The Goddess of Mercy in Chinese Buddhism is named Guanshiyin (观世音菩萨 — Guān shì Yīn Pú Sà) or Guanyin for short. The name means “one who always hears the cries of the world. While many of the Buddhist deities are rather frightening (as seen in their paintings and depictions), Guanyin is actually very highly respected for being merciful to her followers.
There are many legends surrounding the lovely lady. Apparently, the original story (stemming from India) had her as a man called avalokitasvara. He was extremely kind and worked non-stop reaching out to those who cried out for help. Some actually claim he was the most powerful of all the Buddhist gods, and certainly most agree he was the nicest. It wasn’t until the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) that the deity was changed into a woman. The Indian name was translated into Guanyin, and the uniquely Chinese feminine version was born to become mother to the world.
In China, the story is that she was a human who eventually became immortal through her good deeds and worthy heart. According to one story, she was holy and kind enough to find herself at the gate of Heaven. But, upon hearing the weeping and tragic cries of sorrow and pain from those suffering on earth, her heart was moved. Turning back from her place in the joyous realm, she returned and devoted herself to helping those in need. Thus her name — she always listens to and helps those who call out to her.
Another story comes from 827-840AD (the Tang Dynasty) in the city of Xi’an. According to the legend, the Emperor at the time was a man called Wenzong. Now, Wenzong had the unfortunate love of clams, asking from clams day after day, three meals a day! But, if you’ve ever lived in Xi’an, you would know that it is very far from the sea–so clams were hard to find. And of course, he was not happy with any clams – they had to be fresh and delicious! So, every day before the light came up, the poor fishermen in Zhejiang’s ports would collect up clams and rush them inland. Then, finally a miracle happened! One of the clams they found was HUGE (20x the normal clam size). All agreed, this clam must absolutely go to the emperor. But when they tried to open it, they found that the clam was shut up and would not budge. When he heard of this strange even, the emperor himself came to see it. At last! Right before his eyes, the clam shell opened and inside was an elaborate carving of Guanyin. Looking into the statue’s eyes, he heard her beautiful voice echo in his ear — “These poor workers have sacrificed much to satisfy your simple pleasures. You are abusing your people and wasting their money.” The people had prayed for someone to save them from the painful, meaningless labor and the goddess had responded. The emperor learned his lesson!
As a Buddhist deity, she seems to be an all around lovely person. She is known for reaching out to those who are ill, lost, abandoned, elderly, orphaned, and just generally in a tough spot. She is recognized for having eternal, unending love for people and the kindest of hearts. She is often a fertility goddess who gives children to those who need them. Always there to help, she is the supporter and defender of the unfortunate. She also helps guide the lost and missing, and has become one of the “sailor’s” deities. The fact that legend has her living on an Island in the South of China has contributed to this theory — thus the frequent depiction of her with pearls from the ocean or rising from a shell or lotus blossom like Venus. Even here in Xinzheng, Henan we have a statue of her–you’ll find them scattered all over China. I’ve been told both the Shaolin Temple (China) and Kiyomizu-dera (Japan) are dedicated to her.
Most images of Quan Yin show her in bare feet with ancient Chinese-style thin, blowing in the wind kind of clothes. They always bring to mind the lovely ladies of wuxia (Chinese historical) dramas or the old films. Lithe, graceful, elegant — an all around perfectly kind, beautiful, and gracious woman inside and out. Usually, the pictures show her alone or with two other people. Sometimes she has a child in her arms. At other times, it is two soldiers who defend the faith. The first is general Guan Yu, a real man made famous in the fictionalized story “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Honored for being very loyal and virtuous, he is still prominent in the Buddhist faith. According to the believers, he not only fought of enemies of the country, he defended the righteous from demons as well. The second is Wei Tuo, a young prince who proved faithful to Buddha by protecting the holy relics. Together they stand guard as the goddess works her wonders.
Sometimes you’ll see the goddess of mercy in a different way, with several heads and hundreds of arms. There are several versions of the story as to why she has so many arms and heads. You can read one version here. Another version says that she dedicated her life to helping people in need, promising that she would not stop until she had helped everyone. Eventually, she realized that no matter what she did, there were still too many people. Frantically thinking about all that was left to be done, her head finally exploded into eleven parts. Concerned, one of the buddhas came to help her and ended up offering her eleven heads to hold the eleven parts. But now, hearing the cries so much better with her 22 ears, she became even more upset–pulling herself in many directions trying to read everyone at once. Reaching. . . reaching . . . finally her arms just shattered. Again the buddha reached out to the poor, good-hearted goddess and offered her one thousand arms to hold all those pieces so she could help more people. Thus the statue in Kaifeng has 1000 arms (although they follow the first version of the story instead of the second)!