With the first wave of Buddhism that swept the entire archipelago, a Hindu bodhisattva arrived in Japan: Avalokiteshvara. In India, he was considered the spiritual son of Buddha Amitabha (in Japanese – Amida), and also the “ocean of compassion” as well as the embodiment of Mahayana virtues.
After settling in the lands of China, this male bodhisattva figure was transformed into the female deity, Kuan Yün – the goddess of mercy – but, upon her arrival in Japan, she was named, “Kannon” (with a Japanized Chinese name). In the opinion of theologians, however, he is still the spiritual son of Amida. He had already reached this stage of his existence, in which his sexuality ceased to have any significance. Most of the worshippers consider Kannon to be female.
Both in Japanese (writing in foreign languages) and non-Japanese literature, Kannon is consistently called a goddess. It is assumed that this is a female character, but it is not often that her depiction in this form is encountered, for example, in paintings or statues of Kannon, which could be considered as female portraits. There are also a few purely male effigies. Most of the images (which are immensely numerous) present a figure of unspecified sex.
According to the Buddhist canon, the Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, before reaching the final liberation, Kannon paused to help others, showing them the way to liberation. In order to be able to act as effectively as possible, he assumed thirty-three different personalities, depending on whom he was dealing with at that moment. This theological assumption has found its application in pilgrimages to the “thirty-three holy places in the western provinces”. These types of pilgrimages have been going on continuously for over 1,200 years. Modern pilgrims use widely available means of transport, and sometimes organise special coach trips. However, one can still meet pilgrims acting as if they had been transported straight from the Middle Ages! Such pilgrims have very simple and loose clothing, wear wide straw cane hats on their heads, and straw sandals on their feet. When walking, they lean on pilgrim sticks and beggars’ bags hang down from their backs. Interestingly, it is rare for a pilgrim to know exactly why they are crossing vast areas of the country to visit thirty-three temples. Thus, the theological justification has ceased to be relevant – only the magic number thirty-three remained – as well as a deep faith in the goodness of the goddess Kannon.
The cult of the goddess Kannon very quickly went beyond the discourse of theologians – beyond the closed circles of the Buddhist clergy – and established a very strong position among the mass of society. Its followers see Kannon as the goddess of unlimited mercy, who helps all sick, weak, or afflicted people. She also brings relief in pain as well as comfort in misfortune. She takes care of married couples and pregnant women, giving them the possibility of an easy delivery.
Since the earliest times, Kannon has had avid worshippers among merchants and aristocrats, and the numerous temples devoted to her cult belong to the richest in the country. It is a rare to see statues of Kannon standing, for example, at road intersections or in the middle of nowhere.
One of the many local legends about the blessings of the goddess Kannon is as follows:
Once upon a time there lived a samurai who was extremely pious. For this reason, he devoted a lot of time to pilgrimages to Kiyomizu. When he had completed the two rounds of the “pilgrimage of a thousand days”, he was bursting with pride. From then on, he was sure that it would fully secure his salvation. He was still, however, an ordinary samurai, an ordinary man ... He had a certain flaw: a passion for gambling. This flaw turned out to be the cause of his misfortune. When bad times intruded on his life, he lost his savings, his clothes, swords, and even the roof over his head. He then turned to his opponent and presented him with a certain offer, which was the renunciation of all the benefits of the pilgrimage, which was at stake in the next duel. His opponent got the better of him, because he won again. As a consequence, the pair made a joint journey to Kiyomizu, to put the transaction on paper in the presence of monks.
This was a moment in the samurai’s life when nothing could save him. He had sunk low very quickly and finally died a wretch in prison. The second samurai, who had won the fight with him for the benefits of the pilgrimage, enjoyed great luck in everything he did. He became a beloved, respected, and rich man.
*A contemporary image of Senju-Kannon (one of the images of the goddess Kannon) may be associated primarily with performances, during which groups of artists perform characteristic dance choreography, aimed at presenting the goddess of a thousand hands.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.
See shrine with the Senju-Kannon Bosatsu figure in Małopolska’s Virtual Museums collection.
Jolanta Tubielewicz, Mitologia Japonii, Warszawa 1977, p. 175–186.