Surrounded by a moon-like halo, the visionary figure of the White-Robed Guanyin is shown seated in contemplation in a cave-like setting by a swelling ocean. Guanyin (The Observer of Sounds) or Guanshiyin (The One Who Observes the Sounds of the World) is a Chinese deity corresponding to Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. Originating in India in the 6th century BC, Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st century AD. In China, Guanyin became the most popular Buddhist deity, being credited with the power to save people from all kinds of perils. Unlike many fourteenth-century representations of Guanyin as female, the Guanyin in the Gallery’s scroll is a male with a small beard, thus referring back to earlier examples. The landscape here suggests that the location is Mount Putuo, which in China came to be regarded as the spiritual home of Guanyin. Mount Putuo, an island off Zhejiang province, is named after Mount Potalaka, the sacred island of Avalokiteshvara, which is believed to be situated somewhere in the ocean south of India.
What makes this scroll especially important and interesting is the fact that in the upper left corner there is an inscription by the monk Huiming (1316–1386), abbot of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist temple Lingyin si. This temple, founded in 326 AD, is located near the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. In the inscription, Huiming eulogises the Buddhist virtues and the efficaciousness of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. He also comments on the landscape, in the following lines: ‘Overhanging cliffs and precipices are solitary and silent; Cascading waterfalls and lofty pines reflect each other in quiet stillness’. Huiming was abbot of the Lingyin temple from 1378 to 1386 and it is likely that he inscribed this painting at some time during this period. The painting itself could have been commissioned by the temple at about the same time or slightly earlier, but cannot postdate 1386, the year of Huiming’s death.
Mae Anna Pang