Kannon Bodhisattva (観音菩薩), also known by such names as Guan-Yin, Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara, and so on, is one of the most popular bodhisattvas in all of Buddhism, and whose devotion cuts across many sectarian lines, but Kannon is also one of the most difficult figures in Buddhism to explain to someone who is not a Buddhist.
Older English translations describe Kannon as the Goddess of Mercy, but this is pretty far off the mark. First, bodhisattvas are not gods, though they are high revered figures in Buddhism.
Second, Kannon is somewhat unusual in how he/she is very fluid in gender.
The main Buddhist text that introduces Kannon is the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which is sometimes colloquially known as the “Kannon Sutra”. In this sutra, it describes how Kannon takes whatever form is necessary to teach and inspire another being. Considering the following passage:
If they need a rich man to be saved, immediately he becomes a rich man and preaches the Law [the Buddha-Dharma] for them.
If they need a householder to be saved, immediately he becomes a householder and preaches the Law for them.
If they need a chief minister to be saved, immediately he becomes a chief minister and preaches the Law for them.
If they need a Brahman [a priest] to be saved, immediately he becomes a Brahman and preaches the Law for them.
If they need a monk, a nun, a layman believer, or a laywoman believer and preaches the Law for them.
If they need the wife of a rich man, of a householder, a chief minister, or a Brahman to be saved, immediately he becomes those wives and preaches the Law for them.Translation by Burton Watson
Because of the fluidity of Kannon’s identity, he/she is portrayed different across many Buddhist cultures, and even in the same Buddhist culture under different forms.
For example, when visiting a certain Vietnamese Buddhist temple near my home, I took a couple different photos of Kannon:
The picture on the left shows a more princely Kannon with 1,000 arms, each holding a different object. This version of Kannon symbolizes the countless ways and means of helping sentient beings. The statue of Kannon in the middle is a more masculine form symbolizing virtue and authority (威徳). Notice the sword. And finally, the picture on the right, depicts Kannon in a more motherly form, an embodiment of compassion. This final form, popularly depicted in Chinese culture is probably what gave rise to the notion of the “goddess of mercy” in English, despite its imprecise nature.
As we see in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra,1 these are just many of the Kannon Bodhisattva takes to inspire, teach and lead sentient beings to Awakening.
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
1 The 25th chapter as a devotional text and recitation is pretty common across East Asian Buddhism, and is also thought to be the source of an even shorter devotional called the Ten Verse Kannon Sutra.