A Western Buddhist's Travels

Sightseeing & detours on the path of enlightenment

Guan Shih Lin, Kwan Yin, Quan Am

When Buddha taught, one of his disciples was Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. Avalokitesvara was usually depicted as an androgynous male. Around the eight century C.E. the Bodhisattva of Compassion in China started to be represented in a female form. This Bodhisattva was known as Guan Shih Lin in Chinese. The Taoist of that time in China had a mother figure, a celestial mother whose womb was the whole of the cosmos. Perhaps it was the influence of a belief in a Divine mother that influenced this. Guan Shih Lin was first depicted in stories of women, who struggled against oppression, perhaps mistreated or even put to death. Some of the stories include: The Thousand armed Guan Shih Lin, Princess Miao Shan, Mr. Ma’s Wife, Guan Shih Lin with the Fish Basket, just to name a few. I recommend that if you only read one of these stories that you read Princess Miao Shen, but all of these and many others show the meaning of understanding and extraordinary compassion regardless of personal sacrifice required. Avolokitesvara was recognized as female in the Chinese culture of the time, due to the characteristics fitting the cultural view of femininity rather than masculine. So the essence became part of the Chinese culture through the repetition of stories about women who showed these qualities in the face of oppression or even death.

Some of you may be saying, now hold on a minute, Buddhism has no Gods. Guan Shih Lin is a Bodhisattva, a being who has stopped just at the threshold of total enlightenment, in order to return here to help others along the path. She is not a God, but rather symbolizes the teachers who regardless of the cost to themselves, do everything they can to help others towards enlightenment. She has no magical powers, only the power of extraordinary compassion. Many Asian Buddhist women will pray for her help in developing understanding and compassion. Guan Shih Lin is a good example of a being who practices Metta.

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