Guan Yim: Goddess of Compassion
Guan Yim, Guan Yin, Kuan Yim, Kuan Yin
Guan Yin (in Chinese: 觀音, pinyin guānyīn; full name: 觀世音 Guan Shi Yin;in Thai: กวนอิม)
Chinese Bodhisattva/ Goddess of Compassion, Mercy and Kindness is considered to be a mother-goddess and patron of seamen.
Guan Yim standing atop a Dragon.
Photo © nationsonline.org
GUAN YIN STANDING ATOP A DRAGON
Guan Yin is also known as patron bodhisattva of Putuo Shan (Mount Putuo), mistress of the Southern Sea and patroness of fishermen. As such she is shown crossing the sea seated or standing on a lotus or on the head of a dragon.
The dragon being an ancient symbol for high spirituality, wisdom, strength, and divine powers of transformation.
GUAN YIM AND SHAN TSAI
Shan Tsai (also called Sudhana in Sanskrit) was a disabled boy from India who was very interested in studying the Buddha Dharma. When he heard that there was a Buddhist teacher on the rocky island of P'u-t'o he quickly journeyed there to learn. Upon arriving the island, he managed to find Bodhisattva Guan Yim despite his severe disability.
Guan Yim, after having a discussion with Shan Tsai, decided to test the boy's resolve to fully study the Buddhist teachings. She conjured the illusion of three sword-wielding pirates running up the hill to attack her. Guan Yim took off and dashed off to the edge of a cliff, the three illusions still chasing her.
Shan Tsai, seeing that his teacher was in danger, hobbled uphill. Guan Yim then jumped over the edge of the cliff, and soon after this the three bandits followed. Shan Tsai, still wanting to save his teacher, managed to crawl his way over the cliff edge.
Shan Tsai fell down the cliff but was halted in mid air by Guan Yim, who now asked him to walk. Shan Tsai found that he could walk normally and that he was no longer crippled. When he looked into a pool of water he also discovered that he now had a very handsome face. From that day forth, Guan Yim taught Shan Tsai the entire Buddha Dharma.
GUAN YIN AND LUNG NUE
Many years after Shan Tsai became a disciple of Guan Yim, a distressing event happened in the South Sea. The son of the Dragon Kings (a ruler-god of the sea) was caught by a fisherman while taking the form of a fish. Being stuck on land, he was unable to transform back into his dragon form. His father, despite being a mighty Dragon King, was unable to do anything while his son was on land. Distressed, the son called out to all of Heaven and Earth.
Hearing this cry, Guan Yim quickly sent Shan Tsai to recover the fish and gave him all the money she had. The fish at this point was about to be sold in the market. It was causing quite a stir as it was alive hours after being caught. This drew a much larger crowd than usual at the market. Many people decided that this prodigious situation meant that eating the fish would grant them immortality, and so all present wanted to buy the fish. Soon a bidding war started, and Shan Tsai was easily outbid.
Shan Tsai begged the fish seller to spare the life of the fish. The crowd, now angry at someone so daring, was about to prise him away from the fish when Guan Yim projected her voice from far away, saying "A life should definitely belong to one who tries to save it, not one who tries to take it."
The crowd realising their shameful actions and desire, dispersed. Shan Tsai brought the fish back to Guan Yim, who promptly returned it to the sea. There the fish transformed back to a dragon and returned home. Paintings of Guan Yim today sometimes portray her holding a fish basket, which represents the afore mentioned tale.
But the story does not end here. As a reward for Guan Yim's help saving his son, the Dragon King sent his daughter, a girl called Lung Nue ("dragon girl"), to present to Guan Yim the ‘Pearl of Light’. The ‘Pearl of Light’ was a precious jewel owned by the Dragon King that constantly shone. Lung Nue, overwhelmed by the presence of Guan Yim, asked to be her disciple so that she might study the Buddha Dharma. Guan Yim accepted her offer with just one request: that Lung Nue be the new owner of the ‘Pearl of Light’.
In popular iconography, Lung Nue and Shan Tsai are often seen alongside Guan Yim as two children. Lung Nue is seen either holding a bowl or an ingot, which represents the Pearl of Light, whereas Shan Tsai is seen with palms joined and knees slightly bent to show that he was once crippled.
The representation of Guan Yim at a street parade.
Photo © Valeska Gehrmann
LEGEND OF MIO SHAN
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 (Guan Yim).
Another story describes Guan Yim as the daughter of a cruel king who wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man. The story is usually ascribed to the research of the Buddhist monk Chiang Chih-ch'i in 1100 AD. The story is likely to have a Taoist origin. Chiang Chih-ch'i, when he penned the work, believed that the Guan Yim we know today was actually a Buddhist princess called Miao Shan, who had a religious following on Fragrant Mountain. Despite this, however, there are many variants of the story in Chinese mythology.
According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miao Shan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.
The king asked his daughter what the three misfortunes were that the marriage should ease. Miao Shan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age. The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever.
When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miao Shan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all these.
Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labour and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.
Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her very hard chores in order to discourage her. The monks forced Miao Shan to work all day and all night, while others slept, in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.
In one version of this legend, when Miao Shan was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to one of the more hell-like realms of the dead. However, instead of being punished by demons like the other inmates,Mio Shan played music and flowers blossomed around her. This completely surprised the head demon. The story says that Miao Shan, by merely being in that hell, turned it into a paradise.
A variant of the legend says that Miao Shan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father's orders, his axe shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miao Shan down with arrows but they all veered off.
Finally in desperation he used his hands. Miao Shan, realising the fate the executioner would meet at her father's hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there, she witnessed firsthand the suffering and horrors beings there must endure and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process the Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.
Another tale says that Miao Shan never died but was in fact transported by a supernatural tiger, believed to be the Deity of the Place, to Fragrant Mountain.
The Legend of Miao Shan usually ends with Miao Chuang Yen, Miao Shan's father, falling ill with jaundice. No physician was able to cure him. Then a monk appeared saying that the jaundice could be cured by making a medicine out of the arm and eye of one without anger. The monk further suggested that such a person could be found on Fragrant Mountain. When asked, Miao Shan willingly offered up her eyes and arms. Miao Chuang Yen was cured of his illness and went to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the person. When he discovered that his own daughter had made the sacrifice, he begged for forgiveness. The story concludes with Miao Shan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Guan Yim, and the king, queen and her two sisters building a temple on the mountain for her. She began her journey to heaven and was about to cross over into heaven when she heard a cry of suffering from the world below. She turned around and saw the massive suffering endured by the people of the world. Filled with compassion, she returned to earth, vowing never to leave till such time as all suffering has ended.
After her return to Earth, Guan Yim was said to have stayed for a few years on the island of Mount Putuo where she practised meditation and helped the sailors and fishermen who got stranded. Guan Yim is frequently worshipped as patron of sailors and fishermen due to this. She is said to frequently becalm the sea when boats are threatened with rocks. After some decades Guan Yim returned to Fragrant Mountain to continue her meditation.