The Thousand-Armed Guanyin

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Monday, August 24, 2015.)

Statue of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin at tiny Linfeng Temple, Zhiti Shan, Fujian

Perhaps the most striking statue in many Buddhist temples is also one of the most common. It is the Thousand-Armed Guanyin, usually found with eleven heads.

The teachers have a simple explanation for this. Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, pledged to help all in need. The thousand arms maximize her ability to "lend a hand," and the eleven sets of eyes and ears render her capable of hearing all who ask. (Her more complete name, Guan Shi Yin, can be translated "The One Who Hears the Cries of the World"; the Sanskrit form, Avalokiteshvara, means the same.)

The statue is often found standing back-to-back with the Buddha in the main hall. But just as often she may be in a hall--or hut--of her own.

I once spent a week teaching over a hundred young people in the beautiful Huayan Temple on Zhiti Shan in Fujian. One afternoon, the acting abbot asked if I wanted to visit a small nearby temple. I said yes, of course. We walked (sometimes ran, as it was near dinner time) downhill and up again on a mountain trail until, across some fields, a building appeared. Coming closer, we saw it was the crumbling remains of a temple compound.

Crumbling, but still in use. The handful of monks inside were in dishabille, donning robes only after our arrival. They had just sat down to a meal of rice gruel, and rose to entertain us.

After some pleasant chat and the inevitable tea, they led us up a hill behind the main compound to a stone shack. "What could this possibly be?" I thought, as they were acting a little mysteriously.

We stepped into the dark room and they turned on a spotlight to reveal one of the most magnificent statues of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin I have ever seen. In all their poverty, these monks had scraped together enough funds for this statue as a focus of devotion, representing the compassion that Buddhism teaches so persistently. It was glorious!

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