In the middle of Kaifeng stands the Temple of the Chief Minister. And in the middle of that temple stands one of the most amazing statues I have ever seen. The Four-Faced Thousand Eyes Thousand Hand Statue of Guanyin.
It is an amazing statue, towering at 23 feet and in the center of an octagonal room. You can enter the room from any side and walk around the statue to see the details. The statue was hidden during the Cultural Revolution (which was likely hard due to its size and 3 ton weight) but the statue was unscathed and now shines. It’s wood, but painted in gold to make it glow from far away. It’s made from a ginko tree, one giant ginko tree, and it is estimated, due to its size, that the tree was over 3,000 years old when it was cut down.
Guanyin is also called the Goddess of Mercy and is sometimes represented as having 1000 hands and eyes so that she can see and reach out to those who need her help. This statue goes a step beyond and actually has 1048 hands and eyes. Each hand is individually carved and the fingers are slightly different. Little details like that make you appreciate the work the artist put into it.
It took the artist, one man, 58 years to carve. Imagine spending 58 years of your life carving the statue. Even if he started at age 10 he would be past retirement age when he finished (and I’m sure he started way after age 10). Unfortunately the artists name has been lost in the pages of history and no one knows anything about him.
Jason, our tour guide, told us a story about the statue. He said a long time ago (or maybe I should say Once upon a time) there was a king. The king was very sick, but his illness was a complete mystery. He called for the best doctors, but no one knew what was making him sick, and no one knew how to help him. It looked as if he would die.
One day a wandering monk entered his kingdom. He took one look at the king and told him he knew what was wrong and what he needed to cure him.
“The only thing,” the wandering monk said, “is I will need a special ingredient: The hand and eye from one of your children.”
The king had three daughters who were brought before him and told of the monks words. The oldest daughter had just had a baby and she begged the king to choose another sister.
“How can I take care of my child with only one hand and one eye? It is impossible and my baby will die.”
The middle sister had just gotten married and also begged the king.
“I am a new bride. How can I face my husband without an eye and a hand?”
Then the youngest and most beautiful sister stepped up.
“I have no child and no husband. I will gladly give up my hand and gouge out my eye if it will help you get better, father.”
Soon, the arm was cut and the eye was taken and the young princess bled all over the ground. She couldn’t stop bleeding in fact, and soon was dead from her injury. The king recovered, but the whole kingdom grieved for the young princess and her sacrifice. They only said good things about her, and her courage of spirit and character and how she embodied fealty to her father and king.
Everybody talked about her and eventually so many people were talking about her the Buddha couldn’t help overhearing and was also moved by her actions. In honor of the girl he planted a seed from a ginko tree in the ground that she had bled on. That tree grew strong and healthy and thousands of years later it was chosen by a sculpture to be the thousand eye and hand statue we were standing in front of.