Who’s who in Buddhism, part 4: Kannon BodhisattvaPosted: June 8, 2009
Arguably one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism, if not Mahayana Buddhism overall, is that of Kannon Bodhisattva. If you are visiting temples in Japan, or have an interest in Japanese religion, it really helps to know who Kannon is. The name “Kannon” is the Japanese pronunciation of Guan-Yin, as he/she is popularly known in China, but this Bodhisattva also goes by the name Kanzeon as in Kanzeon Bosatsu (観世音菩薩) which means “He/she who perceives the cries of the World”. Originally the Sanskrit name was Avalokiteśvara.
In any case, Kannon Bodhisattva is first introduced in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra wherein the Bodhisattva is described as a great savior to those suffering in the world:
“Good man, suppose there are immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of living beings who are undergoing various trials and suffering. If they hear of this Bodhisattva Perceiver of the Word’s Sounds and single-mindedly call his name, then at once he will perceive the sound of their voices and they will all gain deliverance from their trials.
And so on. Thus in Japanese Buddhism, people often recite namu kanzeon bosatsu as praise of Kannon. In temples, people make offerings and pray to Kannon for any variety of things, from the mundante, to the deeply spiritual. This may seem strange to Westerners who perceive this as a form of Buddhist idolatry, but in fact it is in keeping with the Mahayana Buddhist notion that the suffering of others is our suffering as well. We cannot exist independently of others, so a Bodhisattva strives to help all beings before reaching full-enlightenment and Nirvana himself.
Later in the chapter, the Buddha describes how Kannon Bodhisattva appears as a teacher in various forms to teach and lead others to wisdom and awakening:
Good man, if there are living beings in the land who need someone in the body of a Buddha in order to be saved, Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds immediately manifests himself in a Buddha body and preaches the Law for them…If the need a voice-hearer to be saved, immediately he becomes a voice-hearer and preaches the Law for them. If they need King Brahma [Hindu god] to be saved, immediately he becomes King Brahma and preaches the Law for them…If they need a rich man to be saved, immediately he becomes a rich man and preaches the Law for them. If they need a householder to be saved, immediately he becomes a householder and preaches the Law for them.
“…this Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds has succeeded in acquiring benefits such as these and. Taking on a variety of different forms, goes about among the lands saving living beings. For this reason you and the others should single-mindedly offer alms to Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World’s Sounds can bestow fearlessness on those who are in fearful, pressing or difficult circumstances. That is why in this saha world everyone calls him Bestower of Fearlessness.”
This passage is a very interesting one, and can probably be interpreted a few ways. Kannon can be seen as a great bodhisattva who has accumulated so much wisdom and merit, that he has transcended physical form to help all beings as they need it. Or, Kannon embodies the compassionate teacher in our lives, who has helped us grow as a person spiritually. Or, Kannon is us the Buddhist follower, who strives in his/her own way to benefit others. Many interpretations above, but they all agree that Kannon tirelessly strives to help others through wisdom and compassion, which are the essence of Buddhism. For this reason, among others, Kannon is a very popular figure of devotion from both lay people and clergy.
Lay people often recite short verses of praise before an altar such as namu kanzeon bosatsu (南無観世音菩薩, “praise to Kannon Bodhisattva”), or those in esoteric traditions might recite dharanis either taught by Kannon or mantras used in public services such as on arorikya sowaka. Some people also meditate upon image of Kannon in various forms too. All of these practices bring Kannon Bodhisattva to mind, and helps a disciple become one with Kannon in a sense.
This is the main altar at Sensoji Temple (a.k.a. Asakusa Temple) in Tokyo, featuring the statues of the Hindu gods Indra (taishakuten, 帝釈天) on the left and Brahma (bonten, 梵天) on the right protecting the Kannon statue hidden behind the red curtain.
This is also why you often see statues of Kannon Bodhisattva with 1,000 arms and 11 heads. Like so much else in Buddhism, artwork carries a lot of symbolic meaning, and here the artist is trying to portray how Kannon helps out so many, in such a variety of ways. One such example is this picture I took in 2005 at the famous Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto, with a small statue hidden up in the rafters:
Kannon is important to both Zen and Pure Land traditions, among many others. Kannon is a popular figure of devotion for his role in the Heart Sutra, a central text in both Zen1 and esoteric Shingon Buddhism, while in Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu), Kannon is seen as the attendant of Amitabha Buddha based on the Contemplation Sutra, and one of those who greets the devotee of Amitabha upon death.2 In Tendai and Nichiren Buddhism, Kannon’s prominent role in the Lotus Sutra also makes him a popular figure of devotion there too.
However, even in Japanese folk culture, Kannon is so well known that many folk tales have been told over the centuries about people who were helped by Kannon after devoted prayer. One story from my daughter’s folk tale book tells the story of a man who was very destitute and unlucky, so one night he prayed fervently to Kannon for help. Kannon appeared and told him to walk out of the temple and after he trips and falls, he should grab the very first thing he can reach. He follows Kannon’s instructions and after he accidentally trips, he snatches a piece of straw. The man is disappointed, but as the story continues, the straw gets traded for three nectarines, then rolls of silk, then a magnificent horse and so on.
So Kannon is more than just a Buddhist figure, but something of a cultural icon in East Asia, not just Japan.
P.S. Big thanks to Johnl for the corrections on the Sensoji altar!
1 Zen also has a unique devotional “hymnal” called the 10-verse Kannon Sutra, which I haven’t seen anywhere else outside that sect. Not sure of its origins.
2 It’s no accident in the Contemplation Sutra that Amitabha is flanked by Kannon Bodhisattva (compassion) and Seishi Bodhisattva (wisdom). Those old Indian writers were trying to convey a lot in their colorful writings.