The statue of Jayavarman VII at right was unearthed at Prasat Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), Thailand and is a key exhibit at the Phimai National Museum.
Avolokitsevara, 'the lord who looks down in compassion', is one of the Buddhist deities known across Asia. The Bayon has some 200 faces of Avolokitsevara on the third level, built onto an earlier Hindu temple in the 1100s.
The Bhuddhist ideology is to follow a path of improvement through several lives until one reaches a state of enlightenment where all earthly cares are left behind and one enters a state of nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism a bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment but renounces nirvana to return to earth and help the sufferings of all humanity. This religious ideal is widely portrayed in Khmer art, especially in the late Angkor period when this form was at its peak. Bodhisattva are typically shown as Avolokitsevara, known in Cambodia as Lokesvara, 'Lord of the World'.
In Nepal he is known as Padmapani, 'the Lotus Bearer', while Tibetans call him Chenrezig and believe his earthly presence resides in the Dalai Lama. In China he has evolved into a female form, the Goddess of Compassion Guanyin.
For more detail, see this Wikipedia Article.
In a land governed by a coterie of old men and ordered by the paternal values of Confucius, Guanyin offers an alternative dimension. She likewise stands apart from her divine cohorts, the largely male line-up of Buddhist and Taoist deities, by virtue of her sex. In a land tipped heavily towards the 'yang' (the male principle), Guanyin is a resplendent and unequivocal manifestation of the 'yin' (the female principle). Her compassionate mission (to 'listen to the cries of the world', a literal translation of her full name in Chinese (Guanshiyin) means much to ordinary Chinese who live in a land governed by coercion. As power lies beyond the grasp of the laobaixing (common people), who generally lead harsh lives, compassion and mercy hold an indispensable allure.
Guanyin's ineffable gaze dispenses boundless sympathy to a suffering world and her effigies are celebrated in temples throughout the land. Her shrines and grottos, where grief is offloaded and hope restored, are busy with prayerful women and foggy with incense. She can often be found near the hub of Buddhist temples, at the rear of the main hall (facing north) or ensconced in her own hall. She sometimes stands on the head of a big fish, holding a lotus in her hand and occasionally ringed by little effigies of the Luohan (those freed from the cycle of rebirth), who scamper about.
Worshipped in a myriad of forms, you may see the eleven-faced Guanyin, or even the thousand-armed Guanyin, the thousand-eyed Guanyin, the horse-head Guanyin, the dripping water Guanyin, the weapon-wielding Guanyin, or her most popular representation - the Guanyin clad in white, frequently fashioned in dehua porcelain (blanc-de-chine). Early images of the goddess are often androgynous and very early examples distinctly male, as the goddess had yet to make the gender-jump from the male Avalokiteshvara.
Scholars also attest to the influence of effigies of the Virgin Mary on both Guanyin's form and popularity in China; as such, Christians may well perceive a resemblance to the mother of Jesus, especially in the Songzi Guanyin, a popular depiction of the goddess bearing a small, male child.
Travellers keen to commune more closely with Guanyin should certainly take the short voyage across the waves to the holy Buddhist island of Putuoshan in Zhejiang province. The island is dedicated to the goddess and despite the tourist throngs and vigorous commercialisation, Putuoshan's temples, crags, totems and legends still wreathe the island in powerful mystique. China's other sacred Buddhist peaks celebrate Guanyin in numerous grottoes and shrines and, such is her allure and importance, you can even find the goddess feted on Taoist mounts such as Tai Shan in Shandong province and in Taoist temples.
China's cave art and Buddhist grottos are liberally sprinkled with renderings of the Buddhist divinities. Certainly worth seeking out are the grottos at Longmen in Henan province, Dunhuang in Gansu province and Dazu west of Chongqing. Carvings, frescoes or statuary of Guanyin can be found at them all.
The goddess is not just worshipped in north China. There's a charming temple to Guanyin, populated by a devout band of nuns, just south of Dali in Yunnan province. Inside, there's a notable statue of the goddess surrounded by an eccentric and colourful menagerie of Luohan. Also down south, Macau's 400-year-old Kuan Iam Temple (arguably the city's most interesting) is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.
In other more popular tourist destinations, the Great Compassion Hall in Xiamen's eminent Nanputuo Si (Southern Buddhist Temple) contains four statues of the goddess. In addition to its elegant pagoda, Guangzhou's Liurong Si (Temple of the Six Banyan Trees) is notable for its huge golden likeness of Guanyin. If you tire of Suzhou's gardens, the fantastic Xiyuan Si (West Garden Temple) houses a multi-armed statue of the goddess and 500 Luohan. Inside Kaifeng's Da Xiangguo Si in Henan province is a 6m tall Thousand Eye and Thousand Arm Guanyin, carved entirely from one Gingko tree.
The goddess can be encountered in many other temples around China, and temple markets sell a range of Guanyin 'Hushen Fu' (talismans and charms) that offer the protection of the goddess, and small porcelain or bronze effigies.
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