China and Japan tend to share many things, while taking time to be distinct from one another. Buddhism is a cultural aspect that became popular in both areas during the sixth century c.e. and onwards. The growth of Buddhism in both countries happened in a similar fashion and the same bodhisattva became popular in both places. With an overview of how Buddhism’s popularity arose and a description of Kannon (the bodhisattva in Japan) and Guanshiyin (the bodhisattva in China), I will argue that this particular bodhisattva was very influential in many aspects of both Chinese and Japanese culture.
Buddhism originated in India hundreds of years prior to its popularity in eastern Asia (de Bary, 306). In this time, Buddhism split into two major schools of thought—Mahayana and Hinayana (de Bary, 309). Mahayana Buddhism is what eventually becomes popular throughout China, Korea and Japan and arose in the first or second century c.e. (de Bary, 309). Mahayana Buddhism is more recent and tends to be more mystical in practice, with faith placed in divine Buddhas and bodhisattvas (de Bary, 309).
When Buddhism reached China, it had to compete for followers. At the time (first century c.e. ), Taoism and Confucianism was already very popular and certain Buddhist practices clearly went against Confucian teachings. Shaving one’s head was considered doing harm to their body and thus disrespectful to their parents (de Bary, 315). There was also the aversion to Buddhism as it does not appear in the classics and that it came from India. However, Chinese scholars were very interested in the texts that the Buddhists had and worked on translating them to see if they could add any valuable knowledge to their already vast scholarship. After two centuries, Chinese intellects turned to Buddhism with philosophical questions. They began to interpret the sutras and Buddhist teachings through Taoist terms and started to dispel some of the misgivings allowing Buddhism to flourish (de Bary, 313).
Once Buddhism reached popularity in China, it spread quickly through Korea and then to Japan as most ideas did in East Asia. In Japan there was a similar issue to China with existing ideologies because there were many local religions referred to as Kami cults (Royall, xxxvi). However, similar to China Buddhism was picked up by the elite (mainly the Soga clan in Japan) and popularized it as being compatible with Kami (Saunders). As Buddhism rose in Japan, Bodhisattvas would even take the place of Kami in local temples or a temple would have a shrine to both a Kami and a Bodhisattva (Saunders).
Since Taoism and Confucianism were so widespread, it can be hard to tell how Buddhism became so popular. In short, the idea of salvation made Buddhism quite appealing to both Chinese and Japanese peasantry (de Bary, 313; Saunders). Local religious deities were not known for being particularly good or evil, in fact they were quite fickle. Many tales depict kami or monsters as being unpredictable, however Bodhisattvas are universally known for their kindness and compassion (MacWilliams, 393). The Bodhisattva Kannon is particularly important in this role, as the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra dictates that “Kannon constantly surveys the world listening for sounds of suffering. When he hears suffering, he comes in one of his 33 different forms to recite the dharma and save all who are suffering.” (MacWilliams, 375) This passage gives Kannon an omnipresent feeling and may contribute to how commonly Kannon is mentioned in Japanese tales. Furthermore, there are many temples in Japan dedicated to Kannon which have many myths surrounding their creation. These myths were termed ‘engi’ and “engi with their emphasis on the miracles and, in many cases, a supporting cast of kami, helped to popularize the kannon cult.” (MacWilliams, 385). With many myths comes many depictions. Possibly the most famous is the statue of Kannon at Kanshinji (Bogel, 30). The statue is painted gold and is only brought out for two days of the entire year (Bogel, 30). It has been named a national treasure and centuries old tales have been recovered that describe it (Bogel, 30; MacWilliams, 384).
The century prior to these mountain ascetics in Japan, similar ‘miracle’ tales were being spread throughout China. The Records of Witness of Responses of Guan(g)shiyin in Three Collections is three collections of miracle tales that feature bodhisattva Guanshiyin (another name for Kannon). (Mair, 2) An interesting fact is that it appears that the popularity of Guanshiyin came from Korea, which is backwards from the normal flow of ideas in eastern Asia. (Mair, 2) Through these collections scholars can see how worship of the bodhisattva changed throughout time. As the popularity of Kannon began in Japan with spreading tales and ended in many great temples being erected to Kannon, similar things happened in China. The first two collections of tales mention how just speaking Guanshiyin’s name would bring help to the caller, but in the last collection, protagonists begin to create statues and images to call for Guanshiyin’s help. (Mair, 13) There is also a shift where physical representations of the bodhisattva are enough to help the protagonist. In one story, a man wears a gold Guanshiyin clip in his hair and when the blade comes down to his head for execution, the clip prevents the man from being hurt. (Mair, 16) Other tales tell the story of how statues of Guanshiyin appear at prominent temples similar to the Kannon statues in Japan. Tales such as the ones found in these collections promoted iconography which became a very popular business in China and can be clearly seen culminating in the great works funded through the Tang dynasty.
Even with how influential Guanshiyin was to Chinese culture, Kannon appears to have affected Japanese culture differently. There is one tale about a retired Emperor Kazan who dies and split into 33 pieces. These 33 pieces were distributed to the 33 Kannon temples in Japan as this was the best place to be relieved from suffering. (376, MacWilliams) Now, this tale represents a popular pilgrimage that has lasted centuries in Japan. Kannon pilgrimages were very popular and there were multiple routes one could take with different temples. (375, MacWilliams) This is what sets Kannon apart from Guanshiyin. Despite all this, it is impossible to measure the depth of influence this bodhisattva has had for art, poetry and development of Buddhism in China and Japan.
Bogel, Cynthea J. “Canonizing Kannon: The ninth-century esoteric Buddhist altar at Kanshinji.” The Art Bulletin 84.1 (2002): 30-64.
Campbell, Aurelia, et al. “The Cult of the Bodhisattva Guanyin in Early China and Korea by.” (2008).
DeBary, William. “Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1.” (1960).
MacWilliams, Mark W. “Temple Myths and the Popularization of Kannon Pilgrimage in Japan: A Case Study of Ōya-ji on the Bandō Route.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1997): 375-411.
Saunders, Ernest Dale. “Buddhism in Japan: with an ou lin of its origins in India.” (1964).