Basic Buddhism
The Image of Kwan-Yin of Thousand Eyes and Thousand Arms
By Rev. Thich Hanh Tuan
12/05/2011 03:27 (GMT+7)
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Above is the picture of Kwan-Yin of Thousand Arms and Eyes. The real statue was 3.6 meters tall, carved from wood and painted and inlaid with gold, and is displayed at the Ancient Arts Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is the replica of the original statue still in use at the Ninh Phuc Temple – also known as the “Pencil Stupa” temple because of its pointed construction – in Bac Ninh, North Vietnam.

The intricate carving, experienced precision, well-balanced arrangement and mighty sitting position of the statue predictably indicate the highest artistic achievement in the ancient Vietnamese Buddhist arts of the 17th century. This particular statue has been a loaner for museum display worldwide on many occasions.

For a while now, this statue of Kwan-Yin of Thousand Arms and Eyes is used as standard for numerous carving and sculpting of thousands other statues being revered at temples throughout Vietnam as well as many community temples all around the world. Some are sculpted by many well-known sculptors and are valuable in artistry, as well as representation of wisdom, compassion, and total enlightenment and salvation.

In Vietnam, the tradition of having Kwan-Yin statue made of ceramic, stone, or wood carving placed in individuals’ homes went back all the way to the Mac dynasty around the end of the 16th century (1527-1592). It was usually the statue of Kwan-Yin in the lotus-sitting position that became very popular around this time and remained one of the favorites among Vietnamese Buddhists. But it was also during this same era that sculpting Kwan-Yin statues especially that of the Thousand Eyes and Arms has become the highlight of Buddhist arts.

Figure 1 Quan Am Chua But Thap

Figure 1 Quan Am Chua But Thap

In Vietnam this tradition of choosing Kwan-Yin of the Thousand Arms and Eyes has been of long-standing and needs to be further studied and thoroughly understood. The statue originated from the most commonly chanted mantra of Great Compassion (s. Maha Karuna Dharani, ch. Da-Bei Zhou, v. Chú Đại Bi) which in its complete long name in Sanskrit is called the Avalokitesvaraya Bodhisattvaya Mahasattvaya Karuna Dharani mantra and translated to the Great Compassion mantra of Kwan-Yin of Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes. It is one of the most favorites chanting mantra not just among the monastics but with lay practitioners as well. No one knows of when it became so universal and in general use. History indicated that during the Ly dynasty, one of the well-known Zen master Tu Dao Hanh (? – 1117) was known to practice reciting this Great Compassion mantra one hundred times per day, plus thousands of other monastic members were said to exclusively choose this mantra in their daily practice. Tradition has it that Master Tu Dao Hanh of Thay Temple in Ha Tay province of Vietnam, attained enlightenment through the miraculous efficacy of this particular mantra of the Thousand Armed and Eyed Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva.

From the 13th century onwards, Bodhisattva Kwan-Yin of Thousand Arms and Eyes was more recognized by the general public. Many statues were created for large and famous temples. However there is no evidence of any remnants of these statues from this prominent era in the majority of temples in North Vietnam. The Great Compassion temple was also constructed during this period. Its name alone is enough to give us the sense of how profound the influence of this mantra was to the general public, and how they adored, revered, and believed in the marvels of this Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva.

Even though during the 15th century in Vietnam, Buddhism went through a period of low hibernation, there were still evidence of numerous statues of Kwan-Yin being made and that the faith in Kwan-yin was still very strong, despite a difficult and weakened time for Buddhism in history. Once Buddhism regained its status in the mid 16th century, the same statue of Thousand Armed and Eyed Kwan-yin also resurfaced, and entered into its highly-renowned artistry that we know now. Among them are statues depicting many “folklore” Kwan-Yin such as Kwan-Yin sitting on Mountain, “Thi Kinh” Kwan-Yin, “Dieu Thien” Kwan-Yin, and Kwan-Yin with Child…

The Kwan-Yin with Child is a statue of a female Bodhisattva – sometimes also known as Thi Kinh Kwan-Yin. She carried a child on her arms, and was found to originate sometimes during the 17th century and has become familiar and well celebrated in the 18th century. The female compassionated features of this statue appealed to women who cannot bear children or have no sons to carry on the family legacy. In the ancient Asian – Vietnamese included – social and cultural belief, married women who cannot give their husbands and family sons are doomed; these women often came to “pray” to Kwan-Yin with Child in order to have boys to fulfill the task of their dedication to the ancestors. This same Kwan-Yin also is the patron for those unmarried women often ridiculed by society.

The folklore story of Kwan-Yin with Child, also called “Thi Kinh” Kwan-Yin was made into legendary plays, folklore musicals, as well as entered the world of literature. So it is well known by the older generation. And the legend goes like this:

There was a beautiful woman of good standards whose family name was Mang, and her given name was Thi Kinh. She married a scholar named Thien Si. She devoted her time taking care of him as a good wife should, assuring his comfort and well-being for long hours of studying. She wanted her husband to pass all his difficult examinations and to succeed at becoming a prestigious officer in society.

One particular night, exhausted with hours at the books, Thien Si fell asleep at his study desk. While sitting next to him and knitting his sweater, Thi Kinh noticed a misdirected hair growing backward from his neck. She thought that the hair might bother her husband and cause trouble for him. So without waking him up, she used the scissors to try and remove it for him. Unfortunately, Thien Si woke up from his sleep at the very moment when she raised the sharp knife. Startled at seeing his own wife with a knife held close to his throat, he screamed for help saying that his wife was out to murder him. His mother came and the two of them threw Thi Kinh out of the house to return to her home village, without even giving her a chance to explain.

Wrongly blamed, unfairly treated, Thi Kinh left her husband’s home. She could not think of returning to her parents because that would bring a bad name to her family. So desperate and saddened, she wandered far away to another village, eventually transformed herself into a man, and entered a temple to start a monastic life with devoted chanting morning and night. Later Thi Kinh (now a novice monk) was given the dharma name Kinh Tam and after a time practicing diligently and with sincere effort, his master allowed him to take the vow to become a Buddhist monk.

But not too long afterwards, other troubles surfaced, pounding Kinh Tam on the head once again. A beautiful rich girl named Thi Mau, who frequented the temple on occasions, had fallen in love with the handsome and saintly Kinh Tam. When Kinh Tam would not return her love (there is no way because Kinh Tam was really the female Thi Kinh), she turned nasty and found way to revenge for being rejected.

Thi Mau then had intimate relationship with one of the servant in her household and became pregnant. When confronted, she blamed that Kinh Tam had taken advantage of her and was the father for her unborn child.

Kinh Tam was taken to court, was fined and punished. He was ridiculed for being a monk who did unthinkable and disgraceful things. Injustice struck once more, the young monk was held responsible for something he couldn’t have done. But Kinh Tam would never reveal his true identity. His master, with much compassion and love, paid the extravagant fine and brought Kinh Tam back to the temple, but he was no longer allowed to associate and function together with the rest of the monks. He had to live out by the bell tower at the three-entrance gate.

Meanwhile after giving birth to a little boy, Thi Mau left the baby at the temple’s gate. Being a female by nature with an innate love for children, Kinh Tam took in the baby and raised it with the utmost care and love only a mother could provide. Each day the monk Kinh Tam went to the village begging for milk to feed the baby. This got the village’s tongue wagging a whole lot more than before. When the boy was three years old, Kinh Tam became severely ill. At this point, Kinh Tam/Thi Kinh had no choice but to contact Thi Kinh’s own parents to confess and to request that they would come and take care of the baby. Then he/she passed away.

Only after Kinh Tam’s death that everyone found out that he was actually a she, and that his/her love and sacrifice was unbelievably great, as well as his/her pain and hardship suffered twice was unbelievably unjust. Now everyone admired and revered Thi Kinh, they gave her the best and most solemn funeral rites, trying to undo her injustice.

In the middle of the ceremony, suddenly there was a pleasant aroma all over in the air, and when people looked up toward the sky, they saw the shadow of Thi Kinh in the form of Kwan-Yin on high clouds with brilliant haloes and five-colored lights radiated brightly from her. She was then deemed Thi-Kinh Quan Am.

From this story came the statue of Kwan-Yin in the female personification in her last life. This particular Vietnamese form of Kwan-Yin did not appear with thousand arms and thousand eyes that was getting more known and famous like the one at But Thap Temple in Bac Ninh province. However, this story of Kwan-Yin with Child has become very dear to the common woman traditionally being a mother with her child on her loving arms. For the ridiculed women who cannot bear male children in the patriarchal societies that prefer male over female offspring to carry the family lineage, this Kwan-Yin is regarded as the god to whom they make sacrilegious offerings in seeking the birth of boys. This is not only relevant in the Vietnamese Buddhism, but takes roots in the traditional cultures of many south east Asian countries including China, Japan and Korea. On the Buddhist standpoint, it originates from the “Universal Gate (of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva)” chapter of the Lotus Sutra (v. Kinh Phổ Môn).

In this Universal Gate chapter, there is a section that directly mentioned the sacred and miraculous prayer to this Bodhisattva in women who called upon her to seek the birth of boys or girls. It is translated as:

"If women who seek sons bow and make offerings to Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, they will give birth to blessed, virtuous, and wise sons. If they seek daughters, they will give birth to upright and handsome daughters who have planted roots of virtue in previous lives and who are regarded and respected by all. (from the Translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society in USA.

The original Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit language, as well as few direct translations to English do not distinctly specify the sex of this Kwan-Yin (Avalokiteshvara) Bodhisattva. But in the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions, Kwan-Yin or Quan Am is mostly known to have a female physique. And through the folklore story told above, one can see the influence of female personification of Kwan-Yin in the Vietnamese Buddhist culture.

Most older Buddhist practitioners of Vietnamese ethnicity should have heard or known about this “Quan Am Thi Kinh” as well as “Quan Am with Child” stories that have been very popular for quite some times. We retold the story mainly for the new generation of young folks who have not had the chance to find out, and who would apparently be astonished and confused at seeing some statues of Kwan-Yin with loving look of a mother with a child on her arms, or children nearby. This truly originated from Vietnam only.

Besides Kwan-Yin with Child, and Quan Am Thi Kinh, there is also another form of Kwan-Yin that originated from the Chinese cultural beliefs of the early 11th century called Kwan-Yin Dieu Thien.

During the early years of the 11th century, there was an emperor who had no sons to pass down the throne. The queen gave birth to three successive girls who were the most beautiful women. The two older ones grew up and married rich princes. The youngest daughter, named Dieu Thien, just desired a spiritual life of a nun in a monastery. Due to her sincerity, diligence, persistence, and great practice effort, she was able to enter many layers of hell-dwelling habitats and rescued numerous souls and beings from purgatory. She went into the high mountains and meditated for nine years until attaining miraculous healing powers. With this blessed healing powers, she cured her king-father of his terminal illness by sacrificing her own body parts for him, and alleviated the pain and suffering of many people from diseases and illnesses by appearing as a kind physician. And finally appearing as Kwan-yin Bodhisattva, she converted her whole royal clan to follow the right path to attain salvation.

It is hard to pinpoint when the above story from China was orally transmitted to our Vietnamese folklore treasure chest; but it was right around the 16th century when Kwan-Yin Dieu Thien started to be commonly known in the general population. On a stone inscription in 1578 during the Mac dynasty, a famed scholar Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585) had mentioned Dieu Thien Kwan-Yin being installed at Cao Duong temple. It also explained Dieu Thien was a special icon of the gentle and compassionate Buddhist teaching. Not until the end of the 17th or early 18th century that the tales about Dieu Thien and Quan Am Nam Hai (possibly the same or slight variant of the same story) were written in the Nôm script (chữ Nôm is an adapted Vietnamese script using part Chinese characters and part newly invented Vietnamese characters) and started to show up in our literature.

Meanwhile, the Kwan-Yin of Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes is found to be in close relation with the recitation of the Great Compassion Darani Mantra. It eventually became an enormous iconography for many Buddhist temples in our country. The Kwan-Yin in these folklore stories literally gave us an explanation to the odd representation with many hands and eyes of this Bodhisattva. These stories also bound to the social beliefs of the people that women have to bear male offspring’s to be dutifully pious to the family ancestry.

In reality, only the large temples or the elite class in society have the resources and capability to order the sculpting of such behemoth and intricately detailed statues like the one still remained at the But Thap temple in North Vietnam.

The Vietnamese Buddhist followers always know of Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva as one who manifests in numerous personifications for aid and rescue missions. In the Pure land sect, on the other hand, Kwan-Yin is also revered as the helper of Amitabha Buddha in the Pure Land of the Eastern realm in guiding the recent-deaths to their blissful eternal non-returning place. Kwan-Yin is also seen as the gentle and magnificent Buddha who resides over the Nam Hai ocean to watch over and rescue those misfortune souls lost or in danger out at sea.

Incidentally, the million of Vietnamese Boat people, on their quest for freedom and dangerous escape by sea, have lots of miraculous stories where they are saved by just truly believing and praying to Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva of Thousand Eyes and Arms. It is no wonder that Kwan-Yin needs thousand arms and thousand eyes, because sentient beings are numerous, and they are not just in danger and need to be rescued from the ocean, but from the sea of ignorance and sufferings in which they are forever submerged as well. Moreover, Kwan-Yin with her inconceivable and immense compassion, would also reach out to those unfortunate souls who have fallen into many levels of purgatory and who really needed liberation as well.

The doctrine of compassion and wisdom together with the profound concept of salvation and enlightenment in the Mahayana Buddhist teachings have ingrained in our body and soul, penetrated deep into our very own breathing and laughter since the very beginning of Buddhism. And it is the iconic statue of Kwan-Yin (Quan Am) of Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes that manifests and represents such philosophical profundity.

Namo Great Compassion Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva Mahasattva.

From Truc Lam Temple, Chicago, Illinois

Sunday, April 29, 2007 on the occasion of Statue Placement Ceremony of the newly acquired statue of Quan Am of Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes.


                        Viên Minh (The Buddhist Translation Group)

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