Buddhism Avalokiteśvara
Chün-fang Yü
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0017


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.

General Overviews

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.

    NNNUseful 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.

    NNNClassical 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.

    NNNAddresses 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.

    NNNThe 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.

    NNNProvides 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.

    NNNConcise 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.

    NNNProvides 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.

    DOI: 10.1086/462762

    NNNThis 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.

back to top

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.