This booklet is one of the thousands of copies of the Lotus Sūtra that were found in Dunhuang. The scripture, which is one of the most influential in Mahāyāna Buddhism, appears to have been extremely popular, possibly because of its emphasis on the role of compassionate bodhisattvas.
Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sūtra focuses on the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and became increasingly singled out as a separate, standalone text. The deity’s name in Chinese is Guanyin, short for Guanshiyin, which means ‘Perceiver of the World’s Sounds’ and refers to his ability to hear the prayers of any being calling upon him for help. The text details how he assumes thirty-three different emanations to rescue people facing various difficult situations, such as fire, drowning, shipwreck, robbery and imprisonment.
The diminutive size and format of the booklet probably made it portable and easy to consult. It is also illustrated with colourful scenes, laid in the upper part of each folio, above the columns of text. This visual narrative, by complementing the written content of the sūtra, would have been particularly useful to those who were illiterate or semiliterate. The thick paper and relatively rough handwriting may also indicate that this item was intended for personal use.