Kuan Yin, The Compassionate Rebel
Kuan Yin's Prayer for the Abuser
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 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.'
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
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
>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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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,
"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
"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
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,
giving rise in the process to an awesome and complex image of
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.
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.
This article by Nitin Kumar
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,
Colin, Didier. Dictionary of Symbols, Myths and Legends: London,
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.
Kuan Yin's Prayer for the Abuser
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