GENDERSWAPPED: KWAN YIN / AVALOKITESVARA AS A MAN WHO EMBODIED THE GODDESS
The God/dess Kwan Yin is a powerful symbol of the unity between Masculine and Feminine. She was originally born a man 🙂, one who understood the Transcendental Feminine within – at least according to the Indian tradition. Many of you may know this, and it might be news to others. It´s certainly something I´ve been thinking about in the past few years.
Here´s some background information that supports these claims and demonstrates the emergence of 3 different traditions surrounding the Kwan Yin / Avalokiteśvara figure, listed by chronological development (as I understand it):
(1) Born as a man in India with traditional links to the Sage Agastya and the Tamil language in the South. Said to reside in the Pothigai Hills where Xuangzhang (of China) recorded a temple dedicated to him in said hill (circa 5th century). Whilst not definitive of a time-line, sage Agastya is mentioned in the Ramayana and other Hindu texts – placing him to an earlier timeline.
What is tantalizing is the translation of Avalokiteśvara: The Lord Who Looks Down Below. Who has a temple at Pothigai Hill – which some traditions understand as Potala 🙂 The Underworld.
“The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara.
In Tibet, the name of the Tibetan Dalai Lama’s Potola Palace (winter palace since the 7th c.) stems from the same Indian-origined tradition pointing also, to an origin in southern India, and thus bears the above interpretation and theory out:
“From as early as the eleventh century the palace was called Potala. This name probably derives from Mt. Potala, the mythological mountain abode of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara / Kuan Yin) in southern India.” —The Potola Palace” – https://japanesemythology.wordpress.com/page/8/
My experience of this energy has always veered in that direction. It´s nice to have words and concept to frame what one has sensed for a long time.
Similarly, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the mantra OM MANE PADME HUM was first associated with him in the Kāraṇḍavyūhasūtra, 4-5th century CE.
(2) Born as a bodhisattva capable of taking any form – Buddhist tradition (the Lotus Sutra dates back .. roughly to 1st century CE)
(3) Born as a woman – Chinese folklore – one prominent legend is dated to the 11th century. However, there´s a case to make for the feminization of Avaloketiswara in China after the 12th century.
http://www.menstuff.org/issues/byissue/kuanyin.html – from a male perspective
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalokiteśvara – history, mythology, lore, sculptures
http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/kuanyin/ – for a really good take on why the gender-swap happened .. and when.
Book to check out: Kuan-yin : the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesìvara by Chün-fang Yü.
So .. what happened here?
Is it the case of a male figure that so perfectly embodied the feminine that he was simply not allowed to .. be male and be compassionate? (Buddhist legends have some interesting ways to describe the change-over)
Or is it the (appropriate) en-meshing of two different deities – one from China – and the other from India? They both share the same mantra in any case 🙂
I also have to note …
That there´s a real resistance to seeing Kwan Yin as male because there is part of the Rising Feminine / Goddess / Priestess Movement that is as reactive as the distorted masculine it challenges. And I can understand why that´s there … look at what it did to Pallas Athena!
But that does not mean we should be perpetuating the same kind of erasure that we endured.
The moment we say … Goddess can only be X, Y, Z, or expressed in this-or-that-body – we´re creating the same type of exclusionary gender hierarchy that we claim to challenge.
In other words, Goddess Movement, please don´t do a reverse Patriarch …
Yes, things are being rewritten – and yes, it is time to move past these binaries. But also – remember to look at source and origin material – and how it evolved over time. 🙂 In the push to imagine a new religion or spiritual template for women, it would be a shame to lose one of the greatest symbols of the union of the two. And a truly special narrative of a soul´s spiritual journey into transcendence.
For a man, in the era that Avalokiteśvara (Sanskrit name) to do what he did is nothing short of revolutionary. The fact that patriarchy could not handle a man that so clearly embodied Her speaks volumes in itself 😉 Some much so that they had to give him a sex change – he deeply unsettled the status quo.
*gasp* A Compassionate Man who embodies the Feminine? In the Darkness / Netherworlds???
*silence, and a few rumbles and murmurs*
For that is the sound of false hierarchies crumbling, of both the patri-and-matri-archal variety.
( For clarity am a staunch LGBT ally- what you choose to do with your body is your choice 🙂 When a distorted patri/matri/human-archy forces it on you or your legacy, that´s a whole other kettle of fish)
” Originally worshipped in India as the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the personification of compassion and kindness was represented in China by masculine-appearing bodhisattva figures prior to the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). Images that later displayed attributes of both genders are believed to be in accordance with the Lotus Sutra, where Avalokiteśvara has the supernatural power of assuming any form required to relieve suffering and also has the power to grant children. Because this bodhisattva is considered the personification of compassion and kindness, a mother-goddess and patron of mothers, the representations in China were further interpreted in an all-female form around the twelfth century. In the modern period, Guan Yin is most often represented as a beautiful, white-robed woman. Guan Yin’s veneration was introduced to Japan by way of Korea by the mid-seventh century.
A strong impetus in the transformation of Guan Yin from man to woman in Chinese thought began with the writing of the Biography of the Goddess of Mercy, written during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368). This work, a pious rendering of the life of Guan Yin by a wealthy lay devotee, was written with the express purpose of defining Guan Yin as female. The prevailing ideology of the time suggested that certain tasks, such as granting children, were suitable only for women deities. Thus, Guan Yin was transformed to serve this purpose. ”
Though, if anyone has source material from the pre-Yuan period that makes the case for Guan Yin as a woman, please do come forwards. I´d be happy to include that in this article. So far, what I find is research that cites the gender-swap taking place and why…
Rather than viewing this as another patriarchal re-claiming of the Goddess, it is patriarchy´s rejection of Her (yet again). Then again, the question of – which Kwan Yin / Avalokiteśvara you are working with arises.
If using this as a symbol in meditation – it shouldn´t make too much of a difference – but if directly invoking this energy – IT DOES.
So who do you work with?
The Indian male?
The androgynous bodhisattva?
The woman of Chinese folklore?
All three? Less? More? Are they the same, or are there slight differences?
If you feel into the iconography and literary words that describe each, they give a slightly different vibration. For me, the ideal that captures it best is the Indian-Avalokiteśvara. In sculpture, in mantra, in visualization. (I found out about the link to my own ethnic roots when I kept digging for more info to write this)
You might have different needs. And you might feel differently.
It´s up to you to choose, but be conscious in your choices. And (if you want) question why some choices are more comfortable to you than others.
Sometimes it is a case of what you were taught to feel, and to interpret. And one of the greatest gifts is in de-conditioning the self from those influences to feel and interpret spiritual energy in a direct manner. That changes the whole game, the whole spiritual journey.
If anything, I would say Kwan Yin / Avalokiteśvara is a powerful symbol of the times and potentially one of the greatest teachers/aspirant forms of the Rising Feminine and the Compassionate Masculine.
In the bid to bring back the Goddess, let us not erase the story of one of Her greatest Champions.
Post © Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2016. All rights reserved.
Image: Avalokitesvara Gandhara Musée Guimet 2418 1.jpg, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.