Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kuan Yin: A queer Buddhist Christ figure

“Kwan Yin is Coming” by Stephen Mead

Kuan Yin, the androgynous spirit of compassion in Buddhism, is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure. Buddhists celebrate the birth of Kuan Yin today (March 11) this year.

Gay writers who have explored the queer side of Kuan Yin include Patrick S. Cheng, theology professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Toby Johnson, a former Catholic monk turned author and comparative religion scholar.

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:

Olga’s Kuan Yin
By William Hart McNichols ©
"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 latest book “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ” will be published this month. He is also the author of “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.” 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.

Another gay perspective on Kuan Yin is provided by Toby Johnson in our previous post “Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion.” Johnson begins by retelling the traditional story of Kuan Yin. Then he explains that it is “a nice myth for gay people” because:

"It says we’re really all One, all reflections of one another, that the distinction between male and female is illusory and needs to be transcended and that transcending gender is part and parcel with experiencing heaven now."

A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality and Two Spirits. He is production manager of Lethe Press and former editor of White Crane Journal. Click here for more of his writing about Kuan Yin / Avalokiteshvara.

Images of Kuan Yin here are created 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.


Jayden Cameron said...

Thank you for this wonderful commentary. I'm presently writing a novel with a young gay Asian teen who is devoted to Kwan Yin, so this was quite helpful.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Jayden, your novel with the gay teen devoted to Kuan Yin sounds great! Please let me know when it is published. As far as I know, your novel will the first of its kind.