Stephen Levine, Kuan Yin and an Eagle

Teacher, author and poet, Stephen Levine passed away Sunday at the age of 78 after an unspecified “long illness”.

StephenLevineAs noted on his Wikipedia page, Levine was “one of a generation of pioneering teachers who, along with Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, have made the teachings of Theravada Buddhism more widely available to students in the West.” Lion’s Roar, in its announcement of Levine’s death noted how he “was influenced by various spiritual traditions. He was also a friend of Ram Dass and, like him, was a student of Neem Karoli Baba.”

Levine’s last book, published in 2013, was Becoming Kuan Yin: The Evolution of Compassion.

The story he tells, of Miao Shan, the princess who defied her father and became a Buddhist nun at White Sparrow Monastry, is central to the Chinese evolution from the male Avalokitesvara into the female Kuan Yin.  In the Heart Sutra, Kuan Yin transcends all sufferings, crossing over the sea of suffering. Transcending gender, Kuan Yin becomes even more relevant as an archetypal symbol for our times.

Instead of some cosmic being that exists above our everyday reality, Kuan Yin should be seen as representing the universal capacity of all human beings to give love.

This excerpt from Levine’s book is from Chapter Five, “Miao Shan Observing” and it struck me as rather beautiful:

Miao Shan was learning a lot about true prayer and the levels of loving-kindness meditation available in surrender and mindful service as they infiltrated each action throughout her day. She found her heart in the first breath upon waking, and it called forth her spiritual ancestors, the saints, the bodhisattvas, and the Buddhas of the ages for support.

Each intention was enforced with the clarity and power of love. She learned more about love by watching how unloving the people around her could be. She learned about how mercy could heal, like a poultice, the wounds of absence in the convent’s sad inhabitants. And the parishioners, many out of exasperation, came to plead their causes to some power beyond their own . . .

Some monks not entering the monastery sat in the courtyard in meditative prayer seeking not some Supreme Being but supreme beingness; doing spiritual practice not just for their own benefit, but for the well being of others . . .”

And we bid a sad farewell to Glenn Frey who died yesterday. He was a founding member of The Eagles, the band whose music typified the peaceful, easy (sometimes hard) California country sound.  Several years ago, he release a sole album of pop standards and here is a video of one of them, Bobby Troup’s immortal “Route 66”:


Cecil the Lion, and the Story of Savari the Hunter and Kuan Yin

By now you must have heard about Cecil the Lion. But if you haven’t, here is a brief account of the facts:

cecilCecil was a 13 year old lion that roamed Zimbabwe’s Hwange national park. (See him on the left in an undated photo from by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit – click to enlarge). Cecil was a popular cat, a favorite attraction for tourists visiting the park. Reportedly, a dentist from Minnesota paid $50,000 to a professional hunter for the opportunity to kill poor Cecil. They allegedly lured Cecil out of the sanctuary, shot and wounded him with an arrow. After they tracked him for 40 hours, they finished him off with a rifle, skinned him and removed his head.

Once the story hit the Internet, it went viral, and many were outraged. It is a sad fact that Americans regularly kill that lions, elephants, rhinos and other big game animals for “sport.” It’s sad that anyone does. I say if you’re going to shoot big game, use a camera.

I’m outraged, too. But there is little I can do other than add my voice to the protest by sharing this story with you, originally from the Tibetan biographies of the Eighty-Four Siddhas, who flourished between the seventh and eleventh century C.E. I’ve adapted it from Lama Anagarika Govinda’s version found in “Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness”:

Savari was a hunter who was very proud of his strength and his marksmanship. The only thing he did in life was to kill animals.

He was out hunting one day and he saw a stranger, also a hunter, approaching. He thought, “This guy has a lot of nerve hunting in my territory.” When the stranger drew up, Savari could not help but notice that he looked just like him. It was as if he were gazing into a mirror.

“Who are you?” Savari demanded.

“I am a hunter,” the stranger replied.

“And what is your name?”

“It is Savari.”

“How can that be? I am Savari. Where do you come from?”

“A far-away country.”

Savari didn’t like any of this. He decided to test the stranger.

“Can you kill more than one deer with a single arrow?”

The stranger said, “I can kill 300 with a single shot.”

“That’s pretty big talk. I’d like to see you back it up.”

kuan-yin-2015-2At that moment, the stranger magically created a herd of 500 deer. What Savari did not know what that the stranger was actually Kuan Yin who had taken Savari’s form because she felt pity for him.

The stranger then fired off an arrow and accomplished the feat he had boasted of with ease. “If you have any doubts about it, go fetch one of the deer.”

Savari went to the closet fallen deer but when he tried to lift it, he could not because it was too heavy. “Well,” said the stranger, “You must not be much of a hunter if you cannot lift one deer.”

This broke Savari’s pride completely and he went up to the stranger, fell on his knees, and begged the stranger to teach him.

Kuan Yin said, “If you want to learn this magic shooting art, you must first purify yourself for a month by not eating meat and by meditating on love and compassion toward all living things. Do that, and then I will return and share my secret.”

Savari did was he was instructed and a month later, he was a changed man but he had not yet realized it. When Kuan Yin returned, Savari ask to be shown the magic way of shooting.

Kuan Yin, still in the form of the stranger, drew an elaborate mandala, adorned it with flowers, and told Savari, who was accomplied by his wife, to look at the mandala carefully.

The husband and wife, who had seriously practiced meditation for a full month, were able to concentrate on the mandala with one-pointedness of mind, and as they did, the ground below them seemed to open up and reveal the bowels of the earth.

“What do you see?” asked Kuan Yin.

Savari and his wife were speechless, for they gazed upon the eight great hells and the agonizing suffering of innumerable living beings.

Kuan Yin asked again, “What do you see?”

As the husband and wife peered further they recognized two painfully contorted faces. And they cried out, “It is ourselves!”

They scrambled away from the mandala and Kuan Yin became herself and Savari and his wife implored her to teach them the way of liberation, and they forgot entirely about the magic way of shooting and the sport of hunting. After this, Savari devoted his time to meditation on loving-kindness and became one of the Eighty-Four Siddhas.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the moral of this story. But I will tell you that the tale was transformed into a well-known Zen fable about Shih-Kung and Ma-tsu, that was probably first presented to Western readers in D.T. Suzuki’s “Essays in Zen Buddhism” series published in the 1920s and ’30s.  Shih-Kung is a hunter who hates Buddhist monks.  One day he is confronted by Master Ma-tsu who convinces him to renounce hunting. Shih-Kung then becomes a monk and one version of the story has it that after Shih-kung became enlightened, whenever he was asked about the dharma, he would draw his bow and arrow and aim at the questioner.


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


A Kuan Yin Christmas Story

Actually, this has nothing to do with Christmas, but it does involve Kuan Yin. If there are any morals to the story, I leave that up to you to discern. I offer the tale merely as entertainment, a small diversion from the usual storytelling heard and read at this time of year.

Fish Basket Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

As you may know, Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, has many manifestations, and in art is depicted in a number of different poses, sometimes seated on a lotus blossom or in the “royal ease” posture; she might be standing, dressed in white, perhaps holding a willow branch or a child, or with a thousand arms. This is a tale of the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.*

In China, on the Yangtze River at Hunan, there is a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. Its waters cascade down from a great mountain for more than one hundred feet. Each year in the third month of the spring, a certain species of carp, known as Yulong, swim up from the sea and gather in the basin to climb the waterfall. It is said that any carp able to leap the falls will be transformed into a dragon. The large scales of Chinese dragons indicate they originate from carp.

However, the river’s current is strong, and as one sage wrote, “not a single carp out of a hundred, a thousand or even ten thousand can climb the falls, not even after ten or twenty years. Some are swept away by the rushing water, some fall prey to eagles and hawks, while others are netted, scooped up, or even shot with arrows by fishermen who line either bank of the wide falls.”

This myth was so well-known that throughout China the phrase “a student facing his examinations is like a carp attempting to leap the Dragon Gate,” was a common expression to indicate the difficulty of passing imperial examinations.

There was a man named Zhou, a youthful scholar who arrived at the capital one spring to take his examinations. While there, he stayed in a monastery. He was sincere student who maintained a pious devotion to the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Community of Believers. He was also skilled at calligraphy, a talent that attracted the attention of Prime Minister Ching, who befriended him. The Prime Minister asked Zhou to tutor his daughter, a beautiful girl named Golden Peony. After a short time, Zhou and Golden Peony fell in love, and were engaged to be married.

Now, there was a golden Yulong carp in the pond on the Prime Minister’s estate, and this carp took the form of Golden Peony and seduced Zhou, and together they left the capital for a nearby city. Needless to say, the real Golden Peony was heartbroken over the disappearance of her fiancée, and soon she became gravely ill over it. The Prime Minister was concerned, not only for his daughter, but also for Zhou, as his sudden and mysterious departure seemed so out of character.

Judge Dee

Prime Minister Ching contacted the famous Judge Dee, a detective and magistrate whose adventures have been recorded in contemporary times through the novels of Robert van Gulik and in the recent film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The judge launched an investigation and soon uncovered the hidden truth of the affair. Accompanied by a squad of soldiers, he traveled to this other city to capture the false Golden Peony and return Zhou. However, the woman who was really a carp managed to escape. Although he sent out men to scour the entire South country, Judge Dee could find no trace of the golden carp in any form.

By now, Kuan Yin had heard the sorrowful cries of the real Golden Peony. Even though Zhou had returned, Golden Peony was still in agony. She could not get over her belief that Zhou had been unfaithful and had betrayed her. Not even the fact that the honorable Judge Dee vouched for Zhou and explained that the young man had been tricked helped to ease her pain. Judge Dee, a most wise man, counseled the girl and suggested that she recite Kuan Yin’s name to arouse the power of compassion within her heart and forgive Zhou.

Kuan Yin, wishing to relieve Golden Peony’s sufferings, used her mystic power of insight to discover the carp’s hiding place: beneath a lotus leaf in the South Sea. Kuan-yin went to this place, captured the carp, and placed it in a fish basket.

White-robed Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

Mr. Yang was 0ne of the Prime Minister’s neighbors, a humble man of modest means whose most valuable possession was a painting of White-robed Kuan Yin. One night he had a dream in which Kuan Yin told him the next day he would meet a woman carrying a fish basket. The next morning he did indeed meet such a woman, and he took her to Judge Dee and they turned the trickster golden carp over to him. The woman received a sum of money as a reward that she then gave to Mr. Yang on the condition that he should commission a painting of Kuan Yin carrying a fish basket. This is the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.

The carp confessed, and Golden Peony forgave Zhou, and they renewed their plans for marriage. However, there was still the matter of the carp’s punishment to consider. The carp had repented of its errors and begged for mercy, and while the fish seemed sincere, Judge Dee was nonetheless tempted to take the carp to the fish market to become someone’s meal. Kuan Yin suggested they test the carp’s sincerity by releasing it into the waters at the foot of the Dragon Gate waterfall. If, without resorting to magic, the carp could leap the falls and become a dragon then its sincerity would be proved. If not, then the carp would surely drown or be netted by fishermen.

Kuan Yin and Judge Dee traveled to the Dragon Gate, where they released the golden carp and immediately it climbed the falls and when it reached the top, became a dragon known as Chan-long, or “Remorseful Dragon.”

It is said that after hearing this story, the poet Bei Du composed the following poem:

Those who contemplate on this subtle
compassionate lady dressed in white
appearing everywhere
in infinite universes,
return to the original enlightenment,
attaining nothing,
empty and free.


* A slightly different version of this story appears in Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesvara by Chun-fang Yu, Columbia University Press, 2001.


The Heart Sutra and Kuan Yin

As I mentioned the other day, compassion is just as important theme in the Heart Sutra as emptiness (sunyata), the focus of most of the attention. This might be difficult to see because there is no specific reference to compassion. However, there is hardly a word in the sutra that is not representative of some Buddhist concept. Therefore, simply the word “Bodhisattva” stands for the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion.

Now, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra: the original longer one, and a shorter one for chanting. The longer version contains a prologue and epilogue, each about a paragraph in length. The prologue sets the scene, on Vulture Peak where the Buddha is sitting in meditation surrounded by an assembly of monks and Bodhisattvas, and Shariputra asks Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva how to practice Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom). In the epilogue, the Buddha emerges from his meditation, praises Avalokitesvara for his good words, and everyone rejoices. In the short version of the sutra, the epilogue is reduced to a single sentence and the epilogue is redacted entirely.

The Heart Sutra is supposed to be a condensed version of the much, much longer Maha-Prajna-paramita Sutra. But Avalokitesvara does not appear anywhere in that work, rather he is borrowed from the Lotus Sutra. And, of course, Avalokitesvara is “the Bodhisattva of compassion.”

Why does Shariputra pose his question to Avalokitesvara and not to the Buddha? It’s unusual since the Buddha is teacher, the center of so many sutras, and the key figure in Buddhism. The traditional explanation for this is that the compliers of the Heart Sutra, by having Shariputra, a Hinayana disciple, ask for guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva, were making a point about the “small vehicle” versus the “large vehicle.” Using rhetorical allegory, they were making a case for the validity and superiority of Mahayana.

But who really cares about that? Today, there is no Hinayana, except for the Theravada school, which rejects the term, considering it an insult. Yet, there is a way to interpret the scene that is very relevant to us today.

In China, Avalokitesvara is known as Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin); in Japan, Kannon; in Korea, Kwan Um; and often, the bodhisattva is a female icon (Avalokitesvara, you know, is androgynous). The Chinese Kuan Yin, the “Goddess of Compassion,” was a figure that transcended religious sectarianism. Taoists, Confucianists, and Buddhists alike worshipped Kuan Yin. However, that was among the lay people, who worshipped Kuan Yin in their homes (it was very unusual for Chinese families to have a statue of Buddha on their home altar), but not in the temples, which were run by men, and where Kuan Yin was nearly always male.

Vestiges of Buddhism’s patriarch institutions remain today, especially in the on-going controversy over ordaining women as nuns, which could be resolved in the blink of an eye if the monks would come to their senses and decide to join the rest of us in the 21st Century. Moreover, in today’s world, women are still struggling for equal rights. The recent controversy over the “War on Women” is ample evidence that women’s rights remains a vital issue. Because of this, I think it’s important to try and find positive images of women in Buddhist literature considering that much of it seems sexist, if not downright misogynistic.

The Heart Sutra affords us an opportunity for this, if we transform Avalokitesvara from a male figure to that of the female Kuan Yin. Now, one could say this in unnecessary, that Avalokitesvara’s androgynous nature represents the unconditioned where there is no division between male and female. But somehow the symbolism of having one of the Buddha’s male disciples seeking wisdom from a woman makes a more powerful statement, one that should be inspiring to women, and as well, meaningful to men.

In the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Volume 2 by David Adams, et al, there is a very interesting entry on Kuan Yin which poses the question, “Does Guan Yin offer a psychologically tame balance for the ancient traditional role of women as subservient . . . Or does Guan Yin function as more bold, compassionate, saving contrast to that repression, even a feminist opponent to that?” I say, the latter. Even for me, as a man, regarding Kuan Yin in the female persona causes the Heart Sutra to come alive with unexpected meaning, relevant to our times. Having Shariputra seek guidance from a woman is symbolic of women’s dignity, which must be respected.

This I think coincides with what Rita M. Gross (dharma teacher and former Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies in Religion, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), in Buddhism After Patriarchy, calls “reconstruction of the symbol system.” She argues that Buddhism is reconstuctible “because the fundamental teachings and symbols of Buddhism are essentially egalitarian and liberating for all, equally relevant and applicable to all beings.”

Kuan Yin is not the only feminine ideal in Buddhism. It should not be forgotten that Prajna-paramita is also female, “the mother of all Buddhas,” nor that an important aspect of Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism has always the presence of powerful, even sexually active, female archetypes. But there is something about Kuan Yin that makes her, as Sandy Boucher says, “a towering female figure.”

In Chinese philosophy, yin (a different character from the Yin in the bodhisattva’s name) is identified with the female principle – passive energy that resonates with love and wisdom. It was a kind of energy inherent in all people, regardless of gender, but may be more or less dominant according to the person. This is another way that Kuan Yin as the female principle reinforces the sutra’s theme of compassion.

There are many other aspects of Kuan Yin, the feminine ideal, to be discussed, but this will have to suffice for now. For those interested in this subject, I recommend Boucher’s book, Discovering Kuan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, which explores Kuan Yin’s history, legends and is filled with many poignant personal stories, along with Kuan Yin meditations, songs, and practices.

On the more scholarly side, there is Chun-fang Yu’s Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesìvara, an in-depth and lengthy (688 pages) study of the “dramatic transformation of the (male) Indian bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into the (female) Chinese Kuan-yin.”

We see images of this great Bodhisattva throughout the Far East in the lovely figure of Kwan-yin looking down in mercy on the world. That principle of mercy engages us in the world, addressing ourselves to others with sympathy, with compassion for their sense of sorrow. We feel the world is sorrowful. We see people feeling that they are in sorrow and yet they are actually in delight. The truth is that since this is nirvana, we are all motivated by delight, and so we are. So life is.

Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light