Kuan-yin (Guanyin): The Transgender Bodhisattva

Guanshiyin, Kannon, Avalokiteśvara, Guan-yin
Kuan-yin at the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City

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.

Avalokiteśvara

Avalokiteśvara at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London UK (cc Don Macauley)

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).

Tārā

Tārā at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

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.

Sources:

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.

 

 

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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.