This is a post about the Chinese bodhisattva, Kwan Yin. Kwan Yin does not typically have any association with modern day Wicca, but she is of historical importance to many Gardnerians, and, as such, is included in this blog. Enjoy.
The divinity known as Kwan-Yin throughout China is both unique among Chinese goddesses and similar to other female deities in many ways. She holds a position of particular importance within both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as popular Chinese religious practice and belief. By existing within both the popular pantheon as well as Buddhism, she enjoys a status unparalleled by any other Chinese deity.
Kwan-Yin has been one of the most venerated deities in China since approximately the fourth century C.E. Yet her entrance into China from Tibet had occurred centuries prior. She “is unique in China in that she appears to have originated as a male bodhisattva and ended up as a goddess.” The male bodhisattva which evolved into Kwan-Yin upon entrance into China is Avalokitesvara. “Bearing a lotus flower, (he) was born from a ray of light that sprang from Amitabha Buddha’s right eye.” “Avalokitesvara is cherished on account of his vow to renounce Nirvana’s final peace for as long as there are sentient beings still lost amidst samsara’s ocean.” This is the definition of what it is to be a bodhisattva, especially the key aspect of Kwan-Yin, which is compassion.
Before long, Avalokitesvara was “adopted as Tibet’s tutelary deity.” When the practice of invoking him first came to China in the first century C.E., he was never depicted as female. But by the twelfth century, female representations of the bodhisattva were very common.
And why did this change take place? It becomes evident, when looking at the role of Kwan-Yin in China, why the switch from male to female was made. The explanation involves “a tertiary embodiment of Compassion, Tara, a beautiful female divinity… born of a tear shed by Avalokitesvara in sorrow for the world.” She has two functions: “rescuing beings from present woes and assisting them to rid themselves of the delusions binding them to samsara.” These tasks are almost indistinguishable from the objectives of Kwan-Yin. In this way, the previously eleven-headed and thousand-armed Avalokitesvara now appeared in an unspoiled human form, which the Chinese were quick to espouse. John Blofeld, author of Bodhisattva of Compassion, has found evidence of this in paintings of Kwan-Yin in which the venerable bodhisattva’s posture and mudras are distinctly those of Tara.
When the newer version of the bodhisattva entered into China from Tibet, she was quickly incorporated into Mahayanist doctrine. While having assumed the female identity and attributes of the Tibetan fertility goddess Tara, she retains, in the minds of her Chinese devotees, full identity with the Indian Avalokitesvara. “Viewed esoterically, the sex attributed to celestial bodhisattvas is unimportant, since they are regarded as meditation forms not of beings but of what might be called cosmic forces.” While this statement discredits the importance of gender within a strictly Buddhist meditational outlook, the fact that a divinity could have undergone a change in gender to accommodate the people is significant. The role of fertility within religion had long since been one of the most honored and aspired aspects of any god, and with the Chinese emphasis upon progeny, Kwan-Yin’s association with Tara becomes a vitally important facet of her acceptance into the Chinese popular pantheon.
Nicknamed “the Goddess of Mercy” by Jesuit missionaries, the bodhisattva appeared in many forms to the Chinese, including perhaps her most familiar form, “White robed Guanyin.” The origins of this clearly feminine deity “may lie with a group of indigenous scriptures that portray her primarily as a fertility goddess. Although Guanyin’s power of granting children is already mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, these indigenous scriptures…emphasize Guanyin’s power to grant sons, and…call attention to her protection of pregnant women and assurance of safe childbirths.” This strictly Chinese vision of Kwan-Yin emphasizes and extends her powers outside of the traditional Buddhist framework of a bodhisattva and affixes her permanently within the greater structure of the general Chinese pantheon. Unfamiliar with Buddhist metaphysics, countless Chinese love her and recognize in her “the protective power and rewarding nature of compassion.” One can often find her smiling gaze looking out at the world from behind the altars of Taoist temples, a sign of just how beloved she is of the people, no matter what creed they profess.
Her portrayal in the epic Chinese story Journey to the West brings her role back to that of the original Indian bodhisattva, as a divinity primarily concerned with the salvation of mankind. She is begged for forgiveness of sins by Pigsy and Sandy, and even offers forgiveness for sins against Heaven, a place which does not exist in Buddhism, to Monkey. Her ability to rectify seemingly anything is another attribute which grants her a status unrivaled by any other Chinese deity. Proclaimed as “the savior Kuan-Yin” by Monkey it is clear that her powers extend far beyond that of immortals yet her concern remains for that of all sentient beings, not only human.
While her prominence as both bodhisattva and deity enable her to transcend the boundaries placed upon divinities by religion, she is not totally unlike all other gods. The fact that she is a female entity gives her much in common with a number of other feminine divinities, such as Mazu.
Kwan-Yin, “like other Chinese Goddesses, does not belong to a celestial bureaucracy. Chinese female deities, whether of Buddhist, Taoist, or popular descent, usually bear no…resemblance to bureaucrats.” And “despite their non-bureaucratic characteristics, female deities occupy prominent positions in the pantheon of the popular religion.” It appears that being a female comes with certain privileges, for her role “gives her the ability to act freely of any bureaucratic role, for she exists outside of that system. Personal requests are taken much more frequently to female deities in general.”
A surprisingly distinct similarity between this beloved bodhisattva and another female deity comes in the form of Mazu, a goddess worshipped in the eastern and southern coastal areas. Kwan-Yin, “incarnated as princess Miaoshan, refused to be wed despite her father’s explicit order. Mazu…likewise declined to marry.” Both died shortly thereafter, having been untainted and untamed by men. The stories of Miaoshan and Mazu are quite extraordinary, and highlight the common nature of each goddess. “Not only are they women, they are unfilial women. Thus…(they) represent a sharp departure from the Confucian world view, which considered filial piety a cardinal virtue.” The significance of such is quite well articulated by Shahar when she says that, “these goddesses remind us of how much power lies outside politics, in the ability to recreate families and nurture children, but also to threaten male ideas of patrilineal unity.”
What sets Kwan-Yin apart from other goddesses, which is also due to her role as a bodhisattva, is her particular devotion to human beings, as well as sentient beings. Not only will she remain within the cycle of samsara for the benefit of all, but her role as a fertility deity enables her to grant boons which would be irrelevant in Buddhist eyes, such as sons, which are treasured in Chinese culture. Kwan-Yin is first and foremost a goddess of compassion, ready at any moment to succor the masses in their hour of need. Not unlike the Virgin Mary of the Christian pantheon, she is the eternal benefactor and proverbial virgin mother figure of humanity. Yet this role of helping humans does not apply to all female divinities, as is the case with the Queen Mother of the West.
When the new Taoism, or “The Way of the Celestial Masters” developed in China in the late fourth century C.E, it “claimed access to higher heavens and more exalted deities.” In this new system, the Queen Mother of the West held court on mythical Mount Kun-lun in the west, where she was served by immortals, who were stellar divinities, or perhaps female residents of the magical Kun-lun Mountain. As ruler, she is queen of the immortals, who are neither gods nor men. Her status as an immortal gives her a sense of independence in contrast to other gods, including Kwan-Yin. The Queen Mother has no duties to uphold to mankind, and can exist peacefully upon her mountain feasting upon her peaches of immortality. She has no need of humanity, unlike Kwan-Yin who needs mankind, if not for worship, to function as a bodhisattva.
The Queen Mother’s status as an immortal did not, however, keep mankind from calling upon her for help in attaining higher states of being. She became a key element in realizing immortality within the new Taoist framework.
The role of both Kwan-Yin and the Queen Mother in Chinese life is perhaps best illustrated in Journey to the West. Throughout the novel, Kwan-Yin acts on behalf of the Buddha as well as humanity in seeking out a scripture-bearer to fetch sutras from India. These Mahayanist texts “can carry the souls of the dead to Heaven, can save all those that are in trouble, can add immeasurably to life’s span, and can deliver those that trust in it from the comings and goings of incarnation.” This coupled with her readiness to administer forgiveness and penance to sinners serves to further her mission on Earth.
In contrast to the compassion of Kwan-Yin lies the relative disinterest of the Queen Mother, whose only main concern within the novel is hosting a peach banquet for the residents of Heaven. She sends fairy maidens to the peach gardens to harvest the fruit, and aside from that, only appears again to inform the Jade Emperor of Monkey’s misdeeds. Her main significance to humans seems to lie in her veneration within immortality cults, as she is seen as a granter of immortality to those who have sufficiently perfected themselves.
It is clear that Kwan-Yin’s unique evolution as well as her prominence in two separate religious systems grants her a position of significant interest from both a religious and anthropological perspective. Venerated as a path to salvation by Buddhists and implored for miracles and intercessions by Chinese people in general, she remains a rather uncommon blend of popular deity and bodhisattva. Her role as a female divinity likens her to other such feminine entities in her existence outside of the traditional bureaucratic model while she retains a sense of distinction in her mission upon Earth. Concerned first and foremost with alleviating suffering, countless millions, no matter what form she may take, feel her powerful presence.
Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion. Boulder: Shambhala, 1978.
Lopez, Donald S. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Sangren, P. Steven. History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Shahar, Meir and Robert P. Weller. Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Wu Ch’eng-en. Monkey. New York: Grove Press, 1970.