Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

She Appears! Encounters with Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion”

An hourlong teleconference with

Sandy Boucher

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Sandy Boucher for September 2015’s WATERtalk. Boucher, a writer, editor, writing consultant, and teacher, discussed her recently-published book She Appears! Encounters with Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion (Goddess Ink, 2015), which offers a western visioning of the Asian goddess through a gathering of stories and artwork evoking visions, dreams and other encounters with Kwan Yin. Her previous books on women and Buddhism were among the earliest examinations of western women’s involvement in Buddhist practice. WATER thanks Sandy Boucher for a rich hour of new learning. A Q&A session followed.

I’m very pleased to be able to talk about the book and about Kwan Yin. Part of what I want to do is tell about how Kwan Yin is viewed in Western Buddhist settings and why she’s important to us as Western women pursuing a spiritual path. I think I have to begin by introducing Kwan Yin herself.

Who is this embodiment of compassion, Kwan Yin? She is the preeminent goddess in all of Asia, known by various names in many different countries, and is a goddess in other traditions. You can find her in a number of women’s spiritual settings, and very surprisingly, I’m told that she even appears in the African Yoruba tradition, on the altars of Oshun. Kwan Yin is very much out in the world, and in Buddhism, of course, she is the celestial bodhisattva of compassion

So what is a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva is someone who is practicing to achieve full liberation, but stops and says, “No, I will not be liberated until every being in the universe is free, every being wakes up.” She turns back into the world, she works to alleviate suffering, and she wakes people up. That is a bodhisattva. There are a number of them in the Buddhist tradition, and Kwan Yin is one of the major ones. Her Chinese name (Guan Shih Yin) means “She who hears the cries of the world.” And as such, she is totally open and responsive – she embodies not only compassion but also receptive listening. Hearing, sounds, vibrations, chanting are all very important to Kwan Yin.

She Appears: Encounters with Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion gathers the writing and artwork of 52 different people, all of them Westerners. It is an exploration of how this transcendent female figure manifests with Western people. How does she affect our lives? The book has an emphasis on art and creative expression, which feels consonant to me with how we as Westerners find our way to Kwan Yin. Very often it is through works of art. And so I want to tell about my own introduction to this goddess, this bodhisattva.

It came through a sculpture in Kansas City, Missouri. This was 1982, and I was on my way east, driving, and stopped in Kansas City where a friend said, “I want to take you downtown. There’s someone I think you’d like to meet.” She took me downtown to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Asian Art. She took me into a room, and in this room there was one very large statue of a seated Asian woman. My friend said, “This is Kwan Yin,” and then she left the room. She didn’t give any more information. I should tell you that at this point, I was not very susceptible to anything having to do with goddesses or spirituality in general. I was very much a secular feminist who had been out in the streets for ten years, organizing – and I was not interested in religion or spirituality at that point.

However, there I was, in the room with this transcendent figure. She’s about 8 feet high, she’s seated, and she’s made of wood – carved during the 12th or 13th century in China – gorgeously painted, wearing beautiful robes. She’s sitting on a rock with her foot on a lotus blossom, and she’s sitting in a particular posture. One knee is up and her arm is balanced across her knee. It’s called the ‘posture of royal ease’ and it’s a very strong posture, unusual in female figures. I’m standing there looking at her, with no context with which to understand her, and I had an extremely powerful reaction. It was as if I was feeling the whole spectrum of human emotion, all the way from deep sorrow and despair to, at the other end of the spectrum, great delight and everything in between as I looked at this gorgeous figure. Her face was so tranquil, so serene, as if in the midst of any chaos she would be present and calm. So, as we do in these museums, I bought a little postcard of this sculpture, I put it on the car seat, and I drove off to the east.

Then of course, I wondered ‘who is this?’ and I began to try to find out. At that time in 1982, there was actually one book in English about Kwan Yin. It’s called Bodhisattva of Compassion by a man named John Blofield and it is chiefly about Kwan Yin in China.

It was very informative – I liked it – but then, because I live in California where there is a number of large Asian immigrant populations, and also quite a few people who are involved in Chinese medicine, I began to notice what had really been there the whole time but I had never stopped to see: statues and wall hangings and paintings of Kwan Yin. I would go into Chinese restaurants and there, on a shelf above the cash register, there would be a Kwan Yin statue. In massage studios, in acupuncture offices, there she was, peacefully seated. She would be holding a willow wisp, she would be holding a vial of fluid – the fluid of compassion, which she pours out over the world. And I saw her in Buddhist meditation halls. For a few years I had been practicing Buddhist meditation. Sometimes she would be on the altar up in front with the Buddha statues, but sometimes on a smaller altar or table in the back of the room.

In Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen, Pure Land, and various Japanese forms) Kwan Yin has her place. She sometimes appears in male, and sometimes in female forms; she is chanted to; she is called upon to save people from disaster. That’s her principal role. In the Lotus Sutra, which is a major text of Mahayana Buddhism, there’s a whole chapter titled “The Universal Gateway Chapter of Bodhisattva Kanzeon” meaning Kwan Yin, and this gives us a catalog of all the terrible positions from which one can be saved by calling upon her. So if you’re drowning, if you find yourself in a fire, if you’re attacked by bandits, if you’re very ill, injured, whatever misfortune might befall you, you can call Kwan Yin’s name and she will help you. And we know that so many of the Vietnamese boat people prayed to Kwan Yin to save them in their emergency.

Incidentally or not, she is often viewed as male in these settings. Let me read a verse from the Lotus Sutra about what Kwan Yin is able to do:

“Suppose someone should conceive a wish to harm you, should push you into a great pit of fire, think on the power of Kwan Yin and the pit of fire will change into a pond.”

Here’s my favorite:

Suppose you’re on the peak of Mount Sumeru, the holy mountain, and someone pushes you off. Think on the power of Kwan Yin and you will hang in midair like the sun. You will not tumble down.”

 So she is acknowledged and chanted to in Zen Buddhism, she’s very much revered in Pure Land settings, and she often appears in Insight Meditation environments. But I want to underline why I think a much more active engagement with and envisioning of Kwan Yin in our Western meditation settings would be a healthy and progressive change for Western Buddhist women, and also, men.

To fill you in on some history, the early Buddhist teachers in this country were almost exclusively male. They came from Asia, generally, and they brought a practice that was very austere, very demanding, and very hierarchical. Consider the term “combat-boot Zen.” That expresses a great deal about this. The emphasis was on endurance, it was on extreme physical trial – ‘can you sit still without moving a muscle for two hours straight, or four, or eight?’ And many Zen centers in their early days in this country actually imposed this style of practice on their students, and many of the women students suffered under this requirement. Now, of course, it’s 30 years later, and there have been at least 20 years of activism by Western Buddhist feminists. Certainly tremendous changes have come about. Still, there can be a rather arid quality left to some of the Buddhist practice that remains.

I would like to read a section of She Appears! that speaks pretty clearly to this lack in Western Buddhism and illustrates the value of Kwan Yin for us:

“Invitation to Dance” by Sherry Ruth Anderson (She Appears! p. 117)

As an earnest young Zen student and intensely focused psychologist, I went about finding enlightenment in the same way I did everything else, the only way I knew: driving hard. Pushing. Going for the gold. In the spring of 1976, I embarked on a solo meditation retreat in a tiny cabin in Northern Ontario. From early morning to evening, I did siting and walking meditations, and 1,000 prostrations a day, when I wasn’t chopping wood for the stove.

Really, I was not ready for such an ordeal, having practiced Zen for only a few years. Looking back, I realize how scared I was. Alone for thirty days with nothing but my barely established sitting practice to hold my frantic mind, I seriously thought I might go crazy. I’d heard stories about what could happen if you spent that much time alone. But my Zen master encouraged me and I wanted to give it a try.

By around the third day, I’d gotten settled into the retreat structure when something happened that I could never have imagined. As I was sitting erect on my cushion in the afternoon, the sun filtering through the windows, Kwan Yin came into the room and invited me to dance.

As I think back, I wonder how I knew she was there. It seemed like the most natural thing. My eyes were open. She was dressed in flowing robes as in the statues I’d seen, and what I remember most was her smile. She looked amused, probably at my plight as a fledgling meditator trying so hard to get it right. She reached out her arms invitingly, as if to say, Come and join me, why don’t you? She didn’t speak but waiter, still smiling, as I struggled to work out what was happening. 

We’re supposed to just sit, I thought. Not get up and dance. I never heard about this sort of thing happening on retreat. Am I doing something wrong?

And then she started to move, laughing and sexy and teasing me until there I was, up off my cushion, swaying and whirling and laughing with her. Laughing! Is this what happened on retreat, I wondered. How come nobody told me?

Every day she came and every day we danced in the afternoon. I guess I started to expect her, though I can’t remember that part anymore. But I haven’t the slightest difficulty remembering the joy that rose through my body and out my head like a fountain of golden light as great sensual energies whirled me across the room and out the door to turn under the big pines, weeping and laughing, without a scintilla of understanding anything except being there in boundless celebration.

I never told my Korean Zen master what happened with Kwan Yin. I think, honestly, I walled off my memory of what happened on that retreat because I have no context for it. Not until twenty years later, when I was writing The Feminine Face of God with my friend Pat Hopkins, did I realize: Oh, even then in the midst of what felt like the most severe kind of patriarchal practice, the Sacred Feminine was present. Inviting me to the delicious joy of my feminine self. Filling me with such gladness, releasing my grim and fearful efforting. Inviting me to dance.

So, Kwan Yin invites us to dance in our female bodies, to celebrate life, to worship with our bodies and hearts as well as our minds. And it seems to me, to practice Buddhism without some dimension of the devotional is to lose the richness and power of the spiritual path. We need a feminine reaching out and nurturing of ourselves in the world as much as we need our very focused dharmic practice. Also, we need Kwan Yin to balance out the inherent historical and traditional misogyny apparent in the Buddhist path, and I think we need an expansion of what it means to become a buddha.

In The Female Buddha, Deborah Bowman agrees: “In celebrating an image of the female Buddha, we challenge the old myth with a new myth…this new myth means expanding awareness that women have not only the capacity for enlightenment, but to lead the way to liberation. The female Buddha points to a shifting paradigm, beyond prejudice, asking us to step forward and bring freedom to all.”

There is so much evocative and elegant Asian art devoted to Kwan Yin. I would like to highlight an unusual image that demonstrates an aspect of Kwan Yin that is not usually recognized or given prominence, and that’s the dimension of fierce compassion. The image is Kwan Yin with a sword. There are some traditional images of Kwan Yin with a sword, and in Buddhism the sword is not used as a weapon for killing others. It is an instrument for cutting through delusion, down to the essence of what is going on. One artist provided us with an image of Kwan Yin riding on a dragon, with one hand holding a lotus stem and the other a sword. This is Mayumi Oda, an artist, mother, and political activist, who said this about her silkscreen of Kwan Yin with the Sword:

“It’s about taking care of yourself. We have so confused compassion with sympathy. Compassion is really the understanding of the whole world as one, that there is really no separation between me and you. If you just give and give and give because you have sympathy, you’re not taking care of yourself, and then you’re not taking care of the whole world either. Women are trained to give away our own selves so much…but if you just give and give, you become a very angry person and you don’t know why you’re angry. Unconsciously, it just bubbles up…it’s dangerous. I realized I would have to say no to certain things…I gave my Kwan Yin the sword of wisdom and ruthless action so that I can cut through that of the kind of bullshit sympathy and allow my real self to act…and so that I can really take care of myself too, and taking care of myself is taking care of others.” [Discovering Kwan Yin, p.54]

A male figure with a sword exists in Buddhism—he’s called Manjushri—but to have a female figure wielding a sword creates a more nuanced and challenging message.

Kwan Yin went through sex change in China: she was brought over as a male figure but over 300 years (from 600-900CE) transformed into a female. I believe she is the only transsexual in world religion. She did this in two ways:

First, she was conflated with resident goddesses. In the South China Sea and other harbors, there would be a goddess for taking care of the fisherman. Kwan Yin was identified with these goddesses and became Kwan Yin of the Southern Sea, for instance.

Second, she entered through the embodiment of ordinary women. A baby would born in a village and she would be different from the others, maybe more peaceful. As she grew, she would be more generous, compassionate; when she died (sometimes to save another’s life) and her body was being prepared for burial, people would discover through various magical signs that this person was actually Kwan Yin, living among them. This explains why there are so many forms of Kwan Yin. It also says that Kwan Yin is present with us in our everyday world, she is not difficult to reach, and we can cultivate a kind of intimacy with her.

I would like to end with a poem from She Appears! that expresses this intimacy.

“Kwan Yin” by Laura Fargus (She Appears! p. 6)

Of the many buddhas I love best the girl

who will not leave the cycle of pain before anyone else.

It is not the captain declining to be saved

on the sinking ship, who may just want to ride his shame

out of sight. She is at the brink of never being hurt again

but pauses to say, All of us. Every blade of grass.

She chooses to live in the tumble of souls through time.

Perhaps she sees spring in every country,

talks quietly with farm women while helping to lay seed.

Our hearts are a storm she trembles at. I picture her

leaning on a tree or humming or joining a volleyball game

on Santa Monica beach. Her skin shines with sweat.

The others may not know how to notice what she does to them.

She is not a fish or a bee; it is not pity or thirst;

she could go, but here she is.


Q: Tell us about experience in China protecting women who were protesting.

A: It was 1995, at the UN 4th World Conference on Women (this is the most recent one). Thousands of women from all over the world were going there. I was a graduate student, and involved with a Women in Religion group. We decided to go and offer a workshop. In the East Bay, there are a number of Tibetan people, so we communicated with the Tibetan women, some of whom were going to the conference in China despite China’s efforts to keep them out. The women talked about the experience of Buddhist nuns and women in Tibet, some who had been imprisoned and tortured, and how passionately they wanted independence. So, some of the Women in Religion group decided to stand with them at the conference. There were 26,000 people there, women, men, and security that kept watching and taking notes on the Tibetan women – it was a bit intimidating. The police were watching us standing in the central square of the conference at noon on the day of the demonstration, with the 7 or 8 Tibetan women who had managed to make it through. Each Tibetan woman had a scarf with the Tibetan flag, which is illegal in China, tied around her mouth. They stood in pouring rain. Each American woman stood behind a Tibetan woman. It was so intimidating. One had a large sense of negative energies at work despite positive interest from the conference crowd. I called upon Kwan Yin during this time, and we made it safely through.

Q: I love the image of Kwan Yin with sword as tool to cut through the deception. Can you say more about how this image of Kwan Yin emerged and the obstacles/misogyny she faced?

A: There are traditional images where she is shown regally – you get a sense that she is a general, going into battle. In a culture where women’s’ feet were bound, it is mysterious that this image would come out strongly. This change may be because we really do strongly associate compassion with the female. Although of course there are many strong compassionate men, when the male figure was brought to China, many people said “no, this should be female.” But the quality of strength and piercing insistence remained. The sword can cut through all our resistances and takes us into the present moment. The artist of the sword image was making a tremendous statement about who we can be.

Q: Are there other goddesses (Kali, Durga, etc.) who are kindred spirits to Kwan Yin? Who else should we be looking at to bring together elements of fierceness and compassion?

A: Looking first at Mary – many people connect her with Kwan Yin because of her association with mercy and compassion. There is even an image in the book where Mary and Kwan Yin are combined. Mary was taken to China early on, where artists were looking for beautiful religious women to provide images. In Japan, Christians were persecuted and went underground, but wanted to keep an image of Mary. They created an image that looked like Kwan Yin, but has a blue robe and other Mary-like dimensions, called Maria Kannon. The statue’s identity as Mary is determined by a wooden cross embedded within it. In the Buddhist tradition there is Tara, who started in India but is revered in Tibetan Buddhism. She is a bodhisattva of compassion, but more formally defined in terms of image. She is seated in meditation with one foot stretched before her that suggests she is ready to leap up and come to aid of anyone. Mary is not a goddess, and her prominence comes from giving birth, so she is different in quality of power from Kali or Tara or Kwan Yin, who are independent in their being in the world.

Mary E. Hunt follow up: There is an interesting piece comparing Mary and Kwan Yin by Peter Phan, a Catholic theologian, who wrote an essay detailing the theological comparison between the two as an important part of interreligious dialogue in Vietnam. It is in a book called the New Comparative Theology edited by Francis Clooney.

Q: What is the age span of people who read the book – is Kwan Yin as important for young women?

A: When I lead retreats on Kwan Yin, there is quite an age span. In general, Buddhist practitioners are aging and are only gradually being replaced by younger ones, but once introduced, younger women are very much interested in Kwan Yin.

Q: Is there some current publication of yours we should be waiting for?

A: I am in a period of savoring She Appears! and doing something unusual – making no plans for any writing except memoir writing and waiting for next big project to rear its head.

WATER thanks Sandy Boucher and wishes her every blessing in her year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be October 7th from 1 to 2 p.m. ET. Click here for more information. All are welcome.