Guanyin (Kwan-yin)

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Guanyin (Kwan-yin) or Guanshiyin, is the Chinese literary translation of the Avalokitesvara, meaning the bodhisattva "observing the sounds of the world." Of all the Buddhist deities, Guanyin is perhaps the most popular among Chinese.

The 1000-hand Guanyin

The Chinese came to know Avalokitesvara as Guanyin when Buddhism was introduced into China around 200-589 A.D. Representations of Guanyin prior to the Song Dynasty (960-1126) were masculine in appearance in accordance with the Buddhist tradition. By and by, Guanyin's image became feminized, represented as a middle-aged fair lady in a white robe. The transformation marked the Sinification of Avalokitesvara by the Chinese who believed in the Lotus Sutra, which gives Avalokitesvara the ability to assume innumerable forms. Among them are the representations of a lady in white robe and a bodhisattva with a thousand hands. The Chinese might have believed that a feminine image would best embody Avalokitesvara's compassionate desire to listen to people's supplications and came to their rescue at all cost. "This desire and ability to help all without distinction is due to Avalokitesvara's great compassion, indeed he is seen as the very embodiment of the Buddha's compassion." (A. On, In China. J. Blofield, Bodhisatva of Compassion. Boston, 1988)

Guanyin Who Gives Up Her Babies to Others

One legend deals with one of the many forms of Guanyin, that is the Song Zi Guanyin (Guanyin Who Gives Her Own Babies to Others). Song Zi Guanyin had been a shepherdess known for her preeminent dancing skills. One day, the king had a party to entertain his five hundred warriors who had helped in his victorious battle against his rival. He invited the shepherdess to dance for them despite her pregnancy. She had to obey the king. She meant to perform a dance or two and came back home, but the half drunken warriors insisted that she dance with them. In the turmoil, she had a miscarriage, which dealt her a fatal emotional blow.

After her death, she became the wife of Hades. To compensate for the pain she had suffered in life, she gave birth to five hundred children. Even though, she felt no solace. Urged by her desire to retaliate, each night she would transform herself into a ferocious ghost and came to this world to prey on children. The world was seized with terror.

Nevertheless, she found one of her five children missing as she came back from her killing mission one night. She searched high and low but to no avail. Her misery was boundless. As she was about to collapse when Buddha appeared before her. Buddha told her that he hid her child in order to save her soul.

"You have five hundred children and yet you feel so painful when one is missing. You know that earthlings had only one or two in each family. How much pain would they suffer when they lose one?" Buddha asked her.

The ghost realized her sin and would like atone for it. She gave all her five hundred children to those earthlings who had reproduction problems and prayed for one.

This story is another example of a human being becoming a gui or ghost that could be transformed into a shen or spirit.

Story retold by Haiwang Yuan, ©2003
Last updated: October 9, 2003

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