Guan Yin: the compassionate bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism

A long time ago, a young woman named Miao Shan wanted to become a Buddhist nun, but her father, the king of a small province, wanted her to find a man to marry, just as he expected from her older sisters. When she continued to talk about becoming a nun, the king disowned Miao Shan, his youngest daughter, and sent her away forever. Years later, the king became severely ill. An aging Buddhist monk visited the kingdom, and told the king, “if you are to be cured, you must ingest a potion made from the arms and eyes of a person who is willing to give them to you freely.” The king quickly begged his older daughters, but none of them were willing to make this sacrifice to see him healed. Seeing this, the monk spoke up. “On the top of a nearby mountain lives a bodhisattva of compassion. Send a messenger to her, and she may deliver you from this illness.” The king quickly sent word to his messengers, and one was sent up to the mountain to request the help of the bodhisattva. When she heard of the matter, she replied, “this illness is punishment for past sins, but I will help.” She then removed her own eyes and severed her arms for the messenger to take back to the king. When the concoction was made, and the king was healed, the monk returned, reminding the king to be grateful to the one who had brought him his healing. The king then journeyed up to the mountain himself, and was shocked to find that the bodhisattva was his own estranged daughter. She had heard of his illness, and come down in the form of a monk to tell him of the only way he could be healed. Then, she had sacrificed her own arms and eyes to ensure that he was brought back from the brink of death. (Read the source that inspired my edited version here.)

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach an enlightened state (nirvana), but delays this in order to help others (source). The most famous is Guan Yin, the fabled Buddhist nun from the story above. As a Christian person, it’s helpful to see a bodhisattva such as Guan Yin as sort of an equivalent to how many Catholics see various saints. A saint or a bodhisattva is typically considered to be a person who began life just like any one of us, but achieved some sort of heightened spiritual state of being through their commitment to spiritual practice. Between the time that the person dies and the time they are venerated in their religion, stories usually begin to form that are probably not entirely accurate, such as legends of transformation or miraculous healings. While this juxtaposition of bodhisattva and saint is helpful for comparison, there are many differences, such as the fact that Guan Yin is very removed from the historical origin of her legends, if that person ever existed at all, and she was revered in Buddhism several hundred centuries before the first Catholic saints lived.

The Bodhisattva Guan Yin is considered to be the omnipotent face of the compassionate divine presence, and is said to help all who are in need and call to her (source). She is considered in some places to be male, but is more widely known as being associated with divine femininity. Guan Yin is also called a goddess in many traditions, although no central deity exists in Buddhism, and most Buddhists do not necessarily believe in a god.

Across the world, whether Buddhist adherents see Guan Yin as an ever-present being, or simply a personification of compassion, many are encouraged by the legends that surround her. Some Buddhist adherents may place a statue in their homes that reminds them of her, and in turn, to be compassionate to all, even those who have wronged us. Others may meditate with her in mind, picturing themselves as a loving, compassionate source of kindness, flowing out to all those they interact with in their lives. Whether you are a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish person, Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, or you don’t practice any religion, it is helpful to have an image of compassion whenever you are faced with difficult choices. That image may be Jesus, or a Catholic saint, or Guan Yin, or just a person from recent history who inspires you to practice kindness. As Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist teacher from a separate sect reminds us, “Real love means loving kindness and compassion, the kind of love that does not have any conditions.”

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