Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I don’t know –and I don’t know if anyone knows- how many among this country’s thousands of temples is dedicated to the Buddhist entity that started as Avalokitsehvara in India to transform into Guanyin in China and into Kannon (觀音) or Kanzeon (觀世音) in Japan –my personal statistics show that what I mentioned in a previous “Letter” is true: she is without a doubt one of the most popular “deities” of the Buddhist world and is worshipped equally by almost all sects. And this isn’t surprising since she symbolizes one of those qualities that all people need at some point in their lives: mercy. Both as a role and as depiction-a young woman with noble characteristics and kind expression- she is the closest someone who was grown up in the Christian tradition has to the Virgin Mary.
Pilgrimages to Kannon’s temples are among the oldest –and biggest and most important- in Japan: there are references already in the Heian Era, in the end of the first millennium, about “circuits” of 100 temples all over the country, equally spread in the east and the west, in the north and the south. Both Kamakura, the first shogun capital and Edo, the last, had their own 33 temples dedicated to her and even today you can spot in Asakusa’s Sensoji, perhaps the biggest Kannon temple belonging to a special sect that worships her, people dressed in white coming from all over the country to recite her a sutra and take in their special booklet her stamp-wish together with the hope that someday she will also listen as her name suggests (“she that listens to the voices of the world”) their own call for help.
Sometimes with a thousand hands so she can reach as many people as possible, sometimes with eleven heads so she can see and hear as many people as possible, one of Kannon’s 33 forms –according to the “Lotus Sutra” and transformed by Japanese tradition and art- can be found in every city or village in Japan. Also, and not so strange in this land of contradictions especially as pertains to religion, in the camera bags of a significant part of the population: one of the country’s –and the world’s- biggest photographic equipment makers owes its name to Kannon. (No hidden symbolisms here; the company’s founder was a devout Buddhist.) And even though you rarely see in Japan the extreme expressions of religious zeal usually associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian countries, it would be wrong to assume that the importance placed on Kannon by the Japanese is small: soteriology is not a privilege of the Christians –or the Westerners.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.