Kwan Yin

Kwan Yin

Kwan Yin

The Goddess of Mercy;

She Who Hears the Cries of the World


Guan Yin; Kuan Yin; Phat Ba Quan Am (Vietnamese)

Kwan Yin is the very essence of mercy and compassion; among the most beloved and well known of all spirits. Technically, Kwan Yin is considered a Bodhisattva, venerated as such throughout the Buddhist world but she also possesses the stature of a goddess and many consider her to be one, not just modern Western goddess devotees but also in East Asian folk religion. Kwan Yin is a spiritual phenomenon: she transcends religious boundaries and is also found in Taoist and Shinto shrines, even in the shrine of her main rival, the Lady of T’ai Shan. Kwan Yin is a great favourite of independent practitioners and goddess devotees everywhere.

• Kwan Yin protects the helpless, particularly women, children and animals

• She bestows good health and fertility

• She guides and protects travelers especially seafarers and sky travelers

• In recent years, Kwan Yin has emerged as the guardian of air travel

• She protects against attack from either animals or humans

• She breaks cycles of rebirth, punishment and retribution

• Kwan Yin provides protection in the realms of the living, the dead and anywhere else

Kwan Yin’s true identity is subject to debate. Officially she is an aspect of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The Lotus Sutra, which describes Avalokiteshvara, was among the first Buddhist texts translated into Chinese. Avalokiteshvara translated into Chinese is Kwan Shih Yin. The first Chinese statues of Kwan Shih Yin, a.k.a. Avalokiteshvara, appeared in the 5th century CE and depict him as a slight, graceful, androgynous man.

Kwan Yin as we know her today first emerged from China’s wild northwest frontier, by the Silk Road, sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries CE and began to move into the Chinese heartland during the 9th and 10th centuries along with detailed legends of her life, which do not correspond to Avalokiteshvara but to the Taoist goddess, Miao Shan. Kwan Yin may really be Miao Shan assuming the official guise of Avalokiteshvara as Buddhism was then socially dominant while Taoism was disparagingly considered folk religion. Her strong identification with horses may also indicate her origins on the western frontier.

Kwan Yin epitomizes goodness: no one is kinder, more compassionate or more benevolent. Kwan Yin doesn’t possess a single malevolent or malicious impulse. She is also exceptionally responsive, as evidenced by her world -wide veneration. If you are new to spirits or are generally afraid of them, Kwan Yin may be the right spirit for you.

Alternatively many believe Isis, Mary Magdalen and/or Mary, Mother of Christ traveled the length of the Silk Road, finally emerging as Kwan Yin or that their images may have served as a portal for a frontier spirit. Whoever she is, she is entirely good. The desire of so many individuals and traditions to claim Kwan Yin testifies to her appeal and power.


Women, children, exiles and travelers but Kwan Yin vows to respond to anyone who calls out her name in his or her moment of fear or suffering. She offers aid, mercy and compassion to anyone who suffers. She helps not because of who you are, but because of who she is.


Kwan Yin has many forms: she is typically depicted as a kind, beautiful woman dressed in white. In her fertility-goddess path, she carries at least one child. These statues closely resemble images of Isis or the Madonna. Kwan Yin is depicted with one-thousand eyes and one thousand arms indicating her ability to see all and help all. Kwan Yin may be accompanied by her acolytes, a small girl and boy.

However, Kwan Yin is a goddess of the masses. Not everyone can afford a statue: Kwan Yin’s name or even her title, the God dess of Mercy, written on a piece of paper and posted where it is visible is considered just as powerful and effective as an image.


Rosary, lotus, a sutra vase from which pours compassion, a willow branch symbolizing her powers of exorcism (according to Chinese shamanism, Demons flee from the presence of willow); fish basket



Animal: All are sacred to Kwan Yin but especially horses





Among her crucial roles, Kwan Yin is a Goddess of Divination. She may be petitioned to provide information in dreams but Kwan Yin also presides over a specif c system of divination: one-hundred poems attributed to Kwan Yin serve as a divination device. Mass-produced versions of Kwan Yin’s oracle are available.

Metal: Iron


Lion or hou, a mythic lion-like creature; dragon; giant carp; dolphin





Sacred site:

Kwan Yin has shrines on all nine Chinese sacred mountains (4 Buddhist; 5 Taoist) as well as throughout the world. Her primary shrine is Pu To Shan, actually a small mountainous island in the East China Sea. The entire island is dedicated to her. The central site is the Cave of the Tidal Sound where Kwan Yin frequently appears. There are countless stories of sightings and miracles; the earliest dating from the 11th century.

A massive statue of Kwan Yin in the forecourt of the maternity hospital of Southern Canton was among the first new statues of a deity erected near the end of China’s Cultural Revolution.

At the time of the establishment of the Communist state of China in 1949, there were 218 temples on Pu To Shan. Over two-thousand monks and nuns lived on the island. Most survived until the Cultural Revolution (1966–1975) when the island was sacked and most temples destroyed. Some temples have since been reopened.

Sacred days: The first and fifteenth of each lunar month: the New Moon and the Full Moon

• the 19th day of the second Chinese month is Kwan Yin’s birthday

• the 19th day of the sixth Chinese month commemorates when Kwan Yin became a Buddha

• the 19th day of the ninth Chinese month, the day she first wore her sacred pearls

Rituals: Kwan Yin is a vegetarian. Her image on restaurant menus often indicates that vegetarian fare is served. Give appropriate offerings (i.e., don’t give her steak). Many devotees adopt a vegetarian diet in her honor but even those who do not, traditionally eat vegetarian on her sacred days.

A poor farmer walked past an abandoned temple of Kwan Yin twice daily. He regretted its condition so he began to sweep it daily; lighting incense before the iron statue of Kwan Yin. She eventually appeared to him in a dream, advising that there was treasure in a cave behind the temple, which he should take but share with others. He searched, finding only a single tea plant shoot, which he cultivated. It sprouted into a giant bush. The farmer marketed the tea, became prosperous and used the proceeds to repair and expand the temple. Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea, also known as Iron Buddha or Iron Bodhisattva, grown in Taiwan and Fujian, is still considered the finest oolong tea.


Oranges, pomegranates, spices, incense; Iron Goddess Oolong tea; offerings on behalf of needy women, children and wildlife. At one time, Pu To Shan was a de facto nature preserve. The island, whose religious activities were curtailed during much of the last century, is now a major tourism site and so humans encroach upon the habitat of Kwan Yin’s beloved wild creatures. Any gesture on behalf of preserving Pu To Shan should gain favour.


  • Avalokiteshvara
  • Bodhisattava
  • Buddha
  • Isis
  • Kannon
  • Lady of the Beasts
  • Lieu Hanh
  • Ma Zu
  • Mary Magdalen
  • Miao Shan

Kwan Yin


Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.