Manifestations of Change: The Many Faces of Avalokitesvara in Japan
Mon, March 5, 2012 • 4:00 PM • DFA 2.204
Dr. Sherry Fowler, Associate Professor, Kress Foundation, Department of Art History, University of Kansas
The gender of Kannon (Sk. Avalokitesvara, C. Guanyin) is often the source of confusion. In the Lotus Sutra, however, we find that in order to save various beings, Kannon takes an appropriate guise, or one of the so-called ³Thirty-three bodies,² which include Buddhas, monks, nuns, children, dragons, officials, wives, or other deities, to preach the dharma. There are many, many more forms of Kannon, but the number thirty-three came to stand for the concept of Kannon¹s ability to assume the body most effective to preach the dharma and, notably, some are female. A different group of Thirty-three Kannon, which does not include the forms mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, gained popularity in Japan around the sixteenth century. These include many female forms of Kannon that are not based in scripture, but on popular stories about the deity imported from China. Sixteenth century Japanese sets of these images from temples such as Tofukuji, Kenchoji, and Kodaiji, include female forms that have particularly gendered histories.
Subsequently, the Japanese iconographic manual Butsuzo zui from 1690 categorized each of these Thirty-three Kannon and set a standard for later works. This paper will explore how the Japanese representations of the Thirty-three Kannon contributed to the notion that Kannon as the deity of compassion is considered female when expedient.