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