Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 2, March 26 - April 1
ARCHIVE EDITION


 
 
THOUSAND-ARMS AYI  

Hey Ayi,
Last week you went off about gods but you didnít mention the goddess with hundreds of arms that Iíve seen in tem-ples all over China. Who is she and whatís her story?

Signed,
Disarmed

Dear Disarmed,
You should be ashamed of yourself. You are referring to the mother of all kind ayis, the wonderful goddess of mercy, the beautiful and multi-armed Guanyin. She is the most important of all Chinese and Japanese Buddhist divinities due at least partially to the meaning of her name: "One who hears the prayers of the world." Metaphorically, guan means looks on, yin means sound (of prayers). Guanyin is a savior and deliverer, a sea goddess prayed to by sailors in a storm, the bestower of children and the idealization of all that is considered gentle, graceful and compassionate in women.

Guanyin is usually thought to be a Sinified manifestation of Avalokitesvara who was an Indian bodhisattva - the Buddhist equivalent of a saint, a compassionate being who puts off enlightenment to devote her or himself to the enlightenment of all other sentient beings. Another famous incarnation of Avalokitesvara is Chenresig, the principal deity of Tibet who is manifested in every Dalai Lama.

According to Chinese accounts, Avalokitesvara was manifested in Guanyin, the third daughter of King Zhuang of the Spring and Autumn period (770-460 BC). Her father wanted her to get married but she wanted to become a nun. The old man punished her for her willfulness by making her clean out toilets in the temple but she would not relent. So he ordered her execution by sword. The sword broke into a thousand pieces so her father ordered her strangled to death while she was sleeping. This approach finally worked but Guanyinís arrival in hell caused the underworld to turn into a paradise. Yama, the king of hell, did not appreciate this renovation at all and sent her back to the land of the living. She was transported to the tiny mountain island of Putuo Shan off the coast of Zhejiang Province. Guanyin lived on the island for nine years, healing the sick and saving mariners from shipwreck. Putuo Shan is consequently one of the sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism and still attracts pilgrims from all over Asia. While Guanyin was doing good deeds, her wicked father fell ill but the ever-compassionate Guanyin cut off her arms and plucked out her eyes to use as ingredients for a medicine that saved the old codgerís life. To show his gratitude he ordered the construction of a statue in her honor telling the sculptor to make the statue quanshou quanyan meaning "with completely formed arms and eyes." The sculptor was probably from Henan and he misunderstood. He made the sculpture with qianshou qianyan "a thousand arms and eyes." From that day on, Guanyin has been represented with a lot of arms and eyes.

Should you wish to pay your respects to Guanyin, your ayi recommends you take a trip to Putuo Shan. Even if Guanyin doesnít reward you with children, happiness, health or wealth you will have a great weekend. The island is a serene retreat from modernity where you can happily spend a few days walking on the mountain and investigating quiet temples and holy caves.

PUTUO SHAN:
AYIíS MINI TRAVEL GUIDE
Getting There From Shanghai
Fast Catamaran: (4 hours, including bus trip) •167
Slow Boat: (11 hours) •130
Ticket Office: Southwest Corner of The Bund and Jinling Donglu, Shanghai
Tickets are easily booked through CITS Shanghai: Telephone: 021-6323-8750

Accommodation
Sanshengtang Hotel
Housed in a beautiful temple-style building, rooms start at •235 (double room).
Telephone: (0580) 609-1277

Ronglei Yuan
Overhung by giant trees, this quiet hotel sometime accepts foreigners and sometimes doesnít. Double rooms are •150 and up.
Telephone: (0580) 609-1262.

 

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