Many years ago when I visited Hong Kong for the first time I went on a sight-seeing tour and saw, for the first time, a huge statue of the Goddess Guanyin (观自在). For some reason I got the impression that she was a local goddess specific to the fishermen of HK. How wrong I was. Subsequently I have discovered that Guanyin is the most popular deity in China, and is worshipped in many east Asian countries – albeit with a different name depending on the language.
My understanding of Buddhism is limited, to say the least, so it has taken me some time to understand what an important role Guanyin plays in the lives of many Buddhists, and to discover what an extraordinary Goddess she is. My knowledge is still not deep, but I have learned a great deal from a book called ‘The Kuan Yin* Chronicles‘ by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay, and I recommend it to anyone who would like learn more themselves.
Buddhism (as most people know) originated in India in or around 600 BC. The religion travelled from India to China in, or about, the 3rd century BC. Guanyin was part of that movement – except that back in those times she wasn’t Guanyin, indeed she wasn’t even ‘she’ – she was ‘he’. How on-trend is that?(given the whole Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner hoopla) – a transgender deity!! He began as a Bodhisattva known as Avalokitesvara in India (and is still often depicted as a male there) but when the Buddhism moved into China he slowly transmogrified into a she and became known as Guanyin.
I realise this is a complicated concept – so would those at the back of the class please try to pay attention. That means YOU!
Over the centuries Guanyin became more and more popular, and became known all over East Asia. There are many myths and legends about how she became divine; about her great compassion for all suffering humans: and about why she is sometimes depicted with a ‘thousand arms’ and several heads. It is widely believed that she can work miracles.
Many feminist Christians say that they want a more ‘female’ God; that God should not always be thought and spoken of as male, but encompass both masculine and feminine. For Buddhists, Guanyin is the expression of compassion and the divine feminine.
When I was a youngster, I went to a Catholic Convent school in central Africa, even though our family were not Catholics, because it was the nearest available junior school in Lusaka in those days.As a result, I became well acquainted with the role of the Virgin Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Christianity is a monotheistic religion, and the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses command both Jews and Christians not to have/worship other gods; so I was always a bit confused by the nuns insistence we should pray to Mary. It was explained to me by the nuns that as she was the mother of Christ she could ‘intercede’ with him on my behalf, which would be better than me approaching him directly – and I remember thinking this strange – but there you are, I am no Catholic theologian! There is no doubt in my mind that millions of Catholics around the world treat Mary as if she were a Goddess, which in Christian terms she is NOT.
That is one of the reasons I have found Guanyin so interesting. Because she IS a goddess in her own right and supplicants can approach her directly – she doesn’t pass their prayers on to any higher deity because she is an equal aspect of Buddha.
She is often depicted standing on a stylised lotus blossom, she may be holding a baby, she may have a string of prayer beads in one hand, or be holding a small willow branch. She looks very serene, and usually has a halo. [BTW – I think I should point out that using beads to count out prayers – as is done with a rosary – and having a halo are NOT exclusive to Catholicism or Christianity and never have been.]
Guanyin is believed to have written 100 poems of divination – and these are another reason why so many people worship her. These very short but beautiful verses can be bought and studied, both as poetry or very often as a way of foretelling the future. Books of these type of poems, usually attributed to a deity, are called Heavenly Divination Stick Predictions. If you have a problem or worry and want to know what you should do, or how things will unfold, you go to her temple and after the usual obsequies, you take a pot containing 100 thin wooden sticks, each of them numbered.
Clearing your mind of all base thoughts, and asking Guanyin for help and advice, you tilt the pot, shaking it gently until one single stick topples out. If the stick that comes out is numbered 30, then you read poem 30 and study it to decipher the meaning – in your context.
My advice to you is please don’t be overambitious,
The white crane must beware the secret arrow in the mist
Pulling at firewood you can uncover a hissing snake—
And one bite from it could bring complete disaster.
My favourite of her poems is number 53, which is strange but beautiful and makes me aware of the limits of human understanding.
It is unwise always to follow your own mind,
It sounds like a dragon’s drone or a tiger’s laugh—
Look up at Heaven now – it has a Milky Way of stars…
I tell you recognition and awareness will come in time.
*Kuan Yin is an alternative spelling of Guanyin