An Analysis of “Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)”

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The statue, “Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)” is a statue of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being who is close to Buddha. It was created during the Tan dynasty, between the years 681–907. This particular statue is relatively small, less than half a meter in height. The statue is made from bronze and features the bodhisattva in a seated position. The left leg of the figure raised as if about to sit cross-legged or in a partial lotus position. The left arm rests on the figure’s left leg, and the right arm is by the bodhisattva’s side. In the right hand, the bodhisattva is holding something that looks like cloth or ribbon that is looped and dangles downward softly. The figure is shown in traditional bodhisattva clothing, with a face that shows rounded Chinese features and is titled slightly to the left. Its facial features show serenity or thoughtfulness. The figure is seated as if on a pedestal with vines and plants or broad leaves growing beneath the figure’s feet, conveying an idea that nature is in harmony with the figure and grows and moves to support her. The bodhisattva is seated on cloth, or else the figure’s dress spreads and unfolds beneath her to look as if she is seated on cloth. The artist uses many lines and curves with this statue, giving it a soft and relaxed appearance. The figure’s pose suggests that she is relaxed, and the silk or ribbon in her hand is looped and drooping. This gives the figure a feeling of softness and not threatening and makes it a good symbol for comfort or other positive feelings.

To best understand the significance and historical value of the piece, it is important to understand the religious background of Chinese Buddhism and the influence of Buddhism and other ideas from central Asia upon China before and during the Tang dynasty. The figure is a representation of Buddhist religion, which scholar L.S. Cousins believes was based on a person who might have lived between 849 and 400 B.C. The religion started in the area of central Asia that is in the approximate location of current-day India and Nepal (Cousins). Buddhism focuses on following beliefs or teachings that lead to spiritual and mental enlightenment. A bodhisattva is considered someone who is enlightened but is not the Buddha (Cousins). The figure is of a Chinese representation of a major bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara. The name Guanyin is Chinese, and is the name of the bodhisattva who was originally Avalokitesvara but was adapted to be a woman named Guanyin (Yu 46). According to Yu, Chinese and Indian traders along the Silk Road spread cultural and religious ideas. The Silk Road was a trading route through Asia that connected China to India and other parts of the Asian continent. It allowed ideas to spread from India to the northeast and the Chinese kingdoms. From there, many ideas, including Buddhism, spread further to countries such as Japan. Looking at the statue’s body, the Indian influence is present and noticeable, while the face is definitely more Chinese than Indian but shows a mix of the two cultures’ aesthetics together in one piece.

The statue was created during the Tang dynasty, some many years after the introduction of Buddhism to China. The Tang dynasty lasted from the years 618 to 907, and was considered a period of growth and mostly peaceful (Hilgers 35). By this time, Buddhism was present and strongly identified, preferred by many Chinese to their home religions, which was mainly Taoism (Hilgers 35). It makes sense to think of the statue as a personal devotion, something like an angel or saint for people who follow a Christian or Catholic religion. The face of the statue is Chinese, showing that the art influenced by India has been changed by Chinese artists to reflect a more Chinese aesthetic. However, Hilgers notes that toward the middle end of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism was no longer in fashion (38). An archaeology site discovered in January 2012 revealed close to 3,000 statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Hilgers concludes that the “burial site” for these statues was likely a response by government officials to the ban on Buddhism (38). Such a move to make China more isolated meant that there are likely many more statues like this one that are lost to history. Enough statues remain, however, to present a good understanding of the religious artworks of China more than 1,000 years ago. Buddhism in other places, such as Japan, was not affected as powerfully as the change in laws and attitudes from the Chinese, especially government leaders.

As mentioned earlier, the statue is based on the Indian bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, whom the Chinese later made into Guanyin, also called Kuan-Yin. The first large change is the gender. Guanyin is female, a change from the male Avalokitesvara, which Overmyer and Yu suggest is because of the belief that Avalokitesvara symbolism of listening and comforting is the role of a mother (Overmyer 418). Overmyer also states that Guanyin was one of the most commonly worshipped deities or bodhisattva, not just in China, but throughout Asia (Overmyer 418). People in China, India, and Japan helped Guanyin in high esteem and popularity. In fact, Overmyer concludes that Guanyin is one of the few truly Chinese deities whose identity and mythology was developed from Buddhist influence and that, “many Chinese who are not Buddhist know who Guanyin is but not her connection to Buddhism (Overmyer 420). Yu concludes that Guanyin’s gender change happened because there were no strong female Chinese goddesses in popular religion during the time of Avalokitesvara’s transformation to Guanyin (Yu 412-413). Guanyin’s popularity is then a result of filling a need in Chinese spirituality to include a female goddess who protected, comforted, and listened to the needs of the people. Her followers believed that Guanyin could intervene on their behalf (Overmyer 419). In this sense, Guanyin is much like the Virgin Mary in Catholic religion. According to Overmyer, Guanyin was a princess who gave her eyes and arms as medicine to aid her ailing father. This act of compassion revealed the princess as the goddess Guanyin, who is also believed to have a thousand eyes and arms, and her role was meant to provide aid and care, not just be an inspiring figure or idol. Other statues of Avalokitesvara / Guanyin exist that show the figure with many arms; however, in this piece the figure has only two.

After the Tang Dynasty, China entered a long period of upheaval that eventually led to the Song dynasty and an attitude of isolationism. Rulers outlawed or forbade influences from other countries, which included Buddhism. Instead, Chinese people were meant to follow Taoism, and officials and zealous followers of Taoism or the government confiscated and destroyed many statues to squash the religion (Hilgers 35). Guanyin today is still an important figure in Chinese religion today, especially among practicing Buddhists and Taoists, as well as a symbol of Chinese culture and heritage.

The statue of “Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin)” is an important piece of art because it is a symbol of a time of unusual openness and spiritual and religious diversity in ancient China. It is also an interesting example of how a deity was appropriated fully by another culture. Avalokitesvara entered Chinese culture at a time when there was a spiritual need for comfort, and the idea of a deity who could intervene and help people added a new component to Buddhist philosophy, allowing the idea of Guanyin to separate itself from the idea of Avalokitesvara and form a new and wholly unique identity that is still based on the same ideas of comfort and consolation.

Works Cited

Cousins, L.C. “The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 6.1 (1996): 57-63.

Hilgers, Lauren. "The 3,000 Buddhas." Archaeology 65.5 (2012): 34-38. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Nov. 2013

Overmyer, Daniel. "Kuan-Yin: The Development And Transformation Of A Chinese Goddess." Journal Of Religion 82.3 (2002): 418.Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

Yu, Chun-Fang. Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.