Kuan-yin (Guanyin): The Transgender Bodhisattva

Guanshiyin, Kannon, Avalokiteśvara, Guan-yin

Kuan-yin at the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City

One of the most popular bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism is Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion. Lately she has gained a following among North American Buddhists, particularly women.

While most everyone knows her in the female form that is worshipped by East Asians, she actually underwent a sex change in China starting during the late Tang (618-907 AD). Before that she had been Avalokitesvara – Lord who looks down. Well, she’s still Avalokitesvara; she’s just a transgender version of him.

Avalokitesvara is one of Buddhism’s oldest bodhisattvas, and has long been connected to Pureland. He was first mentioned in the Infinite Life Sutra, (Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra) most likely compiled by the 1st century AD in the Gandhara region of India.

The Infinite Life Sutra is one of the most important texts in Pureland. It describes Amitabha’s (Buddha of Infinite Light) paradise, a cosmic and jeweled land filled with rays of light and infinite numbers of Buddhas (Sukhvati – the Pureland).

Another important Pureland sutra, the Meditation Sutra (Amitayurdhyana Sutra), provides a rich description of Avalokitesvara. He was brought into existence by Amitabha. He is gold and radiates  light. He wears a turban with a crown of gems that has a Buddha sitting in it. Because of his infinite compassion, his power to save anyone from calamity is such that just by hearing his name, one will attain immeasurable happiness. And if one is to mediate upon him, one will surely gain access to the Pureland.



These Pureland sutras were translated into Chinese between roughly 150 and 300 A.D. However, the worship of Avalokitesvara most likely came to the Chinese through Indian tantric (esoteric) Buddhism that made its way through Central Asia (Tibet and Nepal). From there, the connection between Avalokitesvara and female divinity would have been influence by the worship of  Tara, the female emanation of Avalokitesvara, often depicted as his consort.

In 406 AD, Kumarajiva  translated the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundanka) into Chinese and rendered the title Avalokitesvara as Guanshiyin – observing the cries of the world. The 25th chapter is dedicated to Kuan-yin, and here the bodhisattva manifests into both male and female form: whatever is necessary to save beings in distress.

The Heart Sutra, an important text in Zen and esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tibetan), written somewhere between the 4th and 7th century AD, is dedicated entirely to Kuan-yin. Possibly written in Chinese, it describes Kuan-yin’s enlightenment experience through the insight she gained while engaged in deep meditation.

Tara, Tibet

Green Tara (Tibet)

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. Avalokiteśvara: from the North-West to the Western Caves. East and West, Vol. 39, No. 1/4 (December 1989). Italy: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).  pp. 145-178.




The Difference between Buddhism and Christianity I: The Ground of Existence

Image At its heart Buddhism is multiplicity.

The ceaseless categorizations of Theravada, the interpenetration of phenomena in Mahayana, and the myriad manifestations of life in Tantra all point to its fundamental view that there is no prime mover behind anything in the universe. However, trying to pin down Buddhism as a coherent set of ideas that go beyond this distinction is a challenge. It shares more with other world religions than it keeps apart.

Nonetheless, this striking attitude toward the ground of the universe – that there is none – that the universe, and by extension human life, cannot be reduced to any inherent cause – is so different from Western notions of a prime mover at work that it has drawn many Westerners into its fold.

While Buddhism may have been imported into the West by generations of immigrants who brought their cultural practices with them, it has also become a growing source of spiritual inspiration for over a million North Americans, most of whom are highly educated, white and secular, seeking a new age spirituality to replace Christianity.

In the West, Buddhist thought is rarely interpreted on its own grounds. Rather Christian thought or new age syncretism provides the platform from which it is evaluated. More recently, it has attracted attention from psychology and speculative neuroscience, as well as from post-modern thinkers seeking to undermine the fundamental assumptions in positivistic science. As a result, Buddhism has earned a popular appeal as a philosophy or ‘way of life’ rather than as a religion – religion, here, signifying systems of hoary practice and superstition.

This prejudice aside, the two disciplines merge on many fronts, with the distinction between the two resting on issues of materiality. Philosophy concerns itself with the physical and metaphysical, whereas religion concerns itself with the spiritual. While both are subjective, philosophy examines knowledge and being, and religion ponders the problem of evil. For religion, human existence is a predicament; there’s something wrong with life the way it is. Each religion offers a description of the predicament and how best to resolve it, so that life can be the way it was “meant to be” or, at least, better than what it is.

Christianity describes the human predicament as alienation from God, our creator. We live a life of sin caused by the Fall. Jesus Christ resolved this problem by revealing, in his person and work, that there are ways to live with integrity in the midst of sin. The experience of God is, of course, the source to the ending of life’s problems. Salvation restores our divine relationship, and leads to integrity of personhood. This divine relationship extends beyond death to eternity, as we are taken up into the body of Christ, and by extension, God.

Buddhism on the other hand focuses on our own feeling of dissatisfaction with mundane existence, rather than on our state of being in relation to an “other.” It considers how our state of mind can make things better or worse for us, depending on how we approach this problem. According to the Buddha, we experience day-to-day suffering because we expect to get and hold onto things, including psychological and emotional states, such as pleasure. However, the world is characterized by change, and as a result we live in a state of frustration and discontentment. This state can be perpetuated over multiple lifetimes, because our mind holds onto the situations at hand, and our psychological, or cosmic, energy is not contained purely within our body. It affects things.

In order to escape this predicament, one must realize the true nature of the universe and free oneself from the desire to gain fulfillment through ever changing things. This breakthrough “letting go” is nirvana – the cessation of craving. More positively, it can be described as the direct recognition of what one is: the pure and responsive “pre-reflective” experience. Once it is attained, final enlightenment leads to the cessation of karma, and the end of the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In other words, one simply ceases to be. In Buddhism, there is no God to join in unity.