Saturday, April 03, 2010

Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion

Olga’s Kuan Yin

Buddhists celebrate the birth of Kuan Yin, androgynous spirit of compassion, on the day before Easter this year -- a holy synchronicity.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Kuan Yin: A queer Buddhist Christ figure

I didn’t know about this “coincidence” when I invited gay author and comparative religions scholar Toby Johnson to write the following piece to post on Kuan Yin’s feast day as part of the GLBT saints series here.

Upon reflection, it seems appropriate that Kuan Yin was born the day before Christ rose to new life. After all, Jesus is the Christian embodiment of compassion. I am pleased to present Kuan Yin on Holy Saturday, as churches hold Easter vigils. As Johnson says, Kuan Yin is wonderful for LGBT people and our allies because he/she unites male and female.

Kuan Yin by Toby Johnson

Today, the 19th day of the second lunar month, Mahayana Buddhists celebrate the birthday of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Compassion. Kuan Yin, the Chinese form of the name, is also known by his/her original Indian name Avalokiteshvara.

The myth tells that the lovely, androgynous saint, Avalokiteshvara, was on the verge of entering into nirvana. Just as his meditation was deepening, he was distracted by a groan, rising up all about him. He came out of his trance and asked: What is this? The birds and trees and grass and all sentient beings replied to him: O Avalokiteshvara, our lives are times of suffering and pain; we live in a delusion from which we cannot seem to escape. You are so beautiful and so kind. Your presence here among us has given us joy and a reason for living. We all love you so, and we are saddened by the prospect of your leaving us. And so we groan.

The young saint was filled with compassion and chose to remain in the cycle of birth and death so that the others would not have to suffer. He saw that it was better that one should suffer than all. Avalokiteshvara, whose name means "The Lord Looking Down in Pity," agreed to take upon himself the suffering of the world. And he willed that the merit for this selfless act should go out from him to all beings, so that all should be saved. I will not enter nirvana, he vowed, until all beings have entered nirvana.

The name also means “The Lord Who is Seen Within,” for at that moment all sentient beings did enter nirvana. And Avalokiteshvara remained behind to live their incarnations for them. Thus each and every one of us is Avalokiteshvara fulfilling his vow. We are not separate individuals, we are really that One Being. Hence, compassion for others isn’t just about being nice; it’s about recognizing the reality that that other person really is you. The neighbor Jesus says to love as yourself is yourself.

It is said there are Three Wonders of the Bodhisattva. The first is that he is androgynous, simultaneously both male and female, transcending the polarity of gender. That’s why he is so sweet and lovable: he/she blends the best of masculinity and the best of femininity.

The second wonder is that he sees there is no difference between nirvana and the life of suffering and rebirth in time, no difference between eternity and temporality, no difference between heaven and earth. Thus he could renounce his own nirvana and embrace all human experience. This life is nirvana; this is heaven on earth.

And the third wonder is that the first two wonders are the same!

That’s why this is such a nice myth for gay people. 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.
Toby Johnson is a former Catholic monk turned gay author and GLBT activist. A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality, Two Spirits, and Secret Matter. 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.

P.S. on 5/25/10.  Click here to see the excellent article "Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ" by Patrick Cheng, assistant professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.
William Hart McNichols is a renowned iconographer and Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico. His icons have been commissioned by churches, celebrities and national publications.
This post is part of the GLBT 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.


Turtle Woman said...

This lovely post just made my Easter. I have always thought, that if Christ came back to earth again, it would be in a female incarnation, and that god would reveal a feminine self, and that the holy spirit would be female as well, and with the return of the triple goddess, we really would have paradise. So Kuan Yin's appearance on Easter might be a message. Thanks Toby!!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, Turtle Woman, the first time I learned of Kuan Yin (in college), my art history professor described her as a goddess. He said she cares so intensely that she is “the one who SEES our cries” -- not just hearing them with her ears, but seeing them with her eyes as well.

I personally love the idea that Kuan Yin is both female AND male. It enhances my understanding of this Compassionate One.

eric said...

Was sort of out of it this weekend, Kitt, so didn't really read too much of this post on Kuan Yin. Went back and read it today, and am feeling just absolutely blown away.

I have friends who say "See, Jesus isn't really all that special because other religions have the same beliefs."

Yes, in a way they're right, but to be quite honest what I see in all these similarities isn't the lack of unique-"ness" of Jesus but rather the universal nature of God.

I'm not sure I'm making sense... the Catholic that still resides deep deep down inside me cringes when I read what I just wrote!

Every time I really read your site, Kitt, it's like my eyes are opened even more. Do I deserve a PhD yet????

Kittredge Cherry said...

Eric, I’m honored to be part of your awakening to the universality of God. I like the analogy that the journey to find God is like climbing a mountain -- there are many paths, but they all lead to the same summit, the same God.

For the Catholic that lives inside you, it may be helpful to know that Toby Johnson was a Catholic monk, long before he wrote the piece on Kuan Yin for my blog.

Do you deserve a PhD yet? LOL! I’ve thought about setting up a system for naming regular contributors as “ministry partners” and perhaps offering some special gift, but the Spirit has not moved me to do it yet. Maybe I should offer something like a Jesus in Love PhD. How about a halo?! .

I’m especially glad to hear from both of you, Eric and Turtle Woman. This piece on Kuan Yin is one of the first non-Christian posts on this blog, so I was really wondering what people out there thought of it. I understand that people need time to absorb and reflect on it. Many of the followers of this blog describe themselves as having multiple/eclectic spiritual beliefs, often including Buddhism, so I want to explore those connections with Christianity in more depth here in the future.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Another thought for the “inner Catholic” -- This piece was not only written by a former Catholic monk, but the illustrator (Father Bill McNichols) is currently a Roman Catholic priest. So it can be seen as Kuan Yin filtered through a gay Catholic sensibility.

eric said...

Okay, so maybe a JIL High School Diploma might be more in order!

And, perhaps instead of "Inner Catholic" I should have said "Inner Evangelical" or "Inner Fundamentalist". Used to be that.

And besides, everyone KNOWS those Catholic priests, and especially the artistic ones... not to mention those monks... are libruls!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Many people enjoyed our post “Kuan Yin, Androgynous Spirit of Compassion.” I just added a link to a great new resource "Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ" by Patrick Cheng, assistant professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. He goes into a lot more detail, including the legends of how Kuan Yin transformed from a goddess into handsome young men who had sex with Buddhist priests in order to bring them to enlightenment. See it here:

Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ

Koten Benson said...

There is now a shrine to Kwan Yin in Lytton B.C. Canada where prayers can be made and incense offered: