A Gem of a Poem

Lesson Plan


Students will critically examine and discuss the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion and determine ways compassion can be demonstrated and symbolized. They will then work collaboratively using parts of speech to write a diamante poem describing what they see in the art object, learn about its history, know from experience, and have learned about compassion.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe and analyze what they see in the image of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion;
  • identify symbols of compassion in the art object; and
  • use parts of speech to create a poem.


  1. Show students the image of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion. Ask students to describe what they see, interpret what they think it is, what they think it is made of, and what it might mean.
  2. Share the information from the About the Art section. Go over the “Details” information. Then in groups or as a whole class, re-examine the object for details they might have missed.
  3. Discuss what a symbol is and ask students to identify what symbols the artists who created this Bodhisattva used to demonstrate his compassion. Make a list of the words and symbols for all to see.
  4. Ask students to think of ways that they show compassion or that someone has shown compassion to them. What characteristics do we see in a compassionate person? What concrete things might we see, like a bandage, a hug, a warm meal, etc.? Write these brainstormed ideas concerning compassion on the board or where all can see.
  5. Explain to the students that just as the Bodhisattva was created by several people working together, they will work in groups of 2-3 to create a diamante shape poem from the words and symbols they wrote down describing compassion.
  6. One formula that can be used is:
    • Line 1: one noun as the subject
    • Line 2: two adjectives describing the subject
    • Line 3: three participles (ending in “ing”) telling about the subject
    • Line 4: four nouns (the first two related to the subject and the last two related to its opposite)
    • Line 5: three participles telling about the opposite
    • Line 6: two adjectives describing the opposite
    • Line 7: one noun that is the opposite of the subject
    • Give the group poem a title.
  7. Optional: Older or advanced students might wish to create a poem in the shape of a symbol found on the Bodhisattva such as a lotus flower.
  8. Invite volunteers to share their group poems with the class, explaining what they have learned about compassion, what they chose as the opposite of compassion, and why they chose the opposite.


  • Note taking paper for each student
  • Paper, chart paper, projector, or a whiteboard for group poetry work
  • Variety of pencils, markers, or other writing implements
  • Color copies of the image for 2-3 students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Copies of About the Art section on the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online


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

About the Art

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion

1100s, late Heian period

Artist not known, Japan

Who Made It?

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
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
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
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
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
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
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 lesson plans 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.