The Feminine side of Buddhism
September 12, 2008 3:54 PM   Subscribe

As in most religions, Buddhism's pantheon of deities and saints has been male dominated. The preeminent exception to this is Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion, also called Guan Yin or Kannon. She is the female form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who underwent a gender shift after being popularized in China. She has inspired amazing forms of worship. posted by desjardins (15 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Nice post. Kuan Yin has always protected my houses. She's cozy like that.
posted by kimdog at 4:11 PM on September 12, 2008

Nice post, desjardins. Thanks.

Here's a related post on dakinis.
posted by homunculus at 4:27 PM on September 12, 2008

Very cool desjardins. Nice collection of linkage.
posted by Eekacat at 4:45 PM on September 12, 2008

Amusingly (to me), you posted this right after I got home from my favorite neighborhood teahouse.
posted by hattifattener at 4:58 PM on September 12, 2008

It appears she is also known as Kwanon, which was the original name of what is now the Canon Optical Company.
posted by kcds at 5:26 PM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of these "amazing forms of worship" has an exact counterpart a short way into this clip of Ginger Rogers singing We're in the Money from "Golddiggers of 1933".
posted by Faze at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2008

Yeah, "Kwannon" is the older Japanese pronunciation. "Kwan'on" is older still. A lot of Sino-Japanese words involving a /ka/ originally had a /kwa/. That's why the Lafcadio Hearn book is Kwaidan, not "Kaidan" (怪談).

Self-link to Edo-period Kannon story from Japan.
posted by No-sword at 6:04 PM on September 12, 2008

Kuan Yin is also an intermediary, which as a lax Catholic, I always found comforting. Someone to talk to, ask favors of. Nice.

And didn't the gender shift occur because she crossed though worlds? Though it was first reported in China. She can be an intermediary because she can slip between heaven and earth, boy and girl, Japanese Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. She's magic like that.

I keep a Kuan Yin in the kitchen. She listens. She also glows in the dark. Just like grandpa's Mary did. That's helpful too.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:24 PM on September 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've always liked her even though I'm non-religious and tending toward the atheist side of agnostic. Thanks for all the links!

The Guanyin statue at the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City is beautiful and nicely installed (although that's not obvious from the photo). Zoom in and take a look--you can see his/her bare male chest, but his/her post and face are so feminine to me. Anyway, it's almost 2.5 meters tall and is just a wonderful thing to be near.

(Thanks for the link, No-sword. Have been enjoying reading your feed.)
posted by wintersweet at 8:30 PM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those of you who may never have heard of it, the oolong tea that is named after her is also delicious and fragrant.
posted by C^3 at 9:43 PM on September 12, 2008

Ah. Thanks for the wonderful post desjardins. As a female Buddhist, the topic of women in Buddhism interests me. I say that after having many reservations about Buddhism as an organized belief system with all the corruption, hierarchical power games, superstition, elitism and bs that goes on when any group or nationality collects and solidifies around a belief system, usually accompanied by both overt and covert misogyny.

There are a bunch of things I'd like to add to your thread.

There are a number of different ways to practice the Buddhist path, one is called Vajrayana, which involves the transforming of one's perception through awareness. Or transforming one's awareness through perception.

In Vajrayana the mind's awareness could metaphorically be seen as a male organ and the perception of the world is perceived as the female organ. The mind united with the perception of the world, like male and female organs in the act of intercourse. This is the metaphor of yabyum, depicting male and female in sexual unison. The metaphor includes the idea of enlightenment being inseparable compassion (male) and wisdom (female).

Kuan Yin/Avelokiteshwara can be seen both as a Bodhisattva, a person of virtue or as a yidam, a visualisation of one's enlightened mind united with an enlightened world.

Related to the female in Buddhism:

A superb book, I highly recommend, Traveller in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Tibetan Buddhism by June Campbell. She's a brilliant thinker.

Female Masters Within the Mindrolling Tradition, Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche

Machig Labdrön

Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandarawa
posted by nickyskye at 12:05 AM on September 13, 2008 [5 favorites]

Toekneesan: Kuan Yin is also an intermediary, which as a lax Catholic, I always found comforting. Someone to talk to, ask favors of. Nice. [...] I keep a Kuan Yin in the kitchen. She listens. She also glows in the dark. Just like grandpa's Mary did. That's helpful too.

You are not the first person to see the connection.
posted by Skeptic at 8:48 AM on September 13, 2008

The first time I had any real experience of Kannon was at the Hase-Dera temple in Kamakura. The story with the temple is that it's older than the city itself. But you know, who knows with these stories. There are, what, ten thousand? a hundred thousand? temples in Japan, and every one has it's miraculous origin story, it's sacred relic that is only displayed once ever 50 years, or 100 years, or absolutely not displayed.

The story of Hase-Dera, both the one in Kamakura and the on in Nara, is that one day in the 8th century, this monk called Tokudo Shonin was walking in the woods of Hase and came across an enormous camphor tree that he realized would be big enough to carve two enormous Kannon statues out of. That's quite a leap of imagination in my books and probably not the thing I would have gone to, but then again, he would go to other, greater extremes than I: see, he ordered the tree cut down and two separate statues carved from them. Utterly enormous, staggeringly exquisite statues carved. The statue carved from the lower half was installed in the Hase-Dera temple in Hase near Nara. The upper statue was cast into the ocean. There was a prayer that it go where help was needed most, and that it would return one day to save the people.

Seven years later it washed up on the beach near Kamakura and they built a temple called, once again, Hase-Dera. That's the story the temple tells, at any rate, but really, who knows. In the intervening centuries, all kinds of stuff went down; the city was the de facto capital for a couple of centuries until a potent combination of political assassinations, familial infighting, bureaucratic incompetence and garden variety ravages of time reduced Kamakura to a quaint seaside town with a filthy but thoroughly entertaining beach dotted with some of the most astoundingly beautiful temples in the entire country.

But I don't want to talk about history. I want to tell you about the first time I visited the Hase-Dera temple in Kamakura. It's about 10 minutes from the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, that is second to only Fuji as the most recognizable image of Japan. It's a small, dusty street with a meager sidewalk populated by shops selling replica katana and western armour neighbouring restaurants selling outstandingly good soba and ice cream.

I had been in the country for about a month before I got around to going to Kamakura.

Listen, you have to understand, prior to this I was not at all a spiritual person. I wasn't aggressively anti-religion or anything, but merely that I had no direct experience of anything that had moved me in any spiritual way --- it was all second hand information that I had tried to intellectually feign a respect for. I read this article once about this asexual guy who was talking about what he thought about sex, and he said that he understood that it was a vital driving force in the lives of everybody around him --- his friends, his family, everybody --- that he totally recognized as absolutely fundamental to their existence but a force that he just didn't get at all. Like, for me --- the Canadian non-hockey fan --- a kind of existential hockey fandom that just bored me to tears.

But anyway, the first time I saw Kannon at Hase-Dera, I understood what people were talking about when they use 'awesome' in its most literal sense. The statue is enormous, although the hall housing it is not particularly mystifying. But the statue is plated in gold, and looms above you and everything you are. You walk in, and there is a hush in the hall even though it's a tourist temple. The first thing you see are the little indoor kiosks selling omamori and omikuji and incense and whatnot, and also some big gold feet standing on a lotus leaf at the end of the hall. It's not even thick with incense, just kind of dark and still and respectful like in a museum. The floor isn't even tatami --- just tile.

But the hall is cavernous, though, the kind of place that would reverberate whispers if there were any. But you don't hear any. Anyway, I walked forward and the statue stood there and I literally became weak in the knees.

The first time I saw Kannon there, I was terrified and suddenly understood what they meant in the bible when people were terrified of angels. I was terrified, in that it was so awesome, so beyond anything I had experienced or rationalized that there was a little nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me to run. Like I said: my knees felt weak. They buckled but I caught myself, just as I felt like running but didn't. And everybody else, standing there stunned with their necks craned and jaws open and me one of them.

The statue is maybe 30 m tall and gold. Kannon has 11 heads, and as she is the goddess of Mercy, she has 11 heads so she can see and perceive suffering in all directions. She has 1000 arms so she can alleviate suffering in all directions. Her eyes are closed in serenity, although it is unlike the distant serenity of either Amida Buddha or the joyful serenity Jizo, who are perhaps second and third to only Kannon in popularity in Japan. In statues, in all statues of her that show the 11 heads, she has one main head with ten other heads ringed around it, facing in different directions and miniscule, but all holding the same expression that I only describe in crude, rough-hewn terms here because I can't describe them with the delicacy that they deserve.

It is compassion and mercy that she shows in her faces, which is not the same as sympathy and often different from kindness.


I've been back to Hase-Dera in Kamakura at least 5 times and even once tried to make a pilgrimage to the Hase-Dera in Nara but was thwarted by an erratic train schedule and ended up having to sleep in a business hotel instead; I have actively seeked out any kind of representation of Kannon-sama I could find, temples devoted to her, and have seen all kinds...but I will never forget the first time I saw Kannon, that time in Kamakura, because all I felt was terror --- I felt deeply unsettled in my gut, felt that I should turn and run and weep ,and also vaguely understood what people felt in the presence of God when they talked about what they felt in the presence of God. But I've been there so many times now, all I feel is just garden variety Awe.

P.S. What really set this off was the fact that i watched the 'amazing' link with the YouTube volume off and Mission of Burma blasting 'Spiderwebs' and 'Donna Sumeria' and it really, really worked.

P.P.S. I realize that there are a lot of MeFites who live in Tokyo and, like most people in Tokyo, maybe haven't really explored Kamakura. As far as my experiences go, it is one of the most rich, rewarding experiences in terms of spirituality, history, and, uh, Nihon-icity oustide of Kyoto. If you haven't yet done so, I cannot recommend enough taking either a dedicated day, or a series of dedicated day, to the temples of Kamakura. (Also, the beaches are good for very, very different, secular reasons.)

posted by Tiresias at 9:03 AM on September 13, 2008 [6 favorites]

wintersweet, I've seen that same statue and it is spectacular.

I think (s)he is spiffy. I haven't found a statue of her I've wanted to keep in my home (though I do have a tiny, cheap, badly hand-painted Sarasvati).
posted by Foosnark at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2008

desjardins, I meant to tell you how much I enjoyed your "amazing" link of 1000 Hands from China Disabled Peoples Performance Art Troupe, 21 young deaf-mute performers. That is such a beautiful video. I've seen it before but it's still incredible. It's their best act.

Tiresias, Your comment touched me.

According to Vajrayana the enlightenment can be perceived with the senses, communication and awareness. Statues that represent an enlightened state of mind, such as one of Kwan Yin, would be a form of enlightened communication. It seems to me that's what happened to you. You had an awakening of sorts. I'm curious what your experience brought up for you or means to you.

So interesting that I had the total opposite reaction seeing the big golden statue of the Buddha in McLeod Ganj, India, where the Indian government offered the Dalai Lama a place to have his refugee 'palace'. I was angered and bitter at the kowtowing to some statue, especially golden. Idol worship appalled me. Peasant superstitious bullshit! This wasn't the Buddhism I'd heard about, the serenity I'd seen in the stone faces of the Buddha in the Metropolitan Museum here in NYC, unadorned, simple, clean, powerful in conveying there is a way to compassion and truth. That golden malarkey of the Tibetans repulsed me.

A National Geographic photographer invited me to a class in Buddhism at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives down the hill and I went, reluctantly. Was immediately repelled by Westerners kowtowing to the lama, prostrating themselves like slaves in a B movie about ancient Egypt to this guy sitting on a throne for god's sake and then all singing in Tibetan, pretending to be Tibetans. yuck. The rituals made my skin crawl and I literally felt nauseous.

Then the teacher spoke. A young Tibetan monk translated his words into English, basic Buddhist concepts. And my mind was blown. That was when I felt what I imagine was a similar awe you experienced, a sudden shift in my perceptual and belief system paradigm. Tears came to my eyes and heart. I must have wept buckets that first month, the beauty of the teachings were so overwhelming.

Over the years I learned that people are drawn to a spiritual path in different ways, for different reasons and satisfactions. Usually people drawn to one way, with great logic, express contempt for the other styles. Just as I felt initially about the golden statue. Now I feel differently. Each person who seeks spiritual truths may find what is authentic, meaningful and worthy of respect in a variety of ways and sometimes really unexpectedly.

Some years ago, while I worked on healing the part of my enmeshment with the aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that is cultic I asked Joe Szimhart, a cult information specialist, what he felt about "the truth" as a spiritual practice and he said something that stayed with me. "The truth isn't in the packaged religion. It's a gift you find along the way, if the way is moral, elegant and socially sound."
posted by nickyskye at 8:07 PM on September 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

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