goddess of limitless compassion
When autumn storms are blowing and howling over the fields it is time for tales and myths.
So let us make a journey to ancient China, where in temples and farmhouses people love to listen to the storyteller; and one of their audience’s favourite stories is the tale about the transformation of princess Miao Chan into the goddess Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy, of limitless compassion and saviour of souls.
How the princess Miao Chan became a goddess
Once upon the time there lived a king, who had three daughters. The youngest of them was Princess Miao Chan, who had been a lot more interested in meditation and studying of the sacred writings of the Buddha than in the how-to-be-a-princess lectures, which her parents wanted her to learn.
So the king decided to pretend accepting his daughter’s decision to become a nun. He had her brought to a monastery and secretly he ordered the inhabitants to have the princess doing the hardest work with nearly no time to sleep or rest for her.
But happily Miao Chan fulfilled all the tasks, which had been given to her. She never complained, and the animals, who were seeing her working day and night without slumber, decided to assist her in doing all the hard work.
The king, when realising, that his plan did not work, furiously ordered his mem to burn down the monastery.
But his daughter put out the fire with her hands, and not a single flame left it’s singe on the maiden’s flawless skin.
Her father threatened her and had her beaten, but the princess still refused to marry, and still she wanted to live her life dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha.
As neither threats nor violence would change the girl’s mind, the king decided that the disobedient princess has to be decapitated. The small company had reached the place of the execution; the hangman lifted his axe.
At this moment the sky darkened, and only the vivid flashing of lightnings illuminated the place.
The tutelary deity of the place appeared in the shape of a giant tiger with glowing green eyes. Miao Chan mounted the tiger, and together they disappeared in the darkness. The tiger carried the princess to his residence, the fragrant mountain forest.
But she couldn’t enjoy this beautiful place for long, as Yama, god of the dead and lord of the underworld kidnapped her and brought her to his hell. Not unlike the purgatory of Christian belief or the dark home of the goddess Allat in Babylonian mythology the home of Yama is a playing ground of demons, a place of punishment, of torture and of suffering.
Now Miao Chan, instead of being tortured by the demons, enchanted them by playing beautiful tunes on her flute, and flowers were growing from the hellish ground, and they began to bloom, wherever the kidnapped princess sat her feet.
Seeing the suffering of the tortured souls, Miao Chan released all the good karma, which she had accumulated by her spiritual practice in many lifetimes, so that the unfortunate inhabitants of Yama’s realm were released for another cycle of incarnations.
Now the Lord of the underworld had to witnesses with disgust how by the mere presence of the princess his hell was beginning to change into a paradise, a place of beauty with blossoming flowers breathing their fragrance and radiating in most beautiful colours, birds singing in the branches of trees, loaded with all kinds of fruits. Yama, fearing that his hell might be ruined completely by that young female, spreading her flower-power, peace-love and compassion magic, sent her instantly back to the place in the fragrant mountain forest, where he had found her.
Again the princess followed her spiritual path – reciting her favourite sutra, the lotus sutra, and meditating in the forest, when Buddha appeared to her to give her the advice to go to Potala, the Blessed Land, and to give herself up in meditation there.
He presented his loyal acolyte with a peach from the garden of the deities. The magical fruit did not only preserve her from hunger and thirst for a whole year; eating from that peach also assured her eternal life.
The friendly spirit tiger appeared once again and carried Miao Chan to the place, which the Buddha had recommended to her.
Having reached the destination the princess stayed there for nine years meditating and practising compassion. She healed her father from a deadly illness, and finally her parents took refuge to the Buddha.
This is one version of the popular tale about how the princess Miao Chan became the goddess Kwan Yin, saviour of sentient beings, removing all obstacles to their attaining of Buddha Amitabha’s paradise. The goddess herself refused to stay there as long as any sentient being is excluded.
Bits of history and a scandalous outfit
The legend of Kwan Yin had been written down in 1102 AD. Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist deities appear on it’s stage; and indeed Kwan Yin is a goddess, who is worshipped by Chinese Buddhists and followers of the Tao likewise.
Her name Guan Yin is the Chinese translation of Avalokitesvara – literally he, who looks down upon sound, meaning ” he, who perceives the cries of the sentient beings who need help”.
Avalokitesvara is one of the Boddhisattvas, worshipped in Mahayana Buddhism and being able to appear in male or female form.
photo above by Jean Pierre Dalbera
Kwan Yin is the Boddhisattva’s female incarnation, worshipped as Tara from Tibet’s mountains to the steppes of Mongolia.
This fact lead to a funny anecdote about the iconography of basically the same goddess with nearly identical attributes in different cultures.
When the worship of Kwan Yin was spreading from Tibet to China the Chinese monks asked their Tibetan colleagues for statues of the female Avalokitesvara.
The Tibetans in turn gave that order to some skillful Mongolian craftsmen, who conscientiously fulfilled it, producing statues of the female incarnation of Avalokitesvara, who for them was the goddess Tara. Now Tara, as most Tantric goddesses, is usually depicted with bare breasts, wearing jewellery and a jewelled girdle or a skirt of leaves. … and that was exactly, what the Mongolian craftsmen supplied to their Tibetan clients.
When the Tibetans gave the statues to their Chinese contractees, the latter were aghast and even disgusted when seeing the statues of a bare-breathed goddess, wearing nothing but jewellery and a skirt of leaves.
So they hurried to wrap all the statues into yellow silk coats. Unfortunately these early statues of Kwan Yin have been lost in the cause of history, and Kwan Yin became a female figure, properly dressed according to the Chinese dress code for goddesses. Now only her bare feet remind us of her origin as a Tantric goddess, who had travelled along the Silk Road from Tibet as far as China and Mongolia.
The world view of Tao knows several heavenly realms, where deities reside, but it hasn’t a place, where the soul of the departed may rest between it’s incarnations on earth.
According to folkloristic belief in China the soul could incarnate as human, animal or nature spirit. Some animals could assume human shape and even incarnate as humans. In short, it was a colourful mix of possibilities; and one of the newly born piggies in your neighbour’s pigsty may have been your shortly deceased sister-in-law. Be that as it may…
It has been Mahayana Buddhism, which brought the idea of the Western Paradise to China.
Devachan, the Blissful Land, the Western Paradise
The Western Paradise is a place, where the spirit of the deceased could find rest between it’s incarnations and enjoy listening to beautiful birds, which were sitting in the trees’ branches, singing and reciting the sutras. Goddesses and gods, Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are giving lectures or walking under the blossoming trees.
It was through Kwan Yin’s limitless mercy and compassion that those, who prayed to her were saved from being reborn as a hungry spirit in or of the realms of hell.
After death the soul was placed by the goddess into the middle of one of the lotuses, that were blooming so numerously on the lakes and ponds of the Blissfull Land. Here the soul is left to ripen until it is sufficiently prepared for a new incarnation.
Symbolism of Kwan Yin
One of Kwan Yin’s attributes is a scroll, which she is holding in one of her hands. This scroll contains the lotus sutra, the text, which she was usually studying and reciting. The sutra contains the promise, that everybody, listening to it or reciting from it may find entrance into Amitabha’s Western Paradise.
The willow branch, which she is holding points to her journey into the underworld, as in Chinese folklore the willow is a tree, beloved by the spirits of the deceased; and the Chinese country witch takes care to have a willow branch with her, when traveling into the Netherworld to get into contact with one or the other of her client’s ancestors.
In Buddhist rites the willow branch is used to sprinkle the worshippers with divine nectar – the water of life – from the vase containing the ambrosia.
Water appears quite often in the pictures and myths of Kwan Yin. One reason for this may be the fact that during her triumph throughout China’s mythology and folklore, titles which were originally attributed to other goddesses, including Taoist goddesses of rivers, lakes and sea with their myths and attributes merged into the mythology related to Kwan Yin.
Kwan Yin is addressed as “Captain of the bark of salvation”, the “saviour of men, removing all obstacles to the beings attaining the Western Paradise”, “the merciful goddess, leading to the Blissful Land of the West”.
As a goddess, who is rescuing all souls, who call out her name and lead them to Devachan, she is sat up and receives prayer, when the ritual of the “rescue of the hungry ghosts” is executed.
Some presentations of Kwan Yin show her accompanied by a young woman and a young man. These are her first acolytes: the young man had been a cripple, who deeply had desired to become her pupil, when she had walked on earth as a Boddhisattva. After testing his devotion and courage, she accepted him as her acolyte and healed him, so that he became a handsome young man of good health and free from handicaps.
The young woman by Kwan Yin’s side is the dragon king’s daughter, who had become her pupil, when she brought a gift from her father to the goddess, who had saved his son. ( see my blog of September 2017 for the full story)
Kwan Yin is portrayed standing, leaning against a rock, sitting on a throne or sitting cross-legged on a lotus. Sometimes she is shown riding a tiger, presenting the genius loci, which had saved her, when she still was princess Miao Chan.
In Japan presentations are very popular, which show the goddess, holding a fish basket and a lotus flower, standing in front of a background with waves. The fish basket with the carp points to the story of her rescuing the dragon king’s son.
From the 16th century onwards Kwan Yin is been depicted sitting with a child on her lap, a presentation, which resembles the statues of the goddess Isis of ancient Egypt with her son Horus and those of the Holy Virgin of Christian religion with the baby Jesus on her lap.
And indeed it had been Portuguese coins from the 16th century, which had a presentation of the Holy Virgin on one side, that inspired the making of the statues of Kwan Yin with a child on her lap. Until now these belong to the most popular presentations of the goddess.
Kwan Yin of limitless compassion became a goddess of fishermen, sailors, mothers, children, pregnant women and women praying for children, a goddess of farmers, healers, lay people and priesthood, nuns and monks.
It is Kwan Yin, who grants her blessings for the journey of life and the cycles of incarnation, and at the end of a life on earth she guides the spirit safely to the Blissful Land.
Once worshippers from the most remote corners of the huge Chinese empire made their pilgrimage to the mountain shrine and temple of the goddess at her main temple on Putuoshan Island. Putuoshan mountain is one of China’s sacred mountains and a place, which is strongly related to the goddess Kwan Yin, who has appeared at this place several times.
Kwan Yin – worldwide
After the persecution of Buddhists and destruction of temples and shrines in the Maoist era the present Chinese government has realised the value of their country’s spiritual heritage for international tourism, and nowadays a giant statue of Kwan Yin on Putuoshan Island is greeting the arriving traveller.
Kwan Yin is a goddess of travellers, and she herself has travelled to nearly all corners of the world. You may meet her in a Chinese restaurant in New York, in a Buddhist center in London and in an institute for the medical science of China somewhere in Europe.
Presentations of Kwan Yin may be found in many New Age centres as well as in a lot of temples, dedicated to the Divine Feminine in USA and Europe.
Excerpt from the Oracle of Kwan Yin by Olivia Robertson
“ To pray is to receive immediate response. Every true thought and desire creates its own manifestation. Smile, and you give birth to happiness in some time and some place. Your sympathy reaches a sorrowful heart locked in the prison of this earth or other spheres. You artists, dreamers, mystics, who feel useless before the onset of planetary destruction, as yet have no idea of your own powers! It shall be from the Divine Feminine, Yin, that the Yang Dragon of violence shall be brought into harmony! And this will be done not through opposing war with psychic battle; not with the use of occult force against violence; rather shall you conquer by winning over your enemies through understanding, beauty and love.”*