Guanyin and Amitabha

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on January 25, 2016.)

Head of Guanyin with Amitabha in headdress, Longhua Temple, Shanghai

Iconography is a key aspect of the study of any religion. This is the symbolism used to represent key figures, and help us identify one from the other. In Buddhism, for example, where all Buddhas mostly look alike, only certain gestures (called mudras), or implements (like a pagoda or a lotus), distinguish one from another.

The problem is compounded when a figure takes many forms, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in images of the most popular of bodhisattvas, Guanyin. This figure can appear as male or female; with multiple heads and/or arms (up to a thousand!); with a horse's head atop his/her own; holding a vase, a lotus, or a baby; and so on.

In fact, this multiplicity is said to have a point: as the embodiment of compassion, Guanyin will take whatever form is necessary to come to the aid of those who call on "the one who hears the cries of the world" (the meaning of Guanyin's Sanskrit name, Avalokiteshvara).

In fact, this figure is meant to be an emanation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life who will take all sincere aspirants to his Western Pure Land. And this gives us a key to recognizing Guanyin in his/her many forms.

In the headdress of almost all Guanyin figures, one will find a Buddha, most often in a seated position with his hands in his lap. This is Amitabha, the source of Guanyin's power.

In the so-called "Three Sages of the West," Amitabha stands flanked by two bodhisattvas. Which is Guanyin, and which is Dashizi? Guanyin is the one with the Buddha in his/her headdress, whereas Dashizi has a vase in his. It's a sure thing!

In the "Three Sages of the West," Guanyin can be spotted by the figure of Amitabha in the headdress.

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