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.

Avalokitesvara

Avalokitesvara

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.

Sources:

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.