Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

Chün-fang Yü
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 688
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    Book Description:

    By far one of the most important objects of worship in the Buddhist traditions, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is regarded as the embodiment of compassion. He has been widely revered throughout the Buddhist countries of Asia since the early centuries of the Common Era. While he was closely identified with the royalty in South and Southeast Asia, and the Tibetans continue to this day to view the Dalai Lamas as his incarnations, in China he became a she -- Kuan-yin, the "Goddess of Mercy" -- and has a very different history. The causes and processes of this metamorphosis have perplexed Buddhist scholars for centuries.

    In this groundbreaking, comprehensive study, Chün-fang Yü discusses this dramatic transformation of the (male) Indian bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into the (female) Chinese Kuan-yin -- from a relatively minor figure in the Buddha's retinue to a universal savior and one of the most popular deities in Chinese religion.

    Focusing on the various media through which the feminine Kuan-yin became constructed and domesticated in China, Yü thoroughly examines Buddhist scriptures, miracle stories, pilgrimages, popular literature, and monastic and local gazetteers -- as well as the changing iconography reflected in Kuan-yin's images and artistic representations -- to determine the role this material played in this amazing transformation. The book eloquently depicts the domestication of Kuan-yin as a case study of the indigenization of Buddhism in China and illuminates the ways this beloved deity has affected the lives of all Chinese people down the ages.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50275-7
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-27)

    Kuan-yin (Perceiver of Sounds), or Kuan-shih-yin (Perceiver of the World’s Sounds) is the Chinese name for Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who has been worshiped throughout the Buddhist world. In 1976 C.N. Tay published a long article on Kuan-yin with the subtitle, “The Cult of Half Asia,” because he dealt primarily with Chinese scriptural, literary, and historical references. A Chinese saying aptly describes the great popularity of this savior bodhisattva:“Everybody knows how to chant O-mi-t’o-fo [Amitābha], and every household worships Kuan-yin.” Under Chinese influence, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese have also used the same names (Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese, Kwanse’um...

  5. Maps
    (pp. 28-30)
  6. 2 Scriptural Sources for the Cult of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 31-92)

    I begin this study with a review of the Buddhist sūtras that introduced the bodhisattva to China. I do so not because I want to privilege texts over other sources, but for the simple reason that the Chinese would not have known Kuan-yin if there were no Chinese translations of Buddhist scriptures. Sūtras, therefore, constituted the first medium through which the cult of Kuan-yin became formed and then transformed. Yet despite the importance of scriptures, to which the Buddhist elite have traditionally granted the only normative authority, it would be naive to assume that the texts were ever universally studied...

  7. 3 Indigenous Chinese Scriptures and the Cult of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 93-150)

    In the summer of 1986, while doing research at the Palace Museum in Taipei, I found two hand-copied Buddhist scriptures that I had not seen before. The first one was copied by the famous Ming painter Tung Ch˒i-ch˒ang (1555–1636) in 1558 and was kept in the palace of Emperor Ch˒ien-lung; it bears the seals of Emperors Ch˒ien-lung and Chia-ch˒ing. Its title is Pai-i Ta-pei wu-yin-hsin t˒olo-ni (Five Mudrā Dhāranī of the Great Compassionate White-robed One). It contains the names of Śākyamuni Buddha, Amitābha Buddha, Kuan-yin, and White-robed Kuan-yin; a dhāranī consisting of thirteen phrases; and a short testimonial penned...

  8. 4 Miracle Tales and the Domestication of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 151-194)

    Anyone who visits a temple in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or even Mainland China can find posters, pamphlets, brochures and books on the side tables or stacked on bookshelves along the walls of the main hall. They are printed by lay devotees and are placed there for visitors to browse through or take home for later reading. Among the pious literature distributed for free in this fashion, there are many canonical or indigenous scriptures, the latter being represented by King Kao˒s Kuan-yin Sūtra. Among canonical works, the Diamond Sūtra, the Heart Sūtra, and the O-mi-t˒o ching (Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra) are very...

  9. 5 Divine Monks and the Domestication of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 195-222)

    As we have read in previous chapters, when Kuan-yin appeared in the dreams and visions of devotees prior to and during the T˒ang, he most frequently took the guise of a monk. Even after Kuan-yin’s sexual transformation beginning in the Sung, it is still possible for one to encounter the monk’s form in miracle stories, although much less frequently, proving the staying power of this early image. Because Buddhism was first introduced into China by foreign missionary monks and the cult of Kuan-yin in China was first promoted by monks, it is only natural that the Chinese people would associate...

  10. 6 Indigenous Iconographies and the Domestication of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 223-262)

    In the previous chapters I examined several different media that served both to promote the popularity of Kuan-yin in China and to domesticate this foreign bodhisattva. Indigenous sūtras, miracle tales, myths, and legends of divine monks as incarnations of Kuan-yin have all contributed to the process. I have also stressed the intimate and dialectical relationship between visions, media, and iconography.

    Art has been one of the most powerful and effective media through which the Chinese people have come to know Kuan-yin. It is also through art that one can most clearly detect the bodhisattva’s gradual, yet undeniable sexual transformation. As...

  11. 7 The Ritual of Great Compassion Repentance and the Domestication of the Thousand-handed and Thousand-eyed Kuan-yin in the Sung
    (pp. 263-292)

    In January 1996, while I was in Taipei, I attended a “Ta-pei chʾan fa-hui” (Dharma Gathering for Great Compassion Repentance) held at Nung-chʾan Temple, the home temple of Chʾan master Sheng-yen. Perhaps because it was a Friday afternoon, the majority of the people who came, around five hundred, were women. They ranged from teens to early sixties, some came with their young children. Although men were clearly in the minority (less than a hundred), they seemed to be more uniform in age; most were in their twenties to forties. They appeared to be college students and professional men. The service...

  12. 8 Princess Miao-shan and the Feminization of Kuan-yin
    (pp. 293-352)

    When I was a young girl growing up in China, I spent many evenings after dinner listening to the stories my maternal grandmother loved to tell. They were stories about loyal ministers and righteous officials, filial sons and chaste widows, fox ladies, female ghosts, and people who died, were given a tour of hell and returned to life. The story that made the most lasting impression on me was the story of Princess Miao-shan (Wonderful Goodness). Many years later, in 1987, when I traveled in different parts of China visiting pilgrimage sites and interviewing pilgrims, I would always ask the...

  13. 9 P’u-t’o Shan: Pilgrimage and the Creation of the Chinese Potalaka
    (pp. 353-406)

    The sacred geography of Buddhist China was marked by sites where great bodhisattvas manifested themselves in human form. By journeying to these holy mountains, pious pilgrims hoped to receive blessings and, if they were lucky, obtain a divine vision of the deity. The most famous group of these mountains was called either the san-ta tao-chʾang (“The Three Great Seats of Enlightenment”), or the ssu-ta ming-shan (“The Four Famous Mountains” and, alternatively, “The Famous Mountains Representing the Four Great Elements”). The former refers to Mt. Wu-tʾai in Shansi, the home of Wen-shu (Mañjuśrī), Mt. Omei in Szechwan, the home of Pʾu-hsien...

  14. Map
    (pp. 372-372)
  15. 10 Feminine Forms of Kuan-yin in Late Imperial China
    (pp. 407-448)

    The story of Princess Miao-shan, discussed in chapter 8, though most famous, was not the only one circulating in late imperial China. Since the Sung period, another feminine incarnation of Kuan-yin known either as the Fish-basket Kuan-yin (Yü-lan Kuan-yin) or the Wife of Mr. Ma (Ma-lang-fu) have been celebrated in gāthās or poems written by Chʾan monks. She also appeared in drama and precious scrolls as well as paintings. As discussed in the last chapter, with the creation of the island of Pʾu-tʾo as a major pilgrimage site for Kuanyin, a new iconography, Kuan-yin of the South Sea, also came...

  16. 11 Venerable Mother: Kuan-yin and Sectarian Religions in Late Imperial China
    (pp. 449-486)

    Kuan-yin has not only been worshiped by Buddhist monks and lay people and celebrated by artists, novelists, and playwrights, but has also been invoked by believers of various sectarian religions in China. Describing how a sectarian religion known as Chʾang-sheng Chiao (Eternal Life Teaching) revived itself in 1766 when its temple was burned down, the governor of Chekiang wrote in a memorial presented to the Chʾien-lung Emperor, which Overmyer summarizes: “Each contributed a substantial sum of money, while another member went all through the surrounding area seeking donations. By their combined efforts they succeeded in building a new center on...

  17. 12 Conclusion
    (pp. 487-494)

    When I decided to study the cult of Kuan-yin in China more than a decade ago, I was mainly interested in knowing why an imported Buddhist savior succeeded in becoming one of the most important Chinese deities, and also in how he was domesticated and transformed into the “Goddess of Mercy” in the process. The questions were daunting and the subject was vast. Initially, it was very difficult for me to know where to begin. Although Avalokiteśvara is a major bodhisattva mentioned in a great many Buddhist scriptures, I knew early on that a textual study of these sūtras would...

  18. Appendix A Stele Text of the “Life of the Great Compassionate One”
    (pp. 495-504)
  19. Appendix B Chinese Women Pilgrims’ Songs Glorifying Kuan-yin
    (pp. 505-510)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 511-554)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 555-594)
  22. Index and Glossary
    (pp. 595-640)