Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kuan Yin reflects the queer Asian Christ

“Kwan Yin is Coming” by Stephen Mead

Buddhists celebrate the birth of Kuan Yin, androgynous spirit of compassion, today (March 23) this year.

KuanYin is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure, so we honor the birthday with excerpts from an essay on the subject by gay Asian American theologian Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng. He is assistant professor of theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In the introduction to his essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ,” Cheng explains:

Kuan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, can serve as a mirror of the queer experience. Specifically, Kuan Yin affirms three aspects in the life of queer people that are often missing from traditional images of the divine: (1) queer compassion; (2) queer sexuality; and (3) gender fluidity. In other words, Kuan Yin can be an important means by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can see ourselves as being made in the image of God.

Cheng writes clearly about the connection between Kuan Yin and Christ in the section where he describes his personal search for queer Asian Christ figures:

I write this paper as an openly gay Asian American man who is within the Christian tradition. Although I have tried in my own theological reflection to locate myself within the classical Western biblical and theological tradition, I have been frustrated at the difficult task of finding texts and images that reflect the experiences of my people (that is, other queer Asian American Christians) and that affirm ourselves as beloved children of God.

Olga’s Kuan Yin
By William Hart McNichols ©
For some time I have been intrigued by the goddess Kuan Yin. Something about her image resonates deeply with my Chinese-American heritage, and in past years I have kept a statue of her by my desk. Although I would not say that I worship the goddess per se, I do feel that the image of Kuan Yin allows me to make a connection between the divine and many of the people in my family who I love (for example, my mother, my aunts, my cousins, and my deceased grandmother). . . .

I have been intrigued by the possibility of Kuan Yin serving as a christological figure for queer Asian people. For me, it has been difficult to envision the Jesus Christ of the gospels and the Western Christian tradition as being both queer and Asian (although I do recognize that queer theologians and Asian theologians have tried to do so in their respective areas). It is my thesis that Kuan Yin might serve as a symbol of salvation and wholeness for queer Asian people of faith....

Click here for the whole essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ.”

Cheng’s new book “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology” was just published and is now available. His series on “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today” was one of the most popular stories of 2010 at the Jesus in Love Blog. For more info on Cheng, visit his website,

Another gay perspective on Kuan Yin is provided in our previous post “Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion” by comparative religions scholar Toby Johnson.  He is a former Catholic monk turned gay author and LGBT activist. Johnson retells the traditional story of Kuan Yin and explains why it is “such a nice myth for gay people.”

This post is illustrated with visions of Kuan Yin by Stephen Mead and William Hart McNichols.

Mead is a gay artist and poet based in New York whose work has appeared internationally in cyberspace, books, and galleries.

McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been criticized by church leaders for making LGBT-friendly icons of saints not approved by the church. His icons have been commissioned by churches, celebrities and national publications.

This post is part of the LGBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.


Trudie said...

This is a magnificent post. I especially enjoyed having the link to Cheng's paper in its entirety. It is extremely informative and very much to the point. You and he have blessed us again!

Sage said...


KittKatt said...

People who appreciate interfaith approaches are really enjoying this post. Thanks for your affirmations, Sage and Trudie.

Trudie, you are so good at keeping up with all the new book releases that I wonder what you will think of Patrick Cheng's new book "Radical Love."

I first encountered Kuan Yin through art history classes in college, and grew to appreciate her/him more when I lived in Japan and saw many ancient statues of "Kannon," as they call Kuan Yin there.

Trudie said...

If Cheng's "Radical Love" comes up as one of the Amazon Vine's selections, I'll certainly go for it. If it doesn't, I'll probably break my intention to not buy more books but to continue to re-read the ones I have yet again.

By the way, as a result of our recent all-night prayer vigil at FMCC, I've re-read both volumes of "Jesus in Love" yet again. And as always, was gifted with the depths of love that emanates from those pages. Whereas many theologians inspire me with their insights, your sharing of your own relationship with Jesus in those pages brings me into his presence in a completely unique way.