Guanyin's Many Forms

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Oct 23, 2017.)

Some of Guanyin's many forms at Guangxiao Temple, Putian, Fujian

Several times in the past I have written of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion whose name means "The One Who Hears the Cries of the World." (This name is derived from the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara.)

But the topic is nowhere near exhausted! For one thing, he or she is inarguably the most popular of the Bodhisattvas, and maybe of all Buddhist figures, so there are many stories to tell.

For another, as my saying "he or she" indicates, Guanyin comes in multiple forms.

By one count, there are 33 of these (eight for each of the four cardinal directions, and one at the center). But tradition says that Guanyin can take on an infinite number of forms as needed. For example, if a child is nearing enlightenment, the Bodhisattva may appear as a child to help that child along, or if the candidate is a monk, Guanyin appears as a monk.

Further, the form may be male, or female, or even ambiguous--if you look closely at some standard statues of Guanyin, you'll see a feminine head placed on a body without breasts.

Whatever the cause of suffering may be, Guanyin can counter it: a sort of bodyguard for those about to be attacked; a person with water for those threatened by fire; a teacher for those who are confused.

In some temples, like Guangxiao Temple in Putian, Fujian, there is a Da Bei Dian, a "Hall of Great Compassion." Usually, these will feature one large central figure of Guanyin, and then numerous representations along the sides. It can be quite fun to look at each and try to imagine the emergency that would require such a form!

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