Heavenly beings and deities

Avalokiteshvara (Chin. Guanyin or Guanshiyin, Jap. Kannon, Tib. Chenrezi) is a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. In Sanskrit, his name means ‘the Lord who Looks Down’; in Chinese, he is ‘the Perceiver of the Sounds of the World’. He is held to be the embodiment of compassion.

The Lotus Sutra – an influential text of the Mahayana schools composed around the second century – explains that Avalokiteshvara hurries to the aid of anyone who appeals to him with a pure heart. He can appear in thirty-three forms. Tibetan texts even describe as many as 108 different manifestations of this bodhisattva.

This accounts for the many different representations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion in art. He can, for instance, be shown with a large number of arms that symbolize his ability to help all beings; sometimes he appears in two- or six-armed form. He can often be identified by an image of Buddha Amitabha set within his crown.

A strong cult of reverence for the Bodhisattva of Compassion developed in East Asia. In many of its representations, he appears at first glance to be a very feminine figure. While a number of stories from the region describe female manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, images and sculptural works never show him as a woman. That is usually apparent both from his typically bare chest and his bare feet. As women’s feet have been regarded as highly erotic in China since the tenth century, a female deity would never have been portrayed so revealingly.