Home pageHome About EcclasiaEcclasia Upcoming EventsEvents About our classesClasses Articles to readArticles Local Resources & LinkssResources & Links Webrings we belong toRings Pages by our membersMember's Pages

Kuan Yin

By Chris Newman
(Written for Ecclasia)

Kuan Yin by Susan Seddon Boulet

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 Yin.)

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." (2)

Poem from Chinese classic Journey to the West: (3)

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 dragons
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 love. (4)



(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 longer exsists)

(3) From the same website.

(4) Excerpt from "Kuan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind" by Elouise Hart


Back Next

Navbar graphics courtesy of:

This page last updated August 10, 2004