Guanyin and the Dragon King

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on May 22, 2017.)

Guanyin in the form of the Dragon King, Guangxiao Temple, Putian, Fujian

As one of the most popular of all Buddhist figures, Guanyin (Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara, Japanese Kannon) has been the subject of numerous folk tales.

She--or he--is a prodigious shape-shifter on the level of the Greeks' Proteus, the "Old Man of the Sea." Although various numbers of forms are ascribed to her, one of the most common is 33, signifying eight for each of the four directions, plus one for the center.

Like Proteus, Guanyin is also associated with the sea. One of her forms is that of the Dragon King, said to rule over water and all weather.

At least two stories portray Guanyin as the "savior" of a dragon prince. In one, the Dragon King's third son was swimming in the form of a fish, when he was caught by a fisherman. Guanyin's disciple Shancai tried to buy the fish to set him free, but a bidding war broke out over this extraordinary specimen.

He was saved when the shame-faced crowd heard Guanyin's voice cry from afar: "A life should certainly belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it." (This echoes a story about the Buddha-to-be and his cousin Devadatta fighting over an injured swan.) The "fish" was returned to the sea, where he resumed his usual form.

In another version of the story, some boys were torturing a small snake who was also the Dragon King's third son. In this case Guanyin herself ransomed him from the boys.

As a result of one or the other of these rescues, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter to be Guanyin's attendant. She is Long Nu, the elegant girl we see standing on one side of Guanyin, as Shancai stands on the other.

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