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.


No comments:

Post a Comment