Kannon Bodhisattva (Jp. = Bosatsu), along with Jizo Bodhisattva, is perhaps the most popular deity of the common people in Japan today. Kannon embodies compassion and is one of the most widely worshiped divinities in Japan and mainland Asia. Avalokitesvara, the Sanskrit name for this deity, can be translated as "Lord Who Regards All," and the Sino-Japanese term "Kannon" maintains this nuance, for Kannon literally means "watchful listening," and is often translated as "the one who sees/hears all." This is indeed the task of the compassionate Kannon -- to witness/listen to the prayers and cries (sounds) of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia, Kannon is considered an active emanation of Amida Buddha.
Sanskrit Seed Syllable
for Kannon Bodhisattva
SA in Japan
Sanskrit = Avalokitesvara
Chinese = Guanyin
Japanese = Kannon
Kannon is considered male in the Buddhist traditions of India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. But in China, the Kannon is commonly portrayed as female (for reasons not easily explained or understood). In Japan, the male form predominates in sculpture and art, although female manifestations of Kannon are nonetheless plentiful. Indeed, a persistent femininity clings to Kannon imagery in both pre-modern and modern Japan. This is true in Western nations as well, where Kannon is most commonly known as the "Goddess of Mercy." But the "goddess" part is doubtful and unsupported by any canonical text in the Buddhist scriptures.
The Kannon can appear in many different forms to save people according to their time and place. The Avalokitesvara Sutra mentions 33 specific forms. Says Shaku Soen (deceased), lord abbot of Engakuji Temple in Japan: "She will be a philosopher, merchant, man of letters, person of low birth, or anything as required by the occasion, while her sole aim is to deliver all beings without exception from ignorance and suffering."
In Japanese art and sculpture, the "Sho Kannon" represents the unchangeable form of the deity -- the "pure and sacred" form -- and her main six manifestations are referred to as the Six Kannon (to save those trapped in the Six Realms of Suffering (Reincarnation); see details in Learn More section).
Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese Spellings
- Bodhisattva of Compassion
- Goddess of Mercy or God of Compassion
- One Who Hears the Prayers of the World
- One Who Observes the Sounds of the World
- One Who is Sensitive to the Sufferings of the World
- Hearer of the World's Sounds (or World's Cries)
- Lord Who Looks Down with Pity on All Living Beings
Kannon in Japan. The worship of Kannon Bodhisattva began in Japan in the 7th century, soon after Buddhism reached Japan by way of China and Korea. In Japan, the Kannon is often depicted with eleven faces (Jyuichi-men Kannon; translated as 11-Headed Kannon or 11-Faced Kannon), symbolic of shedding sweetness and mercy in all directions. According to Buddhist lore, Kannon represents the power of Amida Buddha manifested in Bodhisattva form, and s/he is therefore considered one of the principal attendants of Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Many Kannon statues, moreover, contain an image of Amida in the headdress or crown. The Kannon is also often shown with 1,000 (one thousand) arms. This form is known as the Senju Kannon (translated as 1000-Armed Kannon, or 1000-Hands Kannon), and symbolizes Kannon's ability to embrace earth and alleviate the suffering of all people in the earthly realm.
The Kannon, in all her/his manifestations, occupies a major place in the liturgy of Japan's Pure Land sects, whose principal deity of worship is Amida. In Japan, Kannon is also worshipped independently, and widely venerated as a patron of motherhood, fertility, and easy delivery (see Learn More below). The most widely known pilgrimage circuits in Japan devoted to Kannon cover 100 sites, and making the circuit to each in proper order is said to save the believer from hell and to open the gates to everlasting life.
Buddhism for the Common Folk. The three deities Amida, Kannon (this page), and Jizo are intimately connected with Japan's popular Pure Land sects, which came to prominence among the common folk during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333 AD). All three remain the bedrock of folk Buddhism in modern Japan -- Amida for the coming life in paradise, Kannon for salvation in earthly life, and Jizo for salvation from hell. Both Kannon and Jizo serve Amida. The three, along with Fudo Myo-o, are perhaps the most widely venerated Buddhist deities in Japan, and statues of all four, in stone or wood or plastic or ceramic, are found throughout the Japanese islands. Kannon, moreover, appears prominently in the Lotus Sutra, which is the main object of worship in Japan's popular Nichiren sect. In addition, in Asia, there is a grouping called the Four Great Bodhisattva, with each of the four symbolizing a specific aspect of Buddhism. They are Kannon Bodhisattva (compassion), Monju Bodhisattva (wisdom), Fugen Bodhisattva (praxis), and Jizo Bodhisattva (vast patience and salvation from suffering).
Kannon Iconography. Among the statues sold in our eStore, Kannon is sometimes depicted holding a lotus bud. The lotus is a symbol of purity, and in Buddhist art, the Buddhist deities are typically shown seated or standing atop a lotus or holding a lotus. Although a beautiful flower, the lotus grows out of the mud at the bottom of a pond. Buddhist deities are enlightened beings who grew out of the mud of the material world. Like the lotus, they are beautiful and pure even though they grew up in the "muddy" material world. The 1,000-Armed Kannon statues offered at this eStore portray Kannon holding a pilgrim's staff (Jp. = shakujou) in her right hand, with her left hand grasping a Vajra Club. The former traditionally consists of a wooden pole topped with a finial with two sections, each with three rings, for a total of six rings, which represent the Six States of Existence -- the cycle of samsara, the cycle of suffering and reincarnation. In Japan, Jizo Bodhisattva and Kannon Bodhisattva are often shown holding this staff. NOTE: Due to the small size of our eStore statues, however, the pilgrim's staff is not carved with six individual rings, but is instead shown as a pole with two holes, each hole representing three rings, for a total of six rings. The latter symbol, the Vajra Club, represents the indestructibility of Buddhist law and its power to vanquish evil. Again, due to the small size of the statuette, the Vajra Club is a simplified representation of the typically three-pronged Vajra.
Six Basic Forms of Kannon. Like Japanese groupings of the Six Jizo (see Jizo page), the Kannon in Japan is also shown in six basic forms to protect people in all six realms of rebirth (reincarnation). The six forms of Kannon are shown below. For more on the Six States of Rebirth, see Learn More.
The Six Realms of Rebirth
33 Manifestations of Kannon. One reason why Kannon assumes 33 different forms reflects the importance of the number 33 in Buddhism's early development. The number 33 is sacred in Buddhism, for it is believed that the Buddha saves mankind by assuming 33 different forms. More accurately, on Mt. Sumeru (Jp. = Shumisen), which is the heavenly palace of the Buddha and all followers, there are 33 deities who guard and protect the realm. They are commanded by Taishakuten, who governs the other 32 gods who live in the Palace of Correct Views (Jp. = Zenkenjo) in the Buddhist heaven (Sanskrit = Trayastrimsha) on the peak of Mt. Sumeru.
Japanese Mantra for Kannon Bosatsu
LEARN MORE ABOUT KANNON AT THE
A-TO-Z PHOTO DICTIONARY (SISTER SITE)
- Kannon Bodhisattva -- Guide to Kannon in Japan
(Outside link, many photos)
- Kannon Photo Tour from Japan)
(Outside link; 40+ photos)
- 11-Headed Kannon. Learn about the meaning and signifigance of the various heads/faces.
- Japanese Pilgrimages to 100 Sites Sacred to Kannon. Overview of the traditional 100 Kannon temples along the main pilgrimage routes in Japan. Making the circuit to each in proper order is said to save the believer from Hell and to open the gates to everlasting life. (Outside link)
- Kamakura Pilgrimage to 33 Sites Sacred to Kannon. According to the Lotus Sutra, Kannon appears in 33 different manifestations to alleviate the suffering of all living beings. Although the Kamakura Pilgrimage does not feature statues from all 33 manifestations, there are nonetheless 33 old and famed temples sacred to Kannon in Kamakura. (Outside link)
- Patrons of Motherhood, Fertility, and Easy Delivery in Japan (Outside link)
- Kannon, Protector of Children in Japan. Learn about Kannon's various manifestations as protector of children and childbirth, including Juntei Kannon & Koyasu Kannon. (Outside link)
- Six States of Reincarnation (outside link)
The Six Realms of Rebirth are known by many names, including Samsara (Sanskrit) and Wheel of Life (Tibet). The Six Kannon (see above) protect people in all six realms.