Compassion: Quick Bite

Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re dipping our toes into Buddhism with a closer look at an enchanting statue of Guanyin (1127–1279 CE, Southern Song Dynasty) on display at the San Diego Museum of Art. This statue of the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy was carved from 16 pieces of wood that have been fused together and decorated with colorful pigments. Join me for a quick head-to-toe tour.

Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Southern Seas (1127–1279 CE, Southern Song Dynasty) China

San Diego Museum of Art, photo by cjverb (2019)

Starting at the top, zoom in and check out Guanyin’s elaborate hair and headdress which includes a bonus mini-Buddha on top. Note too, his fleshy cheeks and somber expression. But don’t be fooled, Guanyin is here to help and no doubt focusing on listening to the trials and tribulations of his worshippers.

Close-Ups of Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Southern Seas (1127–1279 CE, Southern Song Dynasty) China

San Diego Museum of Art, photo by cjverb (2019)

Moving down to his torso, notice his chunky necklace and the flowy-ness of his robes. These features are quintessential Guanyin and indicate his royal status. Note how his left hand dangles casually on his propped up knee, while a stiff right arm supports him. Guanyin’s right leg, partly missing, dangles from a rocky pedestal. This perch is a symbol of Guanyin’s mythical sanctuary of Mount Potala and his pose of “royal ease” is meant to radiate warmth and welcome.

Close-Ups of Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Southern Seas (1127–1279 CE, Southern Song Dynasty) China

San Diego Museum of Art, photo by cjverb (2019)

When I stumbled across this lovely statue in the San Diego Museum of Art it made me smile. His impish pose appears playful, friendly, easy going. I could imagine him kicking his right leg back and forth and encouraging me and my fellow museum patrons to come talk, play a game, or have some tea. This laidback vibe was the goal Buddhist artisans hoped to achieve when creating statues of the infinitely compassionate Guanyin.

Left: Guanyin (12th-mid 14th century) China, Penn Museum, photo by Mary Harrsch, Wikimedia Commons

Right: Guanyin (1115-1234; Late Song or Jin Dynasty), British Museum

Guanyin Background:  Guanyin means, “observing the sounds of the world”, and is a bodhisattva of compassion in China. A bodhisattva is a devout Buddhist, who has attained enlightenment, but delays nirvana so that he or she can help mortals break the cycle of suffering, and reach their own enlightenment and nirvana. According to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in order to become a bodhisattva one must have been royalty in a previous life.

Left: Avalokiteśvara (9th-10th century) India, British Museum

Center: Bodhisattva Senju Kannon (1538) Japan, British Museum

Right: Head of Lokeshvara (late 12th century) Cambodia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Guanyin is based on Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in India. This popular bodhisattva has many different names and is depicted in various forms, depending on the era and culture. For example, in Cambodia and Thailand this bodhisattva is called Lokeshvara, while in Japan this bodhisattva is female and called Kannon.

Left: Guanyin (Qing Dynasty; 1644–1911) China, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Right: Guanyin (16th century) China, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Around 1,000 CE, some versions of Guanyin were portrayed as female. Feminine portrayals feature Guanyin in a more modest, standing pose, and in some cases holding a baby. Women would pray to these female bodhisattvas for help with pregnancy and childbirth.

Fun Buddhist Fact: Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lamas are bodhisattvas of compassion. To learn more, click on this Dalai Lama link.

Tenzin Gyatso,14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (2007) photo by Luca Galuzzi, Wikimedia Commons

If you’d like to learn more about Buddhism, click on this Basics of Buddhism link, courtesy of PBS. If you’d like to view more lovely examples of Guanyin, click on this Guanyin link, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That wraps up our look at Guanyin. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. Until then, be safe, be kind…practice compassion!  And always, take care 🙂

Photo by reneebigelow, Pixabay

Cover photo by Sasin Tipchai, courtesy of Pixabay.


Britannica: Guanyin

Dalai Lama

Memorial Art Gallery University of Rochester: Bodhisattva Guanyin on Mount Potala (early 13th century)

Memorial Art Gallery University of Rochester: Explore Guanyin

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Guanyin

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion Video

Park, Sharon (Spring 2020) LCC Humanities 211: Art History to the Renaissance, Course Notes

PBS: Basics of Buddhism


San Diego Museum of Art: Guanyin, Southern Song Dynasty (early 1200s)

Wikimedia Commons: Guanyin

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