Eleven-Headed Guanyin

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Sep 11, 2017.)

Guanyin with eleven heads and "1,000" arms at Dongshan Temple, Shenzhen

A bodhisattva is one whose being (sattva) is enlightened (bodhi). Astute readers may see that the consonants in bodhi--b, d, h--are shared by the word buddha, which means "one who is enlightened." But a bodhisattva differs from a buddha in that, although he or she has worked his/her way up to enlightenment, he/she has vowed to stop short of nirvana until all beings become enlightened. (Never mind that Mahayana followers believe that Buddhas are still available to help as well.)

This brings us to a charming--if somewhat disturbing--story about the most popular of all bodhisattvas, Guanyin (called in Sankskrit Avalokiteshvara), whose name means "the one who hears the cries of the world." Perhaps you have seen the rather bizarre form of Guanyin with eleven heads and numerous arms--said to be 1,000, and indeed I have seen versions with a sort of sun-like disc behind made of radiating arms, but more often represented by 40, 16, or fewer.

In a 16th-century novel, The Tale of Guanyin and the Southern Seas, it is said that Guanyin's strenuous efforts to save all sentient beings caused her head to split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (of whom she is said to be an emanation) took compassion on her, and made a head of each of the eleven pieces, so now, with eleven heads, she can hear and see more clearly all those who need her help.

Likewise, when her two arms shattered from trying to help so many, Amitabha again came to the rescue, forming the pieces into a thousand arms, as "many hands make light work."

This explains the image we see today.

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