The name of the most popular of all the Buddhist bodhisattvas can be translated as "Regarder of the Cries of the World." Associated with both wisdom and compassion, this bodhisattva has many different portrayals and manifestations, both male and female.
One could easily devote an entire article of this kind to a discussion of the names of the bodhisattva Kuan-yin, without doubt the most popular and most often portrayed of Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Sanskrit this bodhisattva is known primarily as Avalokiteshvara. This name was translated into Chinese characters written in Wade-Giles transliteration as Kuan-shih-yin, which is often shortened to Kuan-yin. The Pinyin forms of these names are Guanshiyin and Guanyin. These same Chinese characters are pronounced in slightly different ways in other Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese, where Kuan-yin becomes Kwun Yum, 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, 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 any of these names, the three characters involved in Kuan-shih-yin (Kanzeon in Japanese pronunciation) 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." But 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 noises 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 convenient for some purposes, so, as I think that the most commonly used name in English, as in Chinese, is Kuan-yin, that is what I will primarily use here.
In similar fashion, Kuan-shih-tzu-tsai can mean "Regarder of the World's Freedom." From Sanskrit there are also other names, such as "Light of the World's Cries," and so on. And this same bodhisattva also has a great variety of names derived from numerous portrayals in Chinese Buddhist art, images that for the most part are derived from stories about the bodhisattva's many different manifestations, both male and female. The most common of these include "Thousand-armed" or "Thousand-handed" or "Thousand-armed 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 some kind of implement or tool, such as a willow branch to drive away illness, a conch to summon friendly spirits, a vase 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, the White-robed Kuan-yin, the Kuan-yin of Eleven Faces, the Fish-basket Kuan-yin, and the 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.
Though certainly not the only one, the primary discussion of Kuan-yin found within Buddhist sutras is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, titled "The Universal Gateway of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva." In east Asia this chapter has frequently been circulated and used as an independent sutra, typically known as the Kuan-yin Sutra. But it is important to recognize that there are a great many other Chinese texts, some also 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 Avatamsaka Sutra, in which Kuan-yin plays an important role.
Though elements of it subsequently became very important in east Asian Buddhism, the story found in the Lotus Sutra is not particularly dramatic or memorable.
A bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind asked the Buddha why the bodhisattva Kuan-yin is called "Regarder of the Cries of the World." The Buddha explained that if those who are suffering sincerely call Kuan-yin's name with all their heart, 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. If a huge ship with thousands and 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 to Kuan-yin, all of them will be saved. By calling upon Kuan-yin, people can be saved not only from those who attack them but also from their own lust, anger, or stupidity. A woman wanting a boy or girl child will be granted that wish by Kuan-yin. The bodhisattva sometimes takes the form of a buddha, a pratyekabuddha, a shravaka, a king, a prime minister, a wife, boy, or girl, or any of thirty-three bodies in order to help those who can be helped in such a way.
Inexhaustible Mind Bodhisattva then took an extremely valuable necklace from around his neck and offered it to Kuan-yin. But the bodhisattva would not accept it, until the Buddha pleaded with Kuan-yin to do so out of compassion both for the bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind and for all other living beings. Then Kuan-yin accepted the necklace and divided it into two parts, offering one to Shakyamuni Buddha and the other to the stupa of Abundant Treasures Buddha.
The two elements that have been lifted out of this story and widely used for various purposes are the idea that simply calling the name of the bodhisattva will be sufficient to save one from any kind of difficulty and the idea that Kuan-yin takes on a great variety of forms.
In China, while both the concept of appealing for help by calling the name of the bodhisattva and the idea that Kuan-yin takes on many forms remained important elements in Kuan-yin devotion and religious practices, a great many other stories, extracanonical stories, especially stories of embodiments of Kuan-yin, attracted popular attention. Probably the most common of these stories to come down to the present day is the story of Princess Miao-shan.1)
Miao-shan (meaning "wonderfully good") was the third daughter of King Miao-chuang. She was naturally attracted to Buddhism, keeping a vegetarian diet from a young age, reading Buddhist scriptures during the day, and meditating 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 wed. This angered her father so much that he found a variety of ways in which to punish 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 nunnery, where she underwent further trials designed to discourage her from becoming a nun. But she persevered, so the king burned 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 to them. 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 that was made from the eyes and hands of someone who had never felt anger. And she even told him where such a person could be found. Then she offered her own eyes and hands to be turned into medicine, which 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--Kuan-yin with a thousand arms and eyes. Soon after this, Miao-shan died and her remains placed in a pagoda.2)
Calling the Name of Kuan-yin
Nikkyo Niwano, the founder of Rissho Kosei-kai, said that chapter 25 is the most misunderstood chapter of the Lotus Sutra.3) 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 in Tokyo there is a very large and magnificent statue of the Thousand-armed Kuan-yin. In each of the hands we can see an implement of some kind, tools that represent skills that can be used to help others. When Founder Niwano first showed that statue to me, he emphasized that it should not be understood to mean 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 should develop a thousand skills for helping others.
In fact, however, Kuan-yin has more often been understood by devotees to be one who can do things for those who are devoted to her. This is based, at least in part, on the part of the story in the Lotus Sutra in which we are told that one has only to call out the name of the bodhisattva in order to be saved from a long list of calamities and dangers. One can be saved not only from external dangers but also from the three inner poisons--from lust or greed, from anger or rage, and from folly or foolishness. Praying 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 one who is marked with great beauty and who has long-planted roots of virtue and will be loved and respected by all if a girl.
The Buddha says to Inexhaustible Mind Bodhisattva: "If there were countless hundreds of thousands of billions of living beings experiencing suffering and agony who heard of 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."
The list of misfortunes from which one can be saved by calling upon Kuan-yin is interesting but not terribly important, as the meaning is quite clear--Kuan-yin can save anyone from any misfortune. The list simply provides concrete examples. This power to save is why early Jesuit missionaries to China invented the term Goddess of Mercy to refer to Kuan-yin and relate her to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kuan-yin, in fact, was a goddess of mercy for a great many, answering prayers and bringing them comfort.
Of course, those who would follow the bodhisattva way should see great bodhisattvas as models for us and not be looking to gods or goddesses for special favors.
A Chinese poem says:
The Dharma-body of Kuan-yin
Is neither male nor female.
If 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.
Still, respecting the hidden wisdom of ordinary people, we might see Kuan-yin devotion as a skillful means used by the Buddha to bring the Dharma in some fashion to ordinary people in the midst of their suffering. By his offering them, through countless indigenous images, texts, poems, and devotional practices, a kind of access to Kuan-yin's compassion, they gained strength to embody compassion in their own lives.
Buddhism, perhaps especially Indian Buddhism, was closely associated with the goal of "enlightenment," and therefore with a kind of wisdom, especially a kind of wisdom in which teachings are most important. Even the term for Buddhism in Chinese and Japanese means "Buddhist teaching."
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 an enlightened 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 devoting her hands and eyes to compassionate action.
The Lotus Sutra itself, I believe, can be used to support the primacy of either wisdom or compassion. When it is teaching in a straightforward way, the emphasis is on teaching the Dharma as the most effective way of helping or saving others. But, taken collectively, the parables of the Lotus Sutra suggest a different emphasis. The father of the children in the burning house does not teach the children how to cope with fire; he gets them out of the house. The father of the long-lost, poor son does not so much teach him in ordinary ways as he does by example and, especially, by encouragement. The guide who conjures up a fantastic city for weary travelers does not teach by giving them doctrines for coping with a difficult situation; instead, he gives them a place in which to rest, enabling them to go on. The doctor with the children who have taken poison tries to teach them to take some good medicine but fails and resorts instead to shocking them by announcing his own death. All of these actions require, of course, considerable intelligence or wisdom. But what is emphasized is that they are done by doers, people driven by compassion to benefit others.
More important, no doubt, compassion is a useful virtue, in that it can be effectively used by anyone. One of the most impressive things one can experience, as I have on many occasions, is the compassion that dying people often have for those around them. On many occasions I have seen dying people attempt to calm and cheer friends and relatives at their bedside. Of course, everyone can be wise to some degree as well, but there surely is a sense in which the way of compassionate action is more open to everyone than a way that emphasizes the acquisition of wisdom.
Compassion is best embodied in skill, in 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--not some kind of esoteric knowledge of the mind alone, but the practical wisdom found not only in minds but also in hands.
But skill is, after all, a kind of wisdom. So compassion should not be seen in contrast to wisdom but only in contrast to disembodied wisdom. To be compassionate is to embody compassion, not just to feel it or think about it or contemplate it. It is to actualize compassion in the world, wherever you are, and thus in your relationships with relatives, neighbors, friends, and strangers. It is to be compassionate. This is to embody the Buddha, that is, to give life to the Buddha in the present world.
Being embodied 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 we can see Kuan-yin not only in many splendid images in temples and museums but also in our mothers or sons or neighbors. Kuan-yin is not only a symbol of compassion, she is compassion, so that wherever compassion can be seen, Kuan-yin can be seen. Kuan-yin is not some god looking down at the world from a distance but the Buddha's compassion embodied in the actual world of quite ordinary men and women.
Tradition also 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 from a distance, but to actually embodying compassion by being compassionate in our own lives and behavior.
The Universal Gateway
The title of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is "The Universal Gateway of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva." This 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 dependent on the idea of universal 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.
In the Lotus Sutra this idea is suggested by a list of the embodiments of Kuan-yin. Though these are often counted as thirty-three, and 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 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 can be 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 body and teaches the Dharma to them. This means that the way in which Kuan-yin appears to someone is dependent on what the perceiver needs. In other words, Kuan-yin appears to people in many forms not as a way of showing off some sort of magical power but as a way of responding to the needs of people; this is precisely what was 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.
The list includes shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and gods but begins with the embodiment of Kuan-yin as a buddha. Any Buddhist scholar, indeed any educated monk, can tell you that Kuan-yin is a bodhisattva, not a buddha. But countless laypeople, and not a few nuns as well, can tell you that Kuan-yin is a fully awakened buddha who has chosen to be in this world to help relieve the suffering of all living beings, 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 a certain kind of wisdom, a knowledge that understands that the Buddha can come 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.
Several of the forms 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 also entirely in accord with what is written in the Lotus Sutra.
Kuan-yin and Amida Buddha
In India, as Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-yin was associated with the god Shiva. Both are called Maheshvara (Great Lord) and descriptions of the two are often the same. Potalaka, Avalokiteshvara's mountain home, is also very similar to Shiva's. In China, this Potalaka would be identified with an island in Hangzhou Bay called "Puto-shan" (Universal Buddha Mountain, despite the fact that it really is not a mountain), which is a major site for Kuan-yin devotion and tourism.
In addition to chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential appearance of Kuan-yin in Buddhist sutras of Indian origin is in the Pure Land sutras, especially the Sutra on Contemplation of the Buddha of Infinite Life. There Avalokiteshvara appears, along with Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva, as an attendant of Amida Buddha. The two bodhisattvas, whose features are described in great detail, serve primarily for guiding the spirits of the dead to Amida Buddha's Pure Land in the West. In artistic images, these two bodhisattvas often appear as a triad, with Amida in the middle, Mahasthamaprapta on his right, and Kuan-yin on his left. Both Mahasthamaprapta and Kuan-yin are dressed as Indian princes, with ample robes and jewelry of various kinds, and can be distinguished from each other mainly by the fact that Kuan-yin has an image of Amida Buddha in his headdress. Most images of Kuan-yin adopt this convention of having Amida Buddha's image in the headdress.
The close association of Kuan-yin with Amida continues to the present day, especially among followers of Pure Land Buddhism, a very large percentage of Chinese, Japanese, and American Buddhists. Kuan-yin's rise to preeminence among Buddhist figures in east Asia can be attributed in large part to the rise in popularity of Pure Land Buddhism among ordinary people, both in China and in Japan.
Male and Female
The story related above is found in chapter 25, but much more than with any other story in the Lotus Sutra, the story of Kuan-yin develops more profoundly and significantly outside the sutra, in Chinese religion and 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 the common people. In images, Kuan-yin was portrayed less and less as an Indian prince and more often in a relaxed pose, sitting on a rock, for example. She is portrayed, in other words, as accessible to common people. And, like virtually all Chinese gods but unlike Indian bodhisattvas, Kuan-yin was increasingly seen as a human being, even 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 female, and quite often as androgynously male and female. Female Kuan-yin figures are often dressed in a white robe, perhaps 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 tradition 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 is both male and female.
Another Chinese development in which Kuan-yin plays a unifying role is the common portrayal of her as being accompanied by, or served by, Sudhana and the Dragon Princess, a boy and a girl--one from the Avatamsaka Sutra, the other 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 in both women and men to their female selves. 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.
Kuan-yin, I have said on many occasions, represents a kind of "lowland Buddhism." By this I mean that in contrast to those who would see religions as a matter of climbing to a mountaintop for enjoyment of some kind of "peak experience," the Lotus Sutra, especially as it is embodied in Kuan-yin, is a religion that emphasizes the importance of being earthly, of being this-worldly, of being involved in relieving suffering. 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 earth, one who sits on rocks, one who wears a simple white robe, one who takes on a great variety of human forms, including female forms, one who appears in a great variety of indigenous stories and scriptures, as one who embodies compassion in this world.
Like Kuan-yin, I believe that we should also 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 the bodhisattva Kuan-shih-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 of compassion, Kuan-shih-yin embodied.
1. For this and much of this article, I am indebted to Chun-fang Yu'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.
2. This account of Miao-shan follows quite closely the account given by Chun-fang Yu in Kuan-yin, pp. 293-94.
3. Buddhism for Today (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1976), p. 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 July-September 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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