Kuan Yin: The Compassionate One

kuan yinThe following is from In Her Sacred Names: Writings on the Divine Feminine:

Evil may find me some day, hell’s demons and earth’s savage beasts surround me.
Illness may find me, and other sadnesses.
Age and death may find their way to me.
But Kuan Yin can find me too
I am never hidden from her goodness, from her compassionate glance
Her infinite blessing, her perfection.
She sees everything and answers every prayer.
I bow my head to her, in perfect reverence.
(Buddhist Prayer of Mercy)

Kuan Yin (also spelt Kwan Yin, Quan Yin or Guan Ying) is one of the most beloved of deities in the Chinese Buddhist tradition that are known as Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”). Kuan Yin is honoured as the Holy Mother of compassion and mercy as her name connects her with the concept of Mother Earth with Kuan meaning “earth” and Yin, the “dynamic female life force”. She is also said to personify karuna, boundless compassion, and that her strength, like silk, is disguised in softness.

Kuan Yin is a bodhisattva, a being who hesitates entering the state of nirvana as they wish to save the suffering of humanity. Just as the Virgin Mary captured many hearts within the Catholic faith, the popularity of Kuan Yin far outweighs that of any male bodhisattva.

Considered to be the guardian angel of humans and the patroness of mothers and fishermen, and known as “Mistress of the Southern Sea” Kuan Yin is depicted crossing the sea while standing on a lotus or the head of a dragon, the Hou, who symbolises the divine supremacy exercised by her. She is also depicted sitting on a lotus, the flower of enlightenment, with a child next to her. Sometimes she is with two attendants: Shan-ts’ai Tung-tsi, the “young man of excellent capacities” (or the “Golden Youth”) and Lung-wang Nu, the “daughter of the Dragon-king” (or “Jade Maiden”).

Scholars believe that Buddhist monk and translator Kumarajiva was the first to refer to Kuan Yin in his Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra in 406 CE. The Lotus Sutra refered to the bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin who would shapeshift while travelling the world and conveying the message of salvation. Of the 33 appearances that the bodhisattva made in Kumarajiva’a translation, seven of these were female. As such, Chinese and Japanese Buddhists associate the number 33 with Kuan Yin with there being a total of 33 specific mantras relating to her.

IHSN 1Regarded by the Chinese as the “Goddess of Mercy and Compassion”, Kuan Yin was originally perceived as a male bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, until during the time of the T’ang dynasty of the 8th century where a devotional cult developed around a white-robed Goddess. By the 9th century a statue of Kuan Yin had appeared in every Chinese Buddhist monastery.

In Tibet, Avalokitesvara is portrayed with a thousand arms, each hand with an eye in it, symbolizing the seeing and reaching out to help those in distress. Likewise, Kuan Yin is also depicted with a thousand arms and varying numbers of eyes, hands and heads, sometimes with an eye in the palm of each hand, and is commonly called “the thousand-arms, thousand-eyes” bodhisattva. In this form she represents the omnipresent mother, looking in all directions simultaneously, sensing the afflictions of humanity and extending her many arms to alleviate us with infinite expressions of her mercy.

During the 12th century Buddhist monks settled on P’u-t’o Shan (the sacred island-mountain in the Chusan archipelago off the coast of Chekiang where Miao Shan is said to have lived for nine years, healing and saving sailors from shipwreck) and devotion to Kuan Yin spread throughout northern China as crowds of pilgrims would journey from the remotest places in China, Mongolia and even Tibet to attend services. At one time there was believed to have been more than a 100 temples on the island and over 1,000 monks. According to local folklore, numerous appearances and miracles have been performed by Kuan Yin as she reveals herself to her devoted followers in a certain cave on the island of P’u-t’o Shan.

Kuan Yin’s gift of tranquility is the secret that is no secret: the potential for deep understanding, compassionate wisdom and courageous, empowered action are present within us at all times. Each of us is born from wholeness: conception and completion at the centre of the seed. Accepting and honouring all of who we are is Kuan Yin’s healing power of compassion at play.

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