A Map of Compassion

Statue of a bodhisattva
Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion
Artist not known, Japan
1100s, late Heian period

Students will critically examine and discuss the image of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion. They will then discuss and view examples of mind maps. In small groups students will create an original mind map to organize their thoughts and ideas around the concept of compassion.

Intended Age Group
Secondary (grades 6-12)
Standards Area
Language Arts
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion;
  • discuss symbolic and actual demonstrations of compassion; and
  • collaborate in groups to design and create a mind map as a graphical representation of compassion.


  1. Show students the image of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion. Ask students to describe what they see, interpret what they think it might mean, and to identify any possible clues that lead to this meaning.
  2. Share the information from the About the Art section with students. Go over the “Details” information, discussing the importance of compassion to the Bodhisattva.
  3. Hold a discussion on what the word “compassion” means and how it is displayed. Encourage students to think of local and global examples. What about right in their neighborhoods? At home with their family? Within their school? What about during disasters? What does compassion look like? Sound like? Feel like?
  4. Explain that this object was probably created by several artists working together. Relate this to how the students will also be working together to create an object, a graphical tool called a mind map, that will show their thoughts and learning about compassion.
  5. Divide students into small groups of 3 to 5.
  6. Show students examples of mind maps. Students can choose a type of map they predict will work best for them, or they could create their own design that will effectively display their thinking.
  7. Explain that they will start with the idea of compassion in the center of the map. Compassion could be represented with a symbolic word, picture, or drawing. They will then branch out from that center and add all of the aspects they can think of relating to compassion. Examples might be: people who show compassion, challenges to showing compassion, actions that show compassion, etc. Off of each of these sections there will be smaller links until the map fills the space provided. The map could be on paper, a chart, or a white board, wherever best fits the space in the classroom.
  8. When finished have each group share their mind map with the entire class and explain their thoughts about compassion.


  • Note taking paper for each student
  • Paper, chart, or white board for display of mind maps
  • Variety of pencils, markers, or other writing implements
  • Images and descriptions of mind maps such as those found at My Mind Map, or more artistic maps at Mind Map Art
  • About the Art section on the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion
  • Color copies of the image for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction
Statue of a bodhisattva

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion

1100s, late Heian period

Artist not known, Japan

1100s, late Heian period

Height: 50 in. (including base)

Collector's Choice IV Benefit Fund, 1982.134

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

This sculpture was most likely made by multiple artisans who were called busshi [BOO-shee] (Japanese sculptors of Buddhist images). It was made during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185 CE), an era characterized by a great flowering of literature, art, and religious thinking. During the Heian period, sculptures were made almost exclusively of wood. This sculpture was made in the yosegi [yoh-SEH-gee] fashion, a technique that involved carving several separate pieces of wood and assembling them to form the sculpture. After the pieces were assembled, the detailed carving would be finished. Often, each piece of wood was carved by a different artisan-specialist. This kind of assembly line production turned out more large-scale images than a single artisan could, and in a shorter amount of time. This sculpture was also painted with brilliant colors, but the paint has worn off over time, leaving the wood exposed in certain areas.

What Inspired It

The word bodhisattva [boh-dee-SAHT-vah] means "one whose essence is enlightenment.” A bodhisattva is an important figure in the Buddhist religion. In Buddhism, all living beings take part in an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, known as the Wheel of Life. All deeds, good or bad, are carried from past lives into future lives. This cycle continues until sufficient knowledge and spiritual experience leads to enlightenment, or nirvana [neer-VAH-nah]. A bodhisattva is a being who has achieved nirvana but, instead of passing out of the Wheel of Life, chooses to remain in the world to help others. Bodhisattvas exercise compassion by sharing the wisdom they have gained during their many past lives.

This sculpture is a representation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (called Kannon [KAH-known] in Japanese), who was one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Heian Japan. The name Kannon means “the one who hears their cries.” Believers appeal to Kannon for help in achieving enlightenment and protection from disaster. This sculpture was an object of devotion, probably placed in a Buddhist temple complex where devotees could make offerings to the bodhisattva.


Eleven Heads

There are thirty-two different forms of Kannon; this sculpture depicts the form called the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Only five of the eleven small heads remain on the top of the sculpture. The eleven heads are said to originate out of the despair that the bodhisattva felt at seeing countless individuals who had not found salvation. This grief caused his head to split into ten fragments which then formed into additional heads. The additional heads symbolize his awareness of the needs of all conscious beings—humans, animals, and insects.


Jeweled crowns are typical of bodhisattvas and suggest royal stature.

Caring Expression

The bodhisattva’s expression is meant to express gentleness or kindness. The eyes are almost closed and may convey a sense of calm.

Aristocratic Body and Clothing

The proportions of this sculpture mirror the fashions of the upper class during the Heian Period. The padded hips, slightly bulging belly, full arms, rings of flesh on the neck, and long, pierced earlobes are all signs of wealth and nobility. Being thin as a sign of beauty is very much a creation of the modern world. In the past, in most cultures, beauty was associated with having plenty to eat and being a bit on the fleshy side.

Lotus Throne

The lotus plant symbolizes purity emerging from an imperfect world. Lotus flowers grow from the mud at the bottom of a pond and eventually bloom on top of clear water.

Wood Grain

Although the wood grain would not have been visible originally (it would have been hidden under brightly colored paint), its lines follow the forms of the face and body with precision.

Hand Gestures

These hand positions are called mudra [MOO-drah] and are a kind of hand-sign language. One hand is held down with palm open and the fingers gently cupped. The other hand is raised with thumb and middle finger together. These two hand gestures together might have suggested appeasement, or bringing peace and calmness to the world. However, it is possible the hands were replaced over the years, as hands are fragile and tend to break off of sculptures.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.