusa Temple) in Tokyo, featuring the statues of the Hindu gods Indra (taishakuten, 帝釈天) on the left and Brahma (bonten, 梵天) on the right protecting the Kannon statue hidden behind the red curtain.
This is also why you often see statues of Kannon Bodhisattva with 1,000 arms and 11 heads.
Like so much else in Buddhism, artwork carries a lot of symbolic meaning, and here images of 1000-armed Kannon portray how Kannon helps out so many, in such a variety of ways. Another example is this picture I took in 2005 at the famous Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto, with a small statue hidden up in the rafters:
Another popular image of Kannon is that of the compassionate mother or compassionate female:
This is particularly popular in Chinese-Buddhist culture, and shows another, more compassionate side of Kannon.
Kannon is important to both Zen and Pure Land traditions, among many others. Kannon is a popular figure of devotion for his role in the Heart Sutra, a central text in both Zen1 and esoteric Shingon Buddhism, while in Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu), Kannon is seen as the attendant of Amitabha Buddha based on the Contemplation Sutra, and one of those who greets the devotee of Amitabha upon death.2 In Tendai and Nichiren Buddhism, Kannon’s prominent role in the Lotus Sutra also makes him a popular figure of devotion there too.
However, even in Japanese folk culture, Kannon is so well known that many folk tales have been told over the centuries about people who were helped by Kannon after devoted prayer. One story from my daughter’s folk tale book tells the story of a man who was very destitute and unlucky, so one night he prayed fervently to Kannon for help. Kannon appeared and told him to walk out of the temple and after he trips and falls, he should grab the very first thing he can reach. He follows Kannon’s instructions and after he accidentally trips, he snatches a piece of straw. The man is disappointed, but as the story continues, the straw gets traded for three nectarines, then rolls of silk, then a magnificent horse and so on.
So Kannon is more than just a Buddhist figure, but something of a cultural icon in East Asia, not just Japan. 🙂
P.S. Big thanks to Johnl for the corrections on the Sensoji altar!
1 Zen also has a unique devotional “hymnal” called the 10-verse Kannon Sutra, which I haven’t seen anywhere else outside that sect. Not sure of its origins.
2 It’s no accident in the Contemplation Sutra that Amitabha is flanked by Kannon Bodhisattva (compassion) and Seishi Bodhisattva (wisdom). Those old Indian writers were trying to convey a lot in their colorful writings.