One major difference between Mahayana Buddhism and early or Mainstream Buddhism is the worship of many buddhas and bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment). Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion, and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia. However, depending on the cultural traditions into which Buddhism was introduced, the bodhisattva came to assume different roles, inspire different cultic practices, and create distinctive traditions. He is known by different names: Guanyin or Guanshiyin (Perceiver of the Sounds of the World) in Chinese, Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse’um in Korean, and Quanam in Vietnamese. In Tibet he is known as Chenresi (spyan-ras-gzigs, “One Who Sees with Eyes”). The bodhisattva also served as a legitimizing symbol for the royalty as a result of the cult of divine kings in South and Southeast Asia. For instance, in Cambodia and Java, he is known as Lokeśvara (Lord of the World); in Burma, Lokanātha (Protector of the World); and in Sri Lanka, Nātha Dēviyō. Avalokiteśvara is also the only bodhisattva who underwent a sexual transformation in China.
Because Avalokiteśvara is a pan-Buddhist bodhisattva, with few exceptions (mostly art historical in nature), most studies focus on this bodhisattva in specific regions, and no comprehensive work covering his/her cult in all Buddhist countries is currently available. There is no anthology or textbook devoted to Avalokiteśvara. For readers not familiar with Buddhist doctrines, it is necessary to include some standard reference works on bodhisattvas in this section. Although all Buddhist traditions use the term “bodhisattva,” the cult of the bodhisattva, of which that of Avalokiteśvara is the most celebrated example, has received much scholarly attention. Basham 1981 and Dayal 1970 discuss the bodhisattva doctrine in Indian Buddhism and Sanskrit literature. Harrison 1987 addresses the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, using the belief in the bodhisattva as a marker of its early followers. While Pachow 1987 and Tay 1976 concentrate on the cult of Avalokiteśvara in East Asia, Snellgrove 1986 and Snellgrove 1987 provide a concise explanation of the meaning of the term in Buddhist tradition. Neville 1999 discusses one of the most popular esoteric forms of the bodhisattva, the eleven-headed Avalokiteśvara.
Basham, Arthur L. “The Evolution of the Concept of the Bodhisattva.” In The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism. Edited by Leslie Kawamura, 19–59. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 1981.
Useful survey of how the concept of the bodhisattva developed in Indian Buddhism.
Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.
Classical study of the bodhisattva doctrine based on Mahayana Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit. Originally published in 1932.
Harrison, Paul. “Who Gets to Ride in the Great Vehicle? Self-image and the Identity among the Followers of the Early Mahayana.” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10.1 (1987): 67–89.
Addresses the question of who considers themselves followers of early Mahayana.
Neville, Tove E. Eleven-Headed Avalokiteśvara: Chenresigs, Kuan-yin or Kannon Bodhisattva; Its Origin and Development. New Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal, 1999.
The author discusses the different forms and identifies of the bodhisattva in India, Tibet, China, and Japan.
Pachow, W. “The Omnipresence of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva in East Asia.” Chinese Culture Quarterly 28.4 (1987): 67–84.
Provides a general survey of the important position the bodhisattva has assumed in Asia, as evidenced by historical and literary sources.
Snellgrove, David. “Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 3. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 134–143. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
Concise definition and discussion of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. To differentiate the new understandings of these terms from early Buddhism, Snellgrove uses the adjective “celestial.”
Snellgrove, David. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.
Provides new understandings of buddhas and bodhisattvas in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, with good coverage of the cults devoted to them.
Tay, C. N. “Kuan-yin: The Cult of Half Asia.” History of Religions 16.2 (1976): 147–177.
This is the first study in English of the cult of Guanyin based on scriptures and literature. The main focus is on China, although it has references to the cult in other East Asian countries. Reissued in 1987.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- China, Pilgrimage in
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Dizang (Jizō, Ksitigarbha)
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Kyōgyōshinshō (Shinran)
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Mārga (Path)
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Sexuality and Buddhsim
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa)
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese