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The Different Forms and Functions of the Goddess Kwan Yin

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The Different Forms and Functions of the Goddess Kwan Yin

Guanyin

 

The Different Forms and Functions of the Goddess Kwan Yin

Pak Yeung Law, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


 

ABSTRACT

This article explores the phenomenon of the Buddhist Goddess Kwan Yin with particular emphasis on how gender, roles, and meaning bestowed upon her have changed throughout time. The reader is invited to take a historical journey within the regions of China and India in which the Goddess has materialized and to reflect upon the incidents that gave rise to her various manifestations. Despite the changing forms and genders, though, it is somewhat remarkable that the rituals that surround this deity have remained the same. This article will further explore possible explanations for this.

Keywords: Buddhist goddess, forms, Kwan Yin, ritual, varying genders


 

Kwan Yin, who is one of the Buddhist Goddesses, was a real person in ancient times (about BC600 or BC 492). There are different stories about Kwan Yin with varying genders. Some say she was a princess in one of the countries in India. Others believed that he was a mortal Indian gentleman whose actions benefited the whole of society a lot at that time.  Other beliefs note that she was a simple mother and yet others that he was an omnipotent being. No matter which story was true, changes in the form of Kwan Yin have occurred over the years. Statues have appeared sporting a big crown, with thousands of hands, or even thousands of eyes; others holding a baby or clutching a cane.  It is not unusual to find these strange statues in temples, certainly Kwan Yin Temples. Yet, despite the changing forms of Kwan Yin, she is still worshipped in the same way, including the giving of bows, and burning of incense. This essay examines the background of Kwan Yin, and why the statues of Kwan Yin take so many forms. It concludes by exploring why despite her many guises, the rituals used to worship her have barely changed.  The pronouns He and She will be used to refer to the deity interchangeably.

Kwan Yin was born in BC 600 (Hui-Ming, 2005). She was the third princess in the Xin Lin Kingdom, which was one of the largest countries in India. Her father was the king of the country and when Kwan Yin was born, he felt extremely depressed since he had three daughters and no son. When Kwan Yin grew up, she was deeply moved by the Buddha’s story and began to study him in detail. However, her father had enacted a law that all citizens must not collect any books about Buddhism. Overcoming her fears, she decided to store some Buddhist books in secret. Unfortunately, the king discovered her books, destroyed them, and prohibited her from worshipping the Buddha. He locked Kwan Yin in her bedroom and never let her out. Due to the loss of all things dear to her, and her freedom, she committed suicide. At that moment, the Buddha was touched by her loyalty so he decided to use his unlimited power to bring Kwan Yin back to life. When she regained consciousnesses, Kwan Yin found herself in a Buddhist Temple on Dai Xian Mountain, which was full of Buddhist books. As a result, she could satisfy her interest, and after several years, she had read all the Buddhist books and became one of the Buddhist Goddesses.

Apart from the princess theory, Boucher (1999) notes that Kwan Yin was an Indian gentleman in about BC 492. He was a normal fisherman and worked on his job every day. One day, he saved a fisher family from a storm. Therefore, the local fishermen started to admire him, even after his death. They believed that he could hear all the wishes from fishermen and they believed that when they got into trouble and asked for help, Kwan Yin could listen to their request and help them handle many problems, such as storms and famine. Since he was a guardian of fishermen, the local people made a Kwan Yin statue, which was like a man sitting on a lotus, picking up a bottle full of holy water.

Since Kwan Yin has inhabited many genders and forms throughout the years people have wondered whether different regions have influenced these. They believed that the appearance of Kwan Yin may have changed in order to satisfy different people’s needs. Therefore, they assumed that just as Kwan Yin protected fishermen when they worked, so too could she save people from various natural disasters, such as starvation and earthquakes. This is one reason why the forms of Kwan Yin statues have changed.

Others believed that Kwan Yin gave birth to a baby. For this reason, they created a new female Kwan Yin statue that held a baby in her arms. This kind of Kwan Yin statue could help sterile women get pregnant. They believed that Kwan Yin had life-giving power. If they wholeheartedly worshiped Kwan Yin, she would give her power to them. There were many successful cases in which sterile women got pregnant after worshipping the Kwan Yin Statue.  This kind of Kwan Yin statue is called ‘Child-giving Kwan Yin’, and can be discovered in many temples, such as the Kwan Yin Temple and the A-Ma Temple.

Apart from ‘Child-giving Kwan Yin’, some people believed that Kwan Yin had unlimited power and bravery. In order to exaggerate Kwan Yin’s sanctities, they created a male Kwan Yin statue that wore a big crown on his head. They supposed that Kwan Yin had unlimited power to help people handle problems when they got into trouble. To show his unlimited power, they added thousands of arms and eyes on the Kwan Yin statue. Therefore, this kind of Kwan Yin statue is called ‘Thousand-armed and thousand-sighted Kwan Yin’. According to Boucher (1999), ‘Thousand-armed and thousand-sighted Kwan Yin’ had longsighted power. He could use his eyes to discover people’s doings and use his arms to give a suitable retribution to people related to their actions. Due to his strong power, this kind of statue is most likely the largest statue inside a temple. For example, the largest statue inside the Kwan Yin Temple, which is located at the middle of the temple, is the ‘Thousand-armed and thousand-sighted Kwan Yin’.

Finally, ‘Di Zhuan Kwan Yin’ is one of the most popular Kwan Yin statues that many people worship. In the past, there were many earthquakes that caused deaths and injuries. Some people believed that Kwan Yin could protect them from earthquakes. Therefore, they created a Kwan Yin statue that held a cane, which had a special power. They believed that if ‘Di Zhuan Kwan Yin’ hit his cane on the ground, the special power of his cane could lessen the frequency of earthquakes. Nowadays, it is not unusual to find a ‘Di Zhuan Kwan Yin’ in many households since modern people believe that not only can Kwan Yin lessen earthquakes, he can also ensure the safety of the family members in various ways, such as preventing robberies and car accidents. According to Boucher (1999), there are thirty three types of Kwan Yin, and they have different appearances, forms, and genders. However, only seven kinds of Kwan Yin have been discovered inside Kwan Yin Temples. They might be the more popular ones compared with other forms of Kwan Yin.

Despite the changing forms and genders, the rituals have remained the same. First, people need to bring some fruit and food to the temple they visit and put them in front of the Kwan Yin statue. They believe that this fruit and food can represent their loyalty and they hope Kwan Yin will be touched after showing their wholeheartedness. Then, they buy some incense or paper and burn them in a censer. When the incense is burning, they start to make some wishes. They believe that the incense can act as a medium between Kwan Yin and them, and that they can communicate with Kwan Yin and Kwan Yin can listen to their request, grant their wishes and help handle their problems. After burning some incense or paper, they give three bows to Kwan Yin. Giving bows to Kwan Yin is one of the ways to show their appreciation and loyalty to Kwan Yin. They believe that if they have carried out all these procedures, Kwan Yin will support them every time when they get into trouble.

In BC 492, only a few people worshiped the original Kwan Yin statue, which sat on a lotus, holding a bottle of holy water. Nowadays, this deity in its many guises is worshiped in different parts of the world for a multitude of purposes. People still bring their fruit, burn some incense and give bows to Kwan Yin. That the rituals have not changed, while the forms and genders have, may be representative of the fact that while mankind in both its genders has needed help for so many different purposes, the rituals themselves are symbolic and thus have endured throughout the years, relatively unaltered.

 

REFERENCES

Boucher, S. (1999). Discovering Kwan Yin: Buddhist goddess of compassion. Boston: Beacon Press. Retrieved from http://www.epochtimes.com/b5/5/1/31/n799001.htm

Hui-Ming. (2005). The legend of Miao Zhuang Emperor’s daughter. Epoch times. Retrieved from http://www.epochtimes.com/b5/5/1/31/n799001.htm

 

ASSIGNMENT SUMMARY

This article reflects an assignment for a course which invited students on a trip to visit the Kwan Yin Temple, and also includes ideas from a lecture related to that trip. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pak Yeung Law studied in a Buddhist Secondary school in Kwai Chung. When he was a Form 4 student, a Buddhist teacher invited him to join the Buddhist Youth Club where he acquired substantial knowledge about the Buddha. Kwan Yin is one of the Buddhist Goddesses that he was interested in and on whom he has since carried out much research.  She is the inspiration for this article.

 

  1. The bodhisattva, the Buddha, and Guanyin also take on various forms, genders and identities in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Law might wish to conduct additional research into the possible contemporary platforms / digital mediums / new media which these deities appear in.

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