Mahayana Buddhism and Taoist folk beliefs (and, indeed, hybrids of the two) dominate Taiwanese religious life. One figure central to both religious traditions in Taiwan is a bodhisattva known in Taiwanese as Koan-Im. Most western Buddhists will recognize the bodhisattva through the Mandarin rendering of her name—Guanyin. She is often referred to as the Goddess of Mercy.
This bodhisattva originated in India over two thousand years ago. Her veneration was transmitted along the Silk Road to China and from there to the rest of East Asia. As she encountered new eastern cultures, she underwent numerous transformations and incarnations.
The following is a brief account of the evolution of this much-loved deity in Taiwan.
Note: Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, which means that Buddhist bodhisattvas are technically not deities. These inspiring beings are, instead, far more similar to saints in western religious traditions. Deities, however, are prevalent in Hindu and Taoist beliefs. Due to Hindu influences and the mixing of Buddhist and Taoist practices in the Far East, the distinction between bodhisattvas and gods in popular conception has blurred. In Taiwan, bodhisattvas are venerated in Buddhist temples as great teachers and on Taoist altars as divinities.
The full Mandarin name of the bodhisattva in question is Guānshìyīn Púsà. It means “the bodhisattva who perceives the sounds (cries for help) of the world.” This is a translation of the Sanskrit Avalokitasvara, a corruption of the original Avalokiteśvara.
Avalokiteśvara was originally a male bodhisattva often depicted as an ancient Indian prince. He embodies the virtue of compassion—that ability to be attuned to the common suffering of all sentient beings—an ideal central to Mahayana Buddhism. As the Buddhist faith moved north from India into Central Asia, the virtue of compassion and this associated bodhisattva became increasingly important to new Buddhist communities.
By the time Buddhism began to flourish in China and East Asia in the 7th century, Avalokiteśvara had acquired a central place, alongside the Buddha himself, in East Asian Buddhism.
Early East Asian depictions of this compassion deity largely followed the original Indian portrayal. The bodhisattva often took the form of Indic princes. Increasingly, however, the bodhisattva also assumed the appearance of East Asian noblemen.
An example of the bodhisattva’s portrayal with an East Asian twist can be observed in Japan’s Hōryū-ji at Nara. On the grounds of that ancient temple complex, there stands a 7th-century statue of Kannon (the Japanese name of the same bodhisattva), which is said to be modeled after the likeness of the influential 7th-century Prince Shōtoku of Japan.
Chinese and Korean depictions from the same era also depicted the bodhisattva in the form of an aristocratic male, often with South or Central Asian features, but increasingly with East Asian influences. Guanyin remained a male deity until the end of China’s Tang Dynasty. After that time, the portrayals of this divine figure underwent yet another major transformation.
All through China’s golden Tang era (618-907), Guanyin was depicted with clearly male features, often with a clearly visible mustache and other features traditionally associated with Central and South Asian males. These depictions, in keeping with Indian Buddhist traditions, are based on descriptions found in Buddhist writings and scriptures, such as the Lotus Sutra.
By the 10th century, Chinese artists began to explore different possibilities. They began to depart from descriptions found in Buddhist scriptures, shedding traditional Central and South Asian influences and adopting Taoist aesthetics. The resulting fusion of cultures created a new Guanyin which would spread throughout East Asia.
The most striking aspect of the bodhisattva’s transformations is that of a gender change. Originally depicted as a princely male, the deity gradually lost identifiable male traits and eventually became a divine feminine figure. The transformation was complete by China’s Song era (960-1279).
This new depiction proved so popular that it was quickly adopted throughout all parts of China and rapidly spread throughout East Asia. The new Guanyin became one of the most widely venerated goddesses in China, Korea and Japan.
A thousand years after Buddhism first spread to East Asia, the worship of Guanyin was brought to Taiwan by 17th-century Han immigrants. Alongside the sea goddess, Matsu, the bodhisattva Guanyin is among the island’s most popular deities.
In more recent times, Guanyin’s depiction has continued to incorporate new influences. Inspired by the Christian motif of “the Madonna and Child,” in which the Virgin Mary is portrayed holding baby Jesus, East Asian Buddhists have created similar depictions of the bodhisattva. Many Buddhists believe that this new motherly depiction captures the ideal of compassion so central to their faith.
Notably, Taiwanese Buddhist organizations like the Tzu Chi Foundation have commissioned artworks in recent years depicting a loving Guanyin holding an infant.
Guanyin is the goddess of mercy and compassion. Although originally a male bodhisattva, her depiction as a female deity, evoking a sense of motherly care and love, has become the most popular portrayal of this saintly being.
Over two thousand years, the goddess has transformed numerous times but this process is still ongoing. Her form is still constantly being shaped by new influences as Buddhists in Taiwan and around the world find new ways to express in art her compassionate nature.