Understanding Mercy and Compassion: The Transformation of Avalokitesvara to Kuan Yin.

Published February 21, 2012 by jptan2012

In my previous post I wrote about the Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin (also spelled as Kwan Yin, Quan Yin, Gwan Yin, Guan Yin), who is also known as the Buddha of Compassion. Now, allow me to share with you a brief ‘history’ of Kuan Yin.

People who have read my earlier posts knows of my devotion to the ‘Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’ the Monkey God or Monkey King called Sun Wukong. Sun Wukong is a Taoist celestial being who became really wild whom the Buddha pacified. However, it was really Kuan Yin who paved the way for Sun Wukong to be a Buddha. She did this out of her extreme compassion for Sun Wukong who at that time was already condemned for an eternal imprisonment. Kuan Yin did this not just for Sun Wukong but also for other immortals. Westerners largely look at this story as some sort of fantasy, but to Taoist and Chinese Buddhist they have high regard for the said story and believe it actually happened in the celestial world. However, the point here is not whether the story is true or not, but it hopes to illustrate the depth of Kuan Yin’s mercy and compassion that she was able to subdue one of the most powerful Taoist Immortal/Deity. It should be noted that it was implied in the story mentioned above that should Kuan Yin had to ‘fight’ with Sun Wukong, her power would not have match that of Sun Wukong. However, her real power is not with her strength as a Bodhisattva, although, I must clarify, she is very powerful, but more than her physical and celestial strength, is the power of her mercy and compassion that is said to be infinite!

However, Kuan Yin or Kuan Shi Yin (Guan Shi Yin) which means ‘The One Who Hears the Cries of the World” has a very unique transformation. Kuan Yin is Avalokitesvara in India and Cherezig in Tibet. Nevertheless, Kuan Yin is the female transformation of the said Bodhisattva. I need not talk about who Avalokitesvara in detail now because Kuan Yin is Avalokitesvara (also spelled as Avalokiteshvara), Avalokitesvara is Chenrezig, Chenrezig is Kuan Yin, they may have different names, and in the case of Kuan Yin she may have a different image but they’re one and the same. All the attributes of Kuan Yin are that of Avalokitesvara and Chenrezig, all the attributes of Avalokitesvara and Chenrezig is that of Kuan Yin!

Image of Avalokitesvara (also spelled as Avalokiteshvara).

Nevertheless, allow me to state that Kuan Yin in the form of Avalokitesvara first started in India, the land where Buddhism really started. He/She is a Bodhisattva, which is traditionally considered a little less important compared to the Buddhas. However, Avalokitesvara gained reverence equal to that of Buddhas and to some extent, specially amongst Chinese Buddhist, exceeds that of the Buddhas because as the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni himself shared through various sutras, Avalokitesvara should have been a Buddha already, however, he refused Buddhahood and wished to remain a Bodhisattva for the welfare of all sentient beings.

The transformation of Avalokitesvara to Kuan Yin is in itself a very interesting story. There are various stories about how Avalokitesvara became Kuan Yin.

One story is that in relation to Tripitaka Monk Xuan Zang who traveled to India to get some Buddhist texts that he can share with his countrymen. When he wrote about his journey he always refers to the Bodhisattva of Compassion as a female Kuan Yin, some people believes that this is one of the first time that Avalokitesvara is addressed as Kuan Shi Yin, which later was shortened into Kuan Yin. In his account of the manifestations of Kuan Yin she always appear as a miraculous being and always under miraculous circumstances.

Another story is that of Princess Miao Shan. I’ll skip the story at the moment, and I’ll share her story as written in Wikipedia at the bottom of this post.

Still, another story about Avalokitesvara’s transformation to Kuan Yin is quite simple and not as popular because it lacks the theatrical and flair of the other stories.

When Buddhism was first introduced to China, the religion is largely Taoism, which has Immortals or Deities that are very powerful and ‘masculine’. The compassionate deities and immortals are mostly female deities. Because of this the Chinese had difficulty in fully comprehending the attributes of Avalokitesvara.

Buddhist monks prayed to Kuan Yin to ask for her guidance. Some text says that Kuan Yin spoke to some Buddhist monks through their dreams and instructed them to introduce him as Kuan Yin with a female form. Other text states that they were able to divine this through an Avalokitesvara/Kuan Yin oracle. Whether it was through a dream or through an oracle, it was clear that the Buddhist monks who brought Buddhism to China started the female manifestation of Avalokitesvara. As we know this image became popularly known as Kuan Yin.

This raises the question as to why when experiencing Avalokitesvara’s miracle or vision, people see her as Kuan Yin. According to the explanation of a Chinese Buddhist monk, this is because Avalokitesvara will always appear in the form that people will understand or easily relate to.

I personally believe that the last story is the real reason why Avalokitesvara became Kuan Yin. It is because they need to put an image of mercy and compassion, and because of this Avalokitesvara transformed into Kuan Yin.

Avalokitesvara as Kuan Yin became so popular that even Tibetan Buddhist who is extremely familiar with Avalokitesvara, as a male Bodhisattva would still mention Kuan Yin. In fact, the biggest image of Avalokitesvara in the world is that of Kuan Yin which is found China.

The biggest image of Kuan Yin in the world is in China.

This also answers why some images of Kuan Yin depicts her as a flat-chested handsome young prince.

One of the semi-masculine form of Kuan Yin.


If you’re interested to know about the Legend of Princess Miao Shan please read on the following that was lifted from Wikipedia.

Another story from the Precious Scroll of Fragrant Mountain describes an incarnation of Guanyin as the daughter of a cruel king who wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man. The story is usually ascribed to the research of the Buddhist monk Chiang Chih-ch’i during the 11th century CE. The story is likely to have a Taoist origin. Chiang Chih-ch’i, when he penned the work, believed that the Guanyin we know today was actually a Buddhist princess called Miaoshan (妙善), who had a religious following on Fragrant Mountain. Despite this there are many variants of the story in Chinese mythology.

According to the story, after the king asked his daughter Miao Shan to marry the wealthy man, she told him that she would obey his command, so long as the marriage eased three misfortunes.

The king asked his daughter what were the three misfortunes that the marriage should ease. Miaoshan explained that the first misfortune the marriage should ease was the suffering people endure as they age. The second misfortune it should ease was the suffering people endure when they fall ill. The third misfortune it should ease was the suffering caused by death. If the marriage could not ease any of the above, then she would rather retire to a life of religion forever.

When her father asked who could ease all the above, Miao Shan pointed out that a doctor was able to do all of these.

Her father grew angry as he wanted her to marry a person of power and wealth, not a healer. He forced her into hard labor and reduced her food and drink but this did not cause her to yield.

Every day she begged to be able to enter a temple and become a nun instead of marrying. Her father eventually allowed her to work in the temple, but asked the monks to give her the toughest chores in order to discourage her. The monks forced Miao Shan to work all day and all night, while others slept, in order to finish her work. However, she was such a good person that the animals living around the temple began to help her with her chores. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he attempted to burn down the temple. Miao Shan put out the fire with her bare hands and suffered no burns. Now struck with fear, her father ordered her to be put to death.

In one version of this legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to one of the more hell-like realms of the dead. However, instead of being punished by demons like the other inmates, Guanyin played music, and flowers blossomed around her. This completely surprised the head demon. The story says that Guanyin, by merely being in that hell, turned it into a paradise.

A variant of the legend says that Miao Shan allowed herself to die at the hand of the executioner. According to this legend, as the executioner tried to carry out her father’s orders, his axe shattered into a thousand pieces. He then tried a sword which likewise shattered. He tried to shoot Miao Shan down with arrows but they all veered off.

Finally in desperation he used his hands. Miao Shan, realising the fate that the executioner would meet at her father’s hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there, she witnessed first-hand the suffering and horrors that the beings there must endure, and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process, that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.

Another tale says that Miao Shan never died, but was in fact transported by a supernatural tiger, believed to be the Deity of the Place, to Fragrant Mountain.

The Legend of Miao Shan usually ends with Miao Chuang Yen, Miao Shan’s father, falling ill with jaundice. No physician was able to cure him. Then a monk appeared saying that the jaundice could be cured by making a medicine out of the arm and eye of one without anger. The monk further suggested that such a person could be found on Fragrant Mountain. When asked, Miao Shan willingly offered up her eyes and arms. Miao Chuang Yen was cured of his illness and went to the Fragrant Mountain to give thanks to the person. When he discovered that his own daughter had made the sacrifice, he begged for forgiveness. The story concludes with Miaoshan being transformed into the Thousand Armed Guanyin, and the king, queen and her two sisters building a temple on the mountain for her. She began her journey to heaven and was about to cross over into heaven when she heard a cry of suffering from the world below. She turned around and saw the massive suffering endured by the people of the world. Filled with compassion, she returned to Earth, vowing never to leave till such time as all suffering has ended.

After her return to Earth, Guanyin was said to have stayed for a few years on the island of Mount Putuo where she practised meditation and helped the sailors and fishermen who got stranded. Guanyin is frequently worshipped as patron of sailors and fishermen due to this. She is said to frequently becalm the sea when boats are threatened with rocks. After some decades Guanyin returned to Fragrant Mountain to continue her meditation.

2 comments on “Understanding Mercy and Compassion: The Transformation of Avalokitesvara to Kuan Yin.

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