Friday, May 11, 2012

The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants

Book Review: The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants by Wolf D. Storl  (North Atlantic Books 2012)

This is undoubtedly the best book I have read about herbalism (and I have read a few) and possibly the best book on herbalism ever. It is full of useful information from various herbal traditions. It is a thorough and detailed study with much unusual information not easily gleaned from other sources. I have read Storl’s very good book about Shiva but I would say that this book is his masterpiece. He is an ethnobotanical anthropologist (actually he describes himself as a cultural ecologist by profession) who has also apprenticed with herbalists of various traditions around the world. His knowledge and experience of the subject is extensive. Rather oddly, the original manuscript for this book was turned down in the 80’s by several publishers, apparently on the grounds that it was a book about herbal traditions and so non-scientific. After this he set about revising it into its present form.

Storl decribes herbalism as a way of life, a way of thinking about our relationship to plants, rather than just seeking out the ‘active ingredients’ of herbs for their symptom-easing effects. “Wortcunning” is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “knowing herbs.” This knowing is not just scientific objective knowing but also the knowing of the magical attributes of herbs. He gives some further interesting Indo-European etymologies related to “wort,” one being “word, another the Germanic “ur” meaning ‘first’ or ‘primordial.’ These words, he says, denote the origin of things personified by the IE gods beyond and preceding space and time – Ahura Mazda (Ormazd) for the Persians, Uranus for the Greco-Romans, and Varuna, the Vedic guardian of the dharma and rta (ritual/rite/Germanic right). ‘Ur” points to the Nordic ur-goddesses of fate – Urd, Wyrd, and Skuld. Urd is the primordial coming into being, the primal earth. Wyrd is fate unfolding. He notes that Skuld is related to the word ‘should’ – which in German as schuld means “that which is owed.” He goes through more of these IE word origins for ‘cunning’ as well, noting that it is related to words referring to offspring, kin, gen (to produce), king, and can (to be able). Based on this he makes the statement that: “A wortcunner is not just a botanist or a knower of herbs, but one who has the occult power to see into the origin of things, to see beyond the surface.”

Storl provides an excellent history of herbalism. He suggests that the earliest herb lore was not just trial and error but an intuitive plant shamanism that began to fade as civilization developed with all its specialization of functions. In Vedic terms the revealed knowledge (shruti) of the rishis, or seers, gave way to the hearsay knowledge of tradition (smriti). Were early humans more clairvoyant than us? Possibly and legends certainly suggest it. Plant intuition is an important part of many indigenous and shamanic traditions. There is often rapport or communication with the plant spirit – in essence the Universal Form of the plant. Plant remedies given in dreams and visions are abundant in the accounts of history. The clairvoyant Edgar Cayce is a more recent example.

In time, medical ‘priesthoods’ developed in Babylonia, Egypt, and Greece. Herbal knowledge was passed down in oral and written tradition in China as the Pen Ts’ao (from 3000 BC) and in India as the Atharva Veda. Indian ascetics, forest dwellers, and Buddhist monks have studied medicine from early times and became caretakers of medical lore just as medieval Christian monks did in Europe. Storl also notes that medical and herbal healing traditions also include spiritual practices, yogic exercises and meditation techniques. For instance, in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions becoming enlightened through spiritual practices is likened to a form of healing the delusions of the mind.

In ancient Mesopotamia demons were considered the immediate cause of disease and it was treated with star omens and entrail reading. Many plant medicines were used as well. Even the Akkadian names of some plants –kamun and murra (cumin and myrrh) are still used. Cures were often administered in milk or beer and with corresponding incantations. Plants were associated with planets and the astrological houses of the zodiac. The Babylonian astrological medicine tradition spread throughout the known world probably influencing Indian Ayurveda as well as Greek and Roman medicine.

The prevailing medical analogy of Ancient Egypt was the regular flooding and flowing of the Nile and so the emphasis was on healthy flow – purgatives, laxatives, enemas, and bleeding were practiced. The temples had herb gardens with many common medicinal and culinary herbs used. The common therapeutic practices of fasting and bathing the patient and inducing a hypnotic sleep within a temple of the Great Mother Isis and seeking a dream indicating a remedy – became the basis for the Ancient Greek tradition of Asklepian healing temples.

In ancient Greece there is evidence of a Wise Woman herbal tradition that may have been common to Indo-European societies. Herbs were considered to be the blood of chthonian animals. Asklepian temples began in the first millennium BC. As in many cultures the serpent was associated with healing. The half-human son of Apollo, Asklepios was taught medicine by the Centaur Chiron. Similarly the Indian medical hero-deity Dhanvantari was a student of Garuda. Asklepios carried a staff entwined with either one or two serpents - one of venom and one of antidote - this nearly identical to the caduceus of Hermes/Thoth. Storl notes the similarity to the dollar sign. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) favored a more rational approach to medicine. His ethical code for the practice of medicine – the Hippocratic Oath is still very popular today. A famed Greek medical doctor for Roman military campaigns, Dioscorides, wrote an herbal describing 600 plants. The ideas of Claudius Galen (130-210 AD) came to dominate both Christian and Muslim medicine of the Middle Ages. He elaborated on the four humors: black bile (earth), phlegm (water), yellow bile (air), and blood (fire). These are to be balanced with diet and herbs for good health. Galen’s medicines contained many ingredients and were often packaged with Egyptian symbols, one being the Eye of Horus (udjat eye). In Egyptian myth Set plucks out the left eye of Horus (the moon) and it is restored by the healing god Thoth – so it became a symbol for healing. It has since become our symbol of prescriptions, Rx. By the time of Paracelsus in the Renaissance doctors began to part with these multi-ingredient remedies and focus on single remedies called ‘simples.’ Now they could isolate and study the effects of single herbs. Paracelsus also favored alchemical remedies containing metals. The Arabs inherited the pharmaceutical wisdom of Ancient Egypt. Distillation and extraction of essences, balms, and perfumes was knowledge passed on. Much of this was involved in original embalming and mummification techniques. Eventually some of these techniques reached the Christian monks through Spain and Southern Italy. In the Middle Ages there was competition between the peasant herbal wortcunners and the official Church herbalists and eventually they mixed together somewhat. An example is the visionary Christian mystic and healer Hildegard von Bingen. She called the life-giving power of plants viriditas. The Christian monasteries of Europe kept many herbs symbolic of their mysteries as well as foods, medicines, and Mediterranean herbs. 

Storl suggests that the European tradition of avoiding metal tools to dig roots, instead using wood, bone, or antler, may stretch back to before the Iron Age (1000 BC). He gives examples of herbs that originally had attributes of Germanic gods had become Christianized: monkshood (Aconitum napellus) was Tyr’s helmet, valerian had been the root of Wayland, the magical smith. February Daphne had been Tyr’s tree and many of the herbs attributed to the Virgin Mary were once herbs of Freya, the matron of wise women and midwives. Shamanic travel to otherworlds through hallucinogenic drugs such as Nightshades in order to find the causes and remedies for diseases was severely discouraged by the Church. With the advent of mass conversions to Christianity and the following centuries of the Inquisition and murder of millions of women the traditions lived on only in remote areas: “Here, in the backward regions of the Alps, the inaccessible regions of Wales and Scotland, and the Gascogne, the old traditions of herbalism, starcraft, and leechdom survive.” He mentions a famed French herbalist, Maurice Messegue from the Gascogne region. His own teacher, Arthur Hermes (1890-1985) lived in the Swiss Alps. Hermes utilized the planetary qualities of plants based on alchemical lore. He was Odin-like with one good eye and one bad and possessed of an old wide-brimmed hat. He avoided meat and alcohol like many of these intuitive herbalists. He studied Paracelsus, Goethe, and Rudolph Steiner. Steiner (1861-1925) was an influential occultist-philosopher-scientist who instigated the ‘biodynamic’ movement of agriculture. His anthroposophic medicinal theory utilizes organic and biodynamic herbs. Greater than these known herbalists with their writings, says Storl, are the unknown country-women and grandmothers who pass on herbal knowledge to their daughters. Typically they have remedies for child diseases, child-bearing problems, nursing, and women’s issues. Along with this knowledge came the passing on of old fairy tales, craft lore, and pagan wisdom – things that the parish priests could never really control.

Storl notes that Celtic herbal tradition is perhaps foremost in Europe, considering the Celtic tribes occupied much of northern Europe before Roman times. There are Druidic traditions of picking herbs or digging roots at the dark of the moon (since moonlight saps their strength). Another is the picking of medicinal plants at dawn on summer solstice, being beltless and barefoot, or preferably naked. The Gauls would hold aloft freshly picked herbs in offering. The houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) – sacred to the thunder god – was to be plucked between a flash of lightning and the clap of thunder. He recounts the legend of the Welsh healers, the Meddygion Myddfai, heirs of the Druid priests. The story is that a cowherd came upon an elfin woman and wooed her. She married him but he had to swear that he would not strike (or scold) her – if he did three times she would have to return to the elfin world. They had several children. His striking/scolding her for her refusal to attend a baptism, her crying at a wedding, and her laughing at a funeral made three occasions, so she had to return. Before she left she bestowed the gift of wortcunning on her sons and the sons of her sons who became the Meddygion Mtddfai. Another famous mythic herbalist was the Irish monk, St. Fiacre, son of a Celtic king, who went to meditate in France in a remote forest with his herb and vegetable gardens – thus he became the patron saint of vegetable gardens and cures of hemorrhoids.

By the Renaissance other influences on herbalism came from the Gypsies from the east, Jewish physicians from Spain, Byzantine scholars, and Neoplatonists and Alchemists. Storl devotes considerable section to Paracelsus (1493-1541) who studied the academic herbal traditions of Galen, Avicenna (the great Islamic Sufi doctor), and Rhazes. Even so, he was dissatisfied with the medical methods of his time as he preferred local cures from the ‘book of nature.’ He postulated five causes of illness: influence from stars, poisons/intemperance/blockages, bad habits (like overeating and overindulgences), imbalanced indulgence in disturbing emotions, and spiritual causes (possibly from previous lives). In his way he revolutionized medicine in that time and place – yet alchemy, astrology, and magic were still a key part of doctoring. Paracelsus rebelled against the medical institutions which he saw as corrupt, ineffective, and self-aggrandizing. His goal was curing of the sick. He favored local herbs – especially for maladies associated with climate, environment, and psychosocial conditions. From peasant lore came the important – Doctrine of Signatures – where plants that had appearances of body parts or causes of disease were the cures suggested by nature. The Hermetic principle of correspondences – ‘as above, so below’ was utilized especially in the astrological attributes of plants and maladies. Correspondences of colors, tastes, growing environments, etc. were utilized to compare the macrocosmic attributes to the microcosmic ones. By the 1700s and 1800s there were strong preferred medicines from around the world in more availability. Yet still there were dangerous cures like bleeding and utilizing poisons that did more harm than good. Early in the history of America there were black slaves noted for their healing abilities through herbs and possibly indigenous African practices. Unfortunately, they later became prohibited from doctoring (in South Carolina) under penalty of death. Housewives, as the cooks and nurses for the American family, were the most knowledgeable of cures. Early wortcunners on the American frontier where there were few doctors came to utilize American herbs like Lobelia as a purgative. Sam Thomson (1769-1843), guided by an old woman, was such a wortcunner. This Thomsonianism became a medical movement and was furthered by the Shaker societies. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of Homeopathy, was also such a practitioner, experimenting extensively with herbs in small amounts. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe came up with the idea of the Urpflanze, the primal or archetypal plant at a time when there was little interest in such ideas as empiricism was advancing. This idea was a more or less shamanistic conception of the Universal Plant Spirit and its potential on-going association/relationship with man and other animals. In later times when isolation of ‘active ingredients,’ vaccines, and wonder drugs were the norm, interest in whole plant cures was diminished.

In the 20th century the common belief was (is?) that new pharmaceuticals have drastically increased the lifespan and reduced premature death of humans – but this could just as easily be attributed to great advances in sanitation and food preservation. “Synthetic drugs – and if they fail, surgery – constitute modern medicine.” Synthetic drugs can be dangerous and many are removed from the market every year. Many are over-prescribed and there can be synergistic toxicity when added to other drugs. Much of the problem can perhaps be attributed to treating the parts rather than the whole, to treating symptoms with temporary fixes rather than treating underlying causes. The same can perhaps be said of herbicide and pesticide-intensive factory farming and agribusiness. Storl notes that in the 1980’s there was some backlash against newly popular herbal cures by doctors saying that they were dangerous and untested. Logic says otherwise since herb use has a vast history and almost all synthetics have only short-term testing. Even so, some herbs can certainly be dangerous, especially from overuse and it would be good for science to continue to test them for safety and long-term effects. Certainly more tragedies have occurred from unforeseen results of the use of synthetics than with herbs. Thalidamide babies were one result. According to Storl, it is estimated that 100,000 deaths occur annually in the U.S. due to “unforeseen synergistic effects of properly prescribed

Storl notes that the modern medical ‘priesthood’ has its doctors appear before us at the transitions of life: birth, marriage, illness, and death. Antibiotics and surgery are the strong points of modern medicine but they are both abused through overuse. Antibiotics are losing their power due to resistant strains evolving. The modern mechanistic model of disease has its usefulness but many problems as well. Ironically, even though our modern medical system spurns herbal remedies the pharmaceutical companies that finance them search the world over for herbal remedies, hoping to isolate their active ingredients and market them as cures. Standardized doses have become the norm in both pharmaceuticals and herbs – active ingredient concentrations can be influenced by variables like soil, elevation, and time of day gathered. Herbal cures often involve small gradual boosts to assist the body in healing itself rather than the “chemical hammer” approach. Of course, in the fast pace of modern times, people do not want to wait. Storl notes that modern scientific medicine is the prevailing paradigm based on the prevailing worldview but that older holistic models based on different worldviews can be just as effective and sometimes more effective. He goes through some of these systems: Traditional Chinese Medicine, Indian Ayurveda, Buddhist Medicine, Unani Medicine of Muslim societies, Primitive Medicine and Shamanism, Native American Herbalism, African Medicine, Homeopathy, Reflexology, and Marijuana Therapy in some detail. TCM uses acupuncture, moxibustion, harmonizing chi, inner organ therapy, and herbs. Ayurveda uses the tridoshic system of body constitution, harmonizing influences, purging, and many other methods. Charaka was a famous Ayurvedic doctor and compiler of remedies. Buddhist Medicine arose from Ayurveda. King Ashoka instituted the planting of medicinal herbs along roadsides so they would be available. There is evidence that the Neanderthals used medicinal herbs 60,000 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries became the first ethnologists bringing back strange medicines from around the world. Shamanic techniques may also work with a very real placebo or psychosomatic effect to encourage healing. It is now well known that emotional and mental states can strongly affect the condition of the body. The author notes his experience living with a Spiritualist community in Ohio where these types of cures occurred.

I enjoyed the section on Native American Herbalism. Much of it was a mish-mash of Indian and European lore. The tribes such as the Cherokee that were forced to migrate to a different area became separated from the plants of their native areas. The Europeans brought many new plants (and a few animals like starlings and sparrows came as well) that became naturalized. They cut down many of the forests and killed the game. Of course, this was rather inevitable with population increase. He goes through the Great Lakes Chippewa (Ojibwa) tribal curing methods. Their healers were part of the Bear Society. Roots were preferred since the bear digs roots. Medicines are often secretive. They are often powdered roots, sometimes inhaled as smoke from red hot rocks, sometimes epidermally administered with porcupine quills, or teas, salves, decoctions, or infusions, snuffed, chewed, or sprinkled into incisions, smoked with tobacco or red willow (Cornus amonum) or given as enemas. Often they were given in conjunction with a sweat lodge ceremony in order to sweat out illness. The Iroquois believe illness to be caused by: natural causes, witchcraft, unfulfilled secret desires (like Freud), or ghosts. Tobacco offerings, fasting, herbs, sweat baths, and charms were cures – often aided by songs with drums and rattles. Curing societies would originate when a hunter lost deep in the forest had an encounter with a spirit. There would then be a festival to the spirit with offerings and chanting. Causes of disease in African Medicine are similar: ancestral spirits, witchcraft, spirit possession, or an intrusion of an object ion the body. Other possibilities from the Swazi tribes are bad food, bad frame of mind, soul loss, astral and lunar influences, telepathy, and evils done in previous incarnations. Doctors might utilize divination, dream analysis, trance, and anamnesis (delving into the patient’s past including former lives). Many herbal potions have made it from Africa to the Caribbean and America. Methods and ways of giving meds are similar to other herbal traditions including the singing and chanting of shamanic traditions. Eating of clay is a practice that has persisted, especially among pregnant women. In summary, the indigenous holistic health and herbalist traditions throughout the world have much in common.

Next is a big section on the Philosophy of Western Herbalism. Much of this is from the Renaissance Hermetic/Neoplatonic perspective. This perspective includes the whole worldview/cosmology. There is the hierarchy from mineral to vegetable to animal to human and beyond and whole series of correspondences and categories based on planetary energies, stellar influences, and signatures. According to the medieval scholastics: “The stone is, the plant lives, the animal senses, man understands.” Storl notes that, “The human being is a microcosm because he manifests all four kingdoms within himself: the physical, the etheric, the soul (astral), and the spiritual.” Various plants and human organs are associated with the traditional seven planets. These Western esoteric correspondences also include the elements and the zodiac and can get quite detailed. Certainly, to me, this Western Esoteric tradition seems to be quite memory and symbol oriented.

Plant metamorphosis from seed to the structure of the plant is what led Goethe to postulate the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant. Some plants are leaf-oriented (ie. mints), some are root oriented (tubers), and some are fruit oriented (cucumbers). Certainly herbalists favor a different approach than modern medicine:

“…herbalists following the lead of Paracelsus and Samuel Hahnemann do not think that it is so much the active ingredient that links the metabolism of the body; rather it is the organism’s (often antagonistic) response toward the unusual astrality of specific plants. This astrality arouses the body’s own healing power”

The science of healing has eclipsed the art of healing, often to the detriment of the patient.

Steiner’s anthroposophic medicine makes note that whatever we encounter: food, drink, air, and what we interface with the senses, can affect our health. The trinity of plant structure is roots, leaves, and flowering parts. In Steiner’s system as in Alchemy and other systems the plant is inverted so that roots are often given for head complaints and flowers and seeds are given for digestive and metabolic problems. Of course, this generality is only one way of looking at it.

There is a section on how to become an herbalist. He recommends learning botany and plant identification but also doing things like nature walks and meditating on plants every day and drawing or painting plants and studying their lore. The yerberos of South America basically do a vision quest in order to bond with a particular medicinal plant and gain intuition with its use. He suggests being mindful and utilizing a sacred attitude when gathering herbs. Hen then goes through when to gather herbs, how to dry them, and ways to administer herbal medicine. He goes through alchemical distillation and the alchemical properties of plants. Sulfur is considered the soul of the plant as a lion, mercury is the spirit in bird form, and salt is the mineral body represented by a skull.

Storl proposes a continuum from staples (grains and sometimes tubers) to poisons. Vegetables provide minerals and can be balanced by culinary herbs and are best in the matrix of the staples. He mentions the Macrobiotic food combinations founded by George Oshawa. Eating foods that are in season is a rather necessary part of many health regimens. The life-sustaining properties of the staples, he says, are due to the primary metabolism of the plant. These are typically usable sugars, starches, proteins, or fats. The further one gets toward the scale of poisonous plants the more one confronts the products of secondary metabolism of the plants. Sometimes these are acids, Our bodies process these substances in organs such as the liver, spleen, kidneys, and bladder. Since plants have no organs of elimination these substances are stored in specific cells of the plant. The accumulated toxins are buffered with other substances in the plants. This is one reason herbalists would say that whole plants are preferred to active ingredients. Storl goes through some of these secondary plant metabolism products in detail. Some are glucosides of several types, ethereal oils, alkaloids, tannins, bitters, and mucilaginous substances. This is a fascinating foray into plant chemistry.

There is an interesting section of vegetables as medicines and wild foods including spring greens and root cellar vegetables for winter. There is a section on herbs for cooking and beauty care and another on raising herbs in a garden. The section on companion herbs was also interesting.

He does a long section on the Garden of Hecate, referring to poisonous plants. The lore of Hecate, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Freyja and Holda (Hella) in the north includes much plant lore and those female deities were subjected to special scorn by the Church. In India it is Shiva who is the lord of poisons. Storl gives methods to neutralize poisons. One is the use of tannins, perhaps from tea, to bind the alkaloids. Bitter tastes are often indicative of alkaloids and possible poisons. Rudolph Steiner notes that banes, or poisonous plants have “taken into themselves too strongly the astral impulses” and “are eager to skip beyond plantdom to become animals.” Storl says that higher plants and lower animals often make poison. Poisons, he says, are formed at the threshold where the etheric and the astral meet. Chemically speaking he says that nitrogen is the anchor of the astral forces on the physical plane, carbon carries the physical forces, and oxygen carries the etheric forces.

For practical reasons women seem to have done most of the herb gathering, cooking, and gardening since very ancient times. Due to the necessity of women for child rearing and care this was most practical. This resulted in a rather universal difference between male and female culture. Although this is changing today it certainly does have a long history. These cultures were passed on in various ways. Men’s mysteries were perhaps more dramatic and traumatic while Women’s mysteries were more gradual and more practical. Some mysteries in some parts of Europe were passed from Women to Men and vice versa. Women’s lore included love magic, fertility, birth, weaning, menstruation, and lactation and according to Storl was clothed in folklore and myth. Herbal charms and incantations are a big part of European love magic as are aphrodisiacs. Wise women and midwives also took care of child birth. For this knowledge they relied on herbs to aid them. The midwife was considered sacred and magical and somewhat beyond reproach. In Indo-European societies it was common to offer the child to the earth (also its mother) and to walk around it three times. Raspberry leaf tea was often prescribed during the latter stages of pregnancy. There were herbs to aid recovery of the mother and nursing as well. Spinning and weaving were also the provenance of women. Herbal dyeing of cloth was another part of the craft. Storl goes through the dyeing herbs. He also mentions what he calls the darker side of women’s herbal knowledge, that of knowing which herbs can make ill and poison. He also touches on the cult of Freya and the Vanir in the north as a domain of women’s magic.

There is a section called – Consciousness, Society, and Drugs – which discusses cultural attitudes to everything from alcohol to coffee, tea, herbs, and hallucinogens. Basically, just about every indigenous society uses either hallucinogens, herbal narcotics, or herbal stimulants and usually all of the above. He includes a section on Magical Flight and the Third Eye – about shamanic drugs and witches salves. These include the Nightshades and other even more toxic substances and were used more in times when people perhaps lived closer to death and risked such toxicity for soul travel experiences. Fascinating are the sections on cultural drug use throughout history and around the world.

A section on communication with plants is interesting and an appendix includes hymns from the Rig Veda addressed to magical plants as mother goddesses. Throughout the world herbs were given along with special chants by wortcunners. He mentions the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga, or Lay of Nine Healing Herbs as a good example. These famed nine herbs are associated with Woden and are mugwort, plantain, chamomile, thyme, bistort, nettle, crabapple, chervil, and fennel. Mugwort is foremost among them. According to Theosophy the spirits of plants dwell beyond in the Arupa Devachen, a higher heaven associated with the Music of the Spheres.

The last section on Plant Family Portraits was one of my favorites. Quite obviously many plants share features and qualities and are classed together. This is perhaps a good way to classify their effects and abilities as well. The families he mentions are: spurge, poppy, pulses (peas), nettle, madder, and crowfoot (buttercup). There are also roses, milkweeds, mustards, heaths, witch hazels, composites, and many others such as the umbeliferous..

OK – long review but very informative book in many ways. One could ponder it quite much. I was able to utilize some practical ideas for companion planting since I have a rather large collection of herbs and plants on our farm. If you want to read a book about herbs – definitely choose this one. It is excellent.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion

Book Review: Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsey with Man-Ho Kwok (Thorsons 1995)

This book shares many of the stories and myths of Kuan Yin and the history of the development of this Buddhist Goddess of Compassion. Kuan Yin is a Chinese manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, called Avalokiteshvara in Indian Buddhism. The Indian Avalokiteshvara was typically male and the earliest versions of the Chinese Kuan Yin were definitely male but later Kuan Yin came to be identified as female. Kuan Yin is also more or less the National Goddess of China, popular as well among Taoists and among Shintoists in Japan. This book deals mainly with the manifestations of this goddess in China and Japan. There is some discussion of the various Mahayana sutras where Avalokiteshvara is a participant in the dialogue. There is no mention of meditational practices such as the recitation of the Kuan Yin Sutra which is practiced in the Zen tradition, or about the Tibetan version of Avalokiteshvara known as Chenrezik. This book deals exclusively with the Chinese Kuan Yin (and the Japanese Kannon) and how ‘she’ developed in China from various influences.

Kuan Shih Yin is the One who Hears the Cries of the World. Her meditation practice is said to be to hear and respond to all suffering beings who call on her aid. In terms of Mahayana Buddhism she is a Bodhisattva, one who gains merit which is used to free those who suffer. The initial lore of Avalokiteshvara came to China in the Lotus Sutra – the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wondrous Law. This text was translated very early by Kumarajiva (probably from Turkestan around 400 AD) and has remained one of the most popular sutras in China.

The earliest statues of Kuan Yin in China from the 5th century are of a male bodhisattva. The shift to female depictions began around the 8th century and by the end of that century Kuan Yin was mostly depicted as female. In the Lotus Sutra it is stated that Avalokiteshvara can take on any form to protect beings, including a female form, and even gods of other tribes and faiths.

The authors note that the cult of Kuan Yin grew and flourished in the 7th to 9th centuries in the wild Northwest frontier of China along the Silk Road where there was a melting pot of cultures. It is here that the authors think the feminine version of Kuan Yin came to be adopted.

The earliest Chinese mythology has the origin of humans from two half-human and half-serpent figures, one male, Fu Hsi, and one female, Nua Kua. The authors think there was no period of matriarchy in China as there was thought to be in Europe. They note that there are few Goddess myths in China and even less common goddess venerations (with the exception of Kuan Yin). There is the old tradition in Chinese myth of the Jade Mother, Goddess of the Azure Clouds. She is also the Old Grandmother T’ai, Old Mother of the T’ai Shan Mountain. She is also called the Daughter of Heaven and is regarded as creatrix of humans. These are given as shamanistic beliefs as deities of the celestial world. The male Jade Emperor is most venerated of these. The point the authors try to make is that the China of the time, after patriarchy and Confucianism came to power was rather void of a divine feminine influence. In the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BCE) there is mention of ancient deities called the Eastern and Western Mothers. There is mention in the I Ching of the Queen Mother (of the Chou tribes from Western China). Later, perhaps due to the suppression of shamanistic beliefs by Confucianism that was well established by 500 BCE, this Queen Mother of the West gained in popularity. The West was associated with paradise. The Queen Mother of the West was also a celestial deity rather than an Earth Mother. The authors note that China seems void of an Earth Goddess figure. The Queen Mother of the West is thought to have originally been the tribal celestial goddess of the shamanistic Chou tribes who were subdued and tamed by the rational Confucianists until a less wild and more cerebral version of shamanism arose in the form of Taoism. After this the Queen Mother of the West stayed more popular among the less ‘civilized’ peasantry. Apparently, salvific religion began in China in the 2nd centuriy AD with the Five Bushels sect where redemption from the consequences of past actions could be secured through religious actions. Perhaps this notion was popular when Buddhism first came to China and helped it along. Mao Shan Taoism postulated that a female immortal (shaman) revealed the teachings and this form was very popular. The rivalry between Taoism and Buddhism in China was perhaps partially reconciled by the adoption of Kuan Yin as a goddess power, acceptable to Taoists, as the authors seem to suggest. The resurgence of female divinity in Taoism made conditions necessary for a corresponding popular Buddhist goddess, suggest the authors, and this would be Kuan Yin.

Nestorian Christian traders along the Silk Road were very influential and this form of Christianity was even popular as a belief in the 7th century in Mongolia and northern Tibet. The religious melting pot in Western China included Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, Manichaeism, Islam, Bon, and Zoroastrianism. The Nestorians were known to carry statues of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. These Madonna statues are thought to have originally derived from similar figurines from Egypt of Isis holding the child Horus. Since the Buddhists needed a goddess figure to compete with the Taoists, the authors suggest that a similar figurine was made of a female bodhisattva based on the Madonna models. There is no direct evidence of this but it does seem plausible. Certainly as well there must have been religious eclecticism among some of the Silk Road area peoples where beliefs and ideas were mixed and shared. In China and elsewhere the universal appeal of Kuan Yin as the Goddess of Mercy also transcends religious boundaries.

The authors are able to trace the spread of Kuan Yin’s worship and popularity in later China as there is much historical information available. The story of a miraculously appearing statue in Hangchow in 939 AD caused her to become popular there, far from northwest China. Hangchow was a city of poets and a place where government officials went to retire so the establishment there of a center of Kuan Yin’s worship is very significant. Other places in China also developed legends of Kuan Yin’s manifestations. One of the most famous is the island of Pu To, or Pu To Shan (Pu To Mountain) in the East China Sea. This was originally a sacred Taoist mountain. A famous Taoist alchemist, An Chi Sheng was said to have lived there around 300 BC perfecting the elixir pill of immortality. Pu To Shan came to be associated with the sacred island mountain of Kuan Yin from the Flower Ornament Sutra. Her island is called Potalaka (Pu To). By the late 14th century Pu To had become the most important place of devotion for Kuan Yin as Hangchow had been invaded at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. This remains true today. Pilgrims have gone here through the ages. There is a rather dark side associated with the Cave of the Tidal Sound (at Pu To) as well, as some would perform ascetic actions such as burning the fingers to demonstrate disgust with worldliness and even committing suicide to enter into the arms of the goddess. Also common here were sightings of the goddess and witnessing of miracles.

Through time Kuan Yin merged with other goddesses throughout China including many sea goddesses. By the 16th century she became the major deity of China. The Ch’an monk Han Shan was said to be saved from illness by Kuan Yin after prayers to her from his mother and so was dedicated as a monk and became a famed Buddhist reformer in the late 1500’s.

Kuan Yin is depicted in various ways. The most common form is the White Clad Kuan Yin where she is depicted in flowing robes sometimes standing and sometimes sitting in the pose of royal ease with her right leg raised over her left. Similar to Avalokiteshvara she often has a rosary (mala) in one hand. Often there is a text in the other hand. She is also often depicted on a lotus flower and like Avalokiteshvara, holding a lotus flower. White is a color signifying death in China (as well as in Japan and India) so the white robes perhaps denote her immortality or power over death.

There is the Willow Branch Kuan Yin where she is symbolized by the willow branch that bends in the wind yet retains its shape. This branch is a Buddhist symbol of virtues. The weeping willow symbolizes compassionate concern. Thus she is depicted with what is referred to as a ‘willow waist.’ The crow and the rabbit are other totems associated with Kuan Yin.

There is the Thousand Arms, Thousand Eyes Kuan Yin. This usually refers to her having the ability to aid many beings simultaneously though there are other stories told in China. One is that Miao Shan, who after curing her fathers illness by offering both her arms and eyes, he commissioned a statue be made of her without arms or eyes but the Chinese word for ‘bereft’ is similar to the word for ‘thousand’ so this was said to be a misunderstanding. In Tibet there are specific practices done for the Thousand- Armed Chenrezik. One is a fasting practice where hungry ghost beings are called and fed through the thousand arms.

There is Kuan Yin of the Southern Ocean as a sea goddess. Here she can be seen riding a fish or a dragon. Sometimes she is depicted standing with a peacock as the protector of all life. Chinese people may adopt a vegetarian diet in her honor. She is also depicted as a protector or guardian riding on a lion-like animal called a ‘hou.’ There is also an armed form of Kuan Yin with weapons, bows and arrows, and shields – representing the battle against delusion.

In Japan she is known as Kannon and the Lotus Sutra is also highly revered there. Her thousand-armed form is popular there. In Japan there are also said to be 33 manifestations of Kannon – perhaps in reference to the 33 god realms of the Indians. In China there is a three-headed Kuan Yin and in Japan there is an eleven headed Kuan Yin. The multiple heads also refer to her ability to see the suffering of multiple beings and aid them. In Tibet the thousand armed Chenrezik also has eleven heads and there are specific stories about how this occurred. There is a male horse-headed Kannon as well. As in China there is a Kannon of easy childbirth. Here she becomes female as in the previous Japanese forms she was also first male. There are also Shinto sects devoted specifically to Kannon. Kuan Yin is a beacon for the bewildered, the lost, the poor, the needy, the distressed, and those in the throes of disaster. She is said to be kind and gentle to those that call upon her for aid.

There are countless stories and myths of Kuan Yin and her rescue abilities. She appears in a few ‘creation’ stories although these are thought to be very late. In one she aids the 10,000 species on Earth. When she leaves they resume harming one another and when she returns there is peace. After a few cycles of this she decides to appoint the peacock as her representative, her 100 eyes to watch and guard earth beings. This story does not appear before 1450 AD.

The story of Princess Miao Shan is quite famous in China. This story begins in 1100 AD with a visit to Hsiang Shan temple by an official where a famous statue of the male Ta Pei, 1000-armed Kuan Shih Yin was said to have healing powers. The abbot of the monastery told the official that a week earlier a strange monk had visited bringing with him a book he claimed to have found in a pile of books at another monastery. This book was called – The Life of the Ta Pei Bodhisattva of Hsiang Shan. The monk was drawn to the temple by its name. Within the book is the story of Princess Miao Shan. The story was said to happen 4000 yrs ago when a usurper to the throne and his wife were trying to make a son as heir to the throne. Instead they had three daughters. Auspicious signs accompanied the third daughter’s birth. This was Miao Shan. They still wanted a son so did not care. Miao Shan practiced compassionate actions. They chose men for the princesses to marry but Miao Shan said she would only marry a doctor, a healer. Finally, they sent her off to a nunnery with instructions to make life hard on her. The king ordered the nunnery burned down but she was able to be helped by the ‘Master of Heaven’ as well as the ‘Earth God.’ Then she was set to be executed – the first attempts failed but finally she was strangled but the Master of Heaven had the Earth God appear as a tiger and carry her off giving her a pill of immortality. She went into the hells and transformed them with her power of compassion. After coming back to Hsiang Shan she sought out a virtuous maiden and a worthy man as companions. Meanwhile the old king became afflicted with severe jaundice and sought cure. A strange monk appeared and said that he knew of a remedy.  – “If you take the arm and eye of one who is without anger, combine them into a medicine and apply it, you will be cured.” A messenger inquired and found such a one in Miao Shan who gouged out both of her eyes and cut off both of her arms for the cure. The king had a change of heart when he found out and became remorseful for his past actions. She gladly gave up her earthly life to heal her father who had mistreated her. This story is much embellished in long form but those are the basic parts.

There are many stories of Kuan Yin as a sea goddess who protects sailors and rescues drowning humans. Sometimes she tames the wildness of the sea and the sea spirits as in the story of the building of the Bridge of Fukien.

Apparently, in Chinese thought, one’s fate is typically fixed (by karma of past action) but one’s fortune may be influenced – especially by virtuous behavior. There is given a story of a Taoist monk who sees a young boy would have a short life and so sends him to be with his parents. A few months later the monk sees him again coming up the mountain and sees that he will now have a long life – so he asks the boy what happened to him on his journey. The boy tells of compassionate acts helping animals and bugs escape a flood. The idea is that compassionate or vicious actions can alter one’s fate. In many of the Kuan Yin stories her actions and rescues inspire people towards compassionate actions. Even hearing the stories can inspire such behavior. One of the most popular novels in China is called – Journey to the West – and is about the famed pilgrimage to India of the monk Hsuan Tsang (594-664 AD). The fictional characters in the novel are Pigsy, Monkey, and Sandy. The author recommends an abridged English version by Arthur Waley called – Monkey. I remember a movie of this story a decade or so ago that was pretty good. Kuan Yin appears in the story – one description of her from the above mentioned version includes the following:

She delivers from all the eight terrors’
Saves all living beings,
For boundless is her compassion.
She resides on T’ai Shan,
She dwells in the Southern Ocean.
She saves all the suffering when their cries reach her,
She never fails to answer their prayers,
Eternally divine and wonderful

The authors note that this story captures the “function’ of Kuan Yin:

“She cannot overcome their innate natures. They themselves have to do this, in collaboration with her, even if at times they have to be cajoled into doing it.”

“She is both the Goddess of Compassion and our companion, on our journeys through life and beyond.”

She has much in common with Tibetan Tara as well as Chenrezik. There are further legends of the origins of these deity forms.

The last section of the book contains the so-called Kuan Yin poems. This collection of 100 short poems. The poems are mainly used for divination at temples. Typically one picks one of 100 numbered sticks and then either refers to that numbered poem or gets a reading of the poem and an interpretation from a fortune-teller. The authors think these poems were collected in the 15th and 16th centuries and some may be from as early as the 12th century. They think that the poems mainly originated at Hangchow where Chinese poetry was very popular. The poems follow a regular pattern of four lines of seven characters each. They are a combination of image and direct statement. The authors have given the poems titles but traditionally they are just numbered. Here are two:


The line between the exalted and the debased is very thin –
Reach out and talk with the man who lives near the mountain gate,
He says: the messenger himself will be met with good news …
What your heart centres wholly on will open the door.


Don’t rest on your laurels with what you’ve got;
It’s neither ‘bad’, at this time, nor is it ‘good’.
Don’t cut a part of yourself off to make a patch,
Don’t react like this to make a change …

Certainly the poems have a divinatory quality and have been compared to other divinatory poem collections such as the I Ching and even the Tao Te Ching.

She Who Hears the Cries of the World – Kuan Shih Yin is a very special deity that seems to be rather unique in the world as a god/goddess devoted specifically to compassion. The Mahayana ideal is to thoroughly establish within oneself the exquisite view that dissolves the boundaries between self and other, so that ‘self’ does not remain an obstacle to ‘awakening.’ Since the ideal of compassion transcends philosophical and religious boundaries, so too does the universal popularity of Kuan Yin.

Overall, this was a good book but I suspect there are yet many more stories of Kuan Yin and Kannon as there are of Tara and Avalokiteshvara in India and Tibet. There are various recitation and visualization practices associated with these deities, especially in regards to training oneself to retain a compassionate attitude.