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Kannon: Buddhist Gods – Discover Their Peaceful Teachings

Kannon is a significant figure in Buddhism, known as the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. This revered being is worshiped throughout Eastern and Southern Asia, with a particularly strong following in Japan. In Japanese mythology, Kannon takes on divine characteristics and is considered one of the most widely venerated bodhisattvas in the country.

Also known as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit and Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon is often depicted as a goddess of mercy. The deity can take on various forms, such as Senju Kannon and Juichimen Kannon. With different aspects and origins across many traditions, Kannon is a complex and multifaceted figure in Buddhist mythology.

Ancient texts and scriptures outline the numerous roles and responsibilities of Kannon, who is often sought for assistance and guidance. Pilgrimages dedicated to Kannon are common in Japan, and the bodhisattva’s compassionate presence is depicted across various forms of Buddhist art. Kannon brings solace and salvation to those in need, making it a highly esteemed figure in the world of Buddhist gods.

Origins of Kannon

Mythological Beginnings

Kannon, a compassionate Buddhist deity, traces its origins back to India. The deity was initially known as Avalokiteśvara, or “One Who Perceives All.” As Buddhism spread, so did the veneration of Kannon, as the deity took on various forms and interpretations.

Historical Development

Kannon worship began around the 1st or 2nd century AD in India, where it was associated with the male deity Avalokiteshvara. From there, the practice diffused throughout Asia, reaching countries like China, Korea, and Japan. In the process, Kannon transformed into a mostly female figure representing mercy and compassion.

India: Avalokiteshvara – “One Who Perceives All”

China: Guanyin – 観音 – “One who Perceives the Sounds of the World”

Japan: Kannon – 観音 – Modern rendering of Guanyin

This evolution of Kannon can be seen in the varying depictions of the deity. For example, the Indian and Tibetan representation of Avalokiteshvara is typically male, whereas the Chinese and Japanese depictions are mostly female. Despite these differences, Kannon remains a widely revered figure, embodying the virtues of compassion and mercy across various cultures.

Forms of Kannon

Thousand-Armed Kannon

The Thousand-Armed Kannon, also known as Senju Kannon, is a common representation of Kannon. Although some statues have a full 1,000 arms, most have fewer. The multitude of arms symbolize her ability to assist countless beings.

Eleven-Headed Kannon

Another popular depiction is the Eleven-Headed Kannon, or Juichimen Kannon. The added heads symbolize Kannon’s ability to look in all directions to help sentient beings. Sometimes, this form is also combined with the Thousand-Armed Kannon, creating a fusion of both characteristics.

Horse-Headed Kannon

The Horse-Headed Kannon is a less common form of the deity that typically represents swift assistance. This particular representation is often associated with travelers who seek protection and guidance on their journeys.


Cundi, a form of Kannon predominantly found in East Asian Buddhism, has 18 arms and is sometimes seen as a goddess of fertility and childbirth. Worshippers may venerate Cundi in hopes of gaining protection during these crucial stages of life.

Kannon in Various Cultures

Kannon in Japanese Buddhism

In Japan, Kannon is a popular deity and widely worshiped as the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. She is believed to have arrived in Japan by the seventh century and has divine features. Kannon is depicted in various forms, such as Senju Kannon and Juichimen Kannon, and has connections to many sects of Buddhism.

Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism

Guanyin is the Chinese counterpart of Kannon and is one of the most popular deities in Chinese Buddhism. Known for her compassion, she is regarded as the goddess of mercy and salvation. As with Kannon, Guanyin is manifested in different forms, such as the White Robed Guanyin and Thousand-armed Guanyin. Devotees look to Guanyin for relief from suffering and assistance in difficult times.

Chenrezig in Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, Kannon appears as Chenrezig, also known as Avalokiteśvara. Chenrezig is believed to be the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas and is associated with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. He is depicted with various numbers of arms, most notably with four arms, holding different spiritual symbols representing his connections to different aspects of Buddhism.

Throughout these cultures, the common thread is the embodiment of compassion and mercy in the form of Kannon, Guanyin, and Chenrezig. Their manifestations differ in appearance and symbolism, but their central role as a source of support and solace remains consistent.

Iconography and Symbolism

Attributes and Symbols

Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, is known for its divine features. It is worshiped in various forms, often with multiple arms and heads. The arms represent its ability to help and protect beings, while different items held in its hands symbolize various aspects of compassion.

Common symbols associated with Kannon include the lotus flower (purity), water vase (cleansing), and willow branch (flexibility). Sometimes, Kannon is also depicted holding a scripture, fish basket, or rosary beads, which denote wisdom, abundance, and continuous practice.

Iconographic Representations

Kannon has several iconographic forms that vary based on the attributes and region. In Japanese art, Kannon is often depicted with 11 heads to demonstrate its capability to hear the plea from multiple realms. Another representation is the Thousand-Armed Kannon (Senju Kannon), which embodies the boundless compassion to save all sentient beings.

In some compilations of Buddhist iconography, eight-armed forms are also found, while extant examples of Juntei may have between two and 84 arms. The depictions of Kannon may also vary between male and female forms, reflecting its gender-neutral nature. In essence, the myriad representations of Kannon serve as symbols of boundless compassion and mercy in Buddhism.

Worship and Devotion

Rituals and Practices

In the worship of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, devotees engage in various rituals and practices. These activities often involve chanting mantras and meditating on Kannon’s qualities, facilitating spiritual growth and empowerment. Besides, followers may utilize mudras (symbolic gestures) and mandalas (spiritual diagrams) in their practice.

Offerings play an important role in devotion too, as practitioners present incense, flowers, or fruits to the Kannon statues, showing their reverence and gratitude, and also participate in events like Kannon Pilgrimages. The act of Okannon Mairi, visiting multiple Kannon temples, is observed by many seeking blessings and assistance in times of need.

Temples and Shrines

Japan, especially, is home to numerous temples and shrines dedicated to Kannon worship. Here’s a list of some significant Kannon temples:

  1. Kiyomizu-dera – located in Kyoto, famous for its wooden stage offering an impressive view of the city
  2. Hasedera Temple – a prominent temple with a rich history, nestled in Nara
  3. Sanjūsangen-dō – known for housing 1001 statues of Kannon, located in Kyoto

Apart from these, the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage route comprises 33 sacred temples in the Kansai region, attracting a multitude of pilgrims annually. Additionally, smaller shrines and local veneration sites abound, reflecting the widespread devotion to the Bodhisattva of Compassion across various communities.

Influence on Art and Literature

Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, has remarkably influenced art, literature, and culture in Japanese and Chinese traditions. In Japan, she is one of the most well-known and widely-revered Buddhist deities, featuring in various art forms. Both in China, where she is known as Guanshiyin, and in Japan, Kannon has played a crucial role in shaping cultural expressions.

In visual arts, Kannon is often depicted holding a leafy branch of a weeping willow tree, symbolizing her empathy towards the sufferings of the world. Moreover, statues and paintings across Buddhist sects have showcased her in different forms, like the 11-faced Kannon, facing every direction to aid all beings. Artists have represented her in a more relaxed posture, sitting on a rock, highlighting her worldly connections.

Literature also reflects Kannon’s prominence through folktales, poems, and other forms of written art. Both classical and contemporary works have explored her compassionate character, marking her as an enduring icon. Through art and literature, the figure of Kannon continues to inspire themes of kindness, mercy, and an understanding of human suffering.

Modern Relevance and Perspectives

In today’s world, Kannon, the Buddhist God of Mercy and Compassion, continues to impact the lives of many. She is often depicted with a leafy branch of the weeping willow tree, symbolizing her empathy for the suffering in the world. This compassionate Bodhisattva has inspired various forms of art, poetry, and remains an integral aspect of the development of Buddhism in Asian countries like China and Japan.

The modern Japanese name for Kannon, Guanyin, signifies “One who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” This title connects to her original Indian name, Avalokiteśvara, which translates to “One Who Perceives All.” It is interesting to track the linguistic evolution of Kannon’s name across regions, reflecting her deep influence on Buddhism.

The worship of Kannon resonates across Buddhist sects, with devotees considering her as a savior figure. Her 11-faced form is often the subject of various paintings and statues. Despite the differences in portrayal, her embodiment of compassion remains a common theme.