The Many Faces Of Guanyin And Buddhism

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Located in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is a Buddhist figural sculpture titled Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara). The sculpture is on display in a room filled with Buddhist relics which have survived from China’s past. Guanyin, a bodhisattva (Buddha to be) is displayed next to Dashizhi, another bodhisattva type which shares the same wood carving and polychrome composition and rests on the same display plinth. In the gallery space, as in the religion itself, these two sculptures are aspects of the larger narrative of Buddhism which has been told and continues to be expressed through numerous characters and metaphors representing the tradition. The gallery room seems to emphasize the idea that the philosophy of Buddhism is meant to be experienced through a multitude of figures and ideas, all representations and aspects of The Buddha. The decisions made by the gallerist reflect that Buddhism can’t be experienced or conceived of as separate from this combination of parts which lead to a greater whole. With this idea in mind, the Guanyin sculpture is the main focus of this essay, but is also thought of in relation to its physical and mythical placement as defined by its surroundings and counterparts and will therefore draw upon the other characters and components of Buddhism in the museum space to understand its place more fully.

Walking from the museum’s main entrance toward the Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art, Guanyin and Dashizi become visible in the distance at the right. Turning in the direction of the sculptures, the room seems to expand as two walls on either side of me and the one directly ahead become figures in pastel greens, golds, and turquoises displaying richly narrated Daoist concepts of cosmic order- ink and colour on clay. Consulting the ROM’s Map Guide I find that I am now facing north, the room falling along the same north-south axis as the Xinghua Monastery from where the paintings in this room were acquired. As mentioned by Lorne, Rösch and Lunsingh Scheurleer, this north-south axis is also the same orientation as Chinese palaces and temple complexes.

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Early Chinese Buddhist worship and practice took place in caves. Mogao cave 254 in China is very well preserved and offers insight to the way that worship and practice likely functioned. As Stanley K. Abe explains, the cave unites the “elements of painting, sculpture, and architecture” together creating a greater experience than the individual mediums could on their own. The room I enter is warmly colored and the lighting is selective and low. There’s a tranquil, religiously charged atmosphere created by the combination of the room and the paintings and the sculptures in it and there is an offering of a glimpse of the feeling of the caves and the way they must have enveloped the devotees of the religion’s past. A congregation of Bodhisattvas of various typologies and sizes stand around a centrally placed column in the room looking outward to the viewers. The central column or pillar often existing within Chinese Buddhist temples suggests circumambulation, defined as “the act of moving around a sacred object or idol” which naturally happens as you follow the logic of this room in the museum.

The Guanyin is now to my right and with its proximity, more details of the lustrous wood composition command my attention. The figure is first approached from behind, its back facing out perhaps to create an entryway or threshold through which to pass into the gallery, but there is also the potential that this figure once held on its back an attached halo which is “often found behind the heads or the entire figures of enlightened beings, symbolizing the light emanating from them” and is common in paintings of this figure also referred to as the Guanyin Water Moon. Illustrating not only its link to enlightenment, the round disk is central to this figure associated with the moon . The sculpture and its neighbor are shown seated upon carved thrones or platforms, a common display for this avatar, the earth it rests upon representing the Guanyin’s 'personal pure land or paradise” Mount Potalaka.

Walking a half circle around the life-sized figure, I come to meet the Guanyin’s face, the expression behind its eyes striking. The figure gazes out through almost closed lids with utmost wisdom and compassion. It holds a deep understanding and gentleness and it’s not surprising to discover that Guanyin is a favored deity in Buddhist China, known as “a bodhisattva who embodies the great compassion of all Buddhas.” Richly adorned, the soft cascades of fabric and jewelry are accentuated with exaggerated folds and highly detailed relief, highlighted with coral and turquoise polychrome, a common way for sculptors to signal the boddhisattva’s “continued presence in the human world.” . As Fong Chow has explained, the opulence and ornamentation of the boddhisatva contrasted with “the simply clothed images of Buddhas or monks” exemplifies the position in the material world that Guanyin occupies, assisting those in the physical realm to realize their spiritual goals.

Striking a relaxed pose commonly referred to as “royal ease”, the boddhisatva sits with its left leg bent, the foot resting on the throne or mass below it. The left hand is resting upon its knee with thumb and middle fingers lightly spread but almost touching in “Shuni Mudra” the hand placement symbolizing “patience and discipline, [helping to] generate a feeling of stability”. The hand may have previously held a lotus flower which would have been typical to this figure, a reference to the scriptures of The Lotus Sutra in which an entire chapter has been devoted to Guanyin, a source of popularity of the deity.

The avatar of Guanyin before me is one of the 33 forms claimed for it to manifest as, appearing in different ways to different types of people, assuming the form most useful to teach the lesson the spiritual seeker in need of guidance. The Guanyin may appear through masculine or feminine form, and though often written about as a “good young man” the figure before me appears more feminine in characteristic and exudes an empathy I’d attribute to that of a mother.

Though the museum’s plaque states that the inviting of the deity into the city of Hongdon was recorded by Jia Yan, the maker of the sculpture is not stated. The sculpture is carved from wood with great skill and detail, but according to William Cohn “in China sculpture was not considered as art. It was a craft of a real practical importance from the religious standpoint, but its products were not regarded as suitable for collection by connoisseurs.” This is interesting when considering the valuable position it now occupies in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, its designation as artifact bringing it closer to the realm of art than the religious spaces it was originally concepted for. As I continue to take in the details of the sculpture in front of me, I note the lapse of more than 800 years since the time of its making in the Shanxi province of China in 1195. The wood of the sculptures from this northern region has largely been identified as a type of willow that grows along the Fen river. These sculptures are noted to have been repainted at least four times, which was a devotional act that only the poor in China would undertake, as in wealthier areas, the sculptures would have been modernized and replaced.

Originating in India, Buddhist thought migrated into China through the established trade routes of goods with “the Roman Empire, the Near and Middle East, India, and southeast Asia” which naturally translated into the exchange of religious and cultural influence. The deity Bodhisattva Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara does not exist in the Buddhism of India, and is stated to be ‘brilliantly created’ by the painter Zhou Fang.”

The icons, ideas, and messages of Buddhism existing in the Royal Ontario Museum have travelled a long distance through time, space, and religious and secular activity to arrive as they are now in the museum setting. Though the permanent exhibition holds many of the traditions of Buddhist temple orientation and set-up, it doesn’t quite feel possible that my experience of Guanyin as a non-religious viewer could amount to that of a religious devotee. Though I leave the museum with feelings of awe and appreciation for the bodhisattva whom I have deeply connected with, once I exit the museum’s doors, I arrive in an outside world devoid of the relics and rituals which keep the Buddhist ideals animated in everyday life.

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