Universal Threads in the Garment of Guan Yin

The story of Guan Yin and the Swallows follows a universal pattern I have noticed in Christian hagiography of female saints in the Middle East. (See my books Hilaria: the Woman who Became a Man, 2005,  (Amazon.com) ) and Monks of Mesopotamia: Origins of Monasticism in Upper Mesopotamia of the 4th to 6th Century, Translations and Analysis From Previously Unknown Syriac Manuscripts – Paperback (2002) by Dale A. Johnson, and Monks of Mount Izla, 2006 (http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/monks-of-mount-izla/934475))

These divine females follow a pattern of childhood innocence, forced marriage, rejection of sex, wandering, finding refuge in a monastery, hidden life, miracles, and revelation at death.

These stories reveal a universal pattern on the fabric of the human soul. They arise from a universal consciousness passing through human psychology.

Guan Yin has been forced to marry. We find her wandering in search of shelter.

“Kwan Yin walked aimlessly for a week. Her clothes were torn and her hair was tangled with leaves. Her body convulsed from the cold. She finally collapsed from exhaustion, and curled up by a boulder. She slept for two days. When she opened her eyes, there was a brilliant, orange dragonfly sunning itself on the boulder. It slowly opened and closed its double pair of translucent wings.

Kwan Yin stood up and followed the dragonfly to a stream, where she removed her clothes and let them float away. She lay down in a shallow pool and closed her eyes. Her hair spread out, and rested in the soft water. The dragonfly waited on a lily pad. When Kwan Yin arose, the dragonfly led her downstream to a bed of flowers with fragrant fruit. She fell to her hands and knees and ate.

Kwan Yin followed the dragonfly through the forest for three weeks. Her menstruation stopped, and the softness of her hips and breasts disappeared. Each day, her body became more angular and sinewy. And each day, her hearing became more acute. She heard the brush of leaves in the wind, the stream lapping over stones, and the dragonfly beating its wings.

On the night of a full moon, the dragonfly stopped at a jagged, stone wall. Kwan Yin stood before a massive timber gate with iron hinges. The dragonfly circled three times, and flew away. Kwan Yin hid in the bushes by the gate, and fell asleep.

She awoke to the sound of swallows. The morning light revealed thatched nests, twined with twigs and thread, along the top of the wall. The gate shuddered open, and crimson robed figures emerged. Kwan Yin was afraid to look into their eyes, and watched only their feet. They touched the earth in silence, like ghosts gliding above the ground. The last pair of feet stopped at her bush. An old man bent down and placed a folded robe on the ground. Then he left with the others.

Kwan Yin put on the robe on and walked to the wall. She rubbed her hair against the stones, moving her head closer and closer, until all that was left were jagged lengths of hair like leaves. She spread the hair on the ground and returned to the bush. The birds flew down and retrieved the locks for their nests. When the sun rose to the top of the trees, the robed figures returned. The gate opened and each entered, save the last. The same old man placed a bowl of rice with glazed vegetables on the ground in front of the bush. Then he walked through the gate and it closed.

Kwan Yin took one bite and closed her eyes. She slowly ate half the bowl and spread the rest on the ground in front of the wall. The birds flocked to the food. The old man watched from behind the gate and smiled. He opened the gate and called out, “you who shares your only meal, come forward and tell me your name”.

Kwan Yin emerged from the bush and knelt before the old man. “Kwan…I mean Kang Lin. My name is Kang Lin.”

“I am the abbot of this monastery, Kang Lin. Bring your begging bowl, and come.” Kwan Yin walked through the gate into a courtyard. Before them was a great hall with dragons lining the roof.

“Don’t be afraid”, said the old man. “They protect the prayer hall from hell dogs and hungry ghosts.”

Clouds of incense and the drone of chanting wafted out the doors. They walked past freshly washed robes, hung on a rope between two trees, and entered a long, linear building. Lining the walls were low cots, each with wood slats.

“This is where you will sleep.”

*** *** ***

Kwan Yin awoke to find a monk lying on the next cot, staring at her. He sat up when she did, and mimicked her every move. She thought she was looking at herself. He held a small bird in his palm.

“This bird told me a secret. Guess what it said and I’ll spare its life.”

Kwan Yin sat up. “I don’t know. Please don’t harm it.”

“You don’t know? Or you don’t want to share secrets?”

“I can’t…”

The monk squeezed his hand shut. “Maybe later.” He dropped the crushed bird on Kwan Yin’s cot and left.

Nausea swept through Kwan Yin’s body. She ran outside and vomited. Then she buried the bird behind the building.

Monks were walking to the courtyard and Kwan Yin followed. The abbot addressed them. “Oh monks, we eat but one meal a day, and must never forget that we depend on the kindness of others. We start our day with gratitude, and the villagers start their day with charity. So we begin alms rounds.”

As the gate opened and the monks left, the abbot said to Kwan Yin, “keep your head down and do not talk to the villagers, it is considered improper”. The monks walked through the gate in single file, and Kwan Yin searched for the one who killed the bird. She followed the monks and the gate closed behind her.

They entered the village and stopped at houses where villagers waited with freshly cooked food. The monks at the front of the line had their begging bowls filled first. They were given so much that some carried fruit in the crook of their arms. Kwan Yin avoided eye contact with the villagers. They stopped in front of the largest house, and the abbot nodded to a man at the doorstep. The man bowed. It was the mayor.

Kwan Yin kept her head down, and saw two delicate feet appear within her vision. She raised her gaze and saw long black hair as she once had. She dared not look up. Suddenly, a clay pot of rice fell to the ground. Kwan Yin began cleaning it up.

A young woman bent down and said, “please Venerable monk, do not lower yourself. I will clean it.”

Kwan Yin continued to pick up shards of pottery. The young woman looked into Kwan Yin’s eyes and touched her hand. It was the first kind touch Kwan Yin received since she left her mother. She looked at the young woman and, with tears in her eyes, said, “thank you”.

The abbot stood above them and the procession of monks stopped. The mayor glared from the doorstep. The abbot motioned at Kwan Yin to follow him. She stood up, lowered her head, and followed the abbot. Her bowl was empty.

The monks returned to the monastery and the abbot said, “I want everyone in the courtyard. I have something to say.” The monks circled around him. “What occurred this morning broke the monastic rules. We must never speak to the villagers on alms rounds. They must have a feeling of veneration towards us. Especially grievous is a woman touching a monk. Kang Lin, I know you understand this.”

Kwan Yin said, “but master, I am not…”

He cut her off. “You are not what?”

“Nothing master. I understand.”

A monk laughed aloud. The abbot looked at him and said, “and you who finds this so amusing, what have you to say?”

Kwan yin looked at the monk in shock. It was the one who killed the bird. He stepped forward and said, “does the mayor feed us out of kindness, or does he seek merit so he won’t be reborn as a dog?” The monks next to him turned their faces into their robes, trying to muffle their laughter.

The abbot glared. “Enough! Whatever the intention, it is an act of kindness. That is all we need to know.”

The next day, Kwan Yin avoided the young woman’s gaze when they stopped at her house. The abbot and the mayor watched. The mayor’s daughter carefully ladled a portion from her pot.

The monks returned to the monastery and sat at a long, roughly chiseled, dining table. They held their bowls above their heads and chanted, “in accepting this meal, we vow to abstain from evil, to cultivate good, and benefit all beings”. Kwan Yin fingered the food from her bowl into her mouth, until she bit something hard. She hid the small object in her robe until she was outside the dining hall. It was a scrap of wood with the words, “meet me tonight”, carved into it. Kwan Yin looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then buried the scrap in the garden. When she left, a hooded monk emerged from behind a tree and retrieved it.

Kwan Yin joined the monks in the prayer hall for evening chant. She mouthed the word, “tonight”. Why? Did the woman know her secret? Did she know what happened? Kwan Yin could not disobey the abbot. She scratched the words, “I cannot see you” on another piece of wood, and hid it in the sleeve of her robe.

The young woman waited for her caller. At nightfall, she saw a hooded monk walking down the road. She ran to him and took his hand. They entered a shed behind her house. She removed his robe in the darkness and lay down on a bed of blankets and straw. The next morning on alms round, at the moment the young woman was going to serve her, Kwan Yin let the piece of wood fall from her sleeve into the pot.

*** *** ***

The young woman’s breasts grew round and she was sick in bed every morning. On the day the baby was born, the mayor brought it to the abbot. “Our village has always supported the monastery but now that is in jeopardy. I have lost all merit and shamed my ancestors. You know who the father is. You must banish your new monk and this ill-begotten child forever.”

The abbot called Kwan Yin to his office. “Kang Lin, do you deny that you are this baby’s father? “

“Master, that cannot be.”

“And why not? Did the mother not give you this?” The abbot held up the scrap of wood. “Yes, I know you are surprised. One of the monks found it while working in the garden. You did not bury it deep enough. What other secrets have you not buried deep enough?”

“I am…” Kwan Yin lowered her head.

“Speak up.”

“I am grateful for your kindness, and want no evil to come to you. I will leave the monastery with the baby.”

Kwan Yin cradled the baby in her arms and felt a warmth flood into her breasts and groin. She walked through the courtyard with her head up, looking straight ahead, as the monks watched in silence. The abbot closed the gate behind her. She walked to the village and a forest mist that shrouded the ground moved with her. She saw no one, but heard voices through the mist.

“That’s him.”

“He stole our food.”

“The monk with no shame.”

As she walked by the mayor’s house, the mist engulfed her, and the voices grew louder.

“He wears robes to steal our daughters.”

“We’ve lost ten thousand years of merit.”

“The baby is doomed.”

The door to the mayor’s house opened and a voice boomed. “You are the leech that took my food, seduced my daughter, and stole my honor. You sucked the blood and life from this village. How will these good people find dignity again?” The mayor stepped forward. His face was red and his eyes were black. “Answer me.”

Kwan Yin held the baby close, and turned away.

“Answer me, you coward.”

The mayor’s daughter stepped forward. “Who will marry me now? I hate you.” She picked up a rock and threw it. It struck Kwan Yin’s back. Kwan Yin draped her body around the baby, protecting it within her robes, and kept walking. She heard the villagers.

“Thief…”

“Liar…”

“Rapist…”

People on either side of the road picked up rocks and threw them at Kwan Yin. They hit her eyes and ears and mouth, until she could walk no further. Kwan Yin bent down to shield the baby, and it started to rain. She heard all their voices at once.

“Don’t let him escape…”

“Stone him…”

“Kill him…”

They were upon her, striking with stones, bludgeoning with their fists, clawing her back. They tore off her tattered robes. Their hands were covered with blood.

Kwan Yin felt the rain seep into her, until there was no more blood. Only rain. Her body slumped over and the villagers stared in silence. A woman.

The mayor lifted Kwan Yin in his arms, and his daughter cradled the baby. They walked slowly to the monastery, tears streaming, with the villagers behind. The mayor laid her down in front of the gate. Hundreds of swallows swooped down from the monastery walls and covered Kwan Yin’s body with crimson threads. All the villagers prostrated, and then they heard her voice in the rain.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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