When Sudhana reached Mount Potalaka, he went up to the mountain and searched for the Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, and found the bodhisattava on the hill to the west of the mountain. There were streams of spring water and ponds here and there, the forest was dense, and the grass was soft. The Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva was seated in the posture of paryanka on a lotus-flower support. Countless bodhisattvas escorted the Avalokiteśvara with deep respect

- the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Flower Garland Sutra)

Paintings of Avalokiteśvara

These Avalokiteśvara paintings depict a scene from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, which is also known as the Flower Garland Sutra. According to the sutra, the boy pilgrim Sudhana takes a journey to seek enlightenment and wisdom. When he reaches Mount Potalaka,  Avalokiteśvara who sits on a rock in the middle of the moonlit sea, gives Sudhana enlightenment. Most of the extant paintings of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara are found in Japan. Let’s compare  Avalokiteśvara paintings from each country.


Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara  (水月觀音圖), .Goryeo dynasty, 14th century, color on silk, 163.8 x 84.3cm. Nara National Museum, Japan. ©ColBase(https://colbase.nich.go.jp/) 


Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara (水月觀音圖), Goryeo dynasty, 14th century, color on silk, 172 x 64cm. National Museum of Korea. ©e-Museum

A comparison of the two images of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara reveals the unique style of expression seen in Goryeo Buddhist paintings: the delicate and splendid gold paint, the elegant lines of the brushstrokes, and the refined yet meticulous depiction. The composition of the moon-lit sea, the kundika ewer with a willow branch, Avalokiteśvara sitting on porous limestone, and Sudhana staring at the bodhisattva are typical. However, in the case of the Nara National Museum painting, we see subtle differences, such as the expression of various maritime motifs, the representation of a transformation Buddha on the head of Avalokiteśvara, and the appearance of a Sudhana whose face is revealed.

Let’s examine the delicate and sophisticated expression of paintings of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara from Goryeo.

Why do you think Sudhana went on a pilgrimage to Avalokiteśvara?

Euigyeom (義謙). Sudhana (善財童子), Detail from Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara (水月觀音圖)

Joseon dynasty, 1730, color on silk, 105.7 x 143.5cm. National Museum of Korea. ©National Museum of Korea

Sudhana is drawn as a little boy below the feet of Water-Moon Avalokiteśvara. Why would Sudhana have taken his journey to find Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva? It is because he was eager to gain enlightenment bodhicitta (菩提心). After traveling to the south, Sudhana finally meets Avalokiteśvara at Mount Potalaka. He bows before the feet of the bodhisattva, circles and stands in front of the bodhisattva, and then asks how he can attain good knowledge kalyana-mitra (善知識) and learn the practice of a bodhisattva. In other words, the reason why Sudhana visited Avalokiteśvara was to learn the way to save people in the profane world.