Kuan Yin - the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Kuan Yin - the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion

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Kuan Yin

This deity has her origins in the Sanskrit male deity, 'Avalokiteshvara'. Avalokiteshvara, called the 'Perceiver of the Sounds of the World', was born from a ray of light that shone forth from the right eye of Amitabha Buddha1. When born, he was holding a lotus and uttering the words: Om2 mani padme hum. This is now a popular mantra meaning that the seed, or 'jewel', of divinity dwells in the hearts of all beings. The lotus in the Buddhist tradition is identified with the aspiring soul, which, like the lotus, is born in the mire of worldly life, then rises undefiled through turbulent waters of mental and emotional conflicts, and blooms in the light of the divine.

The doctrine of Avalokiteshvara was introduced into China during the first Century of the Buddhist era as part of Buddhist doctrine, and into Tibet during the 7th Century by Padma Sambhava. Both nations took the Bodhisattva ideal to their hearts. The Tibetans considered Avalokiteshvara-Bodhisattva to be not only the Earthly representative of the Buddha - who lived about 600 years before Christ - but also the chief guardian of the Dharma or Sacred Doctrine.

Scholars believe that, due to the hard time the Chinese had in personifying as a man the quality of love exemplified in the mother-child relationship, Avalokiteshvara became known as a woman. This took place gradually, and, by the 7th 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 11th Century the goddess figure had become so popular that it all but obliterated the male representation.

Transformation from an originally male deity into a female one seems to have occurred sometime during the Northern Sung Dynasty (960-1126) and is reflected in Kuan-Yin's miraculous appearance in human form in the legend of Miao-Shan.

The Legend of Miao-Shan (Miu-Chan)

There are several variations of the legend of Miao-Shan, but, in all of them, Miao-Shan is represented either as the physical incarnation of the Bodhisattva or as a pure spirit that eventually earns the state of Bodhisattva. The oldest extant version of the legend is preserved in a chronicle of Buddhism in China, the Lung-hsing fo-chiao pien-nien t'ung-lun, written in 1164 by Tsu-hsiu. The story, as adapted from the translation by Glen Dudbridge (pages 25-34), goes as follows concerning the divinity of Miao-Shan's birth:

Tao-hsüan (596-667) once asked a divine spirit about the history of the bodhisattva Kuan-yin. The spirit replied:

In the past there was a king whose name was [Miao]-chuang-yen. His lady was named Pao-ying. She bore three daughters, the eldest Miao-yen, the second Miao-yin, and the youngest Miao-shan.

At the time of Miao-shan's conception the queen dreamed that she swallowed the moon. When the time came for the child to be born, the whole earth quaked, and wonderful fragrance and heavenly flowers were spread near and far. The people of that country were astounded. At birth she was clean and fresh without being washed. Her holy marks were noble and majestic, her body was covered over with many-coloured clouds. The people said that these were signs of the incarnation of a holy person. Although the parents thought this extraordinary, their hearts were corrupt, and so they detested her.

The legend of Miao-Shan (whose name means 'Wondrously Kind One') has its first variation in the passage concerning her birth, in other versions of the legend Miao-Shan's birth is not accompanied with any celestial portents and her parents are not aware of her divine nature until the end of the story. Estimates of the date of the princess's actual birth vary between the Chin T'ien epoch (circa 2590 BC), 700 BC and the 19th day of the second lunar moon in 300 BC somewhere in Western China.

In the story, the princess grows in her virtues of compassion and simplicity and becomes very conscious of her spiritual truth. Eventually, the household staff regards her as 'the maiden with the heart of a Buddha' and Miao-Shan converts the majority of the servants to a path of simplicity and detachment. It is not long before it becomes clear that young Miao-Shan intends to pursue a spiritual life.

Her father is not pleased with his daughter's attitude, and, in a disdainful gesture, tries to bend her to his will: she must marry a prince in a convenient arrangement, as it is expected of royalty for the sake of the dynasty and for political reasons. Miao-Shan politely replies that her heart longs for the life of religious pursuit, but she will concede to her father's demand for marriage if it would prevent three misfortunes:

The first is this: when the men of this world are young, their face is as fair as the jade-like moon, but when they grow old, their hair turns white and their face is wrinkled; in motion or repose they are in every way worse off than when they were young.

The second is this: a man's limbs may be lusty and vigorous, he may step as lithely as if flying through the air, but when suddenly an illness befalls him, he lies in bed without a single pleasure in life.

The third is this: a man may have a great assembly of relatives, may be surrounded by his nearest and dearest, but suddenly one day it all comes to an end [with his death]; although father and son are close kin they cannot take one another's place. If it can prevent these three misfortunes, then you will win my consent to a marriage. If not, I prefer to retire to pursue a life of religion. When one gains full understanding of the original mind, all misfortunes of their own accord cease to exist.

Miao-Shan's cunning reply is the exposition of 'The Three Darma Seals of the Buddhist tradition': Impermanence, Suffering and Nonbeing as understood in the southern translation of the seals. However, the Samyukta Agama says that the Buddha taught Impermanence, Nonself and Nirvana as the three Seals. With this reply she tries to make her father reason how futile her marital life would be in comparison to the pursuit of a deeper knowledge.

Enraged, the father casts Miao-Shan from his presence. There are different variations of this point in the tale: in some, Miao-Shan is allowed to join the Nuns, who are under orders from her father to make life as rough as possible for her, and in others she is commanded to do all the menial chores in the palace, to which she responds that she would obey but not repent her decision. In yet another version, her mother and sisters try to change her mind on several occasions to no avail, it is then that they intervene to let Miao-Shan join the nuns in the convent.

Although the chores the Nuns subject Miao-Shan to are strenuous, she carries them out with diligence. Her burden, however, is lightened with miracles that take place around her. Her father is, of course, enraged, and here we come to another point where the narrative splits into parallel tales:

  • First Tale - Enraged at the notice of the miracles, the ruler sends his soldiers to the abbey with orders to behead everybody and bring back Miao-Shan's head, for the land needed to be cleaned from such a creature that would disobey her father. As the soldiers enter the abbey a mysterious cloud surrounds them and they cannot find Miao-Shan, although they murder the innocent nuns in cold blood. Miao-Shan escapes unharmed thanks to a flying spirit that whisks her away and to Fragrant Mountain, where she makes her dwelling and performs her acts of compassion.

  • Second Tale - Miao-Shan's father, prey to hatred, has her daughter strangled. The princess's soul goes to hell where the purity of her soul is a threat to Yama the Lord of Hell himself, as the brilliant light of her being starts turning Hell into a paradise. Yama sends her up back again into the world where she returns to life and becomes a full Bodhisattva.

These two threads unite here at a common point: Miao-Shan's father falls gravely ill and his court physicians can find no cure for his condition. Suddenly, a monk appears out of nowhere and informs his majesty that on Fragrant Mountain there lives a Bodhisattva of great compassion and illumination. If he is to live and recover, he must ask from her eyes and her arms to procure a special medicine for his ailment. The king sends a courier to the Bodhisattva - who, unbeknownst to him, is none other than his daughter - to ask her for the ingredients. Miao-Shan immediately gives up her eyes and arms and sends the courier back with counsel to her father to follow the path of truth.

Upon the courier's return, the king is healed and he goes to thank the Bodhisattva personally for the great sacrifice. As soon as the king and queen see her they recognise their daughter, Miao-Shan says 'Do you recognise me, my lady? In gratitude of my father's love I have given up my arms and eyes so he may heal'. Both father and mother embrace Miao-Shan in tears and are about to tend to her wounds when suddenly the veil of Miao-Shan's mortality is drawn back and she appears as Kuan Yin in all her compassionate glory as celestial voices and portents surround her. After this moment of ecstasy she returns to her mortal form to - as the story says - 'solemnly depart', or to die. Her parents and sisters are deeply shaken and touched, and they convert to Buddhism through Kuan Yin's boundless compassion and patience. Kuan Yin is awarded a thousand arms and a thousand eyes to reach all places of creation with her aid and to keep her vigil wherever her aid may be needed.

  • Third Tale - Miao-Shan obediently kneels before her executioner, but before the soldier has a chance to strike, the heavens are filled with terrifying portents that make him hesitate just long enough for a tiger to leap out and whisk Miao-Shan away. In this narrative she goes down to Hell through a cave, once in the land of the damned she persuades Yama to liberate all the condemned. From here on she ascends to the world and onto an island where she performs her deeds of compassion (such as saving the Dragon King), and finally returns home and converts her parents. The narrative does not say how she does this, or even if a similar sacrifice of her eyes and limbs was required.

In the narrative there is no doubt that Miao-Shan is indeed the human incarnation of the Bodhisattva. Although Kuan Yin is venerated as a Goddess by most of the laity, Buddhism has a different outlook on her status and message.

Kuan Yin in Buddhism

To clarify Kuan Yin's status, it is necessary to understand a 'Bodhisattva'. A Bodhisattva is a being that has attained illumination and that has sworn an oath to forgo crossing the gates of Nirvana to aid the creatures of this world. Kuan Yin's vow was to remain at the gate until all creatures of the world were saved and to be a bridge to those who were seeking the 'Other Shore'.

Kuan Yin is not seen as a goddess, but rather as a being that has attained a status that is attainable by all those who follow diligently the path of truth and detachment. The thought that troubles most people is detachment, considering that to have compassion one must inevitably care for something. Another point of confusion is the Three Dharma Seals. Thich Nhat Hanh in 'The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings' has a very accurate explanation:

If we believe that something is permanent or has a self, we may suffer when we discover that it is impermanent and without a separate self. To put suffering on the same level as impermanence and nonself is an error. Impermanence and nonself are universal. They are a mark of all things. Suffering is not. It is not difficult to see that a table is impermanent, but is it suffering? A table will only make us suffer if we attribute permanence or separateness to it. When we are attached to a certain table, it is not the table that causes us to suffer. It is our attachment.

The Three Dharma Seals in their southern translation include suffering only to show the result of attachment, but not to include it among the seals; the three Dharma seals of the Doctrine are:

  1. Impermanence - The belief that nothing is permanent and, therefore, there must be detachment

  2. Nonself - Nothing that exists has an individual self

  3. Nirvana - The extinction of all concepts and notions in order to be able to touch the true guise of reality

The reason that the Bodhisattvas can operate with such boundless compassion is that they are completely detached from the object, the concept of the object, and any notion of the object itself that might cloud their visions.

They are in this world and yet not of it, hence Miao-Shan's simplicity and lack of reluctance to sacrifice herself, for she cares little in the sense of human comfort and has no allegiance to any party. This allows her, therefore, to give herself fully to those who need her.

Bodhisattvas are seen as a personified incarnation of an aspect. In Kuan Yin's case she is the incarnation of endless compassion and endless mercy. Because she holds on to nothing, she has everything to give away. It is no wonder that Kuan Yin (Kannon, Quan Yin, Kwan Yin) remains one of the most beloved and important figures in many Eastern traditions.

1'Amitabha' means 'unmeasured splendour' or, literally 'boundless light'.2The jewel in the lotus.

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