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Kuan Yin Painting by Sandra M. Stanton


Kuan-Yin is one of the most universally loved dieties of Buddism. She is known as a Goddess of Compassion and Loving Kindness, and alters, throughout the Orient, have been dedicated to her. Her followers constantly pray to both her presence and her flame, seeking her guidance in every aspect of their lives. Kuan-Yin is quite frequently referred to as "Kuan Shih Yin," as well, which translates, quite literally, to mean "the one who regards, looks on, or hears the sounds of the world."

In India, Kuan-Yin is known as Avalokitesvara, which is a Sanskrit word that means "to gaze or regard something." When Avalokitesvara was translated by the Chinese, it then became Kuan Shih Yin-Kuan, which means "to regard." The word Shih means the "world," and the word Yin means the "sounds. Pu Sa is Chinese for Bodhisattva, so that particular mantra ends up meaning "to take refuge in the Bodhisattva who listens to the sounds of the world".

   Throughout Asia, whether in Japan, Korea, Tibet, or China, images of Kuan-Yin appear everywhere: in homes, in temples, and within thousands of shrines, roadside grottos and shaded pools. Kuan-Yin's followers often bring her gifts of flowers and fruit. Those gifts are never brought in supplication, though, because Kuan-Yin has neither the need nor the desire for that. Rather, she prefers to lead her followers in whatever direction is best suited for them, and she does so gently, and with love. Knowing that, it is easily understandable why Kuan-Yin is considered to be one of the kindest and giving Goddesses that the world has ever known.

Kuan-Yin has always been an inspiration to her followers. When they hear tales about her many noble actions, they find themselves wanting to help others, as well, by giving of themselves, or what they might have. Following in Kuan-Yin's footsteps, they also embrace her belief that people must avoid causing pain to any creature in the universe.

Kuan-Yin is seen, by the humble, as the Great Mother Goddess, who is also their friend, benefactor and protector, while philosophers tend to see her as the divine force of compassion, spreading harmony throughout the universe. Some of Kuan-Yin's followers say that they feel her near them, while a few even claim that she has appeared before them.

A seventh century Tibetan painting depicts Avalokitesvara Kuan-Yin having a thousand arms with which to scatter her blessings. She really has no need for all those arms, though. Two arms and hands are all that is necessary for Kuan-Yin to hold the particular objects that she requires to help others. In one hand she holds a vase containing amrita, which is the dew of immortality; while in the other, she holds a spray of willow branches, that she uses to sprinkle compassion and infinate mercy upon her followers.

The Chinese revere Kuan-Yin, with great joy, and they cast her in the role of a savior. It is believed that anyone in distress who calls to Kuan-Yin with complete sincerity, will be rescued by her from all suffering and harm. Looking at that from another perspective, Kuan-Yin symbolizes the liberating energy of compassion, which is an indispensable aid in the quest for enlightenment.

Various depictions of Kuan-Yin show her in a variety of different postures, that represent a multitude of meanings. Kuan-Yin has sometimes been depicted carrying either a scroll or a book, which symbolizes truth. When she carries the wish-fulfilling jewel, it signifies the attainment of holy aspirations.

If Kuan-Yin is depicted with a child playing on her lap, or with children at her feet, they symbolize one's birth, or rebirth, into a spiritual life. They represent the mysterious powers of mother nature, including the complete cycle of life, which includes the ability to produce, sustain, destroy, and renew life, throughout the entire universe.

The different ways that Kuan-Yin's hands are held, also have many different meanings. When her hands are placed in her lap, it represents meditation; when her hands are held with the palms facing each other, but not quite touching, it shows her great reverence for all beings; when Kuan-Yin's fingers are pointing downward, it has been said that one can almost feel the blessings that flow forth from them; and, when her right hand is resting upon her left hand, with the palm held facing upward, that represents Kuan-Yin's ability to control evil spirits.

While all these different meanings have been assigned to Kuan-Yin's various hand positionings, they have little, if any, importance to her followers. They find happiness and fulfillment, just by having the likeness of her near them. Since they feel that she is so close to their hearts, they have no need for all these intricate interpretations. The knowledge that Kuan-Yin will always be a part of them, is all that they require.

Japanese and Korean followers of Kuan-Yin have placed large statues of her, wherever large groups of people can see her, as they go about their daily lives. These statues are meant to serve as a reminder, that unselfish deeds lead to true enlightenment.

In an attempt to ascertain when Kuan-Yin first appeared, we must go back, almost to the beginning of time itself. The existence of the Great Mother Goddess pre-dates many, if not most, other religious beliefs, and does not lie solely within the eastern religions. Rather, the concept of the Great Mother Goddess is a universal one, and Kuan-Yin personifies the the highest ideals of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Avalokitesvara that was written about in the ancient Indian scriptures is believed to have metamorphasized itself, when it found its way to China, where it became Kuan Shih Yin and Kuan-Yin, thereby representing both the masculine and the feminine. In Japan, it became known as Kwannon or Kannon. Although these names might appear to be different, they actually are not. The meaning remains the same, and it is translated as: "The Lord who is seen, or heard, from below." This translation identifies the appearance of a higher form of spiritual energy, that can also be seen as the divine self, which is the very essence of Kuan-Yin, as it is perceived by the earthly, human self.

Early Hindu literature has viewed this spiritual or divine energy as if it was a "lord" or bodhisattva, which was probably due to the fact that they believed that energy was channeled through great human beings.

One of the Indian sutras tells the story of how Avalokitesvara was brought forth from a ray of light that was shining from the right eye of Amitabha Buddha. The legend then continues, telling how he was born, not only holding a lotus, but also uttering the words: Om mani padme hum, which has become a very popular mantra that means that "Om, the jewel in the lotus that is the seed of divinity, dwells in the heart of all beings."

The lotus has always been a popular symbol in many different religions. In this case, it is believed to represent the aspiring soul. The soul, like the lotus, is first born into the depth of a worldly existence, but it keeps rising, and as it rises, it remains untarnished by the various mental and emotional conflicts that humans face, until it reaches the light of the ultimately divine, where it's flower finally blooms.

The Avalokitesvara and his teachings were introduced into the Chinese culture, during the First Century, C.E., as a part of Buddhist doctrine. Padma Sambhava introduced it to Tibet, as well, in the Seventh Century, C.E., and both China and Tibet avidly embraced these teachings of the bodhisattva.

The Tibetans view Avalokitesvara-bodhisattva, who they call Chenrezi, as the Buddha's earthly representative, even though the Buddha lived so long ago, in approximately six hundred B.C.E. They also see him as the main guardian of the Dharma, or "Sacred Doctrine," and as the literal manifestarion of the Buddha, in the person of the Dali Lama.

This belief did not sit well with the Chinese. They found it extremely difficult to personify the kind of love, such as the love between a mother and her child, in a male form. For that reason, over a gradual period of time, Avalokitesvara the God became Avalokitesvara the Goddess, and by the Seventh Century, C.E., Kuan Yin was a totally female Goddess, who was referred to as the "Mother of Ten Million Buddhas." This matriarchial view encompasses the belief that it is from such feminine qualities as purity, compassion, and the highest wisdom, that Buddhas are born and, by the Eleventh Century, C.E., Kuan-Yin, the Goddess, had become so popular, that her former male self was almost completely forgotten.

In the tradition of Buddism, Kuan-Yin was born as an ordinary person. She grew, by following the paths of wisdom and service and, after passing through many incarnations, she finally attained the supreme goal of any Buddist, which is nirvana.

Just as Kuan-Yin was about to enter the state of nirvana, something held her back for just a moment, and it was then that she heard the saddest cries of protest, from every single entity that was still of the world; and their lamentations rang out, crying that if Kuan-Yin was to leave them, there would no longer be the kind of pure virtue that she had attained left in the world.

Immediately, without ever looking back, Kuan-Yin turned away from her doorway to nirvana, and decided that she could not leave, while all other life was left behind. It was her wish that all of them had to first reach nirvana, before she could join them there in that eternal state.

Kuan-Yin's decision was uttered with resolute finality, when she announced that: "If in time to come I am to obtain power to benefit all beings, may I now be endowed with a thousand hands, and a thousand eyes." Her wish was immediately granted, and from that moment on, Avalokitesvara Kuan-Yin's appearance began take on so many different forms, all over the world, that it seemed as though she actually did have one thousand arms and one thousand eyes, that she could to use to help all the people that needed her.

Because of that, Kuan-Yin 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." Kuan-Yin's compassion is seen as being limitless, and spanning the universe, while still residing in the heart of every creature that exists within it.

The Kuan-Yin Sutra says that "when one turns to Kuan Yin, to the self within, which images the divine self, a raging fire becomes a placid pool; chains that bind one's hands and feet are loosened; beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison."

Man's awakened self-nature is referred to as Kuan-Yin. Since she has given her own nature to man, when man's self-nature awakens it will bring forth compassion, and that compassion is seen as the true essence of Kuan-Yin. By entering into the hearts of men and by awakening their compassion, she made them all Kuan-Yin, the essence of mercy and of love.

It is for this reason that statues are built wherever people may pass. They are put there to remind each and every person who passes of their own spiritual selves. As man becomes a more spiritual being, the more empathy he feels towards others, and through that, he also feels their pain.

Mystics have referred to this as "atonement," while the Hindus call it "yoga." The Japanese refer to it as the "perfect interfusion," when there is nothing to intrude with one's harmony with nature, or the blending of one's spirit with the totality of the cosmic forces.

This ideal can be seen in many different manifestations: whether it is characterized as self-essence, or in seeing it as a Goddess, or as a mother, protector, or friend. There is no difference, once a person finally realizes that the entire universe is divine.

This concept of Kuan-Yin has become a major ideal in Buddhist metaphysics, and it is noted in the Mahaprajnaparamita Hsin Ching Sutra, known to Westerners as the "Sutra of the Heart of Highest Wisdom." This Sutra stresses Buddha's basic teaching, that man has no permanent self, but is instead just a conglomeration of skandhas, or "bundles" of physical, psycho-emotional, mental, and spiritual energies that are held together during one's life on Earth by "the shining ray of the Buddha within."

While this may be a basic tennant in fundamental Buddhist belief, the Chinese version goes even further, by teaching that when the bodhisattva Kuan-Yin was absorbed in deep contemplation, he or she gained the understanding that everything in life is impermanent, empty, and void in the end. As our bodies grow old, and become sick and weak, and our feelings about how we view things changes, our volition and consciousness are also changing, and when Kuan Yin attained enlightenment, the recognition that "form differs not from void, nor void from form" came into being. "Form is void; void is form. With sensation, perception, discrimination and consciousness, it is the same."

Kuan-Yin's teachings go even further with this, saying that "he who is unattached to the body loses his fear of death, and thus overcomes one of the great causes of suffering and pain. He who perceives that feelings are empty and that mind concepts change, gains freedom from other causes of misery."

It is believed that a person will gradually begin to understand that the karma that produces the lower parts of his nature must be stopped, so that a nobler and more spiritual quality can arise, and that this, too, will once again change, grow, and become stronger and more pure.

Kuan Yin's vow, which states that "A guard would I be to them who have no protection, a guide to the voyager, a ship, a well, a spring, a bridge for the seeker of the other shore," is often used by her followers to guide them to the "Pure Land." The Pure Land that Buddists refer to is not a place that one must go to. Rather, it is a conceptual essence, because the Pure Land lies within each and every one of us, if we strive towards it and grow, by following the path of Kuan-Yin.

The qualities that are expressed in Kuan-Yin's teachings are believed to be within the hearts of each one of us, and that we must strive to be worthy of their knowledge.

Within the bodhisattva ideal, any way that a person pays homage to the divine is acceptable, as long as he or she leads a way of life that is truly filled with compassion. Kuan-Yin wished for and received a thousand hands with which to bestow her blessings. Each one of us, as well, must use all of our hands, metaphorically speaking, so that our hearts and souls can practice what we have learned from the Goddess Kuan-Yin. That is, perhaps, her greatest gift.

Painting of Kuan Yin
by Sandra M. Stanton
Used with Permission

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