Gyoran Kannon — the “fish basket bodhisattva”

Gyoran Kannon — the “fish basket bodhisattva

Designated cultural property of Kusatsu town

According to the plaque at the Kosenji Temple in Kusatsu, the 1 metre-high statue was for the veneration of (dead) fish. A basket filled with fish is revealed where the robe of the statue is open.

Chouemon Takahara, owner of the Kiriya, an up-town restaurant of the times, had donated the statue to the Konpira-shrine in the Sensui-dsitrict of Kusatsu Onsen in 1771. At a time when Buddhist temples were being separated by the state from Shinto shrines in 1868, the Kannon statue was transferred from the grounds of the Konpira -shrine in 1877, to its current location at Kosenji Temple.  in order to escape the widespread destruction of folk deity statues.

The Gyoran Kannon is likely related to the Gyoran-ji Temple  located in the mountain side of Tsuki no Misaki in Mita, Minato-ku, Tokyo. The formal name of this other temple is Suigetuin Gyoran-ji (水月院魚藍寺) and the principal image venerated there is the Gyoran Kanzeon Bosatsu or Bodhisattva (魚藍観世音菩薩), whose figure is a maiden with her hair tied in a Chinese style topknot (唐様).

According to the temple’s tradition, its origin is based on a Chinese tale of the time of the Tang dynasty. The Buddha appeared in a beautiful maiden’s figure, selling fish in a bamboo basket, and spreading Buddhism.

Fish symbols today strongly remind us of the Biblical story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with fishers, and of the fishers of men, but in those times, Buddha, Orpheus as well as Jesus were known as fishers of men. Fish was a universal symbol during the age of the Tang dynasty on the continent, from Europe to Asia, as well as in Egypt and the Near East…where fish votives, sacrifices symbols of rebirth, fertility amulets were common…  see An exploration of fish-phallic symbolism. In the Tang period, China’s Changan city was the terminus and confluence of the Silk Road’s East-West market forces, and where the western and northern foreigners brought with them their fish cult religious ideas and material symbols.

Below is a summary of the kind of ideology behind the fish cults and religions that might have filtered through to Japan from the continent:

In China, Great Mother Kwan-yin is often portrayed in the shape of a fish and is considered a Goddess’s yoni or Pearly Gate: two crescent moons forming a vesica piscis.  Its similarity with the Christian fish-sign has been noted.

In “Across the Himalayan Gap” an account is given of how the Guanyin with a fish basket became popular:
“Guanyin with the fish basket is based upon the legend of a Chan believer and his daughter Lingzhao who was believed to be a manifestation of Avalokitesvara carrying a bamboo basket. The story goes thus -In the year AD 817 of the Tang dynasty a beautiful girl in the countryside was much sought after for marriage by eligible young men. As the number of men who were eager to marry her was large, she adopted a novel method for selecting a suitor. She put forth a condition that she would marry the person who would memorize the Guanyin chapter of the Lotus Sutra in one night. Twenty men succeeded in doing this but because there were still too many for the marriage, she again made a request that these twenty should learn by heart the Vajracchedika sutra overnight. Once again there was a sizable number of men who had achieved the feat. The girl’s third condition was that he who memorized the entire Lotus Sutra in just three days could marry her. A man named Ma Lang was the only one who could accomplish this and so the marriage was to take place. Just as the marriage ceremony was to commence the girl took ill and died. Soon after the burial an old priest visited Ma Lang and requested him to dig up the grave. The coffin contained only pieces of golden bones. The old priest said that the girl was a manifestation of Guanyin who had come to lead people to salvation. After saying this the old man too vanished. From then on the people of the district became Guanyin devotees.” — THE CREATION OF GODDESS OF MERCY FROM AVALOKITESVARA by BAGYALAKSHMI (retrieval source:

According to the Institute of Marian Research, the Guanyin (including Japanese and Korean derived Mothers of mercy and compassion are all ultimately derived from India:

“Scholars believe that the Buddhist monk and translator Kumarajiva was the first to refer to the female form of Kuan Yin in his Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra in 406 A.D.  Of the thirty-three appearances of the bodhisattva referred to in his translation, seven are female.  (Devoted Chinese and Japanese Buddhists have since come to associate the number thirty-three with Kuan Yin).

The iconography of Kuan Yin depicts her in many forms, each one revealing a unique aspect of her merciful presence.  As the sublime Goddess of Mercy whose beauty, grace and compassion have come to represent the ideal of womanhood in the East, she is frequently portrayed as a slender woman in flowing white robes who carries in her left hand a white lotus, symbol of purity.  Ornaments may adorn her form, symbolizing her attainment as a bodhisattva, or she may be pictured without them as a sign of her great virtue.

Kuan Yin’s presence is widespread through her images as the “bestower of children” which are found in homes and temples.  A great white veil covers her entire form and she may be seated on a lotus.  She is often portrayed with a child in her arms, near her feet, or on her knees, or with several children about her.  In this role, she is also referred to as the “white – robed honored one.”  Sometimes to her right and left are her two attendants, Shan – tsiai Tung tsi, the “young man of excellent capacities,” and Lung – wang Nu, the “daughter of the Dragon-king.”

Kuan Yin is also known as patron bodhisattva of P’u – t’o Shan, mistress of the Southern Sea and patroness of fishermen.  As such she is shown crossing the sea seated or standing on a lotus or with her feet on the head of a dragon.

Symbols characteristically associated with Kuan Yin are a willow branch, with which she sprinkles the divine nectar of life; a precious vase symbolizing the nectar of compassion and wisdom, the hallmarks of a bodhisattva; a dove, representing fecundity; a book or scroll of prayers which she holds in her hand, representing the dharma (teaching) of the Buddha or the sutra (Buddhist text) which Miao Shan is said to have constantly recited; and a rosary adorning her neck with which she calls upon the Buddha’s for succor.”- “Mother of Mercy”

From the local iconography and oral traditions,  the fecundity and fishing associations, were apparently transmitted to early Japan, and these aspects being more consonant with the local folk beliefs, appear to have been emphasized and valued perhaps even above the Buddhist compassion and mercy aspects to early Japan.

Another article “Kannon notebook” attributes the Kannon’s origin to  India:

“ORIGIN= India. Kannon personifies compassion and is one of the most widely worshipped divinities in Asia and Japan in both ancient and modern times. Kannon’s origins are unclear, but most scholars agree that Kannon worship began in India around the 1st or 2nd century AD and then spread to Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and most other Asian nations. Veneration of Kannon in Japan began in the late 6th century, soon afterBuddhism reached Japan by way of Korea and China. In Japan, Kannon’s paradise is known as Fudarakusen. It is commonly said to be located at the southern tip of India (which supports theories of Kannon’s Indian origin). Many Kannon statues from Japan’s Asuka Era(538 to 710) are still extant. Originally male in form, Kannon is now often portrayed as female in China, Japan, and other East Asian countries. Each of these nations dressed Kannon in different forms to suit their own temperaments and spiritual concepts.”

Middle East / Ancient Near East:  The legendary King of Babylon, Nimrod, was depicted as a fish. Fish was also offered up sacrificially. Fish was believed to populate the Subterranean Ocean and the River Tigris and Euphrates River, mostly catfish (which may suggest the origins of the numerous subterranean catfish legends in Japan).  In Egypt, Isis was called the Great Fish of Abyss. Isis as swallower of Osiris’s penis became Abtu, the Great Fish of the Abyss. Fish is connected to ideas of rebirth — Anubis in Egyptian tomb paintings depicted carrying out mummification upon fish instead of human corpses, linking the dead with Osiris, whose body was devoured by fish and come to life when Isis put the body parts back to together again.

In India: Meneekshi  is called the “fish-eyed goddess”, while the Goddess Kali is called the “fish-eyed one” and as the swallower of Shiva’s penis, Kali became Minaksi the “fish-eyed” one (just as in Egypt, Isis the swallower of Osiris’s penis became Abtu, the Great Fish of the Abyss).  The first avatar of Vishnu is in the form of a fish swimming in the great ocean of space.  Notwithstanding the Chinese view that the Kannon’s home is in the Putoshan’s southern seas, near Ningbo, more consistent with the known fact that Buddhism spread to east Asia from India, the Japanese early sutras state that the Kannon’s paradise lies in southern India:

“The Kegon-kyō 華厳経 (Skt. = Avatamsaka Sutra; Flower Garland Sutra) and various other early texts refer to Kannon’s paradise as a verdant land of bliss located somewhere in the southern oceans near India. The Kegon-kyō was first translated into Chinese around 420 AD, with a second translation around 699. The teachings and texts of the Kegon school were introduced to Japan around +736 by the Chinese monk Tao Hsuan, and helped spark belief in Kannon’s Fudaraku paradise.” — “Kannon notebook”

Mediterranean:  The peschiera as a female symbol is where the fish swims. Fish uterus is seen in Minoan art where fish along with Great Goddess symbols including spirals adorn sarcophagi.  In Greece the Greek word “delphos” meant both fish and womb. The word is derived from the location of the ancient Oracle at Delphi who worshipped the original fish goddess, Themis. Artemis of Ephesus had a fish (vesica pesci sign) amulet covering over her genitals. Proserpine, mother goddess of the uterine region of Hell parallels Venus in the uterine world of Paradise. Fish were sacred to Venus and Friday was regarded as Venus’ sacred day.  The later fish Goddess, Aphrodite Salacia, was worshipped by her followers on her sacred day, Friday. They ate fish and engaging in orgies (the early Christian practice of eating of fish on Friday and the association of the symbol with deity were all taken over by the early Church from Pagan sources for various reasons). Fish phallic symbolism, was accepted in medieval symbolism as a symbol for Christ by considering five Greek letters as an acronym for fish — Ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ, Greek for fish).  The miter of the Christian pope is also thought to have been adopted from the fish headdress of the priests of Ea [a Sumero-Semitic God]. Alternatively, it is attributed to the biblical illusion “out of the deluge emerged Dagon, the fish god, or god of the sea”, Dagon is mentioned in book of the Bible Samuel, chapter 5, when the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant and place it in the temple of Dagon, i.e. the Philistines worshipped Nimrod as the fish god Dagon.

Funerary stele with the inscription ΙΧΘΥΣ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ ("fish of the living"), early 3rd century, National Roman Museum

Funerary stele with the inscription ΙΧΘΥΣ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ (“fish of the living”), early 3rd century, National Roman Museum

Europe: In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was named Freya; fish were eaten in her honor. The 6th day of the week was named “Friday” after her. In Celtic cultures throughout northern Europe, fish was linked to fertility, birth, and the natural force of women and the fish symbol, was known by pagans as “the Great Mother”, and “womb”. In Slavic Europe (Yugoslavia): the belief that humans were “children of the river”.

Mayans (whose mtDNA have been traced to the Chinese in E. Asia or alternatively the Altai region): Mayans buried their dead with fish, depicted fish in their art and according to their belief system: Fish swim in the waters surrounding the Earth. The Earth rests on a watery membrane, with four pillars separating the dead from the living. Because of dark, moist and mysterious entrances to the Underworld, caves like fish symbolized fertility. Sex symbolism of the peschiera in the sphere of the moon  appears from the common phallic symbolism of the fish. That the Mayans have the same symbology as that of Eurasia and East Asia, suggests the antiquity of the ideology.


ΙΧΘΥΣ The pre-Christian history of the fish symbol

Ichthys (Wikipedia)

Barbara G. Walker; The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

Mother of Mercy (Institute of Marian Research :

Kannon notebook


2 thoughts on “Gyoran Kannon — the “fish basket bodhisattva”

  1. The chinese tale is incomplete and totally wrong. Thousands of years ago, in the time of dragons, gods and deites, The great eastern dragon king rules the eastern seas. One fine day, his son, young dragon prince decided to venture out of the dragon palace for thrill seeking. He transformed himself into a fish to avoid detection and swam into the ocean. Unfortunately, he was netted by a fisherman and was later sold to a fishmonger. After many hours out of water, the ‘fish’ was noted to be still alive. Amazed, the news spread thru the market like wild fire. The whole village crowd round the fishmonger’s stall in curosity. Somehow a news spread that whoever eats the fish will attain immortality. Hence a huge bargaining war erupted. Everyone wanted immortality.
    The Eastern Dragon king caught wind of the news, he panicked and cried to the Heavens to save his son from the villagers. On land the dragon king has no power. His piteous cries reached the ear of Goddess of Mercy. She immediately despatched her young helper (who was crippled in one leg) with gold to purchase the fish before the villagers bought it.
    Unfortunately, when the young man reached the market, the price of the ‘fish’ had risen beyond the budget. Finally, a rich man won the auction. The young man appealed to the rich man to let the ‘fish go, the rich man refused, saying, since he bought the fiash, the life of the fish now belongs to him.
    Goddess of Mercy saw the situation was getting out of hand, she appeared to the view of the villagers over the sky, and said, “The life of any being belongs to the person who can save it, not the person who kills it! On behalf of Buddha, i appeal to you to give the fish to my assistant and save the fish. Amithaba.”
    The rich man handled the fish immediately to the young man upon hearing the words of the Goddes of Mercy.
    The assistant brought back the fish in a bamboo basket and handed the fish over to Goddess of Mercy-Kuan Yin. The Goddess carried the ‘fish in the basket’ and crossed the seven seas. She then hand over the young dragon prince to the Eastern Dragon king. The extremely happy and grateful Dragon king, took out his most precious item in his ocean which is a large pearl the glows in the dark and beseeched the Goddess to accept it as a token of appreciation.
    Henceforth, we always seeing paintings of Goddess of Mercy or Kuan Yin or Kannon carrying a bamboo basket with a single fish of The Goddess of Mercy holding a large pearl.
    Hope this helps

  2. One thing to note about tracing the evolution of mythical tales is that there are very many versions, usually developed over a range of time and geographical locations. The longer and the more detailed the version, the greater the likelihood and indication that the original version has undergone a large number of transformation, rationalization, accretions from other tales. The version, though different and much truncated, recounted here stands as an authentic version and part of the tradition of the temple in Japan. In the study of myths, it is proper to comparatively consider all versions even at the ends of the earth, because even as populations migrate and end up elsewhere due to genetic drift, the versions they carry, even if truncated, serve to educate as to how ideas and beliefs may have been before tribes and lineages branched off in remoter early eras. At the ends of the earth, away from centers of origin, although myths sometimes develop local characteristics or lose parts that in the re-telling over generations that become superfluous or unnecessary, incoming migrants, on the other hand, are often keener to hold on the traditions and accounts of their “earliest” tutelary heroes/deities as part of their identity. Therefore, for our purposes on this website’s study, we need not discount these versions as inferior or wrong, the differences between versions in the different countries are considered useful and informative as well as indicative of the migratory trail it has taken in time and space, as well as of the kind of “baggage” migrants bring with them. I myself usually avoid including later medieval versions of myths post-9th century wherever possible, nevertheless thank you for the interesting “complete” version you have posted. If you read Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East, you will see how informative it is to trace the trail of myths with all their differences across a swathe of countries, particularly when the trail conforms to genetic patterns. It is what he terms as the Chinese whispers effect in the re tellingly of mythology … Like in the classic gossip game, you lose some and you gain some in the passed on retellings of a tale.

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