Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 8 Fall 2015
Kuan Yin’s Compassion—
a Model for Practicing Inclusiveness
By Karen Gelinas
Kwan Yin at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. The 11th-12th Century Guanyin is the bodhisattva associated with compassion.
Karen Gelinas is currently working on her doctorate in Applied Buddhist Studies at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. She is researching the relationship American Buddhist women have with Kuan Yin and how this supports the future of Buddhist feminism. In addition, Karen is interviewing transgender Asians and non-Asians who identify with Kuan Yin as a ‘trans bodhisattva’. If anyone would like to share their stories please feel free to contact Karen at email@example.com
Who is Kuan Yin?1 She is the female transformation of Avalokitesvara bodhisattva who, as a woman, embodies the all-merciful compassion of one who hears the cries of the world. Kuan Yin was saved from darkness and tragic loss, as explained in the many legends about her. She is a bodhisattva who loves all people unconditionally.
What does Kuan Yin offer that makes her uniquely different from the Buddha and other Buddhist deities in such a way that she is able to touch people so intimately? It is her all-inclusive, non-dualistic compassion for those who call upon her that stands out as a guiding spiritual force, giving us full access to find ourselves in her. Kuan Yin is undeniably beautiful and her nurturing, loving warmth softens and protects unlike any other. She does not ask anything from her devotees, and her transformative qualities allow individuals to find themselves in her. She is us and we are her. Flexible and fluid, her reflexivity lies at the heart of inclusivity.
Sandy Boucher, an American Buddhist teacher, has been a leading contributor on the topic of Kuan Yin devotion. As both scholar and practitioner, she has written many papers and books about Kuan Yin and leads Kuan Yin workshops throughout the country. In her heartfelt and deeply personal story, Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, (Boucher spells her name Kwan Yin, which is interchangeable with my chosen spelling, Kuan Yin), she recalls her first encounter with Kwan Yin in 1982, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. She describes her meeting with Kwan Yin as life changing and relates how her practice and devotion has manifested into something very tangible and ‘real’. Prior to Kwan Yin, Boucher stayed away from god/goddess attachment, but as she allowed Kwan Yin into her life, she realized that the “…significance of her presence in the lives of American women…” could become a source of “…compassion, love, hope, transformation and service…”2
“We welcome her into our real, everyday lives. We open ourselves to her as our individual minds and hearts can understand her. She offers her myriad forms to us and promises only as much as we are open to receive in and from ourselves. She enters and becomes us, we enter and become her.”3
Sandy Boucher has spent years recounting stories about Kwan Yin’s influence in women’s lives for both Asian women who inherited Kwan Yin from their ancestors, and for convert Buddhist women. She has also shown how Kwan Yin serves as a comforting and supportive feminine bodhisattva among lesbian practitioners, providing an unconditional love and compassion model, unique to women’s issues and approaches to daily life and practice. It is Kwan Yin’s accessibility and transformative power that is so uniquely magical for the women who identify with her. Boucher also leads workshops called, “Exploring Our Compassionate Hearts: Practicing with Kwan Yin Bodhisattva,” where women gather for weekend retreats to meditate, write and “experience profound rest and peace with Kwan Yin, the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion.”4
Compassion is one of the most commonly associated Buddhist principles we so greatly value, and Kuan Yin is the compassionate bodhisattva, giving love and protection to all those in need. These qualities are then manifested and transferred outward to others in need, providing great comfort for her devotees. Whether a Kuan Yin devotee is a cultural or convert Buddhist is not as important as is how she manifests Kuan Yin’s qualities. Boucher sees her permeable energy everywhere, “The vast compassionate energy of Kwan Yin is not bound by any nationality or ethnic group.”5 “She is the deepest, most authentic part of ourselves, always responsive if called upon sincerely.”6
Kuan Yin also transcends sexual and gender issues, often seen as sensitive topics in spiritual identification. Moreover, she helps promote gender equality among all her devotees, including the LGBTQ community. She is everything to everyone, a mirror of our own loving energy, always able to heal and protect. Women’s studies professor, Cathryn Bailey, has written about Kuan Yin bodhisattva as the feminist icon for transgender people. Her work is relevant to the study of Kuan Yin as it offers another representation of the feminine Buddhist ideal directly addressing the needs of gender transformation, always compassionate and non-judgmental. Bailey’s research shows how Kuan Yin’s image, appearing as both male and female at different times, transcends gender tension altogether, offering gender fluidity and flexibility. For transgender people, Kuan Yin’s own trans/bisexual gender may mirror their own definition of a male/female icon and role model, as “…she/he is not simply an androgynous character, but one who never having determinately slipped from male to female, might also slip back, or linger tranquilly (or unnervingly) in between.”7 Again, Kuan Yin’s all-inclusive love and compassion honors and supports a beautiful diversity among us.
1 Kuan Yin, Guan Yin, and Kwan Yin are Chinese names for her. In Japan she is Kannon. She is Kwan Im in Thailand and Indonesia, Gwan-eum in Korea and Quan Am in Vietnam.
2 Sandy Boucher, Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1999), 9.
3 Boucher, Discovering Kwan Yin, 14.
4 Sandy Boucher website, http://www.sandyboucher.net/meditate.php#event19 (accessed April 28, 2015).
5 Sandy Boucher, She Appears! Encounter With Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion (United States: Goddess Ink, 2015), 4.
6 Sandy Boucher, She Appears! Encounter With Kwan Yin, 5.
7 Bailey, “Embracing the Icon,” 178-196.