By Lin Sen-shou
Often seen alone or next to a statue of Amitabha Buddha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva--in Chinese also known as Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy--is the most popular and most venerated Buddhist figure besides Amitabha Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha. A popular Chinese saying illustrates this aspect: "Everyone knows how to chant Amitabha Buddha, and every household worships Kuan Yin."
Why is this bodhisattva popular in so many Chinese families? It may be because Kuan Yin is represented as a female with an appearance that embraces the qualities of compassion and motherly love. In addition, because many Buddhist scriptures state that one can invoke Kuan Yin's assistance by simply calling out her name, people feel that this bodhisattva is very approachable.
According to the Huayen Sutra (Buddha-vatamsaka-mahavaipulya Sutra), Kuan Yin uses all kinds of ways to attract people: she makes gifts, uses words of love, and transforms herself into persons like those that she deals with. The "Universal Gateway" chapter in the Lotus Sutra lists thirty-two typical forms in which Kuan Yin may appear. For instance, if a boy or girl is about to gain some enlightenment, Kuan Yin transforms herself into a boy or a girl to teach the child. If a monk is about to attain some enlightenment, Kuan Yin transforms herself into a monk. In short, she can appear as a monk, a nun, a king, a minister, a celestial being, or a normal person like you and me. The purpose of such transformations is to make people feel close to her and willing to listen to her words.
"I am cultivating this method of great compassion and hope to save all living beings," Kuan Yin said. "Any living being who calls my name or sees me will be free from all fear and danger. I will activate that being's spiritual awareness and maintain it forever."
Sakyamuni Buddha confirmed Kuan Yin's vow: "If a suffering being hears the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and earnestly calls out to the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara will hear the call and redeem that being from his suffering" ("Universal Gateway," Lotus Sutra).
In other words, this bodhisattva's main attraction for people lies in her efforts to eliminate suffering and to make people live in peace and harmony. This kind of immediate benefit and the ability to receive protection or help simply by calling the bodhisattva's name, similar to children receiving an instant reply when calling their mother, have contributed to Kuan Yin's great popularity.
A sacred island
Like the other bodhisattvas I have introduced so far, Kuan Yin also has a sacred place in China: Potala Mountain. This mountain is located near the city of Ningpo, in Chechiang Province on the East China Sea. It is actually an island with a radius of about thirty miles. Nowadays the island is full of temples. It is said that during the Liang Dynasty (A.D. 520?57), a Japanese monk by the name of Hui Erh stole a Kuan Yin statue from Wutai Mountain in central China, hoping to take it back to Japan. But when his boat approached the island of Potala, it simply stopped moving. Feeling that it was the bodhisattva's will, Hui Erh presented the statue to the islanders. Later, more and more Buddhist temples were built, and more and more stories of Kuan Yin's miraculous interventions circulated among the people, making Potala Mountain the sacred ground for this bodhisattva.
Male or female?
Probably because of Kuan Yin's great compassion, a quality which is traditionally considered feminine, most of the bodhisattva's statues in China since the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618?07) have appeared as female figures. In India, however, the bodhisattva is generally represented as a male figure.
In Chinese art before the Tang dynasty, Kuan Yin was also usually perceived as masculine, though literary and anecdotal evidence from as early as the fifth century points to a sexual transformation of this bodhisattva. By the tenth century, Kuan Yin's statues were becoming increasingly feminine, and by the Ming Dynasty (1368?644), the transformation into a female deity was complete.
In the end, what is Kuan Yin, male or female? In Buddhism, the universe is divided into many realms. For instance, there is the Realm of Desire, the Realm of Form, and the Realm of Formlessness. The Realm of Desire includes the human realm with all living beings on earth. Above it is the Realm of Form, and above that the Realm of Formlessness. The beings in these latter two realms are considered celestial beings. The beings in the Realm of Form have outward appearances but no desires, and the beings in the Realm of Formlessness, have, as the name implies, no outward appearances. Without physical forms, the beings in the Realm of Formlessness have no gender distinctions. However, the beings in all three realms still undergo reincarnation. Arhats, bodhisattvas and buddhas (beings who have reached three progressive stages toward enlightenment), on the other hand, have jumped out of the cycle of reincarnation and no longer have true physical forms. A bodhisattva like Kuan Yin may therefore appear in either male or female form. Statues of these beings merely help us feel their presence.
The Kuan Yin statue
Kuan Yin may be shown either in a standing or in a sitting position, but on top of her crown there is always an image of a buddha, which is generally thought to be Amitabha Buddha. In her hands, Kuan Yin may hold a willow branch, a vase with water, or occasionally a lotus flower. The willow branch is used to either heal people's illnesses or bring fulfillment to their requests. The water symbolizes the cleansing of people's sins or illnesses. Kuan Yin's right hand often points downward, with the palm facing outward, the posture of granting a wish. This is the typical image of Kuan Yin in China and Taiwan.
Many other forms also exist. The expression "thirty-three forms of Kuan Yin" in Sino-Japanese Buddhist art refers to thirty-three different appearances of the bodhisattva. For example, besides holding a willow branch, Kuan Yin may also be depicted as standing on a dragon's head in a cloud. However, these other forms have no basis in Buddhist scriptures.
Like Manjusri, Kuan Yin may have once been a buddha with the name of "Brightness of True Dharma." However, there is little information on this topic.
Although most scriptures refer to Kuan Yin as a bodhisattva, some entries reflect a different view. The Peihua Sutra tells a story about a father-son relationship between Amitabha and Avalokitesvara. When Amitabha was a ruler in a previous incarnation, he had a thousand sons, and the eldest was named Pu-hsun. Pu-hsun vowed before the buddha of his time that if suffering people would call his name, he would hear them or see their suffering, and he would try to eliminate their misery. When the buddha heard Pu-hsun's vow, he praised him by saying that he would be named "Avalokitesvara." He also said that when Amitabha Buddha entered into nirvana in the future, Avalokitesvara would succeed him and become a buddha who would be known as "Universal Light-Issuing Tathagata King of Merit Mountain."
Since people can simply call Kuan Yin's name for help without having to go through any ritual or ceremony, this bodhisattva is the most popular figure in China and other East Asian countries. One of the most well-known forms of the bodhisattva is the one with a thousand eyes and a thousand hands. The thousand eyes allow the bodhisattva to see the suffering creatures in this world, and the thousand hands allow her to reach out to help them. Thus, this depiction is a popular symbol for the Tzu Chi Foundation, which tries to relieve the suffering in this world through the "thousand eyes and hands" of its volunteers.
Actually, everyone can be a Kuan Yin. You may say that you don't have a thousand eyes or a thousand hands or that you lack magic powers, but it is your compassion that can transform you into a Kuan Yin. With your eyes and hands you can help others, and with your compassion you can bring peace and tranquility to this planet.