Kuan-yin is one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna. She is the bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. Lately she has gained a following among North American Buddhists, particularly women.
While most everyone knows her by her female form worshipped in South and East Asia, she actually underwent a sex change in China that began in the late Tang (618-907 AD). Before that she was Avalokiteśvara, Lord Who Looks Down. Well, she’s still Avalokiteśvara, but a transgender version of him.
Avalokiteśvara is an old bodhisattva, long connected to the Pureland tradition. The Pureland (Sukhāvatī) is a field (buddhakṣetra) attained by Amitābha (Buddha of Infinite Light) upon complete enlightenment. Avalokiteśvara is first mentioned in the Pureland Infinite Life Sutra (Sukhāvatīvyūha), which was most likely compiled by the 1st century AD in the Gandhara region of India. The sutra describes Sukhāvatī as a cosmic and jeweled land filled with rays of light and an infinite numbers of Buddhas.
In the Pureland Meditation Sutra (Amitāyurdhyāna), Amitābha brings Avalokiteśvara into existence. The bodhisattva is gold and radiates light. He wears a turban with a crown of gems that has a Buddha sitting in it. His infinite compassion has the power to save anyone from calamity, and just hearing his name can produce Immeasurable happiness. Even more, if you meditate upon him, access to the Pureland, which removes all obstacles to complete enlightenment is assured.
We know both these Pureland sutras were translated into Chinese somewhere between 150 and 300 A.D. However, Avalokiteśvara worship likely came to China through the tantric Buddhism that wended its way through Central Asia (Tibet and Nepal). By the 5th century AD tantra has assumed new native forms in China. A connection between Avalokiteśvara and female divinity may be found in the tantric Devi, Tārā. Tārā is a complex figure who manifests in various ways, but at times she is depicted as Avalokiteśvara’s consort. According to Indian tantra, male divinity (Śiva) is the Godhead, while female divinity (Śakti) is the elemental cosmic power. Together they constitute the creative-destructive processes of the universe. Buddhist tantra performs a role reversal: the female deity is insight (prajñā) into ultimate truth attained through practice (sādhana).
What we do know for sure is that in 406 AD, the Indian monk Kumarajiva translated the Mahāyāna Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka) into Chinese and rendered Avalokiteśvara as Guanshiyin (Observing the Cries of the World). The sutra’s 25th chapter is dedicated to Kuan-yin, and here, the bodhisattva manifests in both male and female form – whatever is needed to save beings in distress. Another famous Mahāyāna sutra, the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya), written somewhere between the 4th and 7th century AD, and possibly in Chinese, is dedicated entirely to Kuan-yin. It describes the contents of her enlightenment gained through deep meditation.
By the late Tang (618-907 AD), Kuan-yin had begun to appear in female form in Chinese art. By the Ming (1368-1644), not only did she appear almost exclusively in female form, but she had also been established as the bodhisattva that attended especially to women’s suffering (and to seamen). She is described in a famous Ming novel, Journey to the West.
A mind perfected in the four virtues, a golden body filled with wisdom, fringes of dangling pearls and jade, scented bracelets set with lustrous treasures, dark hair piled smoothly in a coiled-dragon bun, and elegant sashes lightly fluttering as phoenix quills.
Her green jade buttons, and white silk robe bathed in holy light. Her velvet skirt and golden cords wrapped by hallowed air. With brows of new moon shape and eyes like two bright stars, her jade-like face beams natural joy, and her ruddy lips seem a flash of red. Her immaculate vase overflows with nectar from year to year. Holding sprigs of weeping willow green from age to age.
Reed, B. (1992) The gender symbolism of kuan-yin bodhisattva. Buddhism, sexuality and gender. Jose Cabezon, ed. NY: SUNY.
Odile, D. (1989) Avalokiteśvara: from the North-West to the Western Caves. East and West, Vol. 39, No. 1/4 (December). Italy: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO). pp. 145-178.