Peaceful white figurine of Guan Yin against a bright background

Six Serene Things You Might Not Know About the Goddess of Mercy

The Goddess of Mercy, also known as Guan Yin, is a peaceful figure that you’ll see in parks, temples, and homes all over the world. But what does she represent exactly? Here are six serene things you might not know about this benevolent deity.

Her name translates as “one who hears the cries of the world”

This Buddhist deity is a symbol of compassion. She’s also believed to act as an bridge that connects ordinary people with deeply intellectual and spiritual ideas.

Her water vase and willow branch are significant

Close up of water vase and willow branch of Guan Yin figurine

Guan Yin has many depictions. In a common one, she holds a water vase in her right hand and a willow branch in her left. Each item is full of meaning. The vase is one of the eight Buddhist symbols of good fortune and contains the nectar of life. The willow branch, a symbol of flexible yet unbreakable strength, is used to sprinkle the nectar on her followers.

She’s also sometimes depicted with a child

Jade-colored Guan Yin figurine holding a child

In this portrayal, she’s known as the Child-Sending Guanyin. Considered the patron saint of mothers, she’s believed to have the ability to grant parents filial children.

You might also see her with a fish basket

Ming dynasty painting of Guan Yin with fish basket

This particular goddess is called Yulan Guanyin. Fisherman pray to her as their patron saint as well as the goddess of the Southern Sea. In this particular embodiment, she’s sometimes shown riding atop a dragon, a powerful yet benevolent creature — 

Guan Yin depicted as a sea goddess riding atop a dragon

— or a lotus flower. In Buddhism, the lotus represents purity of the body, speech, and mind, and like the water vase she's sometimes shown with, is a Buddhist symbol of good fortune.

Guan Yin riding atop a giant lotus flower

You can see this embodiment of Guan Yin in a Ming dynasty play, Guanyin Yulan Ji, in which the goddess, a dragon king, and a legendary politician try to capture a carp spirit who sets out to seduce a poor student by taking on the guise of a beautiful woman.

Sometimes she has a thousand arms

Statue of Guan Yin with a thousand arms

This Guan Yin is known as, aptly, “One with a Thousand Arms.” As for why that is, one legend says that after struggling to understand the needs of so many, her head split into 11 pieces, which the Buddha turned into 11 full-sized heads. When she tried reaching out to help all who needed it, her arms split into a thousand pieces — which, you guessed it, the Buddha turned into a thousand arms.

Place her near your front door

You might want to include a Guan Yin figurine in your household to attract compassion, good fortune, and strength. If you do, be sure to place her near your front door, allowing her to welcome and protect all who enter.

Want to learn more? Check out these posts on dragons, the Budai, and daruma dolls.

[Lead image by Yiannis Psaroudis]

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