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Kuan Yin, The Compassionate Rebel
Article of the Month - November 2005 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

It is unfortunate that Buddhism's most enduring (and universal) contribution to the world has been insufficiently translated as compassion. The original Sanskrit word is 'karuna,' which holds within itself traces of the fragment 'ru,' meaning to weep. While the Oxford dictionary describes compassion as pity bordering on the merciful, karuna is actually our ability to relate to another in so intense a measure that the plight of the other affects us as much as if it had been our own.

The term karuna is central to the entire Buddhist tradition. It is frequently described as a love for all beings, equal in intensity to a mother's affection for her child. However, it is quite unlike conventional love (Sanskrit: priya, kama or trishna), which is rooted in dualistic thinking and is egoistic, possessive and exclusive, in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of compassion. The root meaning of karuna is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow and understanding that can only come from an unblemished sense of oneness with others.

Kuan Yin
Kuan Yin

 

 

 

 

In fact, the evolution of Buddhism in Asia and its spread throughout the world is, from a spiritual point of view, none other than the unfolding of karuna in history. Nowhere is this more explicitly exemplified than in the Chinese assimilation of Buddhism. Few would deny that the defining symbol of this integration is the goddess, who with her sweet and merciful disposition, has won the hearts of not only the Chinese, but also profoundly affected even those who, belonging to a foreign tradition, have only had a fleeting interaction with her. This divine female is none other than Kuan Yin, beloved goddess of over a billion people the world over. Her name too signifies her compassionate nature, literally meaning 'One who hears the cries of the world.'

 

 

Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara
Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara

 

 

 

 

It remains a historical fact that Kuan Yin is the Chinese version of the male god Avalokiteshvara, whom the ancient texts eulogize as the patron deity of compassion. It is fascinating however to observe that nowhere in India (where he originated) or Tibet (where he remains the most popular deity) is the latter ever deified as a female figure. In China too, his worship began as a male god, but over time, changed into a goddess and by the ninth century her popularity had prevailed over that of Avalokiteshvara's.

 

 

 

There are many reasons why this gender transformation took place. As Avalokiteshvara evolved into the supreme personality of the Buddhist pantheon, with this heightened pedestal came the inevitable elitism. Karuna, however, cannot be and is not (as it has become today under the pseudonym of compassion), the exclusive preserve of a charmed circle, but rather a symphonic identification with the masses, sharing their suffering and pleasure alike. No wonder then that Avalokiteshvara shed streams of tears observing the plight of his people. Now, any emanation from a divine form is bound to hold a dynamic potential within itself and indeed Indian mythology is replete with examples where fluids emerging from deities have led to enormous consequences. Tears similarly are a spontaneous emotional response to external stimuli and represent the outward flow of Avalokiteshvara's infinite karuna.

The Ever Graceful Tara
The Ever Graceful Tara

 

 

 

 

From these pearls emanated a beautiful female as attractive as she was compassionate. The goddess Tara, thus born, has continued her upward spiral of popularity and remains one of the most loved and widely recognized deities of the Buddhist pantheon today. Truly, even though Avalokiteshvara retains his foremost status in the gallery of Tibetan gods, in the popular imagination it is Tara, who with her supple charm, has come to symbolize the tenderness of karuna.

 

 

 

 

The Weeping Willow
The Weeping Willow

 

 

 

It is relevant here to observe that Kuan Yin is often depicted in art holding a leafy twig, derived from the 'weeping willow' tree, known so due to its trailing leafy branches that droop to the ground and along which raindrops trickle down like tears.

 

 

 

Kuan Yin as Child Giver
Kuan Yin as Child Giver

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of its distinctive characteristics is remaining green throughout the year, pointing perhaps to the goddess' fertility aspect, which is further echoed in images showing her with an infant.

 

 

 

 

 

The willow also has a deeper and direct connection with Chinese culture and it is believed that Lao Tzu, the author of Tao-te Ching, loved to meditate under its shade (6th century BC). It was under the same tree that the younger Confucius had his famous interview with Lao Tzu, telling his disciples afterwards:

"I know how birds fly, fishes swim and animals run. But there is the dragon - I cannot tell how he mounts on the winds through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today, having seen Lao Tzu, I can only compare him to the dragon."

Over centuries, Kuan Yin's visual depictions have highlighted her lithe, flowing form, much like the willow tree itself, which has the ability to bend during the most ferocious winds and then spring back into shape again. Indeed, who wants to stand rigid like the tall oak that cracks and collapses in a storm? Instead, one needs to be flexible like the willow, which survives the tempest.

Kuan Yin
Kuan Yin

 

 

 

 

 

Or perhaps, Kuan Yin merely uses the willow branch to sprinkle the divine nectar of life on her devotees, which is stored in the vase she holds in her other hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother and Child
Mother and Child

 

 

 

 

 

The Chinese (ever disposed to envisage friendly divinities in idealized human forms), seem to have been initially perplexed by Avalokiteshvara's complex iconography. Not for them his thousand hands or even the seven eyes of Tara. Exposed for eons to the essentially humanistic philosophy of Confucianism, such images were alien and felt to be unsuitable for portraying the 'soft' emotion of karuna, the yearning passion a mother feels for her child.

 

 

 

 

Kuan Yin Holding a Fisherwomen's Basket
Kuan Yin Holding a Fisherwomen's Basket

 

 

 

 

 

The Tibetan mind solved the craving for a down to earth, visual embodiment of karuna by envisioning the goddess Tara; the Chinese genius did the same by enclosing this virtue in the graceful and beautiful Kuan Yin, who was eminently human in appearance and approachable by all. Indeed, she gradually became the favored goddess of the peasants and fishermen of China, retaining her place in their hearts to the present day.

 

 

 

 

Additionally in China, not only had popular gods always been real people who had once lived in specific times and places, even mythical figures were turned into historical cultural heroes who were then venerated as the founding fathers of Chinese civilization. Unlike Greece, where human heroes were transformed into Olympian gods, in China the reverse held true and if a god or goddess was not perhaps originally a human being, there was often an effort to turn her or him into one. Kuan Yin thus again had to change from a goddess into a living woman, so that she could be worshipped as a Chinese goddess. Truly, the human character of Chinese deities is one of the most distinctive features of their religion, and like ordinary mortals they too have birthdays, ancestries, careers and titles. Therefore, even though Kuan Yin is not given a date of birth in any of the Buddhist sutras, her birthday is widely celebrated on the nineteenth day of the second month of the lunar calendar.

The legend describing how Kuan Yin was once a woman gives a fascinating insight into the working of the Chinese genius and the process by which she was given a distinctively local flavor and absorbed into their pantheon:

It is said that in the past, there once lived a king under whose rule the people led a peaceful existence governed by Confucian ethics. He had three daughters; the eldest two having already married the grooms of their father's choice. The youngest offspring however, was unlike any other normal child. Firstly, when she was born, her body glowed with an almost unearthly light so much so that the palace seemed on fire. She was thus befittingly named Miao Shan (Wonderful Goodness).

Secondly, as she grew up, she wore only dirty clothes and never did display any urge to adorn herself. Further, she would subsist on only a single meal every day. In her conversations she would talk about the impermanence of material things and how human beings suffer because of their attachment to such objects. Naturally worried about their daughter's detached inclinations, her parents proposed that (as per the Confucian ideals of filial piety) she too marry a husband of their choice. To this she replied:

"I would never, for the sake of one lifetime of enjoyment, plunge into aeons of misery. I have pondered on this matter and deeply detest this earthly union (marriage)." Nevertheless, when her parents insisted, she agreed to comply with their wishes if only her future mate would save her from the following three misfortunes:

1). When people are young, their face is as fair as the jade-like moon, but when they grow old, the hair turns white and faces become wrinkled; whether walking, resting, sitting, or lying down, they are in every way worse off than when they were young.

2). Similarly, when our limbs are strong and vigorous one may walk as if flying through air, but when we suddenly becomes sick, we are confined to the bed.

3). A person may have a large group of relatives and be surrounded by his flesh and blood, but when death comes, even such close kin as father and son cannot take the person's place.

Finally she concluded: "If indeed my future husband can ensure my deliverance against these misfortunes, I will gladly marry him. Otherwise, I vow to remain a spinster all my life. People all over the world are mired in these kinds of suffering. If one desires to be free of them, the only option is to leave the secular world and enter the gate of Buddhism."

Buddha's Encounter with Death
Buddha's Encounter with Death

 

 

 

 

This narrative of course, is parallel to one of the most significant episodes from the life of the Buddha when he encountered the three maladies of physical existence: sickness, old age and death.

 

 

Exasperated to no end, the king summoned an old and experienced nun of his kingdom. He asked her to take the princess under tutelage and expose her to as much hardship as possible in the nunnery, so that she realize the futility of her desired path. The instruction was tinged with a threat of annihilation if after seven days Miao Shan was not 'reformed'.

Needless to say, all the travails she had to undergo at the monastery, including hard manual labor, were insufficient to deter her from the path of Dharma. However, Miao Shan did realize that she was being thus subjected because the inhabitants of the nunnery were under the threat of death. She addressed them, saying:

"Don't you know the stories about the ancient prince Mahasattva, who plunged off the cliff in order to feed the hungry lions, or King Sivi's cutting off his flesh to save a dove? Since you have already left the life of a householder, you should regard this material body as illusory and impermanent. Why do you fear death and love life? Don't you know that attachment to this dirty and smelly leather bag (body) is an obstacle?"

At the end of the stipulated period, the monarch, in a mad and frenzied reaction, ordered that Miao Shan be beheaded. As her executioners approached the monastery gates, Miao Shan rushed out of the building, eager to embrace her impending death. No sooner had she kneeled at the stake and the deadly sword been raised, than a blinding thunder rose. Before the assailants could regain their composure, a tiger darted out of the darkness and carried away the swooning girl into the nearby hills. The king, now beyond the bounds of reason, ordered the hermitage to be burnt down with all its inhabitants.

It was not long before his karma caught up with him and he fell sick with kaamla (jaundice). He was restless for days on end, finding no rest even in sleep. The disease spread all over his body and the best doctors throughout the land were unable to cure him. One day, a holy mendicant came to his door and predicted: "If some person would willingly consent to give his or her arms or eyes without the slightest anger or resentment, the elixir made of these potent ingredients will surely relieve you from your suffering."

"Where alas will I find such a compassionate being?" lamented the king. "In this very land," said the monk. "Go southwest in your dominion, on top of the mountain there is a hermit who possesses all the characteristics which are necessary for your healing."

No sooner had he heard this than the king ordered his envoys to hurry to the abode of the recluse. On being informed of his plight and its prescribed remedy, the hermit readily agreed to undergo the supreme sacrifice, requesting them to ask the suffering king to direct his mind to the three treasures of Buddhism and then very calmly proceeded to gauge out both the eyes and asked one of the men to sever the two arms. The three worlds shook under the impact of this terrible sacrifice.

When he had fully recovered, the king made haste with his wife to pay homage to the one who had so miraculously saved his life. After bowing low before the mutilated form, as soon as they raised their heads they let out a shriek of astonished horror; the hermit's true identity lay bare before them. She was none other than their youngest daughter Miao Shan. Realizing what she had done for him, despite all that he had done to her, the king fell prostrate upon the floor and asked for forgiveness. Overcome with emotion, the parents embraced her and the father said: "I am so evil that I have caused my own daughter terrible suffering." Miao Shan replied,

"Father, I have suffered no pain. Having given up these human eyes, I shall see with diamond eyes. Having yielded the mortal arms, I shall receive golden arms. If my calling is true all this will follow."

Eleven Headed Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara
Eleven Headed Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara

 

 

 

Much sobered by this intense experience, the king returned to his palace and ordered a statue to be made of her, which, emphasizing her sacrifice was to be without eyes and hands. Now, in Chinese, the sound for 'bereft' or 'deficient' are virtually identical with 'thousand.' At some stage in the transmission of this message, the two words were confused and the sculptor toiled away, desperately seeking some way to capture the essence of the king's wishes. He very imaginatively (or perhaps following Indian or Tibetan models) placed one eye on each palm, making the number of eyes equal to the arms,

 

 

 

 

Thousand-Armed Kuan Yin
Thousand-Armed Kuan Yina

 

 

 

 

 

 

giving rise in the process to an awesome and complex image of breathtaking splendor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unable to relate to the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, the above legend provided a rational explanation to the bewildered viewer and helped integrate the goddess into the Chinese ethos.

The story of Miao Shan represents the fusion of the Buddhist theme of the gift of the body and the Confucian concept of filial piety. In the former tradition, giving is one of the six perfections performed by a bodhisattva (would be Buddha). Amongst the different forms of gifts, that of one's own body is the best. The only difference is that while the bodhisattvas give up their bodies in order to feed or save sentient beings regardless of any formal relationship with them, the fact that Miao Shan does so for her father is where the Confucian model comes in. In the former context, a tale is narrated of the Buddha, who in one of his previous births was a pigeon. He saw a man lose his way during a snowstorm, driven to the point of starvation. The pigeon gathered twigs and leaves, made a fire and threw himself wholeheartedly into it, to become food for the distressed soul. It is this lofty ideal that Kuan Yin was following, a self-sacrifice par excellence, motivated by pure (selfless) and indiscriminate compassion (karuna).

On the other hand, Kuan Yin as Miao Shan gives a bold and provocative message, challenging Confucian value systems as delineated in the 'Classic of Filial Piety' (published by the emperor Xuan in AD 722). Her life glorifies austerity, celibacy and renunciation, which, as per Buddhism, are highly valued (against the householder, who is necessary in Confucianism for creating offspring to perpetuate the lineage). In times of the Ming for example, one could achieve religious sanctification by performing one's domestic obligations to the fullest degree. Eventually, Chinese of all social strata and both sexes came to know Kuan Yin as the strong-willed yet filial girl, who refused to get married and rebelled against stifling authority.

Conclusion:

Kuan Yin with Moustache
Kuan Yin with Moustache

 

The goddess Kuan Yin is a symbol, not only of the Chinese assimilation of Buddhism, but also of the many hued flavor of karuna, expressed through the softer wisdom of a woman. She is a pointer to the re-emergence of the goddess and the gender transformation of Avalokiteshvara in China represents perhaps a universal imperative, which is similarly reflected in the emanation of the goddess Tara from the compassionate tears of the same bodhisattva. Though often images are encountered, which show her sporting a moustache, emphasizing masculinity; this is negated by the softness of her demeanor.

Can anything be more subtly female than her graceful poise - modest and inward looking, yet potent enough to generate and compassionately nourish the whole outside world? In the words of Martin Palmer: "The divine feminine cannot be suppressed for long. In China, it emerged by the transformation of the male into the female," only god (or the goddess) knows how it will transpire in other cultures.

 


References and Further Reading

  • Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin: Boston, 1988.
  • Boucher, Sandy. Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion: Boston, 1999.
  • Cabezon, Jose Ignacio. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender: Delhi, 1992.
  • Colin, Didier. Dictionary of Symbols, Myths and Legends: London, 2000.
  • Farrer-Halls, Gill. The Feminine Face of Buddhism: Illinois, 2002.
  • Jones, Lindsay (ed). Encyclopedia of Religion (Previously Edited by Mircea Eliade) 15 volumes: MI, 2005.
  • Keown, Damien. Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism: Oxford, 2003.
  • Kinsley, David. The Goddesses' Mirror Visions of the Divine from East and West: Delhi, 1995.
  • Palmer, Martin and Jay Ramsay, with Man-Ho Kwok. Kuan Yin Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion: London, 1995.
  • Phillips, Kathy J. (Photography by Joseph Singer). This Isn't a Picture I'm Holding: Kuan Yin: Honolulu, 2004.
  • Watson, Burton (translator). The Lotus Sutra: Delhi, 1999.
  • Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History: Stanford, 1959.
  • Yu, Chun-Fang. Kuan Yin The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara: Columbia, 2001.

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindiaart.com.


This article by Nitin Kumar


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Article Reviews

  • Thank you for this wonderfully informative article on Kuan Yin. It's allowed me to understand the spirit of karuna, and Kuan Yin, so much more.

    Blessings
    - Cindy (cindy@gdit.net)
    2nd Apr 2014
  • Does anyone know when was Lady Kuan Yin born? or how long ago she was born ?
    - kim Lan Lam
    17th Apr 2012
  • What a lovely article about Kuan Yin which explains so beautifully how the Chinese see her as female. I was introduced to her by my Chi Kung master Lam Kam Chien’s wife she told me this story about Kuan Yin. I was so grateful to know this Bodhisattva. Thank you.
    - Merryb
    31st Jan 2012
  • What stunning images you have chosen here for your article and how deeply you have gone into the meaning of this beautiful Goddess... great research and well written... Thanks so much

    Kwan Yin is my most favourite Goddess..

    - Sandhan
    7th Jan 2011
  • It is so sad that many people have been taken in by the Miao San story. It is just a story nothing more. There is no truth in it just like the \"Journey to the West\" story about the monk and the monkey deity bears nothing to reality. The origin of Kuan Yin or Avolokitehsvara should be found in the Buddhist Sutra and no sutra ever mention of Miao San. In fact no sutra ever mention Avolokiteshsvara was born on earth or an earthling. Please do not disseminate falsehood of the sasana, it brings heavy negative karma.
    - moky
    18th Nov 2010
  • Thank you for publishing such an informative and well-illustrated article on Kuan-Yin. Your insight and work will surely help many of us on the path. You are to be commended for posting and maintaining it.
    Regards,
    - Betty
    6th Aug 2010
  • I loved this article and hasten to add that Bill's feedback shed a fresh light on the article, his feedback is inspirational, adds so much to the article itself. Thank you both xxx
    - Menny
    18th May 2010
  • I just want to say I am a catholic and my wife is from china and kuan yin is a big part of her life. She is a lot like mary the mother of jesus. I also bring kuan yin in to my faith and what she stands for. How can someone this good be bad for someone. I pray to kaun yin for help as well as to god and the blessed mother mary. I feel good that I have kaun yin and my catholic faith in my life. I feel blessed.
    - pete
    7th Apr 2010
  • I find this article very informative. The responses have been true to their word of respecting what you've written. Although, I find I must disagree with what "Bill." has so...thoughtfully enclosed. I think she does not have a poor understanding of East and West but East and Western religions and stories are all stories that can only be as understood as the person who studies them. I don't understand how you think you may have a deeper connection to this when you suck. That is all.^^
    - Claudia
    6th Jan 2010
  • I have a 20x30 Batik painting in the orginal framing, my friend left me, by Kwan Yin. Item Number A-03. I would very much like to find out more about it. It is of a Goddis I believe. She is brown & gold with a ring of flames behind her head. Is there a way of finding out more?

    Thank you for you time.
    - pjmore
    13th Sep 2009
  • The author seems to be saying that *compassion* is an understatement for the true meaning. Perhaps a more definitive description would be *empathy* instead of compassion, although empathy still falls short as a description. The complete immersion into another's state of being where *one* with all beings is experienced seems to be the point of articulation. I found the article very informative.
    - Linden
    3rd Aug 2009
  • As a hard-nosed materialist and realist I was interested in the article on changes in the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field, in alleged relationship to Buddhist,(or any) thinking.
    I believe the last reversal was about 780,000 years ago,-around the time of Homo habilis. Did this ancestor of ours have sophisticated thoughts which could have been influenced by such a geological event,-especiall;y if it was slow and long-drawn out?
    - Reg Le Sueur
    3rd Jul 2009
  • Beautiful article! Thank you for giving me a more in-depth meaning to what Kuan Yin represents.
    Bill, Dear--take a vacation from your brain space and go visit your heart...
    - Dawn
    12th May 2009
  • Great article and thanks for you knowledge and sharing your beliefs.

    Bill needs to get a grip.

    respect all ways encompass universal truth
    - Mark
    25th Apr 2009
  • Dear Sir ,I would like to receive images of Kwan Yin.

    Thank You
    - msilvia
    2nd Jan 2009
  • Please know that we have reunited within.
    Helped by understanding the Kuan Yin stories
    Now, Self realization equals our unity.

    Most high peace
    - Naima K. Wade
    1st Dec 2008
  • I would like to Thank You for sharing your knowledge, thoughts and views. I enjoyed it very much. After reading some of the reviews that have been left, I can only say, Compassion. That is what healed then and can and will heal us all now. Compassion.

    Again, Thank You!

    Gratefully,
    Renee
    - Renee
    27th Nov 2008
  • AGREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    - eva Evans (EARTHecstatic@cox.net)
    6th Aug 2008
  • Finally, I have reunited with him. Thanks to the compassionate rebel. Om shanti
    - Naima K Wade
    5th Aug 2008
  • Robert,
    You have a narrow minded view of religion. Religion is a way to worship God. Different cultures have done it differently. Hence the plethora of symbols and rituals.
    One who abides in the Self see all as same. God did not create the Universe as a carpenter does, drawing all materials and creating from outside inwards. God created the Universe from His own being, center outwards. Hence, God is in the atom and He is also in the Cosmos. He is everywhere. "Sarvam brahmamayam". Sages of ancient India who had attained "Nirvana" (Or enlighenment or Samadhi state) saw all humanity as extension of divinity and hence did not condemn even tribal practices, ritual worships etc though these are lower levels of worship. Highest level is inner contemplation through Yoga practices or Meditation.
    Jesus Christ was a liberated soul and his abiding teaching was love and compassion. But he is not the only savious as modern day Church proclaims. There have been and there shall be many saviours for this world.
    - Sridhar
    22nd May 2008
  • Nice article.
    Seriously this guy Bill needs help.
    He, however, has our "Karuna".
    - sridhar
    22nd May 2008
  • Gassho,

    How very refreshing.

    Speak one word of truth.

    In response to the pedantry of some of the above posts:

    "No one ever built a statue of a critic"

    Metta,

    Martin
    - Martin
    27th Dec 2007
  • -Sam
    - Naima K. Wade
    30th Oct 2007
  • Haven't read
    - Cga
    21st Oct 2007
  • Wow I didn't knew that Kuan Yin was absorbed from buddhism O.O INTERESTING ARTICLE!
    - Mirari
    9th Sep 2007
  • very interesting, informative article, thank you!

    att. Bill
    sorry, but I cannot hold this back / don t you think that a little bit of "anger" is nothing in comparison to your judging, review...?
    1.not necessary
    2.arrogant
    3....???
    mw
    - maria
    5th Sep 2007
  • I haven't read the article yet...
    - Karen
    19th Jul 2007
  • Compassion,empathy,karuna..embody and know this infinite,soft power of powers.Words fail as usuall,peace,sx
    - sean ewing
    8th May 2007
  • I feel that this article really shows and discusses lesser known facets of Kwan Yin, while maintaining that she is Loving and Merciful.

    I find it Quite Informative, and is One of My Favorites.
    - Avolakita Sequoya Netjer
    12th Jun 2006
  • I wonder where she is ?

    - Sam
    17th Dec 2005
  • I just can't seem to get by the first line.

    "It is unfortunate that Buddhism's most enduring (and universal) contribution to the world has been insufficiently translated as compassion."

    This is a very packed line, leaving the reader little choice. The first three words, "It is unfortunate" is a value judgement, yet we have no evidence to warm the path for this judgement. It seems to come from anger. Maybe the writer is angry. So we have a value judgement, and a person in anger. These two negatives are hard to jump over; to have faith that further truth is unbiased.

    A little further down the first sentence we find:

    "Buddhism's most enduring (and universal) contribution to the world". That is a very big subject. Perhaps Buddhism's greatest contribution was the avoidance of a war in 230 BC, or was that 1977? It is hard to identify a war that was avoided, because we only see the wars that occured. Maybe Buddhism's greatest contribution 'was' the book that will be written in 34 years, by an unborn girl from Ohio? We here in 2005 have such limited knowledge, it is only speculation at best to make any claim about 'Buddhism's greatest'. To read this first line requires suspension of the intellect. It suggests that research has been done "to the world" from more than one country, maybe Japan, Tibet, India, Mexico, and Canada, where 20 percent of those populations were questioned about Buddhism contributions, and these answers boiled down into consensus that is now being delivered.

    The First line has such authority, such complete knowledge, that the writer is so different from myself, that it is unlikely that reading further will bring me unbiased truth.

    Let me try further. Perhaps I acted without contemplation or reflection.

    "The original Sanskrit word is 'karuna,' which holds within itself traces of the fragment 'ru,' meaning to weep. While the Oxford dictionary describes compassion as pity bordering on the merciful, karuna is actually our ability to relate to another in so intense a measure that the plight of the other affects us as much as if it had been our own."

    Ok, I see where the author is going, I am being invited to consider a bigger meaning, I read more.

    "The term karuna is central to the entire Buddhist tradition. It is frequently described as a love for all beings, equal in intensity to a mother's affection for her child. However, it is quite unlike conventional love (Sanskrit: priya, kama or trishna), which is rooted in dualistic thinking and is egoistic, possessive and exclusive, in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of compassion. The root meaning of karuna is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow and understanding that can only come from an unblemished sense of oneness with others."

    In spite of the presumed authority of the author, I like the "oneness with others". There is a style of authority, but maybe the author must overcome internal resistance to speaking up. I read on.

    "In fact (why hit us with another stick), the evolution of Buddhism in Asia and its spread throughout the world is, from a (really? Isn't this you?) spiritual point of view, none other than the unfolding of karuna in history. Nowhere is this more explicitly exemplified than in the Chinese assimilation of Buddhism. (I have to suspend my intellect again, because of the confrontation.) Few would deny that the defining symbol of this integration is the goddess, who with her sweet and merciful disposition, has won the hearts of not only the Chinese, but also profoundly affected even those who, belonging to a foreign tradition, have only had a fleeting interaction with her. This divine female is none other than Kuan Yin, beloved goddess of over a billion people the world over. Her name too signifies her compassionate nature, literally meaning 'One who hears the cries of the world.'"

    I am sorry, I just can't go any further. A billion people. How can this be any more than a big club, hitting me over the head. I must surrender to a billion people. All the "should's" and mental structure, hitting me into submission. I can't read further. I don't wish to be a bully.

    respectfully, I will try to read your next post.

    Ok, I waited and my ability to read returned

    "The goddess Kuan Yin is a symbol, not only of the Chinese assimilation of Buddhism, but also of the many hued flavor of karuna, expressed through the softer wisdom of a woman. She is a pointer to the re-emergence of the goddess and the gender transformation of Avalokiteshvara in China represents perhaps a universal imperative, which is similarly reflected in the emanation of the goddess Tara from the compassionate tears of the same bodhisattva. Though often images are encountered, which show her sporting a moustache, emphasizing masculinity; this is negated by the softness of her demeanor."

    Yes, this is good stuff, the confusion about male and female pointing to deeper acceptance..

    "Can anything be more subtly female than her graceful poise - modest and inward looking, yet potent enough to generate and compassionately nourish the whole outside world? In the words of Martin Palmer: "The divine feminine cannot be suppressed for long. In China, it emerged by the transformation of the male into the female," only god (or the goddess) knows how it will transpire in other cultures."

    I don't see how this connects with the first sentence?

    This seems to be more than one article.

    1. poor understanding of East by West
    2. Our connections are deeper
    3. Feminine vs Male transformations along the spiritual path.

    Struggling to open..
    - Bill
    12th Dec 2005
  • Interesting, Nitin! And a nicely researched piece.

    I like to recall, and to state when called for, the fact that compassion is not necessarily something that we feel.

    Neither does compassion have any fixed recipients.

    Compassion is the mysterious action of no-mind, instead.

    Compassion is the un-thinking and spontaneous activity of any empty-minded Bodhisattva you care to name.

    When the mind is empty, and unmoving, there is then compassion.

    This is the compassion that is at the base of reality, and which is part of the operation of beings, as a fundamental part of their nature. "It is not compassion; and hence, it is called compassion."

    Before (effective) practice (before a person wakes up, that is), compassion, or loving-kindness, may be or may have been a *practice* for us, which we use as an acting "as-if" compassion were present and operating. That's not the real compassion: it can still get us or the recipient in plenty of trouble (will you give money to an alcoholic on the street?), and cause suffering everywhere.

    By contrast, the real Compassion arises mysteriously, right on time, and has just the right form of expression for the circumstances and the situation; the point and purpose of our zen practice is to open the heart of compassion. The heart of compassion opens at the same time that wisdom arises, when the mind is perfectly unmoving and empty, for days and weeks at a time, or longer. Sesshin is a good environment in which this may happen for us.

    We're fingers of one hand; it's not that we are *related*, it's that we are one being. Compassion is the mysterious operation of that one being.

    Instead of thinking that the purposefully-practiced karuna or loving-kindness is adequate, it's best to uncover the real compassion, because, again, the acting "as-if" practice can still cause a lot of trouble, and may also cause us to think that this mock-compassion is adequate, and that we don't really have to wake up after all. But that's just laziness! And, it is ignorance... which arises endlessly, as we say in our Four Great Vows, during community practice of zazen.

    With best wishes for strong practice,
    - Joe / Tucson
    10th Dec 2005
  • Good bit. I've a Zen Buddhist/Reiki practitioner friend who works with Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin. When walking into his meditation room, I noticed a Kwan Yin icon on his altar and said "What's up? Isn't that a Taoist thing?" He answered with a bit about Avalokiteshvara. I countered with Kannon. We both had a laugh. Now we make a ritual of it by drink Ti Kwan Yin (a Chinese variety of Oolong named after Kwan Yin) before healing sessions or just chillin' and catching a movie.

    Be well,
    - Eastern
    5th Dec 2005
  • THANK YOU, for your monograph on Kuan Yin, compassion, God/Dess Evolution, etc. - very informative!

    I have a friend who was born and raised in China, and got his Ph.D. in Anthropology here in the States. His specialty is the shamanic practices in China (and Asia). He was instrumental in allowing me to visit China and to study briefly the shamanic practices there, which are still highly active.

    He has a somewhat different take on the Goddess-God issue: His research indicates that, as in many parts of the Western World, in ancient times the Goddess - that is, the female aspect of divinity - was the primary divine figure.

    However, thousands of years ago, as the world views changed to those favoring patriarchal rather than matriarchal content, the image of divinity changed from Goddess to God, from female to male, in China as well as everywhere in the world. He has written some interesting articles on this topic. As have some western archaeologists, most notably ... oh dear, her name escapes me, who is that older archaeological lady who has written many books and articles on this very subject... there's also a Russian archaeological team, a man an woman, whose names also escape me, who have written about this.

    The reasons for this sea change from female to male thousands of years ago - and now we see it has been moving back again in our very own lifetime - are many and varied and can be discussed ad infinitum (and perhaps ad nauseum). Personally, I ascribe to the notion that the planet Earth, like all planets, is a living breathing sentient being, with a mind and spirit as well as a physical body; and as such, it has both a physical and a spiritual evolutionary process of its own. Every so many thousands of years, the polarity of the Earth changes, from positive to negative and vice versa - positive -negative referring to POLARITY, and NOT to good or bad - polarity as in the + and - ends of a battery, e.g.

    Each time the polarity of the planet changes - an event that takes centuries if not millenia to accomplish - the outlooks of the beings who live on the planet changes, according to the "charge" of the atmosphere of the planet, positive or negative, male or female, yin or yang. Conversely, the attitudes and consequent actions of the humans (and other beings) on the planet can and do affect what the planetary being deems necessary to do.

    The spiritual evolutionary goal of the planet is identical to the spiritual evolutionary goal of the humans who inhabit this planet: to reach a state of PERFECT BALANCE. Then the planetary need for correctional changes of polarity no longer exists. Just as when, according to the tenets of reincarnation and karma, we humans (and other beings) reach a state of such perfect balance that we no longer need to reincarnate; we have learned all the lessons - balanced all the karma - that we can on the physical plane of Planet Earth.

    That's what the harmonic convergence back in the '80's was all about: the change of polarity of the planet Earth.

    Well. I could pontificate much more on this subject, but I don't want to write a book here. Suffice it to say, the polarity theory is an intriguing one, and one which I have chosen as a good "big picture" explanation of the "why" of such things as the ebb and flow of divine aspects.

    There are some interesting books on this subject, of which I shall try to remember the exact titles and names of authors - my modest but respectable library is, alas, boxed up in storage. One book in particular is by a Hindu fellow on the Goddess Kali. Others are by that marvellous lady archaeologist whose name escapes me. And still others.

    Well. Nice "forum-like" exchange of ideas. Thank you!
    - Jeane
    2nd Dec 2005
  • Very nice article. Reaffirms the Divinity of inclusive compassion. The images are lovely. Strange that the Compassion which can cause us such pain is depicted as so gracefully peaceful.
    Whatever Her name is, we need more of Her.
    - Carolyn (BlueRose51@comcast.net)
    1st Dec 2005
  • It reminds me of the time I was in a vipassina retreat and I entered into meditation one day with my eyes full open, listening to the chanting and drum and bell. There was a tapestry on the front wall, one of three and the one on my right was Tara. While the rhythm went on a blazing white sparkling halo appeared around the tapestry of Tara. As I watched the entire tapestry came forward, off the wall some 4 to 6 feet into the room and I watched in amazement. After some time the tapestry went back to the wall and the sparkling halo went dim as I watched. I had the feeling of her dancing in my heart, a surprising emotion and can see her to this day, dancing joyously. I had many encounters at that retreat. Mystery abounds.

    As for compassion, what is described here reminds me more of empathy than compassion. To me compassion invokes action to help another where empathy promotes emotional integration of self and other in their suffering. They are for me, two sides of the same coin. One emotion and one action. But that's just me.

    Thanks for the presentation.
    - Earl
    29th Nov 2005
  • [Kuan Yin is often depicted in art holding a leafy twig, derived from the 'weeping willow' tree, known so due to its trailing leafy branches that droop to the ground and along which raindrops trickle down like tears.

    The willow also has a deeper and direct connection with Chinese culture and it is believed that Lao Tzu, the author of Tao-te Ching, loved to meditate under its shade (6th century BC). It was under the same tree that the younger Confucius had his famous interview with Lao Tzu, telling his disciples afterwards:

    "I know how birds fly, fishes swim and animals run. But there is the dragon - I cannot tell how he mounts on the winds through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today, having seen Lao Tzu, I can only compare him to the dragon."]

    I particularly enjoyed your references to the willow, not having known the association with Kwan Yin. The ogham tree calendar month of Willow-"Saille" comes to mind here. The willow is said to liberate energy, the month running from April 15-May12 (Robert Graves). Even here in the Southland (US) one is advised to wait until the "official frost-free date" of May 15th before entrusting new seedlings to the soil's vitality.

    Willow is also know for medicinal qualities in its bark ("watery willow and moon tree/medicinal bark pains will ease/hands then work to craftwork these").

    Some sources claim that Druids taught two red serpent eggs were laid under the willow and gave birth to the cosmos. I think here of the dragon that was at once Lao Tzu as the association of dragons as "winged serpents."

    [Unlike Greece, where human heroes were transformed into Olympian gods, in China the reverse held true and if a god or goddess was not perhaps originally a human being, there was often an effort to turn her or him into one.]

    The above distinction is interesting in terms of The Wheel of Wandering On in Buddhism (Samsara-cakra). In this discourse it's taught that enlightenment can only be attained by practice in the realm of humans, where both suffering and the ability to examine the causes of suffering exist; that the realm of gods and goddesses is one of such extreme pleasure and ease that there is little impetus to "move on"; and where only ripened (aged) karma may offer release to the human (and other) realms

    Thanks for the writing and art references.
    - Lily
    29th Nov 2005
  • Great essay. She is my favorite. Very touching.

    "ability to relate to another in so intense a measure that the plight of the other affects us as much as if it had been our own."

    And this is why I am vegan, how can I cause suffering to any being when it is so easily avoided. Their pain hurts me.
    - Sharon
    28th Nov 2005
  • I very much enjoyed your excellent article as well and offer sincere thanks for your generosity in sharing it. Epitomizing compassion as the feeling a mother has for a beloved child is very much in line with the Tibetan Buddhist ideal of bodhicitta in which one's practice proceeds from the knowledge that all sentient beings were once one's loving mother in order to achieve the equanimity and spontaneous compassion indicative of the awakening mind.

    If I may add a thought, I will pass along the fruit of a discussion from a week or two ago in which a Tibetan teacher who is very fluent in English, asked that practitioners think of Tara and other emanations usually referred to as "deities" more in terms of "enlightened beings" rather than gods or goddesses because in the West, these words tend toward a dualism not found beneficial in many Buddhist systems. In a number of translations of the praises of the 21 Taras she is given praise as the female buddha and in some deity yogas, offering gods and goddesses are envisioned as extending to her the gifts of the offering.

    Namaste,
    - Isabel
    28th Nov 2005
  • Thanks for info etc. I am a very spiritual person, and we all believe in a future paradice. In the Budist world there is strong principles that greatly stimulates spirituality and asention to higher levels of living. How can there be so many gods, though they may not conflict or of cross purposes. But how can there be so many, and who is supreme. There is a lot of seeming somforts and satisfactions in this life, But is there total fulfillment of knowing that there is a particular way to the Supreme God.

    As far as I know only one person God /Man raised the dead, healed lepprocy, lame to walk, died and returned to life, as was written hundreads of years before he walked the earth. There are noother books to equate it. Yes I have read the Bagavad Geta and other books. Beautiful spirited inspiring, visions inspired writings, good and instructive. The book that I spoke of also says that there are other groups of people who say God but not necessarilly on the Supreme, I am a visual Artist of many forms and admire great art such as yours, I willcontinue reading your materials.

    Reading just now on a dragon that flew up to heaven? Now realy? A dragon in heaven? What kind? And for what purpose? To keep people and children in check? In the new haven and new earth there would be paradise, order, happiness, beauty, peace and harmony, and no conflict or turmoil of any kind.

    I also read about a person who went up to heaven and became a God, So are there endless amount of gods? And how so? What then constitutes the make up of God. If God means one Supreme. Then many, like a pannel of elders (as in govermental systems) are likely to come in some kind of, why should that one or another be allowed or appointed to do, or be given the privilege to perform such and such above a certain other god, hence disorder or conflict.

    Oh! wait. If You are saying that all these gods are like the organs and limbs of a persons body, that they all have there function without being in conflict with the other. Then again how and why and what part they play to be gods. Gods of the land, sea, sky, rain, plants, food, animals. Again then one god may say that I want the river to run this way half the year then to the other way later. Simularly for others just like human beings all over again, is something misleading here?

    The book that I spoke about last, there is nothing at anytime or place that has been able to confound that book. All that has been written about and predicted, has been proven with the passage of time, only that mankind in all their professionalism did not pay attention to the contents, but ended up with senseless blunders only to return to that great book. From that same book which was written in the hearts of mankind, from the beginning of time, comes all the laws of mankind even from before it was published, and is still in effect today.

    The American Indians gave obesence, great respect, to the spirit of all the elements of life, nature, the world. Yet they regarded that there must be One Great Spirit above everything. Bottom line breath of life. The spirit of the anchients forces anyone to believe that there is life after death, also by having dreams, which became beliefs of after seeing certain repititions in life, that there must be some life after death. Such human conducts and practices, and seasons of nature becomes mythology, that has some seeming reflective behaviour of every aspect of life. The human mind, intellect, behaviour, responsibility, beauty, order, love, peace, continuity. there must be life beyond the present.

    All of that is what makes up conscience, truth, honesty, love, justice, peace. The driving force of survival, a living soul. "Soul" there must be a greater source of creation, beyond mans imagination and knowledge. The very thing that makes us unique idnetifably me or you which is different from a thing.

    Peace and love
    - Robert
    25th Nov 2005
  • Chogyam Trungpa taught the route of Genuine Sad Heart, and the way it opens onto emptiness... as does his former student, Pema Chodren.... and every Tibetan teacher i have had the good fortune to cross paths with always teaches with the view of a mother's love for her child, as compassion model. Though this model itself does not always convey the purity one imagines, it might once have had in more traditional times and places?... Hence it is tempered to the needs of cultures in the West, and it's understood that not all of us have experienced such a parent and such love... for some of us, "mother's love" calls into being a whole Other set of images... Dharma is that willow of which you speak in reference to Kuan Yin... it's flexible.

    In addition, one hears the Dalai Lama teach very clearly the connection between wisdom and compassion and that it is Wisdom that is female and compassion that is male in that lineage. (not unlike the concept of Sophia in western traditions... or what remains of Sophia after the abrahamic traditions have gutted much of their own history...) I appreciate the investigations you have undertaken, though with my limited understanding I am not sure I follow or agree with some of it. I would just like to say that among some western teachers or teaching-in-the-West the apple has not fallen quite so far from the tree-- the Bodhi tree-- as one might assume.... thanks for listening.
    - MH
    25th Nov 2005
  • I just wanted to say thank you again for all your great newsletters, I always enjoy looking at other artist's interpretations of spiritual & archetypal figures.

    I, too, have sculpted and cast my own version of the female Buddha (Kuan Yin) which I call "Buddha Babe." If you would like to see her, please vsit my blog at www.BarbaraBernath.blogspot.com

    Warm regards,
    - Barbara Bernath
    22nd Nov 2005
  • I enjoyed your article on Kuan Yin. My wife is a Korean Buddhist, and chanting the name(s) of Kuan Yin is a significant part of her practice.

    I also enjoyed (and would recommend) the John Blofeld book you list in your references.

    The illustrations really add to the enjoyment of the article. I hope everyone hit the link.

    In your conclusion, you state that Kuan Yin is a symbol of karuna. Although my practice doesn't include any gods, goddesses, or deities, I have integrated Kuan Yin into my practice as a personification of compassion.

    I have met many persons that view Kuan Yin as a deity to beg favors from. It's not my path, but no harm done. We each do what we can.

    Who can argue against compassion, in any form?

    Peace.
    - Dan
    22nd Nov 2005
  • Another good article.

    Definition of Compassion ??

    "Can there be bliss when all who live must suffer ??
    Must you be saved, to hear the whole World cry ??"
    ..a Tibetan saying , I think.

    Do keep well,
    - Dr. Jan
    18th Nov 2005
  • Thank you for your article. Avalokiteshvara and Tara are nothing more (meaning everything) than Shiva and Shakti.

    I am a devotee of the Goddess Tara, in all her forms, which include Kuan Yin, Kannon; Tara in Tibet and Tara in India. Tara as an aspect of Durga, the lion lady, is related to the Feline Throned goddess from Catal Huyuk, Anatolia. This gives some idea of the profoundly ancient roots for the worship of Durga-Tara: I think we may be looking at one of the original - if not 'the' - world religion, from the birth of the human race?

    Om Tara!
    - Krishna Das
    18th Nov 2005
  • For several years, I have been on your mailing. This morning, as is often the case, I opened an Exotic India email, and started to read the story. Busy, I printed it for later reading.

    Just now I read the story, viewed the illustrations and art. As is so often the case, I feel the tranquility. Thank you.

    Very best regards,
    - Frank Rehill
    17th Nov 2005
  • Just a note to thank you for your most important article on Kuan Yin. It is most insightful and eloquent. After some time in acquaintance with Her details, I feel now as if I know Her much better. Thank you for such a treat!

    Blessings,
    - Joene Bone
    17th Nov 2005
  • I loved this article. It outlines what for me is the key point in Buddhism, karuna, or loving compassion. I've always related to Avalokitesvara and Kuan Yin, this piece was wonderful, thank you, namaste.
    - Rachel
    17th Nov 2005
  • Whoa, Thank you,. My spiritual name is KarunaMayi. But I never knew so much about Karuna - its true and deep meaning. I will re-read your article when I really have time and I am sure it will cause me to think deeply about the nature of my name, the reasons it was given to me etc.. I keep and altar to Kwan Yin and the Green Tara is my protector and favorite Deity.

    Thank you for this very insigthful and totally amazing article.
    - Rev. Severina KarunaMayi Singh
    16th Nov 2005
  • Neat! Your articles are always well written and wonderfully researched. Nitin, are you a full time writer?

    Do drop me a note if you have the time as I much interested in Hindu/Buddhist philosophy, mythology and arts.

    Keep the good work going!
    - Sudheesh
    16th Nov 2005
  • I am so very touched by the beauty of this writing...thank you - I enjoyed it immensely. I thank you for your dedication to both preserving these teachings and sharing them so eloquently.

    My best to you,
    - Nancy Gardner
    15th Nov 2005
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