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Women in Buddhism Part 3: Kwan Yin

Women in Buddhism Part 3: Kwan Yin

Previously we talked about two very respected historical women. Now let’s talk about a full-fledged bodhisattva, or depending on your point of view, a goddess. Kwan Yin is also known as Kwannon, Guanyin, Guanshi’yin, Kannon, and many other names throughout the East. She’s the bodhisattva of Compassion and Mercy. She is considered the female manifestation of the male Avalokiteshvara, who is the male bodhisattva of compassion. Many people believe Kwan Yin to be both a man and a woman, depending on the situation at hand. It seems likely that stories and pictures of the originally-male Avalokiteshvara evolved over time, possibly merging with or being influenced by similar female characters in China to create the being we currently know as Kwan Yin.

She’s often shown as a beautiful woman in robes, sitting in a meditation position, either alone or with another bodhisattva.

There are hundreds of stories, legends, prayers, and styles of imagery for Kwan Yin, but the most common story of her own origin is that she was sentenced to death by her own father. There are many, many versions of the story; here’s one copied from Wikipedia:

According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miao Shan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.

The king asked his daughter what were the three misfortunes that the marriage should ease. Miao Shan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age.

The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever. When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miao Shan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all these.

Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labor and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.

Brian in Kyoto at Kwannon's Temple

Brian in Kyoto at Kwannon's Temple

Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her very hard chores in order to discourage her. The monks forced Miao Shan to work all day and all night, while others slept, in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.

A variant of the legend says that Miao Shan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father’s orders, his axe shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miao Shan down with arrows but they all veered off.

Finally in desperation he used his hands. Miao Shan, realising the fate the executioner would meet at her father’s hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there she witnessed firsthand the suffering and horrors beings there must endure and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.

Brian in Kyoto at Kwannon's TempleShe is also the protector of fishermen, and it is not unusual for someone going out on the seas to pray to her for protection. She is possibly the second most-often represented character in Buddhist mythology, after buddha himself, of course. If you see a Buddhist statue the looks feminine, it’s probably some version of Kwan Yin. I’ve included pictures of several paintings, and one giant statue that I came across in Japan. Yes, that’s me in the one photo.

Order “Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin (Paperback)”

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