March 12th, the 19th day of the second lunar month, is celebrated by Buddhists as Guanyin’s birthday. Guanyin, an enlightened being called a Bodhisattva, is also known in Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara and in English as the Goddess of Mercy, and her statue can be found in most Buddhist temples.
Read on to find out more about her and the celebration!
Guanyin’s full name is Guanshiyin, 观世音, which means ‘one who perceives the world’s lamentations’. She is believed to come to the aid of the desperate and can take any form in order to help them, making her one of the most beloved divinities in Buddhism. Worshipped in male form up until the 12th century, Guanyin gradually became female over time, and is now often represented as a woman in white robes, wearing necklaces. In her right hand is a water jar containing pure water, and in her left hand is a willow branch, which she uses to control the weather, bring rain to drought-stricken areas.
There are many legends involving Guanyin. One is that she was originally a girl named Miao Shan (妙善). She began chanting sutras as soon as she could speak, and begged her father (in some stories, the king) to let her become a nun in the temple rather than being married off. Her father allowed her to work in the temple but in order to discourage her he asked the monks to give her the hardest chores. However the animals came from all around to help her, and her father became so angry he tried to burn the temple down. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands, suffering no burns. Her father then tried to have her executed but the executioner’s axe shattered. To save the executioner from her father’s anger she eventually allowed herself to be killed. She was about to cross over into heaven when she heard cries of suffering back on earth, so she asked to be sent back and decided to stay until all suffering ends. Other versions of the story tell that she was taken to safety by a tiger before she died, hence she is often depicted in art with a tiger.
Another common representation of Guanyin is with multiple arms (a ‘thousand arm Guanyin’). According to legend, she became so overwhelmed by the suffering of the people that her head split into eleven pieces. So Amitabha Buddha gave her eleven heads to try to deal with it. Then when she tried to help all the people her arms split into several pieces too, and Amitabha Buddha tried to help her again by giving her a thousand arms to better help the suffering.
Chinese Buddhists celebrate her birthday by going to the temple to chant, burn incense and light candles, or doing the same at home. Some will also make a pilgrimage to Mount Putuo, located on an island in Zhejiang Province. It is believed to be Guanyin’s ‘place of awakening’ in China, where she went to meditate after her return to earth, and has a 33-meter-tall statue of Guanyin.
Will you be marking Guanyin’s birthday? Do you think it’s important to commemorate such dates, or that it’s just a cultural observation? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter. We always love to hear from you!
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