Who’s who in Buddhism, part 4: Kannon Bodhisattva

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).

Kannon Bodhisattva Statue

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.

Sensoji Main Altar, Inside

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.

1000 arm Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva

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:

Kannon at Kiyomizudera

Another popular image of Kannon is that of the compassionate mother or compassionate female:

Avalokitesvara as compassionate mother

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.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

18 thoughts on “Who’s who in Buddhism, part 4: Kannon Bodhisattva”

  1. Also known as “Kanjizai” (観自在), especially in the Heart Sutra. The “-jizai” part means something like “self-existent,” but I can’t really explain where that comes from.

    I always have trouble thinking of “him” as masculine; somehow I am more attracted to the sex-changed form she obtained on arrival in China.

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  2. Hi Marcus, thought you’d enjoy that. 😀

    Hi JonJ, welcome to the JLR! It’s possible the “kanjizai” stuff is just a transliteration. There’s more of that in the Heart Sutra as well, like “anuttara-samyaksambodhi” uses just transliterated characters. Trying to look them up in the dictionary is an amusing exercise. :p

    I admit that I am more inclined to the masculine side, but that seems to be more common in Japanese Buddhism than in Chinese Buddhism where the feminine side is more prominent. I struggled quite a bit with gender in this post (kind of evident about half-way through when I switched pronouns…too much of a hassle).

    Oh well. Kannon is all things to all people I guess.

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  3. About note 1: Jukkukannongyou is used in many Buddhist denominations–it is derived from esoteric Buddhism, as are many other Zen elements.

    (enjoyed reading your other post about Akira, that too me back too, though for me it was always the anime that had me hooked)

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  4. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for clarying about that “sutra”. Everytime I search on it, all I get are Zen resources, so either the esoteric guys are keeping it close to the vest (they are esoteric afterall 😉 ), or the Internet is somewhat lop-sided in its coverage of Buddhist doctrine.

    BTW, the copy of the sutra on my blog actually does come from a Tendai prayer book, not Zen.

    As for Akira, glad to see another fan!

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  5. Option number two. As you know, Zen is a minority sect in Japan, but it is firmly entrenched in the literati class in North America that is most likely to produce publishing on Buddhism, whether online or off. By the way, are you searching for it using the actual characters of the title and using Google.co.jp? For me, that turns up almost exclusively Tendai (and some Shingon) hits. A search using the characters for Jukkukannongyou and Soutoushuu turns up a whopping six hits, while using Tendaishuu turns up hundreds.

    Anyway, I’ve got a question for you. Where did you find your DVD of Itsuki’s 100 temple video? I’ve wanted a copy ever since you first mentioned it, but I’ve looked all over Kyoto and can’t find one here. And is your copy region 1 or 2?

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  6. Jeff,

    Well, I won’t comment about the state of Zen in the West. It is what it is, whether I agree with it or not. :-/

    As for the series hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼) that was some DVD series my in-laws purchased from U-CAN. Beyond that, I have no clue how to get it. Good luck!

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  7. Shan-tao (Inagaki translation)
    Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, out of great compassion,
    Does not stay in the Bodhi which he has already realized;

    Refusing to become a Buddha until all other sentient beings have attained enlightment, now that must be the ultimate compasionate Bodhisattva vow…

    南無観世音菩薩

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  8. I’ve seen statues of Kannon Bodhisattva enshrined in a Shinto shrine.
    I’m not sure how usual or unusual this is.

    As the shrine is to a sea diety, this seems to be the reason the statues were of Kannon or could be confused with Kannon.
    http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/suijin.html

    Despite being attached to an Onsen hotel, it was an unusual and beautiful place. Perhaps unique in that you enter a volcanic hot spring outdoor bath that is itself the shrine.

    It’s also interesting that Japanese hidden Catholics would use statues of Kannon to represent Mary. I think in the years of isolation the various traditions may have been mixed up to produce something new (and probably heretical according to Rome)

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    1. Hi Robert, those statues might also be Benzaiten, the Hindu goddess Saraswati. I could be totally wrong though. Saraswati is depicted as female with many arms and such. Her role in Buddhism is pretty periphery, but somehow she became a kind of folk-goddess in Japan, especially tied to the sea, or with water. I think the link you posted also had some info on that.

      As for the hidden Catholics, I heard about the use of Kannon to represent Mary as well. I can’t blame them, since like you said, they were cut off and had to work with the material they had. Orthodox groups in Rome may find this heretical, but I’d say the loss is their’s. 🙂

      Speaking of which, a good friend of mine I grew up with became a Catholic priest, and had a strong interest in China. He had a number of images from China of Guan-Yin, as well as those of Mary and indeed, there is a strong similarity. I think it’s a kind of convergence reflecting similar ideas in both traditions. On the other hand, other Buddhist texts imply that Kannon has no form, so I think the female-form of Kannon is a kind of convention to express the tender compassion of a Bodhisattva (since women have a strong mother instinct). The “loving all beings as one’s mother” theme appears in other Buddhist texts as well not related to Kannon. 🙂

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  9. I was glad to see the first pic of Kannon, which is in my home town, in the Nelson-Atkins Museum. The Chinese collection there is all the more remarkable for its location in midwest US.

    The altar of Sensoji (second pic) conceals the main image of Kannon–it is a 秘仏 a hidden Buddha statue, behind the curtain with the Siddham letter on it. My Asakusa guide association friend tells me that the curtain is only opened once a year for 30 seconds or so, in the middle of the night in complete darkness, so it is safe to say that virtually no one has ever seen it!

    Are you sure the flanking figures are also Kannon? I had better do some checking before I challenge that. But it seems kind of redundant…

    Regards,
    JL

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    1. Hi Johnl,

      I had no idea that was your hometown’s Museum. Very cool. As for the Sensoji altar, you may be right. I honestly don’t know what those two statues are, but I had assumed it was Kannon. If you find out, let me know. I will definitely update where I can. Also, I wasn’t aware that the real image is behind the curtain. I thought that was just a backdrop. :p

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  10. I am giving this a bump, because I finally found out about the two statues in front of the altar at Sensoji–the ones flanking the curtain with the Siddham letter on it. They are Taishaku Ten on the left and Bon Ten on the right.

    Just setting the record straight.

    JL

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    1. Hi John,

      Thanks very for your persistence in figuring this one out. I’ll update the blog post once I get settled in the US, in a few days. I’ve made a note elsewhere so I don’t forget. 🙂

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  11. Hi John,

    I finally had a chance to make the corrections. Thank you so much for finding this out for me. This was not a trivial thing, I imagine. 🙂

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  12. I just found a Kannon or Quan Yin statue in an interesting place today. At Will Rogers Shrine to the Sun, in the chapel! I’m curious if anyone knows why it is there. Also, at the entrance to the shrine are Chinese guardian lions or “foo dogs”.

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