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Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva

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Asia Unknown,
Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva, Gilt Bronze
5 1/2 x 4 x 10 1/4 in. (14 x 10 x 26 cm)

Object Type: Statuary
Creation Place: Asia, China
Credit Line: Gift of The Dr. Ralph Riffenburgh and Angelyn Riffenburgh Collection of Japanese Art
Accession Number: 2018.8.1

One of the most important, beloved, and complex deities in Buddhism is the infinitely compassionate Avalokiteśvara (Chinese: Guanyin), whose name translates to “The Lord who looks down [compassionately at the suffering beings].” Avalokiteśvara is regarded in all Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions to be a “bodhisattva,” an enlightened being who has taken a vow to work tirelessly over countless lifetimes to guide other living beings to nirvāṇa. To indicate their distinguished status, bodhisattvas are portrayed adorned with lavish jewelry, crowns, and elegant robes. Avalokiteśvara is recognizable by the seated Amitāhba Buddha image in his crown—a nod to his affiliation with Amitāhba, the celestial Buddha of the Western Pure Land.

Avalokiteśvara was originally regarded as a male bodhisattva. In Ancient India, however, bodhisattvas were represented as princes, who were typically imagined as effeminate (i.e. slender, refined, and lacking muscle) due to their luxurious and relaxed lifestyles. It follows, then, that the gender identity of representations of Avalokiteśvara often appears to be ambiguous, as is the case in this 19th century sculpture. His apparent gender fluidity is reaffirmed by Chapter Twenty-Five of the Lotus Sūtra, a scripture which explains that Avalokiteśvara can adopt up to thirty-three different guises—including those of a nun, a wife, and a girl—in order to assist living beings in their spiritual cultivation.

-Anabella Walser ’22, Peggy Phelps Curatorial Intern

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