(Kuan Yin or Kwan Yin)

Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

Scholars are still debating the origin of devotion to the female bodhisattva Kuan Yin (also know as Quan Shi Yin and Kwan Yin). Quan means to inquire or look deeply into, Shi means the people of the world as generations, Yin means cries. The Boddhisatva of Compassion inquires into the cries or suffering that is echoing through the generations. Kwan Yin is thought of as a feminine form of Avalokitesvara (Sanskrit), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The worship of Avalokitesvara found its way to China in the third century.

Most scholars agree that the Lotus Sutra of 406 C.E. is our first point of reference to the female Goddess Kwan Yin. Kwan Yin was also conceptualized as male into the tenth century. During the eighth century Chinese T'ang Dynasty, Tantric Buddhism held the image of the celestial bodhisattva as a beautiful white-robed goddess and this became quite popular. By the ninth century there was a statue of Kuan Yin in every Chinese Buddhist monastery.

The depiction of a bodhisattva as both 'goddess' and 'god' is not inconsistent with Buddhist doctrine. In order to save sentient beings, a bodhisattva can and will embody in any form, be it male or female or animal, to effect the salvation. This saving by 'a variety of shapes' is described in the Lotus Sutra.

The Buddhist saint Miao Shan was a Chinese princess who lived in about 700 B.C. It is widely believed that the feminine form of Kuan Yin (Quan Shi Yin or Kwan Yin) was derived from her. During the twelfth century Buddhist monks settled on P'u-t'o Shan--the sacred island-mountain in the Chusan Archipelago off the coast of Chekiang where Miao Shan is said to have lived for nine years, healing and saving sailors from shipwreck--and devotion to Kuan Yin (Quan Shi Yin or Kwan Yin) spread throughout northern China.

Kwan Yin is depicted in many forms with each one demonstrating a unique aspect of her compassion and mercy. She is frequently portrayed as a slender woman in flowing white robes who carries in her left hand a white lotus, symbol of purity representing the ideal of womanhood. She may be wearing ornaments revealing her stature as a bodhisattva, or she may be shown without them as a sign of her great humility.

Kwan Yin is also supplicated as the "bringer of children" which has created an abundance of images which are found in temples and homes. A great white veil covers her entire form and she may be seated on a lotus. She is often shown holding a child in her arms or with a child near her feet, or on her knees, or with several children about her. In this role, she is also referred to as the "white-robed honored one."

Like Avalokitesvara she is often shown with a thousand arms and multiple eyes, heads, and hands, and sometimes with an eye in the palm of each hand. This is commonly called "the thousand-eyes, thousand-arms " bodhisattva. In this aspect she is the omnipresent Divine Mother, looking in every direction at once, sensing the problems of humanity. She is reaching out console and soothe all beings with boundless infinite expressions of her compassion and mercy.

Items usually presented with Kwan Yin include a willow branch, with which she sprinkles the divine nectar of life; a precious vase symbolizing the nectar of compassion and wisdom, the hallmarks of a bodhisattva; a dove, representing fecundity; a book or scroll of prayers which she holds in her hand, representing the dharma (teaching) of the Buddha or the sutra (Buddhist text) which Miao Shan is said to have constantly recited; and a rosary adorning her neck with which she calls upon the Buddhas for succor.

Images of Kwan Yin are is often shown holding a rosary; describing being born with a rosary in one hand and a white lotus in the other. Buddhist cannon holds that the beads signify all living beings and the turning of the beads represents Avalokitesvara guiding them out of their suffering and incessant cycles of rebirth and into Nirvana.

Today Taoists as well as Mahayana Buddhists worship the bodhisattva Kuan Yin (Quan Shi Yin or Kwan Yin). This is especially true in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and once again in her homeland of China. She is the patron of women, merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and those under criminal prosecution, and is particularly invoked by those desiring children. Beloved as a mother figure and divine mediatrix who is very close to the daily affairs of her devotees, Kwan Yin's role as Buddhist Madonna has been compared to that of Mary the mother of Jesus in the West.

Because of a profound trust in Kwan Yin's saving grace and healing powers, many believe that even the simple recitation of her name will bring her instantly to one's side. One of the most famous texts associated with the bodhisattva, the ancient Lotus Sutra whose twenty-fifth chapter, dedicated to Kuan Yin, is known as the "Kuan Yin sutra," describes thirteen cases of impending disaster--from shipwreck to fire, imprisonment, robbers, demons, fatal poisons and karmic woes--in which the devotee will be rescued if his thoughts dwell on the power of Kwan Yin. The text is recited many times daily by those who wish to receive the benefits it promises.

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