Diving Deeper into Buddhism – Guanyin

View this object on our collections website.
Object Types: Sculpture
Time Needed: 45 minutes
Contributed by: Lesley Younge, Middle School Teacher, Whittle School and Studios, Washington, DC


Students who are already familiar with Siddhartha Gautama, or Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, will deepen their understanding of Buddhist beliefs and artwork. They will analyze and interpret works of art that reveal how people live around the world and what they value. They will identify how works of art reflect times, places, cultures, and beliefs.

Essential Questions

  • What other stories are told in Buddhism beyond Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha?
  • How are other Buddhas and bodhisattvas portrayed artistically in comparison to Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha?
  • How do works of art capture and communicate the development of Buddhist beliefs in China?
  • How has art inspired Buddhist believers and scholars throughout history?


This sculpture is identified as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known in China as Guanyin. The standing Buddhist figure appears with a large head and elongated body. The arms and hands are extremely long. The hair is in snail-shell locks. The deity looks down and smiles. A smooth bump, or usnisa, protrudes through the hair, and a small circle, or urna, is in relief on his forehead. A prominent “wan” 卍 symbol (a symbol of auspiciousness) appears on the chest. The right arm is bent, and a jewel is held between the thumb and middle finger. A string of beads hangs from the wrist. The left arm points straight down. A dragon stands on the deity’s bare feet. A multistalked lotus grows out of the dragon’s mouth. The central stalk supports a miniature version of the deity holding a lotus with a seed pod. The seeds can even independently rotate within the openings! The garments of both figures are decorated with beautiful floral and cloud patterns.

This ivory figure presents an interesting aspect of Buddhism. The usnisa on top of his head is one of the special body features of a Buddha. However, the clothing, jewelry, and Buddhist prayer beads suggest a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. A popular belief might help solve this conflict: many Chinese Buddhists believe that Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, can take the form of a Buddha to help other beings. The attributes of a dragon and a miniature Buddha help confirm that this figure is Guanyin.

Ivory is a hard, white material that typically comes from elephant tusks; however, ivory can also come from extinct mammoth tusks, such as this example. Ivory, like jade, was carved by some of China’s earliest cultures. This amazing sculpture demonstrates the continuation of this tradition. It shows extreme attention to decorative details, such as the independently rotating seeds in the carved lotus flower. The incised patterns on the garments are meticulously filled with ink and traces of missing gold to make the linear designs stand out. It is possible that the ivory sculpture was not only made to be worshiped as a deity but also to be appreciated as an individual work of art.


Amitabha: literally, “Infinite Light”; the Buddha of the Western Paradise. Widely revered in Mahayana Buddhist traditions, Amitabha enables his followers to be born into his paradise and attain Buddhahood in one lifetime.

bodhisattva: an enlightened being who chooses not to proceed to Nirvana but instead remains on earth to guide others in their paths toward enlightenment.

Buddha: literally, “Awakened One”; a being who has awakened to the true reality of existence and is thereby liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. A Buddha teaches others the path to Enlightenment.

Dalai Lama: the spiritual leader of one of four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

Enlightenment: a moment of great wisdom and understanding; the highest level of consciousness believed to be achieved through meditation and adhering to the basic moral teachings of Buddhism.

Guanyin: also known as Guan-shi-yin; in Sanskrit, Avalokiteshvara, literally “The Lord who Looks Down [from on High]”; the widely worshipped bodhisattva of compassion who protects and saves all beings.

Guan-shi-yin Sutra: twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra that is devoted to the bodhisattva Guanyin and details his ability to rescue the faithful from various dangers.

Lotus Sutra: one of the most influential texts of Mahayana Buddhism, the form of Buddhism predominant in East Asia. It contains the words and teachings of Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha.

Nirvana: a spiritual state of perfect peace beyond selfish attachments to worldly possessions; reaching Nirvana frees one’s soul from the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

reincarnation: rebirth in a new body or form of life.

Siddhartha Gautama: the given name of the Shakyamuni, literally “Sage of the Shakya Clan,” the Historical Buddha. He lived in northeastern India sometime after the fifth century BCE.

urna: a dot on the Buddha’s forehead that indicates his special wisdom.

usnisa: a bump on the top of the Buddha’s head that symbolizes his superior knowledge.


  1. Show or distribute an image of the sculpture Standing Figure of Guanyin as a Buddha. Ask students to describe the artwork using the Describe questions below.
  2. Distribute the Compare and Contrast charts and have students write down their initial observations and analysis of this first artwork. Offer the Analyze questions below as prompts for the Analysis section.
  3. Offer information from the Object Description such as date created and material. Draw attention to specific details of the artwork if they are not mentioned by students.
  4. Project or read the facts from the sheet “Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Mercy.”
  5. Distribute and have students read the story “Escape from Fire” (Middle School/Junior High School) or the primary resource “The Gateway to Every Direction” (High School).
  6. Ask students to add to their Analysis sections based on these sources of information. Offer the Interpret questions to deepen the discussion.
  7. Show or distribute images of the sculpture Gautama Buddha, available by clicking on the Download the Worksheet PDF button. Ask students to again describe the artwork using the questions below and record their observations and analysis on the Compare and Contrast chart.
  8. Have students answer the Inquire questions as a concluding activity, either individually for assessment or in groups. Have them generate a list of their own lingering questions that will require further inquiry.

Discussion Questions

  • What type of artwork is this?
  • What colors, shapes, lines, or human and animal figures do you see?
  • What details stand out to you?
  • What do you imagine this sculpture feels like? What makes you imagine that?
  • What identifies this artwork as Buddhist?
  • What do you recognize? What don’t you recognize?
  • Who do you think created this artwork and for what purpose? How might that have influenced their choices?
  • What processes do you think were used to craft this piece from mammoth ivory?
  • What role does Guanyin play in Chinese Buddhist beliefs?
  • What symbols on the artwork connect to Guanyin’s identity as the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy?
  • How are these symbols different from ones used to identify Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha?
  • How does this image connect to, extend, and challenge your current understanding of Buddhism?
  • Why are Buddhas and bodhisattvas other than Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha, worshipped by Buddhist practitioners?
  • Why is Guanyin sometimes portrayed as male and sometimes portrayed as female? In what contexts might gender matter?
  • What other faith traditions have figures especially designated as “compassionate”?
  • How does being familiar with Guanyin help us understand Buddhist beliefs about this life and the afterlife?


Visual Arts
  • Research and compare Guanyin images across cultures and mediums. What is similar? What is different? What holds meaning for believers aesthetically? What objects would they want in their homes or sacred spaces?
English Language Arts
  • Work with students to create a shared definition of compassion. Then have students write “compassion” poetry. Where do they see compassion in the world? Where do they find it in their lives?
Social Studies
  • Research the history and beliefs around another Buddha or bodhisattva. Present your findings orally, visually, or in written form.


Buswell, Robert E., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton Reference, 2014. Pp. 313, 687, 730.

Paths to Perfection: Buddhist art at the Freer|Sackler. Washington, DC: Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art, 2017. P. 223.

Kubo, Tsugunari and Akira Yuyama, trans. The Lotus Sutra (Taishō, Volume 9, Number 262). Berkley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007. Pp. 295–98. http://www.bdk.or.jp/document/dgtl-dl/dBET_T0262_LotusSutra_2007.pdf.

Yü, Chün-fang. Kuan-yin: the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

The Art of Buddhism. A Teacher’s Guide. Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. https://asia-archive.si.edu/edu/ArtofBuddhism.pdf

Encountering the Buddha: Beyond Death and Desire—The Historical Buddha. https://asia-archive.si.edu/exhibition/beyond-death-and-desire/

Buddhas Across Borders. https://asia-archive.si.edu/exhibition/buddhas-across-borders/

Buddhism and Buddhist Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/budd/hd_budd.htm

An Introduction to Buddhism. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. https://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/introduction-buddhism