Magical Buffet Mythology: Kuan Yin

by Rebecca

Who is Kuan Yin?  Simple answer is the Goddess of Compassion.  You may not have heard of her, but I assure you, the people of China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Buddhists, and Goddess worshipers know all about her.  Kuan Yin is She Who Hears the Cries of the World.  She is generally depicted as a beautiful white robed woman who instead of entering heaven, refused to go until the suffering on Earth has ended.

Kuan Yin (who is known by many, many alternate spellings: Quan Yin, Kannon, Kuan-shih Yin, and more) began her existence as a man.  He was (and is) the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in the Buddhist faith.  The unique sex change occurred when the Bodhisattva came to China.  When this particular Bodhisattva began their incorporation with the Chinese Buddhists, he became a she!  Needless to say, this caused much confusion within the Buddhist community so at this point it has been decided, thanks to the Lotus Sutra, that Kuan Yin can take on any form necessary to help in her missions of compassion and mercy.  That is good because there are stories about Kuan Yin that do not use any of the names previously mentioned in this article.  For instance, the one I chose to use!

This story describes Kuan Yin as the daughter of a cruel king.  (In this particular legend Kuan Yin is referred to as Miao Shan, a princess who is believed to have had a religious following that has since been transferred to Kuan Yin.)

Okay, so Miao Shan’s father, the King, wanted Miao Shan to marry.  You see, the king never had any sons, only daughters, so he was determined to see them all married to wealthy important men.  But despite being a princess Miao Shan was more into the praying and less into the marrying.  She made a fuss that she would not marry unless it could ease three misfortunes.  Unfortunately for the King, marriage, although good, cannot alleviate the suffering people endure as they get older in age, ease the suffering people endure when they fall ill, or ease the suffering caused by death.  This was not your average princess!  Since marriage couldn’t take care of any of those, Miao Shan wanted permission to retire to a religious life at the temple.

The King finally allowed Miao Shan to enter the temple, but he had spoken to the monks and told them to make life there unbearable for her.  You see, he had this military man all lined up for Miao Shan once she gave up at the temple.  The monks tried to make it hard for her.  Miao Shan was forced to work day and night with little food or water and no help.  But that plucky Miao Shan was just such a good person that she didn’t complain and soon the animals there took to helping her.

Now here is where the story branches into a million different variations.  In some versions, the King has the temple burned down.  Miao Shan puts out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns.  This totally freaks out the King and he goes from wanting to marry her off, to putting her to death!  Some stories say she was taken away by a supernatural tiger to one of the Hell-like realms of the dead, where she freed many of the souls there.  Other versions say Miao Shan was unable to be killed.  That axe and sword alike broke into thousands of pieces when they tried to take her head!  Another is that she allowed herself to be killed, took on the guilt from her executioner so he would have none, and thusly descended into one of the Hells.  Once there she let loose with all that good karma she had accumulated and freed many souls that were there.  This is just like the movie “Clue”, that’s how it could have ended, but here is my personal favorite ending.

In this ending the King falls ill with a jaundice that no doctor can cure.  A monk arrives and explains that the only way he can be cured is with a special medicine made from the eye and the arm of one without anger.  It just so happens that the monk knows where to find such a person, one lives on Fragrant Mountain.  Miao Shan (of course it’s Miao Shan…it’s her story, right?) when asked gives up her eye and arm willingly.

The King recovers and goes to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the one who helped cure him.  When he arrives he is shocked to discover that his own daughter made those sacrifices for him.  The King begs her for forgiveness.  This version of the story concludes with Miao Shan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Kuan Yin and the King, Queen and her two sisters build a temple on the mountain for her.

As long as this article is, it barely touches on all the wonderful stories, and wonderful aspects, of Kuan Yin.  I encourage you to take a little time to learn more.  Where should you look?  Well, Wikipedia is always a good start,  Or you can follow in my foot steps and read the book that got me interested in Kuan Yin, “Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion” by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay, and Man-Ho Kwok.