Kuan Yin

by Mary Heath

Creation of the Bodhisattvas

When Sakyamuni Buddha died in 468 or 486 B.C.(the date is thought to be one of those) the Buddha's disciples, the Listeners who heard him firsthand, found themselves with a problem. Hindu culture had many gods and goddesses to help mortals in every trade, stage of life and situation. But the Buddha had taught self-reliance, that we ourselves contain all the godly attributes, good and evil; and also when we die, there is no soul remaining. The Buddha had gone, leaving his teaching behind telling each person to be a light unto themselves. The problem was that some people felt abandoned, particularly new students and the peasant laity who clamoured for a god, saints, and a mythology. Who is going to look after me?

To fill the gap various supernatural beings were created. These were the past and future Buddhas, the Buddhas of other universes, the great Bodhisattvas and the saints. The Bodhisattvas were beings who achieved 99% Enlightenment, but held back from final extinction to stay behind to help everyone else. "The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them". This is the vow of the Bodhisattvas. Some of these heavenly beings can be traced to actual people, some not, some are male in one country and female in another, they have different attributes at different times. A whole new pantheon was created in the first few centuries after the Buddha's death, and it's through this floodwater of deities that we can trace the stream of Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, divine embodiment of Compassion.

The lotus lily flower features as a seat or pedestal for many Buddhist figures. The idea is that it is a beautiful flower, but it rises from the muddy depths of the pond. This is how we work at our own spiritual life - by staying right in the middle of the mud, and cherishing each smelly clod, somehow the lotus flowers arise. The petals of the flower represent the spokes of the wheel of continued existence, to which we are bound until we reach the stage of spiritual awakening. Kuan Yin sits or stands at royal ease, completely relaxed on her lotus throne to show how completely at one she is with every situation.

In her hands is a vessel containing the Dew of Compassion. Stories tell of her appearing at the bedside of sick people to sprinkle a few drops of dew on their heads. This results in a miraculous cure.

Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds

As a deity with a history, Kuan Yin began as the great male Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, translated variously as `the lord who sees' or `the lord of compassionate glances'. He is first mentioned in the lists at the beginning of the Vimalakirti Sutra, and extensively in the Lotus Sutra, where he is called `The Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds' (The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson, Pub. Columbia University Press 1993.) The Lotus Sutra was written before 255 B.C, because at that time it was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, and the indications are that the Sanskrit was already a translation from an original local Indian dialect. From China the Lotus Sutra, under the name Saddharmar-pundarika Sutra, went to Nepal, Central Asia and Kashmir, and in later centuries to Korea and Japan. It's one of the main Mahayana Sutras, liquid in clarity and depth.

Section 25, called the Avalokitesvara Sutra, gives thirty-three different ways in which the Bodhisattva can appear to people in all walks of life, ranging from kings and high ministers to travelling merchants or criminals in chains.

This section is entitled `The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds'. It's a suitable path for everyone — universal.

At that time the Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Intent immediately rose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, pressed his palms together and, facing the Buddha, spoke these words: "World-Honoured One, this Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds - why is he called Perceiver of the Worlds' Sounds?"

The Buddha said to Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Intent: "Good man, suppose there are immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of living beings who are undergoing various trials and suffering. If they hear of this Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds and single-mindedly call his name, then at once he will perceive the sound of their voices and they will all gain deliverance from their trials.

"If someone, holding fast to the name of Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds, should enter a great fire, the fire could not burn him. This would come about because of this Bodhisattva's authority and supernatural power. If one were washed away by a great flood and called upon his name, one would immediately find himself in a shallow place."

Questioning the Buddha here is Inexhaustible Intent, part of the Bodhisattva's vow `The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them.' Inexhaustible intent right there.

In India and during the early centuries of Buddhism, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was the male attendant of Amitabha Buddha. Avalokitesvara had eleven heads and a thousand arms, each with an eye in the palm to see the pain in the world. In some statues each hand makes a different gesture (mudra) to signify the boundless skilful means he uses to save beings. The story of the eleven heads says that the bodhisattva vowed to save all beings, and he promised that if he should ever give up, his head would split into ten pieces. One day he saw so many beings in hell that his horror and tears caused him to momentarily despair of managing such a large scale disaster. Immediately his head shattered into fragments, and he died. Amitabha Buddha residing in the Pure Land of the western universe, saw what had happened and gathered the pieces, restoring Avalokitesvara and allowing him to renew his vow. Amitabha topped the original ten pieces, now each a new head, with his own image to make eleven. With eleven heads and renewed life and vigour, the bodhisattva was even better equipped to look for beings in need. In some stories it's eight heads, some twelve.

The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is dedicated to Chenresig, Tibetan form of Avalokitesvara of which the Dalai Lamas are said to be incarnations.

Born from the tears of Avalokitesvara are the white and green Taras of Tibet. One meaning of Tara is `star'. The white Tara is consort to Avalokitesvara. She gives comfort and children, a madonna of mercy. Green Tara represents a more dynamic aspect: her colour indicates growth and new hope.

Introduced from Tibet into China (the history is very muddy, partly because later scribes rewrote the stories in terms of their own lineage) White Tara is linked to the female Bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin, or Kuan Yin, which translates to `hearer, or seer, of the sounds of the world'. Before the Tang Dynasty (589 - 906 A.D) Kuan Yin was mostly a male figure, afterwards female. In Japanese Buddhism she is called Kannon. There are many folktales and legends.

The Legends

This undated story comes from a lecture given at the University of Hawaii by Shawn Chang. "Kuan Yin began his cultivation of realisation by investigating hearing and sound. He practised meditation by the sea. Every morning when he woke up and everything was quiet around him, he would hear the sound of the tide coming in from afar, breaking the silence. After a while the sound of the tide receded and he would hear the silence restored... Kuan Yin studied the coming and going of the sound of the tide."

A second legend tells of a female Kuan Yin, but the link with the ocean is here too. It is said that the mortal girl Miau Chan, or Myau Shan, was born on the 19th day of the second lunar moon, circa 300 B.C. She was the youngest of three daughters of a king, whose kingdom was in South Western China. As she grew up she showed extraordinary signs of compassion and for penetrating the mysteries of the universe. Her father, unimpressed, planned to marry her off to a suitable noble for a fat fee, with the hope that she might breed a male heir to the throne.

Standing firm in her resolve to devote her life to religious practice, Miau Chan entered the Nunnery of the White Bird in Lungshu Hsien, with her father's reluctant permission. He commanded that she be given the most difficult and degrading tasks, which only increased her determination. Seeing she was not put off, he ordered that she be executed, but when the executioner's sword struck her neck, it broke into a thousand pieces. So her father had her strangled.

On arrival in hell the maiden's soul was so pure she threatened Yama's existence by changing hell into paradise. Yama, Lord of Hell, ordered her straight back to life. Riding on a lotus flower, she took up her earthly life once again on the island of P`ootoo, near Ningpo, where she lived for nine years, perfecting herself, healing disease and saving mariners from shipwreck.

It was during this time that her father fell mortally ill and was told he would not recover without the hand and eye of `the never angry one'. When his daughter heard this she allowed her hand and eye to be cut off and made into an ointment, and sent to her father. The king recovered and when he learnt of Miau Chan's sacrifice, the daughter he had long thought to be dead, he left his Kingdom to his chief minister and became a Buddhist monk.

The tale of Miau Chan comes from the Taiwanese Tourist Bureau, who list all her festivals. In Taiwan she is said to protect people from danger and to grant children to those who pray for them. The Tourist Bureau goes on to quote from the Sutra on the Great Love of Parents.

"At this time the Buddha preached the law as follows:

All ye good men and good women,

Acknowledge your debt to your father's compassion,

Acknowledge your debt for your mother's mercy.

For the life of a human being in this world

Has karma as its basic cause,

But parents as its immediate means of origin.

Without a father, the child is not born.

Without a mother, the child is not nourished.

The spirit comes from the father's seed:

The body grows within the mother's womb.

Because of these relationships,

The concern of a mother for her child

Is without comparison in this world..."

No reproduction without the authors permission please.