Kuan-Yin knows well the difficulties of life on earth, for she was born here, as a girl named Miao Shan. Her father, having no sons, based his plans for future prosperity on the girl's marriage prospects. Unfortunately for him, Miao Shan planned to become a Buddhist nun. And unfortunately for the girl, her father was not pleased. A nun in the family! It was absurd, embarrassing. He believed she would grow out of it.
While he waited, Miao Shan's father arranged for her to marry a man of the area, a man of great wealth, neither young nor handsome - not that youth or a pretty face would have altered Miao Shan's determination to remain a virginal nun. As the wedding day approached, Miao Shan asked no questions about her bridegroom. She did not bother to be fitted for a wedding dress. She showed no interest in what flowers should deck the house. She simply sat in prayer every day, for hours and hours and hours.
Her mother tried to argue in her favor, but her father would not listen. A marriage had been arranged; a marriage there would be. But all his anger and entreaties led to nothing, for the girl would not yield. So Miao Shan's father had her confined to a tower, where he hoped she'd come to her senses. But in the tower, where there was no one to talk to and only dry rice to eat, Miao Shan happily devoted herself to her prayers.
When he realized that he had been defeated, Miao Shan's father grew furious. In a passion of thwarted will, he ordered his soldiers to kill his daughter.
Like everyone in the household, these men loved and respected the girl. But they feared her father more. So they took Miao Shan from the tower and led her out into the forest. They were silent, ashamed of what they were about to do.
Miao Shan walked quietly behind the soldiers, her thin wrists tied with heavy rope. When the soldiers reached an open space in the trees and drew their swords, she took a deep breath, readying herself for her next life. The soldiers raised their swords, as one, into the air.
Suddenly a tiger bounded out of the woods. It was huge, bigger than any tiger ever seen. With a sweep of its long foreleg, the tiger knocked down the swords of the soldiers. It took Miao Shan in its mouth and carried her away. It ran through the forest until it reached a low mountain cave. There it dropped the girl on the rocky ground. Then the tiger disappeared.
Without warning, the cave dissolved. Miao Shan floated like a feather in the wind. She landed somewhere. It was a dark dismal place where ghosts drifted like smoke. Above them, she saw a huge man with flames darting out of his head and eyes. It was Yen Lo Wang, ruler of the dead. He held souls in bondage; as long as they were in his realm, they could not be reborn and work off the consequences of past misdeeds.
She challenged the god in a loud voice. The god scowled, flames springing like snakes from his head. The girl stood before him, shining like a saint. He opened his mouth to bellow. He raised his hand to curse. But when he saw Miao Shan begin to pray calmly, and the ghosts begin to drift toward her radiance, the god of death knew he had no power over the holy girl.
Miao Shan blessed the drifting ghosts. They drifted upward and disappeared. On earth, they slipped into the bodies of newborn babies, ready to live again.
Miao Shan found herself back in the cave on the earth's surface where she'd been carried by the divine tiger. As she always did, she began to pray. She felt light rising to her. The light grew clearer and clearer until the Buddha stepped from it, carrying a peach.
He handed it to the girl with instructions that she eat it, for it would keep her from being hungry or thirsty until she attained her goal. Then she was to depart immediately for the island of P'u T'o Shan. Her father, discovering that she had escaped from the soldiers, was hunting her down to make another attempt on her life. But in a year, she would reach perfect enlightenment and be beyond the reach of his swords.
And so Miao Shan followed the Buddha's instructions. And so she reached the place where she could have stepped right into the light, leaving behind the miseries of earthly life forever.
But right at that threshold, she stopped.
Of all who had reached this point, none had ever stopped. After many lives of prayer and practice, who would turn back from the great goal?
But Miao Shan remembered all those who still suffered, those who could not find their way to the light because of the difficulties of their lives. And so the girl made a vow: to remain on earth until every living thing was holy.
And thus the girl was transfigured - but not into buddhahood. She became the compassionate Kuan-Yin, who sat on her paradise island P'u T'u Shan answering every prayer addressed to her. The mere utterance of her name in prayer was said to assure salvation from physical and spiritual harm. Even better was the observance of Kuan-Yin's own testimony of peace and mercy; her most devout worshipers ate no flesh and lived entirely without doing violence to other beings.