Kuan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind

By Eloise Hart

I first heard of Kuan Yin from a friend. She had stepped into an Oriental gift shop and, making her way along aisles lined with fine works of art, suddenly saw on a shelf in the rear of the store a statuette that was so lovely, so spiritual that she stopped completely entranced, unaware even of the proprietor's approach until she heard him say, "Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy and Friend of Mankind," then softly, "not for sale." "Somehow I knew that," my friend told me," and I thought, 'There's no need. She is already mine . . . in my heart.'"

Since then I have found out a little more about this Chinese goddess of mercy and love. In this country Kuan Yin is known mostly to art connoisseurs, but in the Far East, notably in Japan, Korea, Tibet, and China, she is the beloved personification of compassion. Images of her can be found in homes, temples, and within thousands of shrines and grottoes beside roads and shaded pools. People of all ages bring gifts of flowers and fruit, but not in supplication. There is no need for that. Kuan Yin, like a wise and loving parent knows and does what is best; does it with gentle guidance and never needs to punish or coerce. Of all the world's great gods, she is undoubtedly the kindest and most giving.

Innumerable folktales describe her beneficence and each in its way inspires to noble action. Like her, devotees seek to help others by giving of themselves, and of whatever they have. Like her, they avoid causing pain to any other being for, as they say: when a worm is crushed, all beings are crushed; when a single bee sucks honey, all beings in the myriad myriad universes suck honey.

To the humble she is goddess, mother figure, friend, guide, and protector; to the philosophical she represents the divine force of compassion that not only pervades the cosmos, holding all together in harmonious accord, but also manifests in this world in various forms sometimes through the spiritual nature of one or a series of great men and women. Devotees claim they often feel her nearness, or see her in person. Whether this presence is physical or a subtle thought form perceived by mystic vision, who can say?

The statues and paintings of Kuan Yin are as different as the artists who create them, and as varied as their feelings about her. Some are of wood, suggesting with simplicity of line the flow of life that nurtures all beings; others, of jade, emphasize virtue; of marble, permanence and solidity; of porcelain, innocence and mobility; while those of rock crystal convey the idea of spirituality. Often she wears a long hooded robe and ornaments symbolic of her virtues; the most popular figure shows her standing or floating on a large lotus petal. Her head, haloed with glory, is bent slightly forward as if looking, listening, to catch any cry for help. The earliest statues depict Kuan Yin either as a youth with a slight beard or mustache, or androgynous -- embodying the noblest of both masculine and feminine qualities. Yet, of whatever material or pose, her bearing is always one of "lordly ease."

A seventh century Tibetan painting presents the idea of infinite mercy as Avalokitesvara-Kuan Yin with a thousand arms with which to scatter blessings. Usually, two arms are sufficient, Kuan Yin's beneficence being suggested by the various objects she holds in her hands: in one, a vase of amrita, the dew of immortality; in the other, a spray of willow branches with which to sprinkle her inexhaustible compassion upon her devotees. Sometimes she carries a scroll or book, symbol of truth; or the wish-fulfilling jewel, emblem of the attaining of holy aspirations. When a child plays on her lap, or children at her feet, they symbolize not only newborn and/or spiritual life, but also Mother Nature whose mysterious powers continually produce, sustain, destroy, and renew life throughout the universe. Her hands placed in her lap suggest meditation; when held palm to palm, not quite touching, reverence for all beings; when fingers point downward, the flowing forth of blessings is indicated; and when the right hand rests on the left, palms upward, this signifies control over evil spirits. But regardless of ornamentation, symbolism, or pose, the very presence of her likeness touches the heart. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Japanese and Koreans place huge statues of Kuan Yin in prominent places so that those going to and from work are reminded of the spiritual worth of unselfish deeds.

What, we may wonder, is the origin of this Kuan Yin concept? The characterization of divine beneficence as an all-giving mother, goddess, or madonna is as old as time and universal. However, the concept we are discussing is the personification of one of the highest ideals of Mahayana Buddhism. The Avalokitesvara of ancient Indian scriptures became Kuan Shih Yin and Kuan Yin (masculine and feminine) in China; and in Japan, Kwannon or Kannon. All carry the same meaning: "The Lord who is seen, or heard, from below," implying the manifest appearance of a spiritual energy, or the divine self perceived by the human self. Early Hindu literature characterized this spiritual-divine energy as a "lord" or bodhisattva, probably because they believed it is channeled through great human beings.

Indian sutras tell how Avalokitesvara was born from a ray of light that shone forth from the right eye of Amitabha Buddha (amitabha means "unmeasured splendor," "boundless light"). When born he was holding a lotus and uttering the words: Om mani padme hum (Om, the jewel in the lotus), now a popular mantra meaning that the seed, or "jewel," of divinity dwells in the heart of all beings. The lotus is identified with the aspiring soul which, like the lotus, is born in the mire of worldly life, rises undefiled through turbulent waters of mental and emotional conflicts, and blooms in the light of the divine.

Teachings about Avalokitesvara were introduced into China during the first century of our era as part of Buddhist doctrine, and into Tibet during the seventh century by Padma Sambhava. Both nations took the bodhisattva ideal to their hearts. The Tibetans considered Avalokitesvara-bodhisattva to be not only the earthly representative of the Buddha -- who lived about six hundred years before Christ -- but also the chief guardian of the Dharma or Sacred Doctrine. The Chinese, however, had a hard time personifying as a man the quality of love exemplified in the mother and child relationship, so they changed Avalokitesvara into a woman! This took place gradually, and by the seventh century Kuan Yin was referred to as "Mother of ten million Buddhas" -- the idea being that from the feminine qualities of purity, compassion, and highest wisdom, Buddhas are born. By the eleventh century the goddess figure had become so popular that it all but obliterated the male representation.

According to tradition Kuan Yin had been an ordinary person who had followed the path of wisdom and service until after many incarnations she reached the supreme goal, nirvana. Pausing a moment at the threshold, she heard, rising from the world, a great wail of woe, as if all the rocks and trees, insects, animals, humans, gods and demons, cried out in protest that so virtuous a one should depart from their midst. Without a second thought this noble-hearted soul turned back, determined to remain until every being without exception should precede her into nirvana.

Full of resolve she exclaimed: "If in time to come I am to obtain power to benefit all beings, may I now be endowed with a thousand hands, a thousand eyes." Instantly her wish was granted, and since that moment Avalokitesvara-Kuan Yin has appeared in so many different forms, and in so many lands, it does seem that she has a thousand eyes and a thousand hands to help those in need. She is said to be a light for the blind, a shade for those hot and weary, a stream for the thirsty, a remedy for the ill, father and mother for those who suffer, and a guide for the beings in hell.

Compassion pervades all worlds and resides in the heart of all creatures. A recent Chinese commentator explains that as "one moon imprints a thousand streams, and all the thousand streams reflect the one moon; one spring[-time] nurtures a myriad flowers, and all the myriad flowers are endowed with the wonder of spring." As the Kuan Yin Sutra states, when one turns to Kuan Yin, to the self within which images the divine self, a raging fire becomes a placid pool; chains that bind one's hands and feet are loosened; beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison.

In times of great danger "miracles" do occur: it may seem that Kuan Yin has come to our aid, but more likely it is our own inner strength that has saved us. In fact, Su Tung-po, the eleventh century poet, tells us: "Kuan Yin does not come hither; I do not go thither; the water is in the basin; the moon is in the heavens. When the water is clear, the moon appears; when the mirror [our mind] is bright, the image emerges." This image, our awakened self-nature, is what sages call Kuan Yin. For when self-nature is awakened, and compassion active, we are Kuan Yin -- the incarnation of mercy and love.

The statues help remind us of this. They speak to our spiritual self. The more we are conscious in our higher natures and live as spiritual beings, the more we feel with others and yearn to ease their pain. This closeness with others has been referred to by mystics as atonement; by Hindus as yoga. The Japanese speak of it as the " perfect interfusion," when mind and senses are silent, the human is harmonized with nature, and the spirit within blends with the cosmic forces. The idea that the transcendent powers of the divine are close and dear to us all, whether characterized as the self-essence, as a goddess, or as a mother, protector, and friend has great appeal. Even more appealing is the realization that the whole cosmos is nothing but divinity. This idea was Kuan Yin's contribution to Buddhist metaphysics according to the Mahaprajnaparamita Hsin Ching sutra (Sutra of the Heart of Highest Wisdom). In it Buddha's basic teaching is restated, that there is no permanent self in man: each is but a conglomeration of skandhas, "bundles" of physical, psycho-emotional, mental, and spiritual energies held together during earth-life by "the shining ray of the Buddha within."

This idea is fundamental to Buddhist thought, yet in this Chinese version of the Heart Sutra Buddha gives a further turn to the teaching: that when the bodhisattva Kuan Yin was absorbed in deep contemplation, he (she) perceived that even the skandhas or aggregates are impermanent, empty, void. Realizing that our bodies decay, our feelings and perceptions alter, that also our volition and consciousness are changing, Kuan Yin attained enlightenment, the recognition that "form differs not from void, nor void from form. Form is void; void is form. With sensation, perception, discrimination and consciousness it is the same."

The teaching continues: he who is unattached to the body loses his fear of death, and thus overcomes one of the great causes of suffering and pain. He who perceives that feelings are empty and that mind concepts change, gains freedom from other causes of misery. Gradually he comes to realize that the karma which produces the lower parts of his nature must be caused to cease so that new compounds of a nobler and spiritual quality can flower; yet even these will in time change, improve, and grow greater.

Kuan Yin, in keeping with her vow: 'A guard would I be to them who have no protection, a guide to the voyager, a ship, a well, a spring, a bridge for the seeker of the Other Shore," is frequently cast in the role of guiding devotees to the "Pure Land." The idea isn't that one need go anywhere. According to the Lotus Sutra the Pure Land is within ourselves. The altruistic qualities that Kuan Yin represents are within the heart of every being: "In every corner of the world she manifests her countless forms."

In admiring the bodhisattva ideal, in paying homage to the divine, even if to do so we fix our attention on a statue, we are reverencing compassion. However, admiring this quality wasn't enough for the goddess Kuan Yin. She wished for and was granted a thousand hands with which to bestow its blessings.


(From Sunrise magazine, December 1984/January 1985. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)

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