Compassionate Saviouress

the Wanderling

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          Kuan Yin is the compassionate Saviouress of the East. Throughout Asia altars dedicated to this Mother of Mercy can be found in temples, homes and wayside grottoes and prayers to her Presence and her Flame are incessantly on the lips of devotees as they seek her guidance and succor in every area of life.

          Still very much a part of Eastern culture, Kuan Yin has awakened interest in her path and teaching among a growing number of Western devotees who recognize the powerful presence of "the Goddess of Mercy," along with that of the Virgin Mary, as an illuminator and intercessor of the Seventh Age of Aquarius.

          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 foregone 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 Avalokitesvara (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 Yin, "by resort to a variety of shapes, travels in the world, conveying the beings to salvation."[1]

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          The twelfth-century legend of the Buddhist saint Miao Shan, the Chinese princess who lived in about 700 B.C. and is widely believed to have been Kuan Yin, reinforced the image of the bodhisattva as a female. During the twelfth century Buddhist monks settled on P'u-t'o Shan--the sacred island-mountain in the Chusan Archipelago off the coast of Chekiang where Miao Shan is said to have lived for nine years, healing and saving sailors from shipwreck--and devotion to Kuan Yin spread throughout northern China. 

          This picturesque island became the chief center of worship of the compassionate Saviouress; crowds of pilgrims would journey from the remotest places in China and even from Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet to attend stately services there. At one time there were more than a hundred temples on the island and over one thousand monks. The lore surrounding P'u-t'o island recounts numerous appearances and miracles performed by Kuan Yin, who, it is believed, reveals herself to the faithful in a certain cave on the island. 

          In the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, Kuan Yin forms part of a ruling triad that is often depicted in temples and is a popular theme in Buddhist art. In the center is the Buddha of Boundless Light, Amitabha (Chinese, A-mi-t'o Fo; Japanese, Amida). To his right is the bodhisattva of strength or power, Mahasthamaprapta, and to his left is Kuan Yin, personifying his endless mercy.
          In Buddhist theology Kuan Yin is sometimes depicted as the captain of the "Bark of Salvation," guiding souls to Amitabha's Western Paradise, or Pure Land--the land of bliss where souls may be reborn to receive continued instruction toward the goal of enlightenment and perfection. The journey to Pure Land is frequently represented in woodcuts showing boats full of Amitabha's followers under Kuan Yin's captainship.

          Amitabha, a beloved figure in the eyes of Buddhists desiring to be reborn in his Western Paradise and to obtain freedom from the wheel of rebirth, is said to be, in a mystical or spiritual sense, the father of Kuan Yin. Legends of the Mahayana School recount that Avalokitesvara was 'born' from a ray of white light which Amitabha emitted from his right eye as he was lost in ecstasy.

           Thus Avalokitesvara, or Kuan Yin, is regarded as the "reflex" of Amitabha, a further emanation or embodiment of "maha karuna (great compassion), the quality which Amitabha himself embodies in the highest sense. Many figures of Kuan Yin can be identified by the presence of a small image of Amitabha in her crown. It is believed that as the merciful redemptress Kuan Yin expresses Amitabha's compassion in a more direct and personal way and prayers to her are answered more quickly. 

          The iconography of Kuan Yin depicts her in many forms, each one revealing a unique aspect of her merciful presence. As the sublime Goddess of Mercy whose beauty, grace and compassion have come to represent the ideal of womanhood in the East, she is frequently portrayed as a slender woman in flowing white robes who carries in her left hand a white lotus, symbol of purity. Ornaments may adorn her form, symbolizing her attainment as a bodhisattva, or she may be pictured without them as a sign of her great virtue. 
          Kuan Yin's presence is widespread through her images as the "bestower of children" which are found in homes and temples. A great white veil covers her entire form and she may be seated on a lotus. She is often portrayed with a child in her arms, near her feet, or on her knees, or with several children about her. In this role, she is also referred to as the "white-robed honored one." Sometimes to her right and left are her two attendants, Shan-ts'ai Tung-tsi, the "young man of excellent capacities," and Lung-wang Nu, the "daughter of the Dragon-king."

          Kuan Yin is also known as patron bodhisattva of P'u-t'o Shan, mistress of the Southern Sea and patroness of fishermen. As such she is shown crossing the sea seated or standing on a lotus or with her feet on the head of a dragon.[2] 

           Like Avalokitesvara she is also depicted with a thousand arms and varying numbers of eyes, hands and heads, sometimes with an eye in the palm of each hand, and is commonly called "the thousand-arms, thousand-eyes" bodhisattva. In this form she represents the omnipresent mother, looking in all directions simultaneously, sensing the afflictions of humanity and extending her many arms to alleviate them with infinite expressions of her mercy. 

          Symbols characteristically associated with Kuan Yin are a willow branch, with which she sprinkles the divine nectar of life; a precious vase symbolizing the nectar of compassion and wisdom, the hallmarks of a bodhisattva; a dove, representing fecundity; a book or scroll of prayers which she holds in her hand, representing the dharma (teaching) of the Buddha or the sutra (Buddhist text) which Miao Shan is said to have constantly recited; and a rosary adorning her neck with which she calls upon the Buddhas for succor. 

          Images of Avalokitesvara often show him holding a rosary; descriptions of his birth say he was born with a white crystal rosary in his right hand and a white lotus in his left. It is taught that the beads represent all living beings and the turning of the beads symbolizes that Avalokitesvara is leading them out of their state of misery and repeated rounds of rebirth into nirvana. 
          Today Kuan Yin is worshipped by Taoists as well as Mahayana Buddhists--especially in Taiwan, Japan, Korea and once again in her homeland of China, where the practice of Buddhism had been suppressed by the Communists during the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). She is the protectress of women, sailors, merchants, craftsmen, and those under criminal prosecution, and is invoked particularly by those desiring progeny. Beloved as a mother figure and divine mediatrix who is very close to the daily affairs of her devotees, Kuan Yin's role as Buddhist Madonna has been compared to that of Mary the mother of Jesus in the West.

           There is an implicit trust in Kuan Yin's saving grace and healing powers. Many believe that even the simple recitation of her name will bring her instantly to the scene. One of the most famous texts associated with the bodhisattva, the ancient Lotus Sutra whose twenty-fifth chapter, dedicated to Kuan Yin, is known as the "Kuan Yin sutra," describes thirteen cases of impending disaster--from shipwreck to fire, imprisonment, robbers, demons, fatal poisons and karmic woes--in which the devotee will be rescued if his thoughts dwell on the power of Kuan Yin. The text is recited many times daily by those who wish to receive the benefits it promises.

          Devotees also invoke the bodhisattva's power and merciful intercession with the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM-- "Hail to the jewel in the lotus!" or, as it has also been interpreted, "Hail to Avalokitesvara, who is the jewel in the heart of the lotus of the devotee's heart!" Throughout Tibet and Ladakh, Buddhists have inscribed OM MANI PADME HUM on flat prayer stones called "mani-stones" as votive offerings in praise of Avalokitesvara. Thousands of these stones have been used to build mani-walls that line the roads entering villages and monasteries.

          It is believed that Kuan Yin frequently appears in the sky or on the waves to save those who call upon her when in danger. Personal stories can be heard in Taiwan, for instance, from those who report that during World War II when the United States bombed the Japanese-occupied Taiwan, she appeared in the sky as a young maiden, catching the bombs and covering them with her white garments so they would not explode.[3]

          Thus altars dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy are found everywhere--shops, restaurants, even taxicab dashboards. In the home she is worshipped with the traditional "pai pai," a prayer ritual using incense, as well as the use of prayer charts--sheets of paper designed with pictures of Kuan Yin, lotus flowers, or pagodas and outlined with hundreds of little circles. With each set of prayers recited or sutras read in a novena for a relative, friend, or oneself, another circle is filled in. This chart has been described as a "Ship of Salvation" whereby departed souls are saved from the dangers of hell and the faithful safely conveyed to Amitabha's heaven. 
          In addition to elaborate services with litanies and prayers, devotion to Kuan Yin is expressed in the popular literature of the people in poems and hymns of praise.

         Devout followers of Kuan Yin may frequent local temples and make pilgrimages to larger temples on important occasions or when they are burdened with a special problem. The three yearly festivals held in her honor are on the nineteenth day of the second month (celebrated as her birthday), of the sixth month, and of the ninth month based on the Chinese lunar calendar. 

         In the book SHAMBHALA: Oasis of Light, by Andrew Tomas (Sphere Books Ltd; 1977) the author, who spent many years studying the myths and legends of the Far East, writes that the Kunlun Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province holds a very important place in Chinese mythology. It is in the Kunlun range that the Immortals are believed to be, living in a mysterious hermitage said to exist somewhere beyond time in a remote area known under a variety of names such as Gyanganj, Shambhala or Shangri-La and, according to Tomas in his book, ruled by Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West. Hsi Wang Mu, is also known as Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.



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To follow a modern day Zen adept's journey as he breeches the barrier between this world and the mysterious hermitage beyond time visiting Shambhala please go to the following link:







Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different than a Zen master's. Where it differs is we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience, then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be real.



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Bodhidharma, Hui'ko, Hui Shen, Hui Neng, Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien, Zhaozhou, Moshan Liaoran, Mugai Nyodai,
Nagarjuna, Ganapati Muni, Miao Shan, Tung-Shan, Lin Chi, Te Shan, Dogen


Leon Hurvitz, trans., "Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (The Lotus Sutra) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 315.

Glen Dudbridge, The Legend of Miao-shan (London: Ithaca Press, 1978).

P. Steven Sangren, "Female Gender in Chinese Religious Symbols: Kuan Yin, Ma Tsu, and the 'Eternal Mother'," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 9, no. 1 (1983), pp. 4-25.

R. A. Stein, "Avalokitesvara/Kouan-yin: Exemple de transformation d'un dieu en déesse," Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, vol. 2 (1986), pp. 17-80.

Copyright (c) 1999, All Rights Reserved

Footnote [1]


The following two paragraphs are from a chapter titled The Development of Kuan-yin by Barbara E. Reed as found in the book "Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender" (1991):

Female bodhisattvas were first introduced around the late fourth century. Avalorkitesvara, a male bodhisattva in India, became known as Kuan-yin in China and was viewed as female more often than male from the Sung Dynasty (960-1127) to present. Sinologists and buddhologists have produced several theories about the strange transformations of Avalorkitesvara in China; the translation of the Sanskrit name Avalorkitesvara ("the Lord who looks down") into the Chinese Kuan-yin ("one who observes sounds") and the metamorphosis of the bodhisattva into female form. Causes for the sexual transformation include the growing popularity of Tara, the female consort of Avalokitesvara; the amalgamation of Kuan-yin with Taoist goddesses such as Hsi Wang-mu, Queen Mother of the West; and the Chinese tendency to associate compassion with women because of the nature of the Chinese family. I am concerned in the chapter not with the process by which Kuan-yin became female, but rather with the symbolism of the evolved female figure of Kuan-yin and her impact on spiritual and worldly aspirations of Chinese women.

Kuan-yin's popularity grew with that of the scriptures in which her compassion was described. As the Lotus Sutra became more widely read and preached, especially in Kumarajiva's translation of 406 CE, Kuan-yin became known as the salvific being of Chapter 25. According to this scripture, Kuan-yin can appear in thirty-three forms, seven of them female: nun, Buddhist laywoman, elder's wife, householder's wife, officer's wife, a Brahman woman, and a young girl. Kuan-yin promised to manifest herself in whaterver form is effective to save all beings in distress --- from fires, robbers, drowning, and more. And she promises to grant the wishes of her worshipers: for women Kuan-yin's assent to request for bearing good sons or daughters is especially significant. Kuan-yin as a savior from physical disaster or childlessness is portrayed vividly in the Buddhist art of China.

Footnote [2]

The female bodhisattva Kuan Yin, known throughout Buddhism for being a compassionate saviouress for the downtrodden and those caught in unsurmountable situations is often depicted dressed fully in white riding the rough seas on the back of a dragon. So said, as cast in that role, those whose lives and livelihoods depend specifically on the sea, i.e., sailors, fishermen, those shipwrecked, and even if left unsaid, pirates et al, turn to her as their savior during times of duress.

In his book I Sailed with Chinese Pirates (1930), Aleko E. Lilius writes about sailing with the most merciless gang of high-seas robbers in the world on in an armored junk commanded by a female pirate. Conjuring up images of, or at least in tribute to Kuan Lin, speaking of Lai Choi San, Lilius writes:

"What a woman she was! Rather slender and short, her hair jet black, with jade pins gleaming in the knot at the neck, her ear-rings and bracelets of the same precious apple-green stone. She was exquisitely dressed in a white satin robe fastened with green jade buttons, and green silk slippers. She wore a few plain gold rings on her left hand; her right hand was unadorned. Her face and dark eyes were intelligent, not too Chinese, although purely Mongolian, of course and rather hard. She was probably not yet forty.

"Every move she made and every word she spoke told plainly that she expected to be obeyed, and as I had occasion to learn later, she was obeyed."

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Footnote [3]



As impossible or improbable as Kuan Yin appearing in the sky catching and covering bombs with her white garments so they would not explode may sound to some, for me it was quite different. Not long after the war, when I was a young boy in the fourth or fifth grade or so, and many, many years before I came to know of Kuan Yin or of the bombing of Taiwan on an intellectual or learned level, I met an elderly (to me) Chinese man who related the story to me, he having personally been caught in one of the bombing raids --- and not only an actual on the ground eyewitness to the Kuan Yin event, but his life being saved because of it.

During those grammar school days when the Chinese man told me of his experience, a couple of my buddies and I used to pull a Radio Flyer through the alleys around our neighborhood a few days a week collecting pop and beer bottles for the deposit. After we collected a wagon load we would turn them in various places around of which one was a bar. In the process of pounding on the back door to get someone to trade the bottles in for cash I got to know the dishwasher at the bar, an elderly Chinese man.

As a young boy without a lot of experience in the matter --- and never with my buddies --- I used to go by the bar and meditate in the alley with the old man even without the necessity of turning in soda or beer bottles for the deposit. Sitting in the shade on the back steps amongst the garbage cans and flies behind the bar one afternoon, while drinking hot tea out of tiny little cups with no handles in a near ritual-like tea ceremony he insisted on, the elderly Chinese man told me a story about the bombing of Japanese occupied Taiwan by B-29 Superfortresses of the United States Army Air Force during World War II.(see)

He said from ancient times there was a "girl Buddha" whose followers believed that reciting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum would, because of her compassion, deliver them from harm. He said even though he himself had not practiced or invoked the mantra, while seeking refuge in the midst of the attack he inadvertently ended up amongst a group of believers who were also running to find shelter from the explosions. Then, while within the group, most of whom were verbally repeating the mantra, overhead, pure white and almost cloud-like the "girl Buddha" appeared in the sky above them actually deflecting the trajectory of the bombs away from their exposed path until they reached safety and out of harms way.

The mantra came up because of a 1940s comic book superhero called The Green Lama that used the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra much like Billy Batson used Shazam to become Captain Marvel --- to invoke superpowers --- and, in the Green Lama's case, like Captain Marvel, gaining super strength, invulnerability, the ability to fly, and even being impervious to bullets to the point of being bulletproof. The old dishwasher had six or eight copies of the Green Lama, all in like-new mint condition, of which, for whatever reason, he gave to me.

In modern times, located in the U.S. desert southwest half a world away from the Green Lama's Himalayas, in one of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, more specifically the ancient Zuni pueblo site known by the name Kyaki:Ma, there was said to have been discovered amongst the ruins, a sandstone slab inscribed with Tibetan script, one of which was clearly "Om Mani Padme Hum."



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On October 14, 1944 one hundred and three B-29s from the XX Bomber Command were dispatched from Chengtu, China (now Chengdu) after coming in over the Hump from India, to attack the Okayama aircraft plant and the Takao NAS on Formosa; 12 more hit last-resort targets and targets of opportunity. This was the first 20th AF attack during which 100+ B-29's hit targets and the first of a series of missions against Formosa in conjunction with the U.S. invasion of Leyte, Philippine Islands.

"In 1942 the Japanese began bringing Allied POWs to Taiwan from various parts of Southeast Asia. These POWs were captured at the surrender of Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. They were brought to Taiwan to work as slaves for the Japanese war effort."

NEVER FORGOTTEN: The Story of the Taiwan POW Camps

The man told me that during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan he himself wasn't a slave per se' in the classical sense, but indentured, which was, for all practical purposes, the same. He worked in and around a Japanese military installation in Takao. He said there was a POW camp there and compared to the prisoners, who were actual slaves, he had it easy, although at the end of the day he was expected to participate and produce at the same level of work as the POWs. He was, however granted a slight bit more rations when it came to the amount, quality, and type of food he received, plus around sunset he was typically allowed to return to his family and their multi-family shared quarters, what there was of it.

He told me when the American bombers began bombing they were relentless. He did say though he remembers well the first bombing attack, a fluke of sorts. Three months to the day after the POW camp opened a lone plane clearly marked with U.S. insignia, all by itself and not a bomber but more like a fighter equipped with bombs, slipped in along the southern edge of the island very low and slow, catching everybody off guard, in turn wreaking havoc all over the air station before heading off out over the open ocean towards China. In a matter of minutes several rows of Japanese fighters, some docking facilities, and a maybe even a ship or two were destroyed or damaged. Records show that the Takao prison camp opened September 7, 1942.

In July 1944, a B-29 pilot who was a close friend of my uncle, and who I had met, was killed on a bombing run from India over the Himalayas into China then onto Japan when his Superfortress crashed. Please see: