Quan yin is the English transliteration of the Chinese name for a Buddhist divine figure whose Sanskrit name is Avalokitesvara. The meaning of this name is usually given as "the lord who hears and sees all," or "the lord who is seen within [the believer's soul]." The Chinese name Quan yin is sometimes translated as "the one who hears prayers." Quan yin is also known in China as Guanshiyin; in Japan as Kannon, Kanzeon, or Kwannon; in southeastern Asia as Quon Am; in Bali as Kanin; and in Tibet as Chen-resigs or Spyan-ras-gzigs. Although some English-language sources refer to Quan yin as a "goddess" or "saint," these terms are somewhat misleading because of their association with Western religions. Peter Matthiessen's phrase, "mythical embodiment of Buddhahood," or bodhisattva, is a more accurate description. A bodhisattva is a spirit or person who has earned the right, through renunciation of passions and cravings, to escape from the cycle of reincarnation and enter nirvana, but chooses to postpone his/her own bliss until his/her has have helped others to achieve enlightenment.
Devotion to Quan yin as the bodhisattva of infinite mercy and compassion is widespread in the Buddhist world, and can be dated as far back as the first centuries of the Christian era. It is important to note, however, that the notion of deity in Buddhism is quite different from Jewish and Christian concepts of God as creator and ruler of the universe. In classical Buddhist teachings, there are three forms or bodies of Buddhahood: the body of essence (Buddha as disembodied and impersonal absolute truth or reality; nirvana); the body of bliss (Buddha as a formless spirit with the power to save humans); and the body of emanation or transformation (Buddha assuming a human form to guide people to enlightenment). Avalokitesvara (Quan yin) is regarded as the embodiment of Buddha who guards the world between the appearance of Sakyamuni, the historical Siddhartha Gautama (born in India about 500 b.c.), and Maitreya, the Buddha of the future.
Avalokitesvara was originally portrayed as a male among Indian Buddhists, because a female bodhisattva is impossible according to the oldest Buddhist texts. Devotion to Avalokitesvara in the form of Quan yin was introduced into China as early as the first century a.d., and into Japan in the sixth or seventh century. Prior to the twelfth century a.d., Quan yin was always portrayed as a male in Chinese and Japanese art. The reason for later artistic representations of her as a female is not completely under-stood. Some scholars attribute the change to the popularity of a passage in the Lotus Sutra that speaks of Avalokitesvara as having the power to grant children to childless women, and to assume a human body of either sex in order to guide others to nirvana. By the eighth century, the Lotus Sutra was honored in China and Japan above all other Buddhist sacred texts because it was understood to mean that women could also attain enlightenment.
Other scholars think that a Chinese legend about Quan yin may have also played a part in popular devotion to this bodhisattva as a woman. According to the legend, Quan yin was born into this world as the daughter of a king of the Chou Dynasty (1050–256 b.c.), who was sentenced to death by her father for refusing to marry. When the executioner tried to behead her, his sword shattered before he could touch her. The legend helps to explain why Quan yin has been regarded in some parts of Asia as a protector of women who offers life as a Buddhist nun as an alternative to marriage. In Japan, the princess ChujoHime (753–781 a.d.), who was persecuted by her stepmother and became a Buddhist nun at the age of seventeen, was thought to be a living incarnation of Kannon. A memorial service is held each year in Japan on May 14 for Chujo-Hime at the Tokushoji Temple.
In Japan, the Pure Land sect of Buddhism honored Kannon or Kanzeon as one of the principal attendants of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Japanese religious art often portrays the so-called Amida Raigo triad, which depicts Amida himself; Kannon, who represents the Buddha's mercy; and the Seishi Bosatsu, a bodhisattva who represents the Buddha's strength and power. The three are often shown as descending on a cloud at the moment of a Buddhist's death to lead him or her to the Western Paradise.
Popular modern Buddhist art portrays Quan yin as a barefoot woman dressed in a long flowing white robe, often pouring a stream of water from a small vase. The water represents peace and healing. She may also be shown holding a lotus, which represents purity; pearls, which symbolize illumination; or a bowl of rice seed, which represents fertility. Some statues also show her with several pairs of arms, each holding a different cosmic symbol, which symbolize the universal embrace of Buddha's compassion. She is also depicted standing on a fish, which represents her role as the special protector of fishermen and travelers.
The benefits of devotion to Quan yin, like those of Western religious practice, include inner peace, a feeling of love leading to acts of compassion for others, and a stronger sense that one's existence has meaning. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), religious and spiritual practices that emphasize positive beliefs and attitudes help the human immune system, lower the impact of emotional stress on the body, and lower the risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression .
According to a Buddhist nun who claims to have been taught the Quan Yin Method for attaining enlightenment by a Himalayan master, those who practice this method will "gain a happy and more relaxed life, liberate [themselves from the cycle of reincarnation], and save five generations of [their] family."
Devotion to Quan yin or Kannon is fairly informal in most parts of eastern Asia. Devotees may meditate on the bodhisattva's qualities of mercy and compassion, and strive to put these qualities into action through service or acts of kindness toward others. In China, women sometimes offer small pieces of jade carved with images on Quan yin in her temples, or place them in domestic shrines. Other Buddhists may wear amulets with images of Quan yin or prayers of devotion. Peter Matthiessen tells of wearing an amulet made from a plum pit that was given to him by his Japanese spiritual teacher. The plum pit was inscribed with a ten-phrase prayer to Kanzeon in tiny Japanese characters. Some phrases from the prayer include: "Kanzeon! Devotion to Buddha! We are one with Buddha … Our true Bodhisattva nature is eternal, joyful, selfless, pure. So let us chant each morning Kanzeon, with mindfulness! Every evening Kanzeon, with mindfulness!"
Some devotees go on pilgrimages to holy places associated with Quan yin. These include the mountainous island of Pu Tuo Shan off the coast of Shanghai, China, where Quan yin is said to have lived for nine years. At one time there were over a hundred shrines to Quan yin on the island, as well as a community of a thousand Buddhist monks. Japanese Buddhists may make the Bando Pilgrimage, which makes a circuit of 33 sites in eastern Japan sacred to Kannon. Visiting the shrines in the proper order is said to preserve the believer from hell and open the gate to the Western Paradise.
The Quan Yin Method for attaining nirvana requires 2-1/2 hours of meditation per day in addition to the following five precepts:
- Refraining from taking the life of any sentient beings. This precept requires strict adherence to a vegan or lactovegetarian diet.
- Refraining from speaking what is not true.
- Refraining from taking what is not offered.
- Refraining from sexual misconduct.
- Refraining from the use of intoxicants, which include gambling, pornography, and violent films or literature as well as alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs.
Preparations and precautions
There are no specific preparations necessary for devotion to Quan yin. Western readers, however, should obtain information about this bodhisattva from reliable histories of Buddhism or Asian religion rather than from popular New Age sources.
Research & general acceptance
No studies have been done as of 2004 comparing devotion to Quan yin to other forms of religious or spiritual practice. In the West, devotion to Quan yin is more common among women who have left mainstream Jewish or Christian groups than it is among men. Some of these women identify Quan yin with such mother goddesses as Isis or with such Christian saints as the Virgin Mary. Scholars of religion, however, regard these comparisons as misleading and historically inaccurate.
Training & certification
Although there are Buddhist monasteries and study centers in the United States, they do not offer certification for teachers comparable to ordination for Christian or Jewish clergy. Readers who are interested in learning more about Quan yin or Buddhism in general may contact the monastery listed under Resources below.
Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Pelletier, Kenneth, M.D. The Best Alternative Medicine, Chapter 11, "Spirituality and Healing." New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Svoboda, Robert, and Arnie Lane. Tao and Dharma. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 1995.
Hinohara, S. "Medicine and Religion: Spiritual Dimension of Health Care." Humane Health Care 1 (July-December 2001): E2.
Chuang Yen Monastery. 2020, Route 301, Carmel, NY 10512. (845) 225-1819 or (845) 228-4288.
Glassman, Hank. "Chujo-Hime, Convents, and Women's Salvation." Lecture delivered at the International Symposium on Buddhist Convents, Columbia University, New York City, NY, 22 November 1998.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD