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The Kuan Yin Chronicles
THE MYTHS AND PROPHECIES OF THE CHINESE GODDESS OF COMPASSION
By MARTIN PALMER, JAY RAMSAY, MAN-HO KWOK
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay, with Man-Ho Kwok
All rights reserved.
The History and Origins of Kuan Yin
The Compassionate Bodhisattva
At some time around the first century AD, a remarkable Buddhist text was composed in Sanskrit, somewhere in the northern parts of India or possibly in areas of what is now Afghanistan. It is known in Sanskrit as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra—the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wondrous Law. More commonly it is simply known as the Lotus Sutra. It is a key text of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
There are two main forms of Buddhism. The Theravada tradition—meaning the Teachings of the Elders—sticks to a strict understanding of the teachings of the historical Buddha. It teaches personal individual struggle to find the Path to enlightenment. This is hard, not often achieved and takes years, sometimes many lives, to achieve.
The second form of Buddhism is called Mahayana, the Great Vehicle tradition. This tradition feels that the individualism and difficulty of the Theravada tradition is unnecessary. It presents a vision of the Buddha and of Buddhism which is accessible to all, religious and lay person alike. It offers the possibility of release from the cycle of suffering and death and rebirth. This comes through personal devotion and reliance upon the salvationary activities of various intermediaries known as Bodhisattvas. Through countless lives of perfection Bodhisattvas have acquired great merit which they use to free those who suffer. Mahayana Buddhism is called the Great Vehicle because its teachings are like a vast wagon capable of carrying many to release from rebirth.
It is from this Great Vehicle tradition that the Lotus Sutra comes. This sutra claims to have been given by the historical Buddha but depicts a mythological world and time. The text opens thus:
Once the Buddha was staying at the City of Royal Palaces and on the Vulture Peak assembled a great host of his greater monks, in all twelve thousand.
The Buddha sent forth from the curl of white hair between his eyebrows a ray of light, which illuminated eighteen thousand worlds in the eastern quarter, so that there was nowhere it did not reach, downwards to the lowest hell and upward to the highest Heaven of each world.
This is clearly a dramatic text and it is considered one of the greatest Buddhist texts in the world. Its vision of a compassionate Buddha who sends forth the light of enlightenment and salvation to the whole world has made it a cornerstone of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism.
We know nothing of the writer. But he or she was inspired, for the Lotus Sutra is one of the most beautiful and graceful texts in the religious world. Its place in the affections of the people of China and Japan is unrivalled.
To give you a sense of the salvationary and compassionate nature of this text, let me quote from chapter 25, a chapter of immense importance with regard to Kuan Yin and her evolution. It tells of a Bodhisattva called Avalokitesvara. The name means "The Lord Who Regards the Cries of the World." This Bodhisattva had lived lives of such exemplary quality as to have eliminated all his own karma, which creates rebirth, and to have built up a store of merit with which he wished to help free all life from the struggle of life and death. Thus delaying his final release into the nothingness of Nirvana, he hears the cries of the world and pours out his compassion on those who seek release from the wheel of suffering.
In the earliest part of the chapter, the Buddha describes the effects of calling upon the compassion of Avalokitesvara:
If any, carried away by a flood, call upon his name, they will immediately reach the shallows ... Or if anyone cries who is in deadly peril by the sword, the sword will be snapped asunder. If wicked demons attack, the one who cries will become invisible to them ... If a woman desires a son, worships and pays homage, she will bear a son, virtuous and wise; or if a daughter, then of good demeanour and looks.
The text goes on to say that this Bodhisattva can take on any form in order to reach a person in need of salvation. He can appear as one of the Hindu gods such as Brahma or Indra to help Hindus; as a monk or nun, as male or female, depending upon the needs of the time, the person, and the place. The text continues by reflecting upon the nature of this compassion:
Every evil state of existence,
Hells and ghosts and animals,
Sorrows of birth, age, disease, death,
All will thus be ended for him.
True Regard, serene Regard,
Far-reaching, wise Regard,
Regard of pity, Regard compassionate,
Ever longed for, ever looked for
in radiance ever pure and serene!
Wisdom's sun, destroying darkness,
Subduer of woes, of storm, of fire,
Illuminator of the world!
Law of pity, thunder quivering,
Compassion wondrous as a great cloud,
pouring spiritual rain like nectar,
Quenching all the flames of distress!
Little wonder that such a magnificent vision should inspire those across the vast lands of China who long for release.
But what does this have to do with Kuan Yin? It is that when rendered into Chinese, the Sanskrit title Avalokitesvara becomes Kuan Shih Yin—"The One Who Hears the Cries of the World." Kuan Yin begins life as the Chinese Avalokitesvara.
The Lotus Sutra was one of the earliest Buddhist texts to be translated into Chinese. The greatest of these translations was by a master translator, Kumarajiva.
From the evidence of his name, Kumarajiva was not Chinese. It is said that he was a prisoner sold into slavery and that he originally came either from Taxila, in what is now northern Pakistan, close to Afghanistan, or from Kharashar in Turkestan. His skills as a translator were soon recognized and from AD 397 to 415 he lived in Chang-an, the capital city of the state of Ch'in in China. He completed his translation of the Lotus Sutra into Chinese in AD 406, giving it the title Miao Fa Lien Hua Ching. This translation was neither the first nor the last into Chinese, but it is considered the most sublime and is the one most favored in China to this day.
Thus the name Kuan Shih Yin entered the Chinese world and the story begin to unfold.
The Shift to the Female
The compassionate nature of Kuan Shih Yin obviously appealed to many for whom the more austere teachings of the Buddha had little appeal. From the fifth century AD onwards statues of the Bodhisattva began to appear in China. At this stage, Kuan Shih Yin was always depicted as a man, albeit one very slight and graceful of form and visage. For example, the British Museum has in its Chinese collection a very fine life-size statue of Kuan Shih Yin which dates from the Six Dynasties—AD 550 to 577. This statue is clearly male, though somewhat androgynous, as are many of the male forms of Kuan Yin.
By the late eighth century AD, however, Kuan Yin began to be regularly depicted as female. What happened and why?
It is a difficult detective job to try and discern the time and place where the shift from male Avalokitesvara to female Kuan Yin took place. In Kumarajiva's translation, and indeed in all the earliest translations of the Lotus Sutra, Kuan Shih Yin is indisputably male. While it is recognized within the text that he is capable of taking a female form, this is not considered his main form. The Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan Tsang (c. 596–664), in his prodigious records of his travels from China to India, makes no mention of a female Kuan Yin, only male. In texts such as the Cheng Ming Ching, which dates from the end of the seventh century, Kuan Yin is still male and clearly so. Kuan Yin is also clearly male in the Surangama Sutra, which was first produced in AD 705 in Chinese. Claiming to be a translation from an original Sanskrit text, it now seems certain that this text was written in Chinese in China at about that time. It indicates a growing interest in Kuan Yin, but again, not in a female form.
It is possible to chart the rise in devotion to Kuan Yin through the statues and dedications inscribed in the great Buddhist caves of Lung Men, near Loyang, Henan province. Those made from AD 500 to 540 show that the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, was the most popular Buddhist figure. There were forty-three dedications to him, with thirty-five to the future Buddha, Maitraya, eight to Amida, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, another salvationary figure in Buddhism, and twenty-two to Kuan Yin.
From 650 to 690, the dedications show a radical shift. Only eight are to Sakyamuni, eleven to Maitraya, 103 to Amida, and forty-four to Kuan Yin. The desire for a salvationary, compassionate face to Buddhism could not be more clearly signaled than in the rise to popularity of both Kuan Yin and Amida, a trend which has never been reversed.
By the mid to late ninth century, as dedications from the Buddhist manuscripts found in the sealed caves of Tun Huang confirm, worship of Kuan Yin had not only become a major cult but Kuan Yin was now usually considered and depicted as female. This is borne out by the sculpture and painting which have survived from that time.
So something happened between the early eighth century and the mid ninth century to turn Kuan Yin from a male into a female figure. What could it be?
It is impossible to know exactly, but there are some fascinating clues, psychological, archaeological, and philosophical. Though occasionally difficult to discern through the passage of time, these nevertheless give a hint as to what happened.
The cult of Kuan Yin grew most strongly and rapidly from the seventh to the ninth centuries AD in a wild part of China where numerous cultures met and interacted. Kuan Yin's roots lie not in the heartlands of historic China, but on the northwest frontier, on the Silk Road. It is here that some of the earliest images of the goddess have been found and it is here that the texts found in the Tun Huang caves were written, texts with paeans of praise to Kuan Yin. The caves were sealed with literally tens of thousands of texts hidden in them sometime around the end of the tenth or beginning of the eleventh century AD.
It was from China's wild northwest border that her cult spread across China and on to Japan. The male cult of Kuan Yin had already penetrated as a result of the dissemination if the Lotus Sutra, but the distinctive female forms of Kuan Yin only began to fan out extensively from the northwest in the ninth to tenth centuries.
The Need for the Divine Feminine
The need for a female aspect of the divine runs deep within many, if not all cultures. The earliest pantheons of China are a mixture of male and female and half-human, half-animal beings. For example, the two great founder-figures of Chinese culture, agriculture, religion, and language are Fu Hsi and Nua Kua. These magical, mythical figures are the progenitors of "Chinese-ness." Fu Hsi is male and Nua Kua is female and both of them are half-human and half-snake. Together they created all the aspects of civilization—writing, agriculture, medicine, astrology—and gave them as gifts to humanity. Together they ruled as man and woman, guiding the childlike earliest peoples. They are considered the first two of the Three August Ones of Chinese prehistory, of Chinese mythology.
Chinese mythology in its earliest forms appears to have been neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but was what Riane Eisler has called gylanic—a world where male and female were equal. Other legends of China reinforce this, as does climbing the oldest and most sacred of the Taoist Sacred Mountains of China, T'ai Shan. All the way up the sacred path leading to the summit of this extraordinary mountain are shrines and statues of the great goddess of the mountain. She has many titles: Old Mother, Old Grandmother of T' ai, the Heavenly Immortal deity Green Jade Mother, and the Goddess of the Azure Clouds. Amongst the host of legends about her, one recounts that she and her brother, the Jade Emperor, the rulers of Heaven, descended to Earth on T' ai Shan. Here they brought to life all the creatures and plants, birds and fishes. From this mountain streamed forth life in its multitudinous forms. Last of all, the goddess made human beings. Made them, not gave birth to them, for there seems to be no tradition in China of an earth mother figure. As brother and sister the god and goddess ruled the world from the mountain before ascending again.
Today, almost all trace of this legend has gone, overlaid with much more conventionally acceptable patriarchal concepts. Now the Jade Emperor has the highest point of the mountain as his sole preserve. Yet the tradition is not all gone. For to enter onto the plateau of the summit itself, you must pass through the Gate to Heaven. This literally is a gate, set into the chasm which leads to the plateau. Behind it is a courtyard where three deities sit and before whom you must pass to enter. The one opposite the gate is the god of T'ai Shan himself. But on either side are Kuan Yin and the goddess of T'ai Shan, the Old Mother, the creator of human beings. There is no entry to the plateau without devotion to all three. As will be seen later, the link to Kuan Yin here is no accident.
In other legends, the goddess of T'ai Shan is called the Daughter of Heaven and is again credited with the creation of human beings. This is why the Emperors of China so often came to worship at T'ai Shan, the first recorded visit being that of the great tyrant and unifier of China, Chin Shi Huang Ti, who visited around 218 BC. The rulers came because, being the Sons of Heaven, they had to make obeisance to their Heavenly Mother.
The role of women in the sphere of the divine in ancient China, before Confucian values came to influence Chinese society from the fourth century BC onwards, seems to bear out Eisler's vision of the existence of a culture in which men and women were equal. There is no evidence that I have seen to show that any form of matriarchal society existed in China in any major way. Rather, it was a society of equals. This seems to be borne out by the fact that both men and women were considered capable of being shamans—vehicles for communication between the spirit world and the material world.
Shamanism can lay claim to being the oldest world religion. Originating at least eight thousand years ago in Siberia, it spread across the then existing land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, and thus down through North America. It is the basis for much of what we now know as Native American religion. In similar fashion, it spread down into China and Korea and across to Japan. Its traces here are to be found in much of contemporary Taoism and in aspects of Shinto in Japan. Its influence spread west along the migration routes of the steppe peoples, reaching into northern Europe, where traces of it are to be found in Finland and Norway, and south beyond China into South East Asia.
The heart of shamanism is a belief in two worlds: the material, physical world which we inhabit and experience, and the superior, spiritual world, which exists alongside this world and sometimes breaks through into it. The role and power of the shaman is his or her ability to communicate between these worlds. This is done through trance states and through being taken over by an animal spirit—in Siberia and much of northern China, usually the spirit of a bear.
Through such states, the shaman could ask questions of the spirit world concerning problems in the material world such as illness or disaster. The concern of shamanism is to help humanity live in accordance with the wishes and flow of the spiritual world. To be out of kilter with the spiritual world is to be in trouble. To be in the flow of the spiritual world is to go with the forces of life. This notion lies behind the later developments of Taoism, especially as expressed in the Tao Te Ching, where the goal of human existence is to be part of the Tao, the Way, that flows on and on forever.
There is, as yet, little evidence of a major mother goddess culture in China. But it is important to stress that there is also no evidence of any serious patriarchal society there until about the time of the Shang dynasty (c. 1700–1100 BC). Yet it is also at this time that we first find written evidence of strange figures who seem to come from the earliest period of Chinese religion—the Eastern and Western Mothers. An oracle bone text from the Shang dynasty talks about making offerings to these two goddesses. We know nothing about these two figures, though their association with cosmic directions is perhaps significant, as that would appear to indicate that they were celestial mothers in the same way that Nua Kua and the goddess of T'ai Shan are celestial rather than earth mother figures.
The next significant reference to a mother goddess comes in the I Ching, written somewhere around the eleventh to tenth century BC. Hexagram 35, line two says:
To prosper is also to grieve. The oracle says good fortune. He will receive great protection and blessing from the ancestral Queen Mother.
It is unusual for any deity or divinity to be named in the text of the I Ching and so this inclusion is quite significant. The term "ancestral Queen Mother" denotes that she is the mother deity of the Chou tribes, tribes which emerged from the wilderness to the west of China and whose temple was on the Chou Sacred Mountain of Ch'i Shan—in the west. Perhaps it was this ancestral mother who gave rise to the title "Queen Mother of the West"?
Excerpted from The Kuan Yin Chronicles by MARTIN PALMER, JAY RAMSAY, MAN-HO KWOK. Copyright © 2009 Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay, with Man-Ho Kwok. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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