Kuan Yin

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The Mahayana Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin is depicted in statues and other artworks throughout Asia and around the world. Kuan Yin has come to represent the female side of Avalokitesvara and is one of three bodhisattvas associated with the Pure Land sect. Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Kuan Yin

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Few divine entities, even Gautama Buddha himself, can compete in popularity with Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara, the goddess/god of compassion in the Mahayana Buddhist world. Kuan Yin represents the female aspect, and Avalokitesvara represents the male. Statues of Kuan Yin/Avalokitesvara can be found in the great majority of Buddhist temples in China and Japan, and images of the goddess/god permeate the culture. Kuan Yin’s role is often compared to that of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism. Kuan Yin is a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has given up her own attainment of heaven/nirvana to assist others on their pilgrimage through life. In Japan she is known as Kannon.

The worship of Avalokitesvara found its way to China in the third century, where it became especially identified with the Pure Land sect, which offered members the goal of rebirth in the heavenly Western Paradise. Three bodhisattvas—Ameda Buddha, Mahasthamaprapta, and Avalokitesvara—are central to Pure Land practice. As the lord of compassion, Avalokitesvara is seen as an emanation of Amita Buddha (the leader of Pure Land) and as the guard of the world in the time between the departure of the historical Buddha and the future appearance of the coming Buddha, Maitreya.

The Lotus Sutra, a Buddhist writing that appeared in 406 CE, introduced Kuan Yin. In the next centuries, Kuan Yin would be reconceptualized as a female and identified with Avalokitesvara. Vajrayana Buddhists (most identified with Tibet but widely diffused in China in the eighth and ninth centuries) popularized Kuan Yin as a beautiful, white-robed goddess, and by the ninth century a statue of Kuan Yin graced most Chinese Buddhist monasteries.

The transformation of the male Avalokitesvara into the female Kuan Yin was aided by the story of Miao Shan, an eighth-century Chinese princess. She seems to be the source of the feminine representation of Kuan Yin (aka Quan Shi Yin or Kwan Yin). Beginning in the twelfth century, Buddhist monks settled on Putuo Shan, an island off the coast of Zhejiang and south of Shanghai, where Miao Shan lived and devoted her life to healing and to saving sailors from shipwrecks. They spearheaded the spread of the veneration of Kuan Yin through northern China. As her worship spread, her attributes multiplied, though most were extensions of her perceived compassion and attention to the most helpless in society. She has, for example, been seen as helping barren women and is often, like the Virgin Mary, pictured with a child in her arms.

The many images of Kuan Yin vary according to which attribute is being emphasized. As the omnipresent divine Mother, she is seen with multiple eyes and a thousand arms. She may be pictured, for example, with a white lotus (a symbol of purity), a dove (fertility), a vase (to pour out mercy), or a rosary (to call upon the many Buddhas for assistance). From China, veneration has spread to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and since the nineteenth century, the West, where her name has become synonymous with miraculous occurrences and the expressions of compassion by Buddhists toward their neighbors.

The primary Kuan Yin center remains at Putuo Shan. It has been identified with Potalaka, the mythical island cited as Kuan Yin’s home in various Buddhist writings of the eighth and ninth centuries CE. The pilgrim to contemporary Putuo Shan will find a number of monasteries and temples dedicated to her veneration. Those who visit the island, in the relatively tolerant atmosphere that has arisen in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, often hope to be granted a vision of the goddess. Specific locations on the island have been identified as especially auspicious sites for having such visions.

Kuan Yin temples may now be found around the world. Prominent examples include the Kannon temples in northern Tokyo and in Kamakura; the temple on Waterloo Street in Singapore; Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, Malaysia; and the Kuan Yin Temple in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of the oldest functioning Buddhist temples in the United States.

Sources:

Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1978.
Karcher, Stephen. Kuan Yin. London: Time Warner, 2003.
Palmer, Martin, Jay Ramsey, and Man-Ho Kwok. Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion. San Francisco, CA: Thorsons, 1995.
Yu, Chun-Fang. Kuan Yin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Kuan Yin

goddess of mercy. [Buddhism: Binder, 42]

Kuan Yin

protectress of fishermen and housemaids. [Buddhism: Binder, 42]
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