Kuan Yin does not come hither; I do not go thither; the water is in the basin; the moon is in the heavens. When the water is clear, the moon appears; when the mirror is bright, the image emerges.
~ Su Tung-po (1037 – 1101 C.E.)
There is no doubt that humanity is undergoing tremendous suffering each day – from Friday’s horrors in Aurora, Colorado and the rampage in Norway exactly one year ago, to the rarely discussed, but ongoing agony of northern Japan; from the bloody conflicts and wars, to the spreading plagues of hunger and disease as global climate change, peak oil, pollution, economic collapse, and corporatization of human labor, food, and local water take their deadly toll.
Those of us who are in tune with our sensitivities hear, not only the lament of humans, but the many other cries in “The Great Unraveling.”
We feel the weeping of trees, the oceans and rivers, endangered species of every kind, and the land itself, as Earth’s mountaintops are raped, and Her veins are plundered.
Yes. Thoroughly depressing.
So much so, that many of us would rather not discuss it. We know it, we are overwhelmed with it, we fear we may crumble in helplessness in the face of such massive systemic pain if we ever really acknowledged all of it.
And I would not be surprised if, just by bringing this up, some of you have already decided to skip my post for today. Too discouraging. Let’s have some happy news, please.
Which is precisely why today we honor the great Goddess Kuan Yin — She who hears the cries of the world, the most merciful Goddess and Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Kuan Yin is also known as Guanyin, Kannon or Kwannon (Japan), Guanyin Pusa (China), Kwan-se-um (Korea), and Quan Âm (Vietnam). These names, most scholars agree, come from the original Sanskrit, Avalokiteśvara, which literally means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World.”
In the West, we often know Her as the Goddess of Mercy. In Indonesia, she is Kwan Im or Dewi Kwan Im, (Dewi or Devi meaning Goddess). She is also called Mak Kwan Im because the word Mak means mother.
Last but certainly not least, in Tibetan Buddhism, she is none other than Tara, multifaceted bodhisattva of compassion and action.
Being a boddhisatva means that, although She attained Her personal enlightenment, She rejected the opportunity to transcend to pure energy. Instead, She chose to retain human form until every living being also attains enlightenment.
As you may guess, from these many names and forms, She is one of the most recognized and beloved Divine Ones in Asia.
In some very old traditions, She is a young man, or androgynous. But in most cultures, especially in the past seven centuries, She is considered to be a woman. As the doctrines of the Mahayana sutras note, it does not matter whether Kuan Yin is male, female, or genderless, as the ultimate reality is emptiness.
To people around the world, She is the embodiment of mercy and compassion. She is said to be able to take any form and will come to the aid of those who call on Her. In fact just saying Her name is a profound healing and blessing. Thus, She sits in Her island of paradise, P’u T’o Shan, and answers every single prayer from each and every living thing that calls out to Her.
Kuan Yin images have long been popular in the West as collectible Asian art, and I love looking for Her in vintage British and American television and movies. She makes frequent cameo appearances in film home décor, as “Goddess of Mercy” statues and art. (For instance, there are some really lovely porcelain Kuan Yins in the Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman three-hanky favorite, “All That Heaven Allows.”)
She is usually depicted as dressed in flowing garments, sometimes wearing a hooded robe, and wearing golden necklaces. She often holds a prayer mala (rosary-like beads), a lotus flower, a vase containing the pure nectar of compassion and wisdom, or a willow branch with which she sprinkles the divine gift of life. She sometimes is attended by Her acolytes, the dragon-girl Lung Nu and the male child Sudhana.
Kuan Yin is also mistress of the Southern Sea and patroness bodhisattva of sailors and fishermen. As such She is often depicted as crossing the sea seated or standing on a lotus, or riding upon the head of a dragon.
She is known as the “bestower of children” and Her image is found from Korea to Malaysia and west to India. She is one of the most beautiful of all the Goddesses. The legends of Her healing miracles throughout the centuries, as well as Her gentle, infinitely kind nature, have led many to compare Her to the Western world’s Mary the Madonna.
One Buddhist legend tells of Kuan Yin’s vow to never rest until all sentient beings were freed from samsara (the wheel of life/death/rebirth to which we are chained by our karma).
Despite Her heroic efforts, there were still countless millions of unhappy beings yet to be saved. Upon comprehending how vast the demand was, Kuan Yin was overwhelmed and Her head split apart into thousands of pieces.
Isn’t this exactly how we feel, too? Upon seeing our world with clear eyes, when the veils of naivety, illusion, and media hypnosis are torn away, how do we not break into a thousand pieces?
The answer is that we do, and maybe we need to.
Fortunately, upon seeing Kuan Yin’s plight, the Amitabha Buddha (a celestial Buddha of Infinite Light) gave Her eleven heads with which to better contain the cries of the suffering.
Only now, being able to fully hear these cries and comprehend them, when She attempted to reach out to all who needed aid, Her mere two arms shattered into pieces.
Once more, Amitabha Buddha came to Her aid and gave Her a thousand arms, with which to aid the multitudes.
As we attempt to face the mind-blowing pain of our world at this pivotal time, perhaps we are not asked to “hold it together.” Like Kuan Yin, we shatter into a thousand pieces.
If we allow this complete breaking down, we may discover a score of new ways to see, and a thousand more abilities for helping.
It has been said of Kuan Yin, “As one Moon imprints a thousand streams, and all the thousand streams reflect the one Moon; one Springtime nurtures a myriad flowers, and all the myriad flowers are endowed with the wonder of Spring.”
Like the beautiful Moon, She shines Her imprint of mercy and compassion into each of us, and we reflect Her, each in our own unique way. We are the myriad flowers endowed with Her Spring. It is through us that She hears every cry, feels every tear, answers every prayer.
The Lotus Sutra states that when we turn to Kuan Yin, who shines within us as our own awakened self-nature, the raging fire becomes a placid pool; chains that bind one’s hands and feet are loosened; beasts flee, and snakes lose their poison.
Thus, when our awareness is awakened, and our compassion is made active, all suffering may be dispelled. By calling out to Her, we manifest Kuan Yin — the living incarnation of mercy and love.
Thus may each of us discover we are the bright reflection of Divine understanding, healing, and compassion so desperately needed in troubled times.
Even if it may break us into a thousand pieces, may you and I fully hear, and respond with infinite loving kindness to the cries of the world.