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Eleven-Faced Kannon

This beloved esoteric (tantric) form of Kannon is depicted with eleven heads atop its crown. This iconography was introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century. There are various explanations for the eleven heads. On a folk level, some say it is symbolic of shedding sweetness and mercy in all directions, others that Kannon became so distressed after witnessing the sufferings of the world that his head split into eleven pieces. But the most plausible explanation is that the lower ten heads represent the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva Path (steps required to attain enlightenment). The 11th head, located at the very center in the highest position, represents the 11th stage, Buddhahood, the final and ultimate result for those following the Bodhisattva Path. The 11th head, moreover, is identified as Amida Buddha, the central deity in Japan’s Pure Land sects -- for in these sects, Kannon is considered an active emanation of Amida.

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