Commemorating Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva Birthday

Arts & Culture

Commemorating Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's Birthday: Embracing Compassion through Reflection on Serenity

Text by Jeanne H. Tuan

On the 19th day of the second lunar month, we commemorate the birth anniversary of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, a revered embodiment of compassion and wisdom within our shared Buddhist heritage. This celebration resonates with profound symbolism, encapsulating virtues of benevolence, kindness, and the alleviation of suffering, serving as a poignant reminder of our collective dedication to these principles.

Amidst the festivities, many of us seize the opportunity to contemplate various artistic interpretations of Avalokiteshvara. Among these, the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva motif holds particular significance, offering insights into and appreciation for this revered figure. This motif beckons us to embark on the Bodhisattva path, transcending the cycle of birth and death to attain eternal peace and enlightenment.

The Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva, emerging from the Avatamsaka Sutra, is one of Avalokitesvara's 33 avatars, as detailed in The Ten Stages section. Its introduction by Zhou Fang (c. 730–800 CE), a renowned court painter during the Tang Dynasty, marked a significant moment in the history of Buddhist art. Inspired by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's portrayal of the ancient Mount Potalaka, Zhou Fang found inspiration for this depiction from the Gaṇḍavyūha Chapter of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and Master Xuanzang's biography, The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. The vivid description of Zhang Yanyuan in The Annals of Famous Painters of Successive Dynasties further enriches our understanding of this artwork's historical and cultural significance.

Murals depicting the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva became popular in temples during the late Tang and Five Dynasties periods. This trend continued into the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 CE) and became one of the most widespread and well-known depictions of Guanyin in later generations. The painting even gained popularity in Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, we have not had the chance to see Zhou Fang's original portrayal of the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva. However, we can learn about his artistry through a painting of the same subject from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 CE.) despite our knowledge about it being somewhat limited and superficial.

Picture 1: Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, the 14th century, Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 CE.), Image at the Buddhist Maritime Silk Road: New Media Exhibition.

The painting featuring the Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva motif, depicted in Picture 1, is part of the prestigious collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a profound testament to the 14th century during Korea's Goryeo Dynasty. This masterpiece replica is currently on display at the 'Buddhism Maritime Silk Road: New Media Art Exhibition' at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, emphasizing the enduring legacy of Zhou Fang's artistic style.  In Picture 1, the Bodhisattva is depicted seated in a three-quarter view atop a rocky outcrop above the waves. The artwork is a testament to the artist's dedication and skill, with every detail meticulously inked and outlined. The use of gold adds a touch of luxury to the figures, robes, and jewelry. The artist's exceptional talent and attention to detail are evident in the carefully inked body outlines and the delicate facial features. Thin red lines accentuate the details, inviting viewers to appreciate the artistry.  The painting portrays Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, surrounded by a full moon and a transparent nimbus, seated in the middle of a bamboo grove. It is painted using vibrant red, green, and blue colors, with accents of gold pigments. This painting is a prime example of Zhou Fang's iconographic style.  At the Bodhisattva's feet, a Nagaraja (or dragon king) leads a procession of elegantly adorned figures, followed by sea monsters bearing precious gifts. This procession symbolizes the Bodhisattva's divine status and the reverence accorded to them. Sudhana (Chinese: Shancai Tongzi), the youthful pilgrim positioned at the lower right, embodies an encounter recounted in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which served as inspiration for the artwork. This symbolism adds depth and richness to the painting, inviting the viewers to explore its spiritual significance.

What’s even more fascinating are three paintings featuring the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva motif that are being showcased at the 'Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition' at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. Picture 2 shows the oldest artwork with the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva motif, discovered in the Library Cave of Mogao Grottoes, currently housed in the Louvre Museum in France. This male Bodhisattva figure with facial hairs, painted during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms from 907 to 979 CE, gracefully assumes a 'royal ease' posture. In the peaceful setting of the painting, the Bodhisattva sits surrounded by tropical plants. His right foot rests gently on a crimson lotus, representing purity, while his left is tucked neatly on his thigh. With hands cradling his knee, he emanates calm and ease. The brilliant hues of plants such as bamboo, canna lilies, banana trees, and night-scented lilies stand in stark contrast to the serene presence emanating from the Bodhisattva. This scene brings to mind Guanyin's sacred sanctuary, invoking peace and spirituality.

Picture 2:  Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva.  Mogao Cave 17 (Library Cave).  Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907- 979 CE.), Image at the Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition.

The well-known enchanting 'blue' Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva, gracing the west gate of Yu-Lin Cave 2, definitely takes center stage as the star of the 'Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition' at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. Originating from the Tangut or Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227 CE.), these artworks explore the spiritual realms of esoteric Buddhism. The artist's mastery shines through as they skillfully employ cool colors like icy blue and frosty green, crafting paintings that emanate a soothing aura, inviting viewers to unwind and submerge themselves in a meditative experience.

The north side of Yu Lin Cave 2 depicts Guanyin Bodhisattva in the hazy moonlight, surrounded by bamboo, a transparent nimbus, and blooming lotuses in flowing water (Picture 3). This scene portrays Master Xuanzang, escorted by Sun Wukong (Monkey King), paying tribute to Guanyin. A charming and innocent Sudhana (Shancai Tongzi) is also depicted riding clouds and approaching Guanyin Bodhisattva.

Picture 3:  Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva.  The North Side of West Gate in Yu-Lin Cave 2.  Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227 CE.), Image at the Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition.

In another captivating duet painting on the north side, Water Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva graces the canvas with harmonious hues, tones, and artistic finesse (Picture 4). Adorned in majestic attire, Guanyin Bodhisattva sits contemplatively on a rock by the water, cradling beads and caressing the rock with the other hand. Lotuses bloom gracefully in the water, providing support to the feet of Guanyin Bodhisattva. Meanwhile, Nāgakanyā (Longnü) is saluting with her hands clasped together on the lower left side, recognized as attendants of the esteemed Guanyin Bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism, along with Sudhana.

Bai Juyi, a celebrated poet from China's Tang Dynasty (722-846 CE), found himself deeply moved by Zhou Fang's painting of the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva. In response, he penned a poignant poem that vividly captures the essence of the artwork: "Above the clear green waters, within the void white light, one glimpse beneath it, and all worldly attachments vanish..." (淨綠水上,虛白光中,一睹其下,萬緣皆空。……) Through his verse, Bai Juyi beautifully articulates the profound beauty and spiritual resonance of the scene. Zhou Fang's composition, which situates the Buddhist bodhisattva amidst mountains, waters, and trees, bathed in the gentle glow of moonlight, embodies a uniquely Chinese perspective, diverging from traditional Indian Buddhist art. The imagery of water and moon, prevalent in Buddhist symbolism, serves as metaphors for impermanence and the emptiness of worldly existence, elucidating the profound teachings of formlessness. Thus, the Water-Moon Guanyin emerges as a harmonious fusion of classical Chinese aesthetics and Buddhist philosophy, offering a timeless portrayal of spiritual ideals within the realm of landscape art.

Picture 4:  Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva.  The South Side of West Gate in Yu-Lin Cave 2.  Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227 CE.), Image at the Silk Road Splendor: Dunhuang Caves Art Exhibition.

Celebrating Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva's birth anniversary reminds us of our commitment to compassion and kindness. Exploring artworks like the Water-Moon Guanyin Bodhisattva motif prompts reflection on life's impermanence and the importance of letting go. These pieces inspire us to embrace changes with peace and to cultivate compassion and wisdom as we seek enlightenment