The Many Manifestations of Avalokiteshvara

New York | 21 August
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A s one of the most beloved deities in Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, takes many forms and names, developed over time from various sutras and traditions. This September, twelve different figures of the bodhisattva will be offered in Bodies of Infinite Light, including six formerly in the renowned Chang Foundation Collection. Click ahead to discover more about the deity’s various emanations and representations.

The Many Manifestations of Avalokiteshvara

  • AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE GILT-LACQUER, POLYCHROME WOOD AND GESSO FIGURE OF JINASAGARA AVALOKITESHVARA AND CONSORT
    MING DYNASTY, XUANDE PERIOD
    This exceedingly rare wood figure of Jinasagara Avalokiteshvara is drawn from the Tibetan Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon and represents an emanation of the popular bodhisattva as a meditational deity in union with his consort, their bond fulfilling the ultimate Vajrayana Buddhist aspiration to enlightenment through the union of Wisdom and Compassion. Its origin in China during the Ming Xuande period reflects the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on the Ming dynasty court. The sculpture still contains its consecratory materials in its hollow interior.
  • A GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA PADMAPANI
    YONGLE MARK AND PERIOD
    Avalokiteshvara in this favored form is known as Avalokiteshvara Padmapani, the lotus-bearer. Early 15th century imperial gilt bronzes such as this piece are considered by many to be a pinnacle of Chinese Buddhist bronze sculpture, a tradition which can be traced to the Yuan dynasty, when the court espoused Tibetan Buddhism.
  • A BRONZE FIGURE OF WATER-MOON AVALOKITESHVARA
    SONG DYNASTY
    The 'Water-Moon' pose of Avalokitehsvara is derived from a passage in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Huayan or 'Flower Garland' Sutra), which tells of the spiritual journey of the youth Sudhana. The boy is advised by bodhisattva Manjushri that he will visit 53 different beings in his quest for ultimate truth. On Mount Potalaka, Sudhana finds his 28th host, Avalokiteshvara. The deity is in his own home, surrounded by lush bamboo groves on a remote island. On a diamond-form boulder, Avalokiteshvara reclines and preaches the dharma to Sudhana.
  • A BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    DALI KINGDOM, 12TH CENTURY
    This figure depicts Acuoye Guanyin, a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara that is unique to Yunnan, China, and developed out of the sculptural tradition of the Dali Kingdom (12th – 13th century) in the region. Its facial features, clothing and hairstyle reflect the influential cross-cultural interactions not only with China and Tibet, but also with Southeast Asian kingdoms that it bordered.
  • A LARGE GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    17TH CENTURY
    The deity’s rounded fleshy face, feminine features, fuller figure, and cowl draped over the tall chignon reflects the Sinicization and feminization of Avalokiteshvara, a development unique to China, where the deity is known as Guanyin.
  • A LARGE GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    MING DYNASTY, 16TH / 17TH CENTURY
    Avalokiteshvara holds in the lowered hand a vessel symbolically filled with a healing elixir and a willow stalk in the other, which serves an apotropaic and healing function. The willow branch attribute is not seen in Indian or Tibetan depictions of the bodhisattva, and can possibly be connected to the Chinese importance placed on the Dharani Sutra of Invoking Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara to Dissipate and Subdue Poison and Harm (Qing Guanshiyin Pusa xiaofu duhai tuoluoni zhoujing), in which Buddha directs ailing disciples to offer Avalokiteshvara willow branches and clean water in order to receive his great mercy. Therefore, this iconographic form was particularly popular among devotees wishing for good health.
  • A GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    SUI / EARLY TANG DYNASTY
    Avalokiteshvara holds in one hand a willow branch, reflecting the Sinicization of the deity. The majority of China's early depictions of favored Buddhist subjects and deities included works centering on Shakyamuni and Maitreya, however in the Sui and Tang periods, Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha were painted and carved in greater numbers, suggesting his increased popularity.
  • AN EMBROIDERED SILK THANGKA DEPICTING EKADASHAMUKHA AVALOKITESHVARA
    QING DYNASTY, KANGXI PERIOD
    Here, Avalokiteshvara is in the form of Ekadashamukha Avalokiteshvara ('the Eleven Faced Lord Gazing on the World'), with each arm holding a different attribute. This emanation is said to have manifested after the bodhisattva observed the misery of the world and was so filled with compassion that his head split into ten pieces. His spiritual father Amitabha arranged the ten pieces into a pyramid and placed his own face on top, representing the ten perfections.
  • A LARGE GILT-LACQUER BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA AND CHILD
    MING DYNASTY, 16TH / 17TH CENTURY
    Shown with a child, this form of Avalokiteshvara is known in China as Songzi Guanyin, which first appeared around the late Ming dynasty. It is possible that this iconography was inspired by images of the Madonna and Child, introduced to China by Jesuit missionaries circa 1600, as Songzi Guanyin is also represented in 17th century Dehua porcelains. The concept of the child-granting Avalokiteshvara originates in the Pumen Pin chapter of the Lotus Sutra, often reproduced as a standalone sutra and recited in order to invoke the deity directly.
  • A LARGE GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    MING DYNASTY, LATE 15TH / 16TH CENTURY
    The fleshy face and shapely torso of this figure of Avalokiteshvara suggest that it was cast in the second half of the 15th century or the 16th century. The chilug or spyi-blug ewer accompanying the deity is a traditional Tibetan vessel, used by monks as part of a cleansing ritual with water poured into the mouth and rinsed, suggesting connotations of cleansing and purity.
  • A GILT-BRONZE FIGURE OF AVALOKITESHVARA
    MING DYNASTY, 16TH / 17TH CENTURY
    This figure is unusual in its depiction of Avalokiteshvara. If not for the iconographic feature of Amitabha Buddha, Avalokiteshvara’s spiritual father, in his crown, the present figure might be taken for an interpretation of a foreign practitioner.
  • A GILT-LACQUER BRONZE FIGURE OF SHADAKSHARI AVALOKITESHVARA
    TIBETO-CHINESE, 16TH / 17TH CENTURY
    The Sanskrit name Shadakshari literally translates to 'of six syllables,' referring to the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara: om mani padme hum, 'glory to the jewel of the lotus.' In this form, Avalokiteshvara is a protector of Tibet and the Potala monastery, the seat of the Dalai Lama. As Avalokiteshvara is considered the patron saint of Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the name of the monastery refers to Potalaka, the bodhisattva's home.
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