Kuan Yin, Chinese Goddess of Compassion

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By Susanna Duffy

Everyone knows how to chant Amitabha Buddha, and every household worships Kuan Yin
– Chinese saying

Women everywhere have prayed to her as the Tibetan Tara, the Christian Madonna or as the African Yemaya and, as Kuan Yin, she is one of the most universally beloved of deities in the Buddhist tradition. Kuan Yin is invoked for healing of a sick child, relief from pain and help in all times of trouble. Like Artemis, she is a virgin Goddess who protects women, offers them an alternative to marriage, and grants children to those who desire them.

She is said to be a bodhisattva, one qualified to enter Nirvana but who chooses to remain in the earthly realms and not enter the heavenly worlds until all other living things have completed their own enlightenment and liberated from the pain-filled cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. “I am cultivating this method of great compassion and hope to save all living beings,” Kuan Yin said. “Any living being who calls my name or sees me will be free from all fear and danger.”

Her presence calms those who suffer and brings peace to the heart. Her name means “She who hears the cries of the world” and she looks without judgement, reflecting back even the tiniest amount of love magnified a thousandfold. There are numerous legends that recount the miracles which Kuan Yin performs to help those who call on her. For the Goddess of Mercy is unique among deities. She does not believe in vengeance, and is reluctant to punish even those who would benefit from a severe lesson. Those who could expect a dreadful penance in other belief systems can attain rebirth and renewal by simply calling for help with utter and absolute sincerity. It is said that, even for one kneeling beneath the sword of the executioner, a single heartfelt cry to Bodhisattva Kuan Yin will cause the blade to fall shattered.

Kuan Yin may be shown either in a standing or in a sitting position, but on top of her crown there is always an image of a buddha. In her hands she may hold a willow branch, a vase with water, or a lotus flower. The willow branch is used to either heal the ill or to grant requests and the water symbolises cleansing so that all living things are blessed with physical and spiritual peace. Her right hand often points downward, with the palm facing outward, the posture of granting a wish. In many images she also carries the pearls of illumination. She holds a sheaf of ripe rice or a bowl of rice seed to denote fertility and the dragon, an ancient symbol for wisdom and strength is associated with her. Dressed in flowing white robes she is sometimes adorned with ornaments to denote her attainment as bodhisattva, or she is shown without them as a sign of great virtue.

A popular form depicts her with a thousand eyes and a thousand hands. The thousand eyes let her see the suffering creatures in this world, and the thousand hands allow her to reach out to help them.

The compassion of Kuan Yin can transform us. We learn the blessing of mercy in the arms of a mother and, with our own eyes and hands, we can help others.

Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counsellor and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions, and specialises in Croning and other celebrations for women. http://celebrant.yarralink.com

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