The Goddess Kuan Yin has the additional surname
of Sung-tzu niang-niang, the Lady who brings children. Draped
in a large white veil, she sits on a lotus flower and holds a
child in her arms. Kuan Yin, goddess of fecundity, is equally
expert in treating all sicknesses. So she is very popular, and
her image is to be found in nearly every home in China. Every
year, long lines of pilgrims visit her Temple of Miao Feng Shan
(the Mountain of the Wondrous Peak), situated about forty miles
from Peking. Sick persons of all kinds come to implore the goddess
to heal them, among the smoke of joss-sticks, the popping of crackers,
and the creaking of rattles, which are supposed to win the favor
of Kuan Yin. (1)
The long history of devotion to Kuan Yin provides
insight into the character and example of this Lightbearer who
has not only laid down her life for her friends, but taken it
again and again as intercessor and burdenbearer. For centuries
Kuan Yin has epitomized the great ideal of Mahayana Buddhism in
her role as bodhisattva (Chinese p'u-sa) --
literally "a being of bodhi, or enlightenment," who
is destined to become a Buddha, but has forgone the bliss of Nirvana
with a vow to save all children of God.
The name Kuan Shih Yin, as she is often called,
means literally "the one who regards, looks on, or hears
the sounds of the world." According to legend, Kuan Yin was
about to enter heaven, but paused on the threshold as the cries
of the world reached her ears.
There is still much scholarly debate regarding the
origin of devotion to the female bodhisattva Kuan Yin. Kuan Yin
is considered to be the feminine form of Avolokitesvara (Sanskrit),
the bodhisattva of compassion of Indian Buddhism whose worship
was introduced into China in the third century.
Scholars believe that the Buddhist monk and translator
Kumarajiva was the first to refer to the female form of Kuan Yin
in his Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra in 406 A.D. Of the
thirty-three appearances of the bodhisattva referred to in his
translation, seven are female. (Devoted Chinese and Japanese Buddhists
have since come to associate the number thirty-three with Kuan
Although Kuan Yin was still being portrayed as a
male as late as the tenth century, with the introduction of Tantric
Buddhism into China in the eighth century during the T'ang dynasty,
the image of the celestial bodhisattva as a beautiful white-robed
goddess was predominant and the devotional cult surrounding her
became increasingly popular. By the ninth century there was a
statue of Kuan Yin in every Buddhist monastery in China.
Despite the controversy over the origins of Kuan
Yin as a feminine being, the depiction of a bodhisattva as both
'god' and 'goddess' is not inconsistent with Buddhist doctrine.
The scriptures explain that a bodhisattva has the power to embody
in any form -- male, female, child, even animal -- depending on
the type of being he is seeking to save. As the Lotus Sutra relates,
the bodhisattva Kuan Shih in "by resort to a variety of shapes,
travels in the world, conveying the beings to salvation."
Poem from Chinese classic Journey to the West:
Her knowledge fills out the four virtues,
Her wisdom suffuses her golden body.
Her necklace is composed of jewels,
Her hair is like dark clouds wonderously coiffured like curling
Her embroidered girdle sways like a phoenix's wing in flight.
Sea dragon jade buttons,
A gown of pure silk,
Awash with heavenly light;
Eyebrows as if crescent moons,
Eyes like stars.
A radiant jade face of divine joyfullness,
Scarlet lips, a splash of colours.
Her bottle of heavenly dew overflows,
Her willow twig rises from it in full flower.
She delivers from all the eight terrors,
Saves all living beings,
For boundless is her compassion.
She resides in Tai Shan,
She dwells in the Southern Ocean.
She saves all the suffering when their cries reach her,
She never fails to answer their prayers,
Eternally divine and wonderful.
According to tradition, Kuan Yin had been an ordinary
person who had followed the path of wisdom and service until after
many incarnations she reached the supreme goal, nirvana. Pausing
a moment at the threshold, she heard, raising from the world,
a great wail of woe, as if all the rocks and trees, insects, animals,
humans, gods and demons cried out in protest that so virtuous
a one should depart from their midst. Without a second thought
this noble-hearted soul turned back, determined to remain until
every being without exception should precede her into nirvana.
Full of resolve she exclaimed: "If in time
to come I am to obtain power to benefit all beings, may I now
be endowed with a thousand hands, a thousand eyes." Instantly
her wish was granted, and since that moment Avalokitesvara-Kuan
Yin has appeared in so many different forms, and in so many lands,
it does seem that she has a thousand eyes and a thousand hands
to help those in need. She is said to be a light for the blind,
a shade for those hot and weary, a stream for the thirsty, a remedy
for the ill, father and mother for those who suffer, and a guide
for the beings in hell.
Compassion pervades all worlds and resides in the
heart of all creatures. A recent Chinese commentator explains
that as "one moon imprints a thousand streams, and all the
thousand streams reflect the one moon; one spring[-time] nurtures
a myriad flowers, and all the myriad flowers are endowed with
the wonder of spring." As the Kuan Yin Sutra states,
when one turns to Kuan Yin, to the self within which images the
divine self, a raging fire becomes a placcid pool; chains that
bind one's hands and feet are loosened; beasts flee, and snakes
loose their poison.
In times of great danger "miracles" do
occur: it may seem that Kuan Yin has come to our aid, but more
likely it is our own inner strength that has saved us. In fact,
Su Tung-po, the eleventh century poet, tells us: "Kuan Yin
does not come hither; I do not go thither; the water is in the
basin; the moon is in the heavens. When the water is clear, the
moon appears; when the mirror [our mind] is bright, the image
emerges." This image, our awakened self-nature, is what sages
call Kuan Yin. For when self-nature is awakened, and compassion
active, we are Kuan Yin -- the incarnation of mercy and
(1) Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology,
Batchworth Press Limited 1959, Translated by Richard Aldington
and Delano Ames, edited by Felix Guirand.
(2) Kuanshihyin.org (unfortunately this site no
(3) From the same website.
(4) Excerpt from "Kuan
Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind" by