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Bodhisattva of Compassion (Guanyin)
Bodhisattva of Compassion (Guanyin), 1271-1368
Chinese
Wood (linden) with traces of painted and gilt decoration
49 x 32 x 20 inches (124.5 x 81.3 x 50.8 cm)
Gift of Charles H. Ludington from the George Crofts Collection, 1925
1925-53-11
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About This Sculpture

This wooden sculpture depicts the Buddhist figure Guanyin (KWAN–in), an enlightened being called a bodhisattva (bo–dee–SAHT–vah). Bodhisattvas put off entering paradise in order to help mortals attain enlightenment. A tiny sculpture of the Amitabha (ah–mee–TAH–bah) Buddha—the Buddha of the Western Paradise—in the figure's headdress identifies it as Guanyin. In a Buddhist temple, a sculpture like this one often sits to the side of a central sculpture of Buddha, usually with another bodhisattva flanking the other side.

Guanyin, the most beloved bodhisattva in China, is the embodiment of compassion. Guanyin can appear in many different forms, taking whichever one a devotee might especially need at the moment: male or female, gentle or wrathful, rich or poor. Local tales about the enlightened being inspired imaginative figures such as Water-Moon Guanyin, White-Robed Guanyin, Child-Giving Guanyin, Fish Basket Guanyin, and Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Eyed Guanyin.

This sculpture portrays the "Guanyin of the South Sea" seated on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea in a posture known as "royal ease." One leg hangs down while the other is drawn to the body, the bent knee supporting the right arm.The full-moon face, downcast eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, delicate nose, and small mouth reflect a sense of calm and elegance.A long scarf drapes over the shoulders, and intricate jewelry, including a headdress, necklaces, and arm bracelets, decorates the figure.The hole in the forehead, which once held a precious jewel (now missing), symbolizes Guanyin's ray of light that illuminates the world. Traces of pigment and gold leaf testify that this sculpture was once vibrantly painted.

Worship of Guanyin

Buddhism was introduced to China from central Asia and India during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, the religion expanded to include other revered beings to whom worshipers offered prayers. Chief among these in China was the figure of Guanyin, who was first introduced to China through the Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular sacred texts in Buddhism. The sutra (teaching), which was translated into Chinese in 286 CE, includes a chapter that tells of Guanyin's miraculous deeds, such as freeing people from lust, hatred, and ignorance, and granting children to infertile women. Guanyin, whose name means "Beholder of the World's Sounds," answers the cries of the world's suffering.

Since the tenth century, Putuo Shan, an island off the eastern coast of China, has been a major pilgrimage site for Guanyin worshipers. There, legend tells, Guanyin of the South Sea quelled and banished a terrible snake monster. When the snake monster asked if he must be banished forever, Guanyin relented and said, "The island will be yours again when no more beating of the wooden fish is heard on it." (The beating of the wooden fish is a reference to the fish-shaped wood gong that calls Buddhists to worship.) Today thousands of devout Buddhists and tourists visit this rugged island to see the one-hundred-foot statue of the Guanyin of the South Sea and the beautiful temples and grottoes, and to hear the beating of the gong that keeps the snake monster at bay.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: China, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

 

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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