Kuan Yin: The Compassionate Rebel
By NITIN KUMAR
It is unfortunate that Buddhism’s most enduring (and universal) contribution to the world has been insufficiently translated as compassion. The original Sanskrit word is karuna, which holds within itself traces of the fragment ‘ru’, meaning to weep. While the Oxford dictionary describes compassion as pity bordering on the merciful, karuna is actually our ability to relate to another in so intense a measure that the plight of the other affects us as much as if it had been our own.
The term karuna is central to the entire Buddhist tradition. It is frequently described as a love for all beings, equal in intensity to a mother’s affection for her child. However, it is quite unlike conventional love (Sanskrit: priya, kama or trishna), which is rooted in dualistic thinking and is egoistic, possessive and exclusive, in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of compassion. The root meaning of karuna is said to be the anguished cry of deep sorrow and understanding that can only come from an unblemished sense of oneness with others.
In fact, the evolution of Buddhism in Asia and its spread throughout the world is, from a spiritual point of view, none other than the unfolding of karuna in history. Nowhere is this more explicitly exemplified than in the Chinese assimilation of Buddhism. Few would deny that the defining symbol of this integration is the goddess, who with her sweet and merciful disposition, has won the hearts of not only the Chinese, but also profoundly affected even those who, belonging to a foreign tradition, have only had a fleeting interaction with her. This divine female is none other than Kuan Yin, beloved goddess of over a billion people the world over. Her name too signifies her compassionate nature, literally meaning ‘One who hears the cries of the world.’
It remains a historical fact that Kuan Yin is the Chinese version of the male god Avalokiteshvara, whom the ancient texts eulogise as the patron deity of compassion. It is fascinating, however, to observe that nowhere in India (where he originated) or Tibet (where he remains the most popular deity) is the latter ever deified as a female figure. In China too, his worship began as a male god, but over time, changed into a goddess and by the ninth century her popularity had prevailed over that of Avalokiteshvara’s.
There are many reasons why this gender transformation took place. As Avalokiteshvara evolved into the supreme personality of the Buddhist pantheon, with this heightened pedestal came the inevitable elitism. Karuna, however, cannot be and is not (as it has become today under the pseudonym of compassion), the exclusive preserve of a charmed circle, but rather a symphonic identification with the masses, sharing their suffering and pleasure alike. No wonder then that Avalokiteshvara shed streams of tears observing the plight of his people. Now, any emanation from a divine form is bound to hold a dynamic potential within itself and indeed Indian mythology is replete with examples where fluids emerging from deities have led to enormous consequences. Tears similarly are a spontaneous emotional response to external stimuli and represent the outward flow of Avalokiteshvara’s infinite karuna.
From these pearls emanated a beautiful female as attractive as she was compassionate. The goddess Tara, thus born, has continued her upward spiral of popularity and remains one of the most loved and widely recognised deities of the Buddhist pantheon today. Truly, even though Avalokiteshvara retains his foremost status in the gallery of Tibetan gods, in the popular imagination it is Tara, who with her supple charm, has come to symbolise the tenderness of karuna.
It is relevant here to observe that Kuan Yin is often depicted in art holding a leafy twig, derived from the ‘weeping willow’ tree, known so due to its trailing leafy branches that droop to the ground and along which raindrops trickle down like tears. One of its distinctive characteristics is remaining green throughout the year, pointing perhaps to the goddess’ fertility aspect, which is further echoed in images showing her with an infant.
The willow also has a deeper and direct connection with Chinese culture and it is believed that Lao Tzu, the author of Tao-te Ching, loved to meditate under its shade (6th century BCE). It was under the same tree that the younger Confucius had his famous interview with Lao Tzu, telling his disciples afterwards:
I know how birds fly, fishes swim and animals run. But there is the dragon – I cannot tell how he mounts on the winds through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today, having seen Lao Tzu, I can only compare him to the dragon.
Over centuries, Kuan Yin’s visual depictions have highlighted her lithe, flowing form, much like the willow tree itself, which has the ability to bend during the most ferocious winds and then spring back into shape again. Indeed, who wants to stand rigid like the tall oak that cracks and collapses in a storm? Instead, one needs to be flexible like the willow, which survives the tempest.
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