07 September 2007

Bodhisattva Kwan Yin

In Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin/Kuan Yin/Kannon/Kwannon is synonymous with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the pinnacle of mercy and compassion. Among the Chinese, Avalokitesvara is almost exclusively called Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa. The Chinese translation of many Buddhist sutras has in fact replaced the Chinese transliteration of Avalokitesvara with Guan Shi Yin.

In Chinese Buddhism, the popular myth and worship of Guan Yin as a goddess by the populace is generally not viewed to be in conflict with the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's nature. In fact the widespread worship of Guan Yin as a "Goddess of Mercy and Compassion" is seen as the boundless salvific nature of bodhisattva Avalokitesvara at work. The Buddhist canon states that bodhisattvas can assume whatsoever gender and form is needed to liberate beings from ignorance and dukkha. With specific reference to Avalokitesvara, he is stated both in the Lotus Sutra and the Surangama Sutra to have appeared before as a woman or a goddess to save beings from suffering and ignorance. Some Buddhist schools refer to Guan Yin both as male and female interchangeably.

Also in Mahayana Buddhism, to which Chinese Buddhism belongs, gender is no obstacle to Enlightenment. The Buddhist concept of non-duality applies here. The Vimalakirti Sutra in the Goddess chapter clearly illustrates an Enlightened being who is also a female and deity. In the Lotus Sutra a maiden became Enlightened in a very short time span. That bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is also the goddess Guan Yin is not seen as contradictory.

Given that bodhisattvas are known to incarnate at will as living people according to the sutras, the princess Miao Shan is generally viewed as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara.

Guanyin is immensely popular among Chinese Buddhists, especially those from devotional schools. She is generally seen as a source of unconditional love and more importantly as a savior. In her bodhisattva vows, Guan Yin promises to answer the cries and pleas of all beings and to liberate all beings from their own karmic woes. Based upon the Lotus Sutra and the Shurangama sutra, Avalokitesvara is generally seen as a savior, both spiritually and physically. The sutras state that through his saving grace even those who have no chance of being Enlightened can be Enlightened, and those deep in negative karma can still find salvation through his compassion.

In Pure Land Buddhism, Guan Yin is described as the "Bark of Salvation". Along with Amitabha Buddha and the bodhisattva Mahastamaprata, She temporarily liberates beings out of the Wheel of Samsara into the Pure Land, where they will have the chance to accrue the necessary merit so as to be a Buddha in one lifetime.

Even among Chinese Buddhist schools that are non-devotional, Guan Yin is still highly venerated. Instead of being seen as an active external force of unconditional love and salvation, the personage of Guan Yin is highly revered as the principle of compassion, mercy and love. The act, thought and feeling of compassion and love is viewed as Guan Yin. A merciful, compassionate, loving individual is said to be Guan Yin. A meditative or contemplative state of being at peace with oneself and others is seen as Guan Yin.

In the Mahayana canon, the Heart Sutra is ascribed entirely to the bodhisattva Kuan Yin/Kwannon. This is unique, as most Mahayana Sutras are usually ascribed to Shakyamuni Buddha and the teachings, deeds or vows of the bodhisattvas are described by Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Heart Sutra, Guan Yin/Avalokitesvara describes to the Arhat Sariputra the nature of reality and the essence of the Buddhist teachings. The famous Buddhist saying "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" comes from this sutra.
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