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tearing the rag off the bush again
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Guan Yin PDF E-mail

First, she is a goddess. She is one today throughout East Asia—although in some countries she is a he. Yes the goddess is sometimes a god, so that's worth a second look, for some a veritable double-take. You can see that even as a woman, she is often ambiguously gendered, where some of the statues are flat-chested and almost indistinguishable from representations of the young Buddha himself. Gender is trivial, if only in the realm of the divine. Transgendering is an easy trick for this god. As a male in India, the god(ess) is commonly known as Avalokiteśvara. This older version gets transgendered as the feminine version later and especially in China, the more s/he is identified with the quality of unconditional compassion. In Japan, she is very much like the Chinese version, imported like so much of Japanese tradition, but her name is Kannon. (Before we leave this trivia, why is exactly that monotheists never ask why a lone god is male? What is that masculine sexuality for . . .?)

Guan Yin
China, Northern Song dynasty
wood carving, circa 1025 C.E.

Hence we are led to a third look at her: she comes out of a vaguely flexible folksy Buddhism, origins lost in the fog of unrecorded ages. Certainly she emerged later in this tradition as a kind of Bodhisattva—an enlightened being who agrees to climb down to empathize with this realm of suffering in order to offer assistance. Like all bodhisattvas, she was once a mere mortal just like you and I, all lost in what Ginsberg howled about as "the total animal soup of time." But an eternal bodhisattva has been lifted out of our soup to an eastern sainthood, an apotheosis performed through a combination of their own efforts to attain salvation and the after-effects of expansive legends embellished by the rest of us poor suffering fools.

She is the Goddess of Mercy, a.k.a., Kuan Yin and Quan Yin. But if I were a scholar of religion, I'd no doubt find that her other roots, her previous incarnations so to speak, go back even further into ancient matriarchies long before the Buddha. She was gradually adapted and adopted into the "new" Buddhist lineage, much as Christianity adopted and reconfigured the ancient goddess of fertility in the figure of the Virgin Mary.

Another way of looking at Guan Yin is implied above: She changes her appearance readily, perhaps in order to empathize, to appear as expected to appear, to become otherwise out of sheer identification. In some traditions, she can appear as an ox or a bird. This is a folk tradition -- technically we should say "exoteric" rather than the "esoteric" knowledge of Zen for example. She isn't mentioned by the classics on the Tao. And of course the Zen approach to the Void ultimately abjures any personification, even of the Buddha. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Instead, as in most folk traditions the world over, her function is essentially for magic. Prayer and offerings are made to her in order to get something in return. Magical gift exchange and sacrifice. I give Thee something, and I humbly expect Thou givest in return. Here in Taiwan she might bestow a baby. If fertility is your devout wish, then Guan Yin is the goddess for you. This also connects her back to the ancient matriarchal fertility goddess. Apparently she does an efficient job in this regard, since Asia is the most populated territory in the world! But she's very sympathetic, so people also ask her for more money (often lost in gambling) and for safety (sometimes threatened due to same). Gambling is big here, and if you lose, then you search for a better icon of Guan Yin. The luck is in the icon itself, the original sense of a fetish, speaking in anthropologese. Unlucky statues are often replaced. Or if she does not give you the answer you want, you go to another temple and ask again. The key seems to be in the right representation of Guan Yin. Magic, fortune, sacrifice—these are the traditional elements of all practical worship. The goddess does not exclusively rule over luck, as numberless other gods likewise listen to the endlessly mumbled prayers for health and fortune in Taiwan. The sacred game is to intuitively play one god against the other, betting on the odds. But Guan Yin the Merciful is certainly approached with great frequency. Since suffering is as inevitable as taxes, she will always have supplicants. Yet she is always depicted alone.

As I write this in Taiwan, the mountain across the river from Tamsui is named Guan Yin Shan. It is said that the impressive sequence of lumps and bumps at the top resembles her profile. But when I ask what bump is what, no one seems to know—maybe this maybe that. Is it her face? Is she reclining? Hard to say, though the same lack of definition applies to everything here. Nevertheless, as Guan Yin is a kind of shape shifter, so this ambiguity seems appropriate.

In typical representations, she holds a bottle-like tube in one hand and the other hand makes a gesture of cosmic peace. The "tube" is an ancient scroll of the Sutras. It is the sacred scripture of the older tradition that fed into Buddhism in India. She offers the Word or at least the Sign of reassurance. People don't read the Sutras; they just feel that it must be sacred. But again, nothing is definite. Other interpretations say that the tube is really is a bottle of wine from which drops are to purify the human mind. Some pictures actually show some sort of liquid pouring forth from the bottle. That's why we call alcohol "spirits". If you can't understand the Word, then you can always catch the spirit. A pint of beer is worth two muses and so forth. Both resemble something felt to be inspiration: in-spirit-ed. The word and the spirits . . . but more on intoxication later.

In her feminine function of sympathy and help, she is also like the Virgin Mary. Or to be more chronologically accurate, we should say that Mary is a kind of Western Guan Yin. She is vaguely related to the male god, though the story is not clear and she is independent. She appears. She offers access to the powers-that-be. She empathizes with little human difficulties. And like the Madonna, both goddesses continue to fulfill the same spiritual function, a kind of divine mothering. If you have a face so ugly that only a mother could love it, then this is the goddess for you. If you have nowhere else to turn, then she is your home—and recall that the official definition of home is the “place you go when you have to go someplace and they have to accept you." Guan Yin in her infinite willingness to accept all complaints is busy 24/7 pouring out the soothing holy waters of mercy. So busy that sometimes she is depicted with three faces or eleven faces, facing in all directions in order to hear so much universal suffering. She turns toward suffering like the heliotropic flower turns with the arc of the sun.

In yet another form, she reminds me of the terrifying deadly dance of the stomping goddess Kali, my mistake. But the other goddess, the “Dark Mother” does a wildly destructive dance which is often portrayed as a multi-armed frenzied female dancing on her own baby, a kind of negative Madonna, the flip side of duality. My mistake is to glance at the multiple arms radiating out from this figure, and to fail to distinguish Kali from yet another manifestation of Guan Yin: the thousand-armed one. Similar in concept to the many-faced goddess, this representation evokes her impressive capacity to bestow mercy in so many directions simultaneously.

In many paintings and sculptures, Guan Yin is standing or sitting on a stylized lotus leaf, as she is in the version above and again here on the left. The lotus is partly a symbol of purity. Part of the story is that when she was born, her every step produced a lotus blossom under her feet: "the seven steps". Yet this is sometimes part of the legend of Buddha too. The blossom itself, Nymphaea lotus, is a water lily from the Nile River. In English we have the saying about someone who "walks on water." To see a pond covered with the large floating leaves of this lily is to feel instinctively like one could indeed walk on water, while knowing of course that this is probably not going to work out. But there is more to the water lily than this: Parts of this lotus are edible—it has a pea or bean, the "sacred bean", another item in the menu of food of the gods. This aspect is recorded in Western literature as early as Homer, when Odysseus and crew are lollygagging around addicted to escapist pleasure in the land of the Lotus-eaters. Perhaps it is more than a recreational drug though, since Carl Jung looked at its sacred representations as another instance of the mandala, the symbol of wholeness in the Self. Likewise, the Chinese Nelumbo nucifera lotus has a complex symbolism. In the Buddhist tradition, it signifies transcendence, peace, satori, enlightenment, serene eternity beyond the conflicts of desire. Guan Yin rests on all that, in any of the many ways of looking at her.

Erick Heroux professes literature and cultural theory in Taipei at National Chengchi University. In his “free” time, an old guitar and a new movie camera keep him almost preoccupied. He can be emailed at heroux @
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