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Kuan Yin: White Goddess of Asia

Copyright © by Storm Hunt 2006

If you live in Europe, you may not have heard of her. Yet this powerful White Goddess is worshipped, revered and loved by tens of millions of people across the globe. She hides the mystery of her origin, having several forms and names. But the name by which she is most popularly known is the one used in China and by Buddhists and Taoists worldwide: Kuan Yin.

You don't have to be a Mahayana Buddhist to approach Kuan Yin, but it may help to understand a little of her history. Firstly, she is a bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who have taken vows of compassion, foregoing their own final enlightenment in order to help all other beings get there first. One such bodhisattva is a male being called Avalokitesvara, who is described at length in chapter 25 (or chapter 24, depending on your translation) of the Lotus Sutra, a document over 2300 years old. He has many miraculous powers, and his followers only have to call his name to be rescued from a multitude of dire situations, or to find a master who will teach them, or even to produce a child of a chosen gender. The mantra Om mani padme hum is associated with him. And stories are told of how he gains eleven heads in order to hear the cries of the world's suffering, and a thousand arms to help them. But what has he got to do with Kuan Yin? Bear with me.

In India, his name was Avalokitesvara. In Tibet he became known as Chenrezig who, according to one legend, shed a single tear that became a lake, and out of a lotus on that lake arose the goddess Tara to become his consort. By the first centuries CE, Avalokitesvara was also venerated in China and had become known as Kuan Shih Yin, 'He who hears the sounds of the world', or Kuan Yin for short. All the statues and depictions we have of Kuan Yin from China up to the Song or Sung dynasty (960 to 1279 CE) show him in masculine form. But sometime during that dynasty, something mysterious happened and nearly all representations of Kuan Yin became female in form. Thereafter, Kuan Yin was most often portrayed as a beautiful woman, clad in white. She became known as the Goddess of Mercy, the personification of kindness and of the compassion typically associated with a bodhisattva. As her fame spread, she became Gwan-eum in Korea, Quan Âm in Vietnam and Kannon in Japan. And some scholars have wondered, since the White Tara is the goddess of compassion and has attributes close to those of Kuan Yin, whether these are separate beings or just aspects of one.

How is Kuan Yin venerated today? She is certainly one of the most, if not the most, popular Buddhist deity. My Chinese Malaysian friends say it's common to keep a statue of her in the house and to place offerings of fruit before it at mealtimes. It's also common for people to carry cards in their wallets on which her image is emblazoned along with chants and prayers. In fact, this is how I first came to know Kuan Yin - by holding such a card obtained from a Buddhist monk and feeling the goddess's powerfully warm presence. Her birthday is celebrated on the 19th day of the second (and sometimes also the sixth and ninth) Chinese lunar month, and some observe the occasion by pilgrimage and by visiting one of the very many temples that contain her statue. These statues are not only numerous but sometimes large - one at Dongguan in China stands over 20 metres tall - and temple altars abound with incense, candles and more offerings of fruit.

Why should Kuan Yin have any relevance to the Western pagan? And why would she be interested in us? What would be 'in it' for her? Because we are sentient beings and she has thus already vowed to help us, it seems that we only need to call her and she will hear us. And in calling to her and asking for her help, we are helping her fulfil her vow. What help do you seek? There will be your benefit, and in turn there will be hers. Kuan Yin is real for many millions of people, including a growing number of Western polytheist pagans like me - not merely out of habit or tradition, but because it seems she is a true force in their lives.

Suggested Resources

  • My Kuan Yin photo collection [Editor's note - this will be here again soon!]
  • Lotus Sutra - various translations (the one by Burton Watson is easiest to find).
  • Bodhisattva of Compassion - the mystical tradition of Kuan Yin - John Blofeld (1977), Shambala (1988), ISBN 0-87773-126-8
  • Kuan Yin - the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesvara - Chun-Fang Yu (Institute for Advanced Study of World Religions)
  • Wikipedia entries for Kuan Yin, Avalokitesvara, Tara (Buddhism), and Dalai Lama