The Kuan Yin Chronicles by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay, and Man-Ho Kwok - Read Online
The Kuan Yin Chronicles
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Kuan Yin is the most important, best-loved deity in the Chinese world. She is the living expression of compassion and the center of devotion in most Chinese homes and workplaces. Yet she is barely known in the West. The authors of The Kuan Yin Chronicles introduce Kuan Yin to Western readers, and reveal that Kuan Yin is the mystery and power of the divine feminine, who transcends all doctrines, creeds, and traditions.

The book is divided into three sections: The origins and evolution of Kuan Yin in early China, Buddhism, Taoism, and shamanism. The myths and stories about Kuan Yin. Fresh translations of 100 Kuan Yin poems, which function as both literature and tools for divination and prophecy. The Kuan Yin Chronicles is for any Western reader who wants to connect with the ancient power of the Goddess in their lives.
Published: Hampton Roads Publishing on
ISBN: 9781612831190
List price: $17.95
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The Kuan Yin Chronicles - Martin Palmer

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It is unwise to always follow your own mind,

It sounds like a dragon's drone or a tiger's laugh—

Look up at Heaven now—it has a Milky Way of stars….

I tell you recognition and awareness will come in time.

This strange poem, number 53 of the one hundred divination poems of Kuan Yin, is known as Kuan Yin's Promise. In its mystical language and imagery, it hints at other worlds, other realities, and at the limits of human understanding alone. It also holds out the promise, Kuan Yin's promise, of being able to be in touch with wisdom, insights, and understanding which are far greater than that which any one human being can create. It offers the promise of help from beyond this world, from Heaven itself.

And it is this that underlies the huge popularity of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion—Chiná's most beloved deity. Through her, we can be in touch with divine wisdom, feminine divine wisdom that can help us to live more fully, wisely, and thoughtfully. Through her also, we can be rescued from the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth and carried over the oceans of suffering and rebirth to land safely in the Pure Land of happiness and peace.

It is this fusion of promises that has caused Kuan Yin to be precious to untold millions in China for more than a thousand years. This book takes you on a series of journeys: through history, through mythology, through stories, and finally through Kuan Yin's magical poems to discover the heart of her compassion which has offered hope to so many for so long.

What is it about Kuan Yin that creates such fascination, such devotion, and such interest? Her image is to be seen everywhere in the Chinese world. Be it as a twelve-meter high wooden statue in Quanzhou, Fujian Province; as the presiding statue outside the new maternity hospital in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province; as a tiny charm hanging from the rear view mirror of a taxi, or as the much loved statue in a home shrine. There is no other deity in China who is so adored, so worshipped, or from whom so much is hoped.

The main reason for this appeal is her accessibility. Kuan Shi Yin, to give her her full title—the One Who Hears the Cries of the World—is so named because she is the one to whom anyone can turn for help. Her origins lie in one if the most beautiful of sacred books, the almost two-thousand-year-old Lotus Sutra. There the vow that Kuan Yin has taken is set forth, and at its heart is compassion for all who suffer. She is described as Wisdom's sun, as Illuminator of the world, and as Compassion wondrous as a great cloud. As such, she is unusual in the religious worlds of China. The majority of deities—Buddhist, Daoist, shamanic, and even Confucian—are stern figures or unreliable tricksters. They are prayed to in order to prevent them causing trouble. While there are a few—such as the Immortal Ti Kuai Li, who fights to defend the poor, or Immortal Lu Tung Ping, who uses his medicinal skills to help heal the sick—most Chinese deities are far from compassionate or caring.

Put alongside this the fact that there are few goddesses in Chinese religion, and the need for and role of a compassionate goddess is clear. This becomes even more so when one considers the traditional subjugation of women within Confucian Chinese society. The role of the woman was to bear the next male heir to the family name. Thus a compassionate goddess, who was also associated with the gift of children and known for helping people out of dangerous and frightening situations, is going to have an enormous appeal. Which she does to this day.

Part of the fascination with her is that she changed sex. It is a fascinating story which we explore in detail in chapter 1, for Kuan Shi Yin first arrived in China sometime between 200 and 400 AD as Avalokitesvara, a Buddhist male bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are those who, through countless lives of virtue, have accrued so much merit that they could enter Nirvana. However they decide not to but instead to use their vast store of merit to help suffering beings escape the wheel of reincarnation. Avalokitesvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas and became a favorite amongst Buddhists in China from the sixth century AD onwards, known by his Chinese name Kuan Shi Yin—a translation of the original Sanskrit name Avalokitesvara.

Sometime around the end of the Tang dynasty (early tenth century AD), Kuan Yin changed sex and became a woman—the form in which she is revered and venerated to this day. We explore how and why and through that exploration encounter the pluralism and diversity of China's religious history.

The religious pluralism of Kuan Yin is of course one of her major features, and we have now discovered that although she arrives as a Buddhist male deity, she has by the twelfth century become an official Chinese Imperial and Daoist deity. While visiting the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, the headquarters of Daoism in China, I noticed a temple dedicated to Kuan Yin but with a title which was unknown to me. It appears that in the year 1119 AD, the Emperor Huizong decreed that Kuan Yin was now appointed as the Goddess Chang Pudu Yuantong Zizai—the goddess whose raft of salvation will carry you to safety. As such, she has her place within the great semi-imperial Daoist temple and headquarters of the China Daoist Association, and also appears at major pilgrimage centers such as Mao Shan near Nanjing, one of Daoism's most sacred mountains. In one of his roles, the Emperor could appoint people to heavenly positions, and he was simply confirming what was already happening amongst the population at large. The male Buddhist bodhisattva had become a Chinese folk religion/Daoist goddess.

There is one other major religion lying behind the strange stories of Kuan Yin, but we will come to that in a moment.

Even her name—Kuan Shi Yin—has a dramatic story. She is normally only known as Kuan Yin. This is because in the mid-seventh century, it became a capital offence to utter the word shi. This was because it formed part of the original name of the founder of the Tang dynasty, Li Shi Ning. Eager to forget his poverty-stricken and working-class origins, mention of his original name was banned on penalty of death. Thus any name containing the name shi, especially in the same position as in the Emperor's former name, was dangerous beyond belief. The old habit has never died, even though the tyrannical Emperor is long dead and his dynasty, history. Thus she is rarely spoken of as Kuan Shi Yin but instead as Kuan Yin.

It is as Kuan Yin that she is known outside China. Her fame and compassion spread with Buddhism to both Korea and Japan. In those two countries she is known as Kannon or Kwannon and is revered. However, while she is very popular in both Japan and Korea, it is in China that she has really risen to be the most popular of all deities.

Linked to this popularity are the prophetic utterances associated with her. One of the most common of Chinese religious practices is divination. The usual method for doing this is with fortune sticks. Wooden sticks, numbered usually up to 64 or 100, are placed in a wooden (usually bamboo) shaker and after mindfully thinking of the question or concern for which you seek guidance, you shake the shaker until one of the numbered sticks falls out. This number then takes you to a specific reading which is then interpreted as guidance or inspiration for answering your question.

In every Kuan Yin temple in China and beyond, you will find little books, printed by devout Buddhists as an act of charity, which contain the traditional divination poems of Kuan Yin. Divination in China is not about asking the deities for an answer but about asking for divine help in understanding the real choices before you. We have translated all the one hundred poems of Kuan Yin and if you allow them to speak to you, it will be as if the goddess her-self was beside you, offering insights and wisdom, but in the end leaving you to make your own decisions.

We have also told many of the key legends and myths which surround Kuan Yin. In both the case of the prophetic utterances and the myths and legends it is important to stress how Kuan Yin is seen and understood. She can help you, but you have to work with her. This is crucial to understanding the compassion of Kuan Yin. She cannot dig you out of a hole from which you don't want to escape. Nor can she work miracles with you unless you are willing to work with the possibility of the miracle yourself. In Chinese divination, nothing tells you what to do. What divination does is offer you a third voice which can awaken within you the latent answers or response for which you have been searching. Likewise, in all the myths and legends of Kuan Yin, those who were helped, saved, or rescued have to have contributed something to this happening. Kuan Yin asks us to be dynamic partners with her with the Divine, in finding our own paths through the storms and squalls of life.

It is this which I believe is the key to understanding why she moved beyond any one faith system to become the goddess that she is.

Her rise within and then beyond Buddhism is perhaps most tellingly illustrated by the layout of a classical Kuan Yin temple. One of the oldest and least disturbed by wars, revolutions, and dynastic changes is the Kuan Yin temple in Macau. For a supposed Buddhist deity, she occupies an unusual place within the theological layout of the temple. On entering the temple, the first deity you encounter is the historical Buddha, Prince Gautama Siddhartha, also known as Sakyamuni. From him you pass to the next temple hall where you encounter the Buddha of the Past, the Present (this is again the historical Buddha), and the Buddha of the Future. Only then do you pass beyond to the final great hall and here encounter Kuan Yin herself. The theological feng shui of the temple tells you that while Buddhism is good and useful, it is but a doorway to the greater worthiness and significance of Kuan Yin herself.

This captures very precisely the way in which Kuan Yin is related to Buddhism in most ordinary people's minds.

And this is why she has now begun to attract such interest in the West. Precisely because she cannot be pinned down to any one tradition, but instead, floats above them all, embodying not a specific faith but the principle of the Divine Feminine itself. In a world where old religious borders are breaking down and the search for a spirituality of compassion, of the feminine as well as the masculine, and where the desire for a spirituality of balances has become so important, Kuan Yin is perfectly suited for such a quest. For many, she embodies what is best in spirituality without the baggage of religion. And I think this is exactly why she has always been so popular in China. Now she has slipped even the bonds of one culture and is moving into the wider world.

This brings us to the last fascinating religious element in the story of how she emerged as the goddess of compassion.

When we first wrote this book in the mid 1990s, we put forward tentative suggestions that the transformation of the male Kuan Yin into the goddess of Compassion Kuan Yin may have been in part as a result of interaction with the most famous female deity—or saint—the Virgin Mary. While others had suggested this in the past, we were prepared to explore the psychological and iconographic reasons why this might be the case.

We looked at how the figure of the Virgin Mary was itself taken from Egyptian statues of the goddess Isis and her baby son Horus. The story of this journey from Egyptian goddess to Virgin Mary is told on pages 31–33. We noted that when the Portuguese first arrived in China in the 1530s, they believed that the statues they saw of Kuan Yin were of the Virgin Mary. Both deities share many of the same attributes—a baby, a vase, a willow branch, a rosary, and so forth.

In 1997, as a farewell gesture to China, the Portuguese, who were to leave their centuries-old colony of Macau on the coast of China in 1999, decided to bequeath a statue to the city. They chose a Portuguese artist by the name of Cristina Leiria who decided after reading our book to create a twenty-meter high statue of Kuan Yin/Virgin Mary as a symbol of the fusion of East and West that is Macau at its best. This beautiful statue sits on her own little island and appears to be floating across the water to the mainland. At the base of the statue is an interfaith center, a touching symbol itself of the religious pluralism that is Kuan Yin—goddess, virgin, and bodhisattva.

We knew that Christianity formally arrived in China in 635 AD and that according to both Chinese official records and the records of the Church itself from that period, the monks who arrived brought icons and statues with them. Without doubt this would have included Mary, the mother of Jesus, the God-bearer, to give her but a few