Nyoirin-kannon and the femininity

Iyanaga Nobumi

    The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (ch. Guanyin, jap. Kannon) is one of the most widely venerated deities of Mahāyāna Buddhism. As it is well-known, people in China and in some other countries under Chinese influence worshipped this Bodhisattva as a female deity from a certain period onward. There are some studies on the Chinese transformation of Avalokiteśvara, but it seems that there is no extensive study on the specifically Japanese development of the cult of Avalokiteśvara as a female deity. In this paper, we shall attempt to shed some light to this problem, concentrating our attention upon some aspects of the feminine representations of Nyoirin-kannon (Avalokiteśvara with Wish-fulfilling Wheel).
    The origin of the worship of Nyoirin-kannon is very obscure. There is no Indian or Tibetan representation of Nyoirin-kannon, and its sanskrit name itself could be restored only recently, as “Avalokiteśvara cakravarti cintāmaṇi.” There are twelve sūtras and rituals translated or written in Chinese, but we know almost nothing about the Chinese worship of this deity. The symbolism of Nyoirin-kannon may be the complex result of the combination of his/her two attributes: that of the wish-fulfilling jewel (cintāmaṇi: feminine because of its fecundity, but masculine also because of its shape) and that of the wheel (cakra), weapon that destroys any enemy — thus associated with the royal power.
    In Japan, the cult of Nyoirin-kannon is attested from the early Heian period onward. One of the first statues (ca. 842), and one of the most beautiful ones, already represents the Bodhisattva as a female deity: it has been created on the vow of an Empress Dowager, and is considered as representing this woman. On the other hand, it is said that there was a statue of Nyoirin-kannon in the chamber next to the bedroom of the Emperor; it was considered as the “original form” (honji) of the imperial goddess Amaterasu ōmikami. Thus, from a very early period, Nyoirin-kannon in Japan was associated with the femininity and the imperial power.
    In a famous dream of Shinran (1201), Nyoirin-kannon manifests herself as the spouse of the ascetic who cannot restraint his sexual desire. We try to trace back to the origin of this image: it seems that it comes from a lost tantric ritual written most probably in Japan around the end of Heian period or the early Kamakura period. Nyoirin-kannon is also associated to the “Mother Buddha Buddha’s Eye” (Butsugen butsumo, Buddhalocanā) in a writing of Jien; and this “Buddha’s Eye” in her turn is associated to the imperial consort in another famous dream of this monk (1203).
    Finally, we examine the association of Nyoirin-kannon with Dakini-ten, a deity representing a very powerful symbolism of eroticism and violence, in the context of the ritual of Unction of Enthronement (sokui-kanjō). Thus, here again, Nyoirin-kannon functions as a symbol of femininity and of the imperial (violent) power.