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East Asia

Kwan-yin of China, Kwannon of Japan—the Madonna of East Asia–is the bestower of children and the all-compassionate mother goddess. The bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, ‘the lord who looks down in pity’, underwent this metamorphosis in China, possibly through the influence of Tantric Buddhism. As the Goddess of Mercy, she has been second only in popular esteem to A-mi-t'o-fo, Amitabha. A mass of legend concerns her activities as a world-redeeming, world-sustaining divinity, who paused on the threshold of nirvana because of her awareness of the suffering in the world. The androgynous character of this bodhisattva remains a mysterious occurrence: it reaches psychologically into an area where duality has no place.

In Japan the masculine form of Kwannon is predominant. Iconography depicts the bodhisattva in princely form, and even in his own lifetime Prince Shotoku (572–621), the champion of Buddhism, was accepted as an incarnation. Other images possess a thousand eyes and arms, or eleven heads, or a horseaposs head. This visual complexity is intended to convey an impression of Kwannonaposs infinite power, compassion, and virtue.

Subjects: Religion.

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