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The Compassion and Wisdom of Kuan-yin

by Gene Reeves


Kuan-yin (pinyin, Guanyin; Japanese, Kannon)[1] is unrivaled as the most popular Buddhist figure in East Asia, a popularity now spreading to other parts of the world as well. To a large extent, this popularity can be attributed to Kuan-yin's embodiment of Buddhist compassion, giving Buddhists everywhere a way both to experience compassion and to be strengthened in their own compassion. I believe there is also an important sense in which Kuan-yin embodies a special wisdom, a wisdom found in the Lotus Sutra and manifested especially in Kuan-yin devotion.

It is important to recognize that there are a great many Chinese texts, some known as sutras, some of which are Buddhist, some Taoist, some simply Chinese, that are devoted to Kuan-yin or in which Kuan-yin plays a large part. And there are other scriptures from India, especially the Flower Ornament Sutra and the Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Infinite Life, in which Kuan-yin plays an important role. Thus, though it certainly is not the only one, the primary discussion of Kuan-yin in Buddhist sutras is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, titled "The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin." In East Asia this chapter is circulated and used as an independent sutra, typically known as the Kuan-yin Sutra.

Two elements are very prominent in this chapter and widely used for various purposes: the idea that simply calling the name of the bodhisattva will be sufficient to save one from any kind of suffering, and the idea that Kuan-yin takes on a great variety of forms in order to save people with different needs. The first is an expression of the compassion of Kuan-yin; the second of Kuan-yin's wisdom.

Calling the Name of Kuan-yin

In chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, a bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind asks the Buddha why the bodhisattva Kuan-yin is called "Regarder of the Cries of the World." The Buddha explains that if anyone who is suffering calls out Kuan-yin's name wholeheartedly, they will immediately be heard and will be able to free themselves from suffering. A wide variety of possible misfortunes from which one can be saved and a large variety of benefits that can accrue from worshiping the bodhisattva are mentioned. For example, if a huge ship with thousands of fortune seekers is caught in a storm at sea and blown ashore on an island of terrible beasts, if just one person calls on Kuan-yin, all of them will be saved.

The Buddha says to the bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind, "If there were countless hundreds of thousands of billions of living beings experiencing suffering and agony who heard of this Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World and wholeheartedly called his name, Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World would immediately hear their cries, and all of them would be freed from suffering." Thus, the meaning of the list of misfortunes from which one can be saved by calling on Kuan-yin is quite clear--Kuan-yin can save anyone from any misfortune. The list provides a variety of concrete examples.

Accordingly, Kuan-yin has often been understood by devotees to be one who can do things for those who are devoted to him. This is based, at least in part, on this part of the Lotus Sutra, where it is said that one only has to call out the name of the bodhisattva in order to be saved from calamities and dangers. By remembering and being devoted to the bodhisattva, one can be saved not only from external dangers but also from the three inner poisons--lust, or greed; anger, or rage; and folly, or foolishness. Making offerings to Kuan-yin can also result in having a baby of the desired gender, one who will be blessed with great merit, virtue, and wisdom if a boy, and if a girl, she will be marked with great beauty, will have planted roots of virtue, and will be loved and respected by all.

It was this power to save that led early Jesuit missionaries to China to invent the term Goddess of Mercy to refer to Kuan-yin and relate the female form of the bodhisattva to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kuan-yin, in fact, has been a goddess of mercy for a great many, answering prayers and bringing peace and comfort.

Princess Miao-shan

In China, while appealing for help by calling out the name of the bodhisattva remained important in Kuan-yin devotion and religious practices, a great many stories, extracanonical stories, especially stories of embodiments of Kuan-yin's compassion, also attracted popular attention. Probably the most common of these stories down to the present day is the story of Princess Miao-shan.[2]

Miao-shan (meaning "wonderfully good") was the third daughter of King Miao-chuang. She was naturally attracted to Buddhism, followed a vegetarian diet from a young age, read Buddhist scriptures during the day, and meditated at night. Having no sons, the king hoped to choose an heir from among his sons-in-law. When Miao-shan became old enough to marry, unlike her two older sisters, who had married men chosen by their father, she refused to get married. This angered her father so much that he found a variety of ways of punishing her. For a while, for example, she was made to do hard work in the garden. When those tasks were completed, she was allowed to go to the White Sparrow Temple for Women, where she underwent further trials designed to discourage her from becoming a nun. But she persevered, causing the king to burn down the temple, killing the five hundred nuns who lived there. And he had Miao-shan executed for disobedience.

While her body was being protected by a mountain spirit, Miao-shan's spirit traveled to a kind of purgatory, where she was able to save many beings by preaching the Dharma. Returning to earth, she went to Fragrant Mountain, meditated for nine years, and became fully awakened. By this time, the king had become very ill with a mysterious incurable disease.

Disguised as a wandering monk, Miao-shan went to her father and told him that there was only one thing that could save him--a medicine made from the eyes and hands of someone who had never felt anger. She even told him where such a person could be found. Then she offered her own eyes and hands to be turned into medicine, medicine that was taken by the king, curing him of his disease.

The king then went to Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the one who had saved him. There, he immediately recognized the ascetic without eyes or hands as his own daughter. Overwhelmed with remorse, the king and his entire family converted to Buddhism. And Miao-shan was transformed into her real form, that of Kuan-yin with a thousand arms and eyes. Soon after this, Miao-shan died, and her remains were placed in a pagoda.[3]

Stories such as this extend and deepen the sense of Kuan-yin as compassion embodied in Chinese culture and in human beings.

The Wisdom of Kuan-yin

Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, said that chapter 25 is the most misunderstood chapter of the Lotus Sutra.4 What he meant by this is that, properly understood, bodhisattvas are not gods from whom we should expect to receive special treatment, even in times of great trouble; bodhisattvas should be models for how we ourselves can be bodhisattvas, at least some of the time. In the Horin-kaku Guest Hall at the headquarters of Rissho Kosei-kai, there is a very large and magnificent statue of the thousand-armed Kuan-yin. In each of his hands there is an implement of some kind, tools representing skills that can be used to help people. When Founder Niwano first showed that statue to me, he emphasized that it should not be understood as meaning that we should pray to Kuan-yin to save us from our own problems; rather, we should understand that the meaning of Kuan-yin's thousand skills is that we ourselves should develop a thousand skills for helping others. Those who would follow the bodhisattva-way should see great bodhisattvas as models rather than look to them as gods or goddesses who can give us special favors.

Still, we might see popular faith in Kuan-yin as an expression of compassion. In the very act of praying to Kuan-yin to be relieved of suffering, there can be an element of wanting, like Kuan-yin, to be compassionate toward others.

Wisdom as Compassion Embodied

Respecting the hidden wisdom of ordinary people, we might see Kuan-yin devotion as a kind of skillful means used by the Buddha to bring the Dharma in some fashion to ordinary people in the midst of their suffering. By being offered a kind of access to Kuan-yin's compassion through countless images, texts, poems, and devotional practices, people in turn gain strength to embody compassion in their own lives.

Buddhism, perhaps especially Indian Buddhism, was closely associated with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment, and especially a kind of wisdom in which teachings are most important. Even the term for Buddhism in Chinese and Japanese means "Buddha's teachings."

With the development of Kuan-yin devotion, while wisdom remained important, compassion came to play a larger role in the relative status of Buddhist virtues, especially among illiterate common people. Thus, there was a slight shift in the meaning of "the bodhisattva way." From being primarily a way toward becoming enlightened in mind, it became primarily the way of compassionate action to save others. Princess Miao-shan does, of course, teach her father a great deal, but we are not told that she was devoted to studying scriptures or to cultivating wisdom. She embodies compassion by using her arms and eyes in compassionate action.

Yet compassion is best embodied in skillful compassionate practice. The tools in the hands of the thousand-armed Kuan-yin symbolize the many means by which Kuan-yin can help living beings in need. This imagery is, I believe, revealing of the kind of wisdom embodied in Kuan-yin devotion--not some kind of esoteric knowledge in the mind alone, but the practical wisdom found not only in minds but also in hands.

Skill is, after all, a kind of wisdom. So compassion should not be seen in contrast with wisdom but only in contrast with disembodied wisdom. To be truly compassionate is to embody compassion, not just feel it or think about it or contemplate it. It is to actualize compassion in the world, wherever we are, and thus in our relationships with relatives, neighbors, friends, and even strangers. It is to be compassionate. This is a way to embody the Buddha, to give life to the Buddha in the present world.

Being embodied in this way can be contrasted with being "on high," as Avalokiteshvara is described in some Indian texts. To be embodied is to be a physical presence in this world. This means that Kuan-yin can be seen not only in many splendid images in temples and museums but also in our mothers or sons or neighbors. In this way, Kuan-yin is not only a symbol of compassion, the bodhisattva is compassion, so that wherever compassion can be seen, Kuan-yin can be seen. Kuan-yin is not some deity looking down at the world from a distance but the Buddha's wise compassion embodied in the actual world, the world of quite ordinary men and women.

The tradition says that we should understand that we ourselves should embody Kuan-yin; that if, for example, we concentrate on Kuan-yin or recite the Kuan-yin chapter, we can open ourselves to compassion--not to some abstract compassion exercised from a distance, but to actually embodying compassion by being compassionate in our own lives and behavior.
A Chinese poem says:

The Dharma-body of Kuan-yin
Is neither male nor female.
Even the body is not the body,
What attributes can there be? . . .
Let it be known to all Buddhists:
Do not cling to form.
The bodhisattva is you:
Not the picture or the image.

The Universal Gateway

The title of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra is "The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin." The universal gateway implies that while the way of monks and nuns, the way of wisdom, the road to perfect enlightenment, may be extremely difficult, the way of Kuan-yin is open to all. This may be seen as related to the idea of the universality of buddha-nature, the idea that every living being has the capacity and power to become a buddha. But the universal gateway of Kuan-yin is not necessarily dependent on the idea of buddha-nature. It is dependent, rather, on the idea that everyone can be compassionate, a far more accessible goal than becoming a buddha. Kuan-yin, in other words, makes Buddhism open and accessible to everyone.

In the Lotus Sutra, this idea is suggested by a list of the embodiments of Kuan-yin. Often counted as thirty-three, they are sometimes even associated with other lists of thirty-three, such as the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods. The Lotus Sutra does not mention the number thirty-three here but provides a list that can easily be counted as thirty, thirty-two, thirty-three, or even thirty-five. At temples in China, it is not uncommon to see a set of thirty-two or thirty-three panels depicting the various ways in which Kuan-yin is embodied. There is not enough space to include the entire list here, but a few observations should be made.

In each case, the text says that for those who need someone in such and such a body, Kuan-yin appears in that form and teaches the Dharma to them. This means that the appearance of Kuan-yin, the way in which Kuan-yin appears to someone, is dependent on the perceiver, on what the perceiver needs. In other words, Kuan-yin appears to people in many forms, not as a way of showing off magical power, but as a way of meeting the needs of people--precisely what is called skillful means earlier in the Lotus Sutra. This is why, with the exception of a few named gods, the list is a list of generic titles. For example, it says that Kuan-yin appears in the form of a king but does not say that he appears in the form of "King So-and-So." This means that Kuan-yin can appear to us in the form of anyone we meet, that anyone at all can be Kuan-yin for us. Regardless of social status or gender or even species, we can find Kuan-yin in anyone.

The list in the text includes shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and deities but begins with the embodiment of Kuan-yin as a buddha. "If living beings in any land need someone in the body of a buddha to be saved, Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World appears as a buddha and teaches the Dharma to them." Any Buddhist scholar, indeed any educated Buddhist monk or priest, can tell you that Kuan-yin is a bodhisattva, not a buddha. But countless laypeople, and not a few nuns as well, will tell you that Kuan-yin is a fully awakened buddha who has chosen to be in this world to help relieve living beings of their suffering, an idea that can also be found in much Chinese Buddhist literature. The assertion in the Lotus Sutra that Kuan-yin appears in the body of a buddha to teach the Dharma to those who need someone in the body of a buddha in order to be saved suggests that it is quite reasonable for Kuan-yin to be the Buddha for someone. This tendency of ordinary people in East Asia to regard Kuan-yin as the Buddha can be seen as embodying a certain kind of wisdom, a wisdom that understands that the Buddha comes to us in many different forms, including those of Kuan-yin. While often seen by scholars as a departure from scriptures, popular devotion to Kuan-yin can be seen as a fulfillment of the assertion in the Lotus Sutra that Kuan-yin can take on the body of a buddha.

Male and Female

Several of the forms of Kuan-yin listed in the Lotus Sutra are explicitly female. Included are a nun, a female lay believer, four kinds of housewives, and a girl. Some others could be male or female. Thus, we can see that the transformation in China of Avalokiteshvara from male to both male and female and the identification of Kuan-yin with Princess Miao-shan are entirely in accord with what is written in the Lotus Sutra. They are historical developments to be sure, but they are a kind of flourishing of the Dharma that is entirely compatible with what is written in the sutra.

Much more than any other story in the Lotus Sutra, the story of Kuan-yin develops profoundly and significantly outside the sutra, in both Chinese religion and Chinese culture, beginning around the end of the tenth century. Centering on Kuan-yin devotion rather than doctrine, Chinese Buddhism gradually evolved from a religion of aristocrats and monks into a popular religion of common people. In images, Kuan-yin was portrayed less often as an Indian prince and more often in a relaxed pose--sitting on a rock, for example, or as a woman in a simple white robe. She is portrayed, in other words, as accessible to common people. And, like virtually all Chinese deities but unlike Indian bodhisattvas, Kuan-yin was increasingly seen as a human being, even as one who has a birthday.

In this process, for reasons that are both obscure and complicated, Kuan-yin began to be perceived and portrayed not only as a male figure but also as a female, and quite often as androgynously both male and female. Female Kuan-yin figures are often dressed in a white robe, signifying that Kuan-yin is not a monastic but a layperson. As far as I know, there is no precedent for such female, white-robed Kuan-yin images outside China. She is clearly a Chinese development. While it is sometimes said that in China the male Avalokiteshvara was transformed into a female, I think it is important to recognize that the creation and use of both male and female forms has continued in East Asia down to the present. Thus, Kuan-yin should not be regarded as a male transformed into a female but as one who transcends the limited concept of male and female.

Another Chinese development in which Kuan-yin plays a unifying role is in the common portrayal of her as being accompanied by Sudhana and the Dragon Princess: a boy from the Flower Ornament Sutra and a girl from the Lotus Sutra.

All human beings, I believe, have both male and female qualities, but strict adherence to the ideas that all buddhas are male, and that nuns should always be subservient to monks, restricts access to our female selves, both in women and in men. By being a buddha who is both male and female, Kuan-yin provides a kind of balance to the overwhelmingly male-oriented weight of Buddhist tradition, enabling women to appreciate their value and men to appreciate the woman often hidden in themselves.

Lowland Buddhism

In contrast with those who see religions as a matter of climbing to a mountaintop or the enjoyment of some kind of peak experience, the Lotus Sutra, especially as it is embodied in Kuan-yin, evokes a religion that emphasizes the importance of being earthly, of being this-worldly, of being involved skillfully in relieving suffering in this world here and now. Some prominent Buddhists have called this "humanistic Buddhism." The longer Sanskrit Heart Sutra has Avalokiteshvara looking down from on high, but the shorter Chinese Heart Sutra knows nothing of that. In East Asia, Kuan-yin is a bodhisattva of the world, one who sits on rocks, who wears a simple white robe, who takes on a great variety of human forms, including female forms, who appears in a great variety of indigenous stories and scriptures, and who embodies wise compassion or compassionate wisdom in this world.

I believe that, like Kuan-yin, we should all be lowland Buddhists, seeking the low places, the valleys, even the earthy and dirty places, where people are suffering and in need. That is how we will meet Kuan-yin, at least if we are lucky or perceptive. That is where we will find those who hear and respond with compassion to the cries and sorrows of this world. They too are bodhisattvas like Kuan-yin; they are Kuan-yin embodied. That Kuan-yin hears the cries of those who suffer is a reflection of Kuan-yin's continuing presence in the world.

Notes [1] In Sanskrit, the bodhisattva is known primarily as Avalokiteshvara (Avalokitesvara), the name often preferred by museums. This name, the interpretation of which is problematic, was translated into Chinese characters that are written in Roman script as Kuan-shih-yin, which is often shortened to Kuan-yin. Since the pronunciation in Mandarin Chinese is somewhere between an English g and k, the Chinese character written here with a K is expressed as a G in pinyin, giving Guan-shih-yin and Guan-yin, which is preferred in mainland China. These same Chinese characters are pronounced in slightly different ways in other Chinese dialects, such in Cantonese, where they become Kwun Yum or Kun Yam, and in other languages, such as Korean, where it is Kuanum, and Japanese, where it becomes Kannon. In addition, the name Kuan-shih-tzu-tsai (Kanzejizai in Japanese pronunciation) or, in the shorter version, Kuan-tzu-tsai (Kanjizai) can often be seen. In the West, the female form of Kuan-yin is also known as the Goddess of Mercy, but this is not a translation.

While there is no universal agreement on how best to translate this name, the three characters used to write Kuan-shih-yin, or Kanzeon, mean approximately this: kuan has to do with seeing, sensing, observing, or perceiving; shih means "world"; and yin basically means "sound." So a very literal rendering of this name might be "perceiver of the world's sounds." By implication, the kind of perception involved here is not an indifferent observing, not mere perception; it involves compassion. And the sounds involved are not just any noise but the cries of the suffering of the world. So I translate the name as "Regarder of the Cries of the World." While useful as a translation, that is not always convenient. I think the most commonly used name in English, as in Chinese, is Kuan-yin, and that is what I will use here.

This same bodhisattva also has a great variety of common names in usage that are derived from his or her portrayal in Chinese Buddhist art, images that for the most part are derived from stories about the bodhisattva. The most common of these include "thousand-armed" or "thousand-handed" or "thousand-handed and thousand-eyed" Kuan-yin, so named because the image has a great many arms, typically forty-two being used to represent a thousand. Often each of those hands has an eye in it. More often they hold a symbol of some kind, quite often of some kind of implement or tool, such as a willow branch to drive away illness, a conch to summon friendly spirits, a jug for dispensing water or nectar, a monk's staff, a sutra, a bowl of fruit, and so on. Other popular forms include the "Sacred" or "Holy" Kuan-yin, the Water and Moon Kuan-yin, White-Robed Kuan-yin, Kuan-yin of the Southern Sea, Kuan-yin of Eleven Faces, Fish-Basket Kuan-yin, and Wish-Fulfilling Kuan-yin. It is often said that there are six forms of Kuan-yin, corresponding to the six kinds of living beings who are subject to rebirth, but there are at least two very different sets of six, and many popular forms of Kuan-yin are not included in either set of six. There are also lists of the thirty-three embodiments of Kuan-yin found in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. Other East Asian sets show Kuan-yin in fifty-three forms, combining images from various Chinese sources.

[2] For this and much of this article, I am indebted to Chün-fang Yü's wonderful book Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). Anyone with even a passing interest in Kuan-yin or East Asian Buddhism should read this book, remarkable not only for insights gained from familiarity with Kuan-yin devotion but also for extensive use of popular materials usually ignored by scholars.

[3] This account follows quite closely that given by Chün-fang Yü in Kuan-yin, 293-94.

[4] Nikkyo Niwano, Buddhism for Today (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1976), 377.

Gene Reeves is currently studying, teaching, and writing on Buddhism in Tokyo. A consultant and teacher at Rissho Kosei-kai, he was recently a research fellow at Rikkyo University. Before coming to Japan in 1989, Dr. Reeves was the dean of Meadville/Lombard Theological School and professorial lecturer in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.

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