Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara

Synopsis

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, Ch n-fang Y 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, Y 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.

Excerpt

This book has taken me a long time to write. Many individuals, institutions, and funding agencies have helped me in my intellectual and physical journeys in carrying out the research necessary for this book. Before I thank them and acknowledge my indebtedness and gratitude, I would like to say a few words about why I decided to undertake this project in the first place, for this is a question that I have been asked many times over the years. The importance of Kuan-yin in Chinese and indeed East Asian Buddhism is obvious to anyone familiar with these cultures and, with the increasing interest in New Age spirituality since the 1970s, even modern Americans have come to know her name. Despite the great fame of Kuan-yin, however, there have been surprisingly few comprehensive studies on this bodhisattva. Japanese and Western scholarly works have tended to concentrate on certain art historical or textual aspects.

My interest in Kuan-yin comes from my maternal grandmother. Growing up in China during World War II, I moved with my family a great deal, from north to central China, and finally to the western provinces. Like most Chinese families in those years of great turmoil and deprivation, children shared bedrooms with parents and sometimes with grandparents. I always slept in the same room with my maternal grandmother, who was a devout Buddhist. She was usually the first person in the household to get up each morning. After her morning toiletries, her day began with offering incense to the white porcelain statue of Kuan-yin holding a baby, chanting the Great Compassion Dhāranī, and reciting her personal prayers. Sometimes she would talk to Kuan-yin about matters worrying her. Kuan-yin was indeed the “Goddess of Mercy” to my grandmother, who regarded her as both savior and confidant. Although my . . .

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