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Multi-Armed Guanyin
Item No. 19208

18th - 19th Century, Buddhist, China
Lacquer over Wood with Gilt
22.5" x 12.25" x 6.25"
( 57.15 x 31.115 x 15.875 cm)
(H x W x D)

The Bodhisattva Guanyin is one of the most revered spiritual images on the planet, with millions of followers world wide. In China she is known as Guanyin (she who hears the cries of humanity), and in Japan and Vietnam she is called Kanon. Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra entitled "Kuan-yin's Universal Gate,” contains attributes about and descriptions of her powers and reveals that this bodhisattva can appear in many forms and has 33 distinct manifestations.

Guanyin is central to Mahayana Buddhism, practiced in East Asia. In China, Guanyin was said to have been so significant, that she surpassed even the Buddha in the number of her adherents. It is believed that, at one time, there was an image of Guanyin in almost every household in the country. By far, the most frequent manifestations depicted were the White Clad Guanyin, in which the Bodhisattva is a young beautiful woman dressed in a white hood and flowing garments; Guanyin of the Fish Basket in which she represents Miao Shan, her earthly counterpart; and Nanhai Guanyin or Guanyin of the Southern Ocean in which she is similar to the White Clad Kuan Yin but is shown amidst swirling waters on a throne at her cave in Pu To Shan where she lives.

Her form as the Multi-Armed or Thousand-Armed Guanyin appears most frequently in Esoteric Buddhism and in Tantric Buddhism, both products of nearby Tibet, Mongolia and Nepal and very rarely in China. Thus, this image, which was found in China, is indeed notable for its rarity and its iconographic significance, as it was either created for an esoteric sect in China, made by an artisan who was strongly influenced by Tibetan traditions (there was a significant and almost ongoing cultural/religious interchange between these countries) or was brought to China from Tibet.

The face of the statue is delicately carved, with almond shaped eyes downcast in meditation and compassion. This statue depicts the bodhisattva as the Multi-Armed Guanyin. According to one source, Guanyin with her multitude of arms is “the omnipresent mother, looking in all directions simultaneously, sensing the afflictions of humanity and extending her many arms to alleviate them with infinite expressions of her mercy.” ( Furthermore, her arms “allow her to help stop the suffering of those all around the world” (Circle of Light).

Multi-armed Guanyin images hold several different cosmic symbols and display specific mudras of reverence. Of the many symbols used in this manifestation, the most common include the vase of amrita, which has the dew of immortality (Hart); a scroll symbolizing the truth, the Buddhist Dharma she spreads and well as an allusion to the Louts Sutra which “refers back to the origins of her powers and compassion“ (Palmer p. 38); a thunderbolt representing enlightenment; and an axe cutting sentient beings free from attachments. In this image she has ten arms, two in the center with palms held together which shows her reverence for all human beings (Hart) and all of the fore mentioned symbols. Other frequently used symbols include a spray of willow branches with which “to sprinkle her inexhaustible compassion upon her devotees” (Hart); a lotus which “stands for the flowering of the mind and being freed from the murk of this world” (Palmer p. 38); the wish-fulfilling jewel, emblem of the attaining of holy aspirations (Hart); a rosary which she uses to call upon the Buddha; and the sun and moon.

These symbols collectively convey an even more powerful significance to viewers and followers of Guanyin then they do as individual objects, connecting devotees with the overarching reach of Buddhism. As stated so eloquently by Palmer (p. 41) “each symbol reminds the worshiper of the power and compassion not just of Kuan Yin but of Buddhism itself. These symbols are visual representations of the teachings of Buddhism and draw us back more than many other statues of Kuanyin do to the Bodhisattva origins of the goddess and to her roots in Buddhist philosophy and teachings. “

While the statue itself supplies the viewer with visual and iconographic indications of its symbolic meaning, the framework upon which it is presented artistically vastly augments this effort. She sits on a three part footed pedestal on a two tier open lotus throne. The lotus is one of the primary symbols of Buddhism. Use of the lotus as a stand upon which to carry images is reserved for only enlightened beings such as the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and lohans. A lotus blossom represents purity since, it is a beautiful flower that grows out of the mud yet rises above to the light, reaches toward the light and never itself becomes soiled. The meaning is that “our hearts should be pure like the lotus flower, even though our lives might be surrounded by dirty (or impure) people and situations” (Circle of Light). The throne is set within a three part mandorla, a full body aureole with a flaming pearl at the top, representing the divine light emanating from the bodhisattva.

Bagyalkakshmi, “The Creation of Goddess of Mercy from Avalokitesvara” in Across the Himalayan Gap, New Deli, Gyan Publishing House, 1998.
John Blofeld, “Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin,” Denver, Shambala Publications, 1978.
Jose Ignacio Cabezon, “Mother Wisdom, Father Love: Gender-based Imagery in Mahayana Buddhist Thought,” in “Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender,” Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ed., State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992.


Eloise Hart, “Kuan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind,” Sunrise Magazine, December, 1984/January, 1985.

Jonathan Chamberlain, “Chinese Gods,” Selangor Danul Ehsan, Malaysia, Pelanduk Publications 1987.

Gill Farrer-Halls, “The Feminine Face of Buddhism,” Godsfield Press, Illinois, 2002.

Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay with Man Ho Kwok, “Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion,” Harper Collins, London, 1995.

Barbara Reed, “The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva,” in “Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender,” Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ed., State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992.

Web Sources, Guanyin the Compassionate Savioress, reverend Cassandra Anaya, Buddhist Gods and Goddesses: Kuan Yin Avalokitesvara., Anthony Flanagan, “Buddhism: An Introduction: Buddhist Symbols”

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