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


2 thoughts on “The Heart Sutra and Kuan Yin

  1. A bit of a linguistic tangent:

    In Chinese Buddhism, the term usually translated as “Patriarch” (??, zushi) is meant as a term of highest respect. I often wonder if this is a terrible translation or an apt one. Literally ?? means “ancestral teacher” and does not necessarily have a gender. Traditionally these people were all men, and that certainly says something about Chinese culture and Buddhist culture. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem quite right to me to use translation in order to assert a gender that has always been implied but not explicit.

    1. Maybe patriarchal is not the best choice of words, but I’m using it in the English sense, referring to chauvinistic characteristic, and not in relation to lineage. Probably “patriarch” is a terrible translation. One factor would be what Indian word the Chinese were translating, and that I am not sure about right off the top of my head.

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