The different faces of Guan Yin

She who perceives the sound of the world, the lord who looks upon the world with compassion, the God-dess of mercy, has crossed centuries, countries and genders to reach the present day. Finding a Guan Yin statue everywhere we went, felt like meeting a friend, a hug from a stranger, the protective energy of someone who silently watches over you. 


A bit of history

If you travel extensively in certain parts of the world, it won’t be long before you meet Guan Yin (or a version of). S-he is practically all over Asia: in China, Burma, Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet. 

Guan Yin worshipped in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Chinese folk religions. In Sanskrit, she is known as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment but decided to delay his or her own nirvana, choosing to remain in the cycle of existence in order to save others. They operate under the principle that as long as even one being is suffering, we all are.

Call me by her name

S-he is known under different names and disguises, s-he is Guanshiyin, Guan Yin, Hangul, Kuan-yin, Quan Âm, and Kwan Im. And from her tears were born the green and white tara, who helped her to alleviate the pain of all beings.

S-he comes in every size! You can find he-r everywhere, watching upward from the bottom of the Marble Mountain in Vietnam or towering in the skies of Thailand. S-he is dressed in white, s-he is depicted sitting on a lotus flower, standing, carrying a willow branch, or a vase filled with water. At times s-he holds a child in her arms, or s-he stands over a dragon, sometimes a turtle.

For months we have been playing “Spot Guan Yin!”, and finding her everywhere has given us an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. 

Bright like a cloud

In Chiang Rai, on the way from one temple to another, we noticed a white puff in the sky. To me, wearing non-prescription sunglasses and with the sun in my eyes, it looked every bit like a cloud. But 20-20 vision Jyl kept insisting. And he was right, that wasn’t a cloud, it was someone’s head. 

Let’s face it, if you’re in a country you don’t know, on a scooter, and you see a giant statue peeking through the clouds that looks like the cheek of a smiling Buddha, aren’t you compelled to follow it? And that’s what we did, we decided to roll after the puff and go find whose head it was.

The gigantic Kuan In Statue of the Wat Huay Pla Kang in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The face of Guan Yin Statue of the Wat Huay Pla Kang in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Detail of Guan Yin Statue of the Wat Huay Pla Kang in Chiang Rai, Thailand
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It wasn’t long before we found what we were looking for. A 79 metres high gentle lady sat atop a small hill and the head we saw was that of our first Guan Yin statue.

Wat Huay Pla Kang and the giant Guan Yin Statue

This temple dedicated to Kuan Im (her Thai name)  is quite unique. When we got there, we were mesmerised by the sight, moved by he-r beauty and tranquillity. 

There is a monk behind the creation of this place. Apparently, his was the idea to design it in this blend of styles between Chinese and Thai. It isn’t so much the concept that was new, as much as the execution. The huge Guan Yin is often mistaken for a Buddha statue, which is also fitting.   

Guan Yin, is a fascinating deity. Her name is short for Guanshiyin. S-he who looks upon the world with compassion seems to have originally been a he, at the Indian genesis of her story; moreover, there is no shortage of parallels with the virgin Mary.

In Chinese tradition, Guan Yin has a special bond with the dragons: she protected them and returned them to the sea and for this they showed their gratitude by becoming loyal to her, often appearing by her side, or as her mount. 

Detail of dragon stairs In Wat Huay Pla Kang temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

That’s why the bannisters of the stairway that leads to the statue are shaped like white dragons. They are a symbol of high spirituality, wisdom, strength and divine transformation. The Chinese equivalent of the east-Asians nagas, serpentine creatures, guardians of treasures associated with rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans. 

You’ve got a friend in me

Whenever we met another Guan Yin it was a special feeling, almost like bumping into a familiar face, that of the wise friend we all have. Someone you never met but you’ve known has been with you all your life. We felt like someone had an eye out for us, casting a protecting energy on us. 

I’m not sure why we experienced this sort of warmth every time we saw her, but there’s something that pulled the both of us to her, and considering all the places we’ve found her, it makes me think we must not be the only ones who feel this way.

S-he kept us good company at every turn, our friend Guan Yin. In Vietnam s-he is called Quan Am, while in Taoist tradition s-he goes under the name of Cihang Zhenren.

Humble Guan Yin statue in Hanoi Vietnam
Offerings in front of Guan Yin/Quán Thế Âm in Chùa Một Cột, the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Her birthday falls three times a year, one for her mortal birth, one for her religious initiation and one for her attainment of nirvana. Three holy days are dedicated to her, the goddess of mercy, the one who delayed her own nirvana until every creature on this planet is free from suffering.

3birth

I think it’s quite unique, this idea of celebrating multiple times in a life, for every time you are born anew. Perhaps we would all benefit from reminding ourselves that we are meant to change and should celebrate it. Change our mind, our life, our ways, starting new cycles. And, when we cannot change, find within ourselves a mirror, look honestly into it, and face our limits, our eccentricities with painful awareness and compassion.

It takes a lifetime or more, either to change your mind or to be aware of your limits without blaming them on others, and that’s possibly what we are here to learn.

Guan Who?

If we were blown away by the amount and variety of Guan Yin we met during the 9 months we spent on the trip, I can only imagine how many we haven’t met yet. 

How many Guan Yin will we still run into? With how many names will she show up on people’s lips and in their prayers? How many statues and figurines? You’d think we’d be Guanyined-out, but there is so much to learn that we are eager and curious to see her again and again.

Ná Mó Guān Shì Yīn Pú Sà
Blessings, Oh Listener of the World’s Cries, Wise Being!

Everything, every encounter, can be meaningless or full of meaning, depending on our disposition. We can choose whether situations are stepping stones towards questions, answers, and more questions, or whether they are just blind coincidences, the grazing of things and people in a mock organised chaos.

Multi-arms Guan Yin Statue in Marble mountain da nang Vietnam
Guan Yin Statues in Marble mountain da nang Vietnam
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For me, life is walking in and out of awareness. Nothing is here for me and the world is not my oyster. But then, Guan Yin, what are you trying to tell me? Nothing and everything at the same time? Are you saying that just as you can be multiple, I can be multiple too? That things like gender, name, number, have nothing to say that is real about anyone? That compassion is the most revolutionary thing you can feel for your fellow human being or living creature?

Is that what you are saying or is it what I am hearing? Either way, I’m listening.

S-he who perceives the sound of the world, bodhisattva of compassion and goddess of mercy, until we meet again.


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