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Mercy and Compassion

July 8, 2010

This arrived today from a postcrossing friend in Japan. It is the Temple of Sanjusangen-do in Kyoto. The temple was completed in 1164.

The deity in the postcard is Kannon, the Japanese name for the deity of Mercy and Compassion. (Also known as Guanyin, Kwan-Yin, Chenresig, or Avalokiteshvara. No wonder it is so hard for us westerners to keep our Buddhist deities straight!)

The main deity of the temple is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon. The statue of the main deity was created by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei and is a National Treasure of Japan. The temple also contains one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which stand on both the right and left sides of the main statue in 10 rows and 50 columns. Of these, 124 statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 statues were constructed in the 13th century. The statues are made of Japanese cypress. [from Wikipedia]

What fascinates me is that Kannon has 1000 arms. That is to make it easy for her (though s/he is often portrayed in male form, apparently gender isn’t too critical when you are a deity) to help all of those in need. Some of us who are moms wish we could have a few extra arms, but I don’t know anybody who would want a thousand arms! Let’s do the math 1000 statues of a deity with 1000 arms, that’s 1,000,000 arms! Wow! THAT’s a LOT of arms — to assist people in distress in the earthly realm.

For those who want to know more, there is a plethora of information about the Deity ofMercy and Compassion at the Kannon Notebook!

Kannon personifies compassion and is one of the most widely worshipped divinities in Asia and Japan in both ancient and modern times. Kannon’s origins are unclear, but most scholars agree that Kannon worship began in India around the 1st or 2nd century AD and then spread to Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and most other Asian nations. Veneration of Kannon in Japan began in the late 6th century, soon after Buddhism reached Japan. … Originally male in form, Kannon is now often portrayed as female in China, Japan, and other East Asian countries. Each of these nations dressed Kannon in different forms to suit their own temperaments and spiritual concepts.

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