Guan Yin, also known as the bodhisattva of compassion, the Bodhisattva of mercy, or the Jade Goddess, is venerated by East Asian Buddhists and most loved by the Chinese. She is the most widely depicted Bodhisattvas in jade art. She is the Maternal Goddess and the Protector of Children, "looking on or hearing the voices of the suffering", and her jade carvings are often worshiped at temples by women. Guan Yin is often depicted as a standing, slender figure of infinite grace and greatly composed to convey a sublime selflessness and compassion.
Guan-yin, whose name means "Who Contemplates the [Supplicating] Sound of the World", along with Samantabhadra, Kshitigarbha (Di-cang) and Manjushri (Wen-shu), is one of the four great bodishattvas of Buddhism. It is generally accepted that Guan Yin originated as the Sanskrit Avalokiteśvara, who was originally depicted as Buddha when he was still a prince, and therefore wears chest-revealing clothing and may even sport a moustache. However, in China and other East Asian countries, Guan Yin is usually depicted as a woman, and Asian folk traditions have added many distinctive characteristics and legends.
One of the several stories about Guan Yin is that she was a Buddhist who, through great love and sacrifice during life, had earned the right to enter Nirvana after death. However, like Avlokiteshvara, while standing before the gates of Paradise she heard a cry of anguish from the earth below. Turning back to earth, she renounced her reward of bliss eternal but in its place found immortality in the hearts of the suffering.
No other figure in the Chinese pantheon appears in a greater variety of images, of which there are said to be thousands of different incarnations or manifestations. Guan Yin is oftern depicted as a barefoot, gracious woman dressed in beautiful, white flowing robes, with a white hood gracefully draped over the top of the head.
She is frequently depicted as riding a mythological animal known as the Hou, which somewhat resembles a Buddhist lion, and symbolizes the divine supremacy exercised by Guan Yin over the forces of nature.
She may be also seated on an elephant, standing on a fish, nursing a baby, holding a basket, having six arms or a thousand, and one head or eight with one atop the next, and four, eighteen, forty or a thousand hands, which she strives to alleviate the sufferings of the unhappy.
In many representations, Guan-yin has a child on one arm or appears in the company of a maiden who holds a fish basket or is shown together with Wei-tuo. In other depictions Guan-yin is shown standing on clouds or riding a dragon in front of a waterfall.
As Guan-yin of the Southern Sea, she stands on a cliff in the midst of flaming waves and rescues shipwrecked persons from the sea (which symbolizes samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth). She usually holds a lotus blossom or a willow twig and a vase containing heavenly dew or the nectar of immortality.
On public altars, Guan Yin is frequently flanked by two acolytes, to her right a barefoot, shirtless youth with his hands clasped in prayer known as Shan-ts’ai (Golden Youth), and on her left a maid demurely holding her hands together inside her sleeves known as Lung-nü (Jade Maiden).
Guan Yin is also worshipped by the Taoists, and they imitate the Buddhists in their descriptions of this deity, speaking in the same manner of her various metamorphoses, her disposition to save the lost, her purity, wisdom, and marvel-working power.
In China and eastern Asia, Guan Yin is regarded as the goddess of fecundity as well as of mercy, comforting the troubled, the sick, the lost, the senile and the unfortunate. She is also referred to as the Goddess of the Southern Sea — or Indian Archipelago — and has been compared to the Virgin Mary. In addition, Guan Yin is surnamed Sung-Tzu-Niang-Niang, "lady who brings children”, and is worshipped especially by childless women.
From early times to the present, many thousands of statues of Guan Yin have been carved in jade. She is a favorite figure in domestic shrines. Her image is carved on small jades which Chinese women offer faithfully at the temples dedicated to her.
Learn more about Jade & Buddhism:
Jade & Buddha
Jade & Guan Yin