Buddhism’s Wonder Woman

I’m still stuck on the subject of superheroes and the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle. As I wrote in the last post, the program takes a good look at how comics dealt with issues of race and gender equality.

Back in the day when I read comics, every character was white. There were no people of color unless they were mutants or from another planet, in which case they were green or red or purple, colors not reflecting the actual color of human skins. At one point in the saga of Green Lantern, long after I went from comics to other things, some writers at DC Comics came up with a story line to deal with the overall failure of their books to recognize racial diversity. An African-American man confronts the Green Lantern saying that in all the superhero’s intergalactic adventures he helped the orange skin on this planet and some other skin on another planet, but on this world “There’s skins you never bothered with. The black skins. I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern.” The superhero hangs his head in shame, and says, “I can’t.”

Wonder Woman was created in 1942 by a male psychologist whose work led to the invention of the polygraph and who believed that one day America would be a matriarchy
Wonder Woman was created in 1942 by a male psychologist whose work led to the invention of the polygraph and who believed that one day America would be a matriarchy

Comics didn’t deal very well with women either. They were treated as sex objects, regulated to supporting roles as the “damsel in distress” or as sidekicks. An exception was Wonder Woman, at one time the only female superhero in comics. Ironically, Wonder Woman’s creator was male and the majority of her early writers were also men. It was not until Lydia Carter played the character on TV in the 70’s that Wonder Woman was interpreted by a woman.

The show was popular with women. Carter says she never played the role as “sexy.” One commentator in the documentary notes, “The Wonder Woman TV show . . . captured the sense of Wonder Woman perfectly. Lydia Carter understood very clearly what that character was and what she was about, which was peace, equality, challenging gender norms, power through strength, but strength of will.”

Buddhism has a Wonder Woman: Kuan Yin. Originally, she was merely the female emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, presented typically as male persona. However, in China, Kuan Yin came into her own as a strong female icon, the “Goddess of Compassion”.

Barbara E. Reed, who teaches in the Religion Department and Asian Studies Program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in “The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva”, offers a succinct explanation of how Kuan Yin went from male to female:

Somehow during the assimilation into Chinese culture Kuan-yin Bodhisattva underwent a sexual transformation. The male Bodhisattva from India, Avalokitesvara, became a white-robed Chinese woman. In addition to the sex change, the female symbolism of the bodhisattva was expanded further by the addition of yin symbols (for example, moon, water, vase) from the yin-yang polarity of Chinese thought. In a Chinese culture dominated by Confucian social values, Chinese women saw this female symbol as particularly relevant to their problems as women. “

In the male-dominated Buddhist temples and monasteries of China, Kuan Yin is still nearly always male, while among everyday folk the bodhisattva is female.

But transcendence of gender is an ancillary function of Kuan Yin as an archetypal symbol, for she is most useful to us in epitomizing the power of compassion as tool for transformation. If you study the folk tales that were absorbed into the Kuan Yin story, you find that transformation is often a key theme: through tragedy an ordinary young girl becomes the great bodhisattva, Kuan Yin transforms an ugly bird into a peacock, a young hermit becomes an immortal, and so on.

In the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, also known as the Kuan Yin Sutra, her mien is very much like that of a superhero. Caught in some dire predicament, if one has faith in Kuan Yin and calls her name, she will come to the rescue:

If you be pushed into a pit of fire, by enemies with intent to harm,
Invoke the name of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and the pit will become a pond . . .

If caught by a band of callous bandits, with evil hearts and murder on their minds,
Call out Kuan Yin’s name and their hearts will turn soft and kind.

This is a literary device to convey the idea that if we trust the power of compassion, and use it, we can rescue others and ourselves from unhappiness. Compassion can facilitate a transformation within the mind, where we transcend the limits of restricted individual consciousness and enter into the realm of a true collective consciousness.

Rather than a cosmic being that exists above our everyday reality, Kuan Yin actually represents the universal capacity of all human beings to give love. Kuan Yin is an interior state of being that anyone, male or female, can realize.

My Kuan Yin
My Kuan Yin, in serene royal ease posture.

That’s one reason I have a statue of Kuan Yin on my altar, to remind me of this.

The logic of compassion calls for the co-existence of suffering sinners and compassionate buddhas and bodhisattvas. The sufferings of the former call forth the salvific energies of the latter. As long as there is suffering in the unhappy realms of rebirth, buddhas and bodhisattvas will continue to carry out their work of salvation, for the former constitutes the object of their compassion. In fact, without the former there will not, and cannot, be the latter.

Chun-fang yu, Kuan-yin The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara


The Never-Ending Battle

Like most American kids growing up anytime during the past 75 years, I was an avid reader of comic books. One of my first heroes was Superman, and not long afterward, I got into Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and all the other DC Comics crusaders. That was an era when superheroes were pretty much one-dimensional. Comics didn’t get really interesting until Marvel Comics came along and brought us superheroes who had angst. The Fantastic Four and Spiderman battled not only evil villains, but personal problems. It was a subtle shift in the way superheroes were presented but it changed comics forever.

Over the weekend, I watched great documentary on PBS called Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, hosted and narrated by Liev Schreiber. It traced the history of superhero comics from the birth of Superman in 1939 to the present, and it kind of made me regret giving up comics so many years ago. It was a purely economic decision on my part. My meager allowance did not provide me enough money to buy comics and records, and since I was no longer an adolescent but a teenager, rock and roll seemed much cooler.

But I’ve never lost my love for superheroes. I’ve seen most of the new movies and while I find the plots redundant, I can’t help but appreciate the special effects.

In any case, I highly recommend the documentary, especially if you ever loved comics. Among other things, it shines a light on how Marvel’s Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko both revolutionized comic art, and takes a hard look at how comics dealt with issues such as racism and feminism.

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superguru!

Now, this is a clumsy segue but today is Deepak Chopra’s birthday (he’s 66). One reason I mention both Chopra and superheroes is to give me an excuse to repost the image on the left that I Photoshopped and used in a 2011 post.

I like to call Chopra the Rodney Dangerfield of spirituality/alternative medicine, because he don’t get no respect. As Time magazine noted in a 2008 article, he’s “a magnet for criticism”, but because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a TV “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers an alternative to the view provided by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that seems to dominate the media.

Another reason I bring Deepak Chopra up is so I can quote from his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes*. Chopra talks about the Law of Transformation. He suggests that what makes superheroes both super and heroes is that they are able to “live without false boundaries between the personal and the universal”:

Transformation is the true nature of every being and of the universe itself. Superheroes are able to recognize their transformational selves and all the various forces at work within them and perceive the world from an infinite number of perspectives. In doing so, superheroes never face a conflict or adversary they are intimidated by or unable to empathize with.”

This may seem to be just more of the sort of easily digestible self-help pabulum Chopra is often taken to task for, but guess what? We can find essentially the same message in the Heart Sutra when it says,

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana.”

This world of suffering we inhabit is not different from Nirvana or peace, and when we base ourselves on the law of transformation, which the sutra calls Transcendent Wisdom, we open our lives to the infinite number of perspectives Chopra mentions above.

It’s said that the five skandhas or aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness) are sources of suffering. Actually, we do not suffer from the five skandhas. Suffering comes from the value our mind attaches to them. Tantha (craving) is based on value judgments. If we can change our tendency to cling, to form attachments – in other words, if we change our perspective, then there is a real possibility for transforming our suffering into peace, happiness, Nirvana.

trio-4Superheroes have spiritual laws and they have wisdom, too. Here are some wise bits from my three all-time favorite superheroes.

‘What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?’ They surrender.”
– Superman (All-Star Superman #3)


With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
– Spiderman (Amazing Fantasy #15)


The world must never again mistake compassion for weakness! And while I live — it had better not!”
– Captain America (Avengers, vol.1 #6)

‘Nuff said!

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The above drawings are by the original artists for the three superheroes: Joe Schuster (Superman), Steve Ditko (Spiderman), and Jack Kirby (Captain America).

* Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, HarperCollins, 2011