Global Guan Yin

Last year I was preparing a sermon for a wedding I was to preform for some volunteers who had come to the Dominican Republic. I was scanning Youtube for some music I could play for  the service. I ran across a dance company in Beijing . This dance is called “Buda with thousand hands”. It is performed by a group of Chinese handicapped girls. They can not hear or talk. They dance by reading the signs given by the 2 teachers standing at each side, they are so famous now that they are being invited by countries around the world. It was so beautiful and moving that I had to investigate it further.

China is exporting the feminine energy and power of Guan Yin through this dance by the most unlikely people and yet it perfectly conforms to the deep psychic principle embodied in Guan Yin. The western world is being exposed to this one who hears the cries of the world.

We must not be uncritical of this transfer of Buddhist ideas from China to the West.

In the Western world, the Bodhisattva of compassion found herself in different social realities, such as a preference for personal meditation, indifference to superstition, and a tendency toward psychological approaches to religion, “so that a purer Buddhism, more authentic to the spirit of the founder, could be recovered. (Wilson, 2008, p. 288)

Philip Kapleau taught that:

“Rather than a supernatural being, Kannon [the Japanese name of Kuan-yin] is the embodiment of your own compassionate heart”. . . .”a vague ‘energy’ of compassion” (Wilson, 2008, p. 288)

Jeff Wilson suggests that one of the reasons for Kuan-yin’s popularity in the United States is gender: women find the devotion more woman-friendly than traditional male-dominated religious systems of the west. Furthermore, “for women who have left Catholicism she is a warm reminder of the Virgin Mary yet without the negative implications for sexuality” (Wilson, 2008, p. 290) People join groups, not doctrines. Similarly, people reject groups, not characteristics/doctrines. However, the chapter of the Lotus Sutra which most embodies [compassion] considers the bodhisattva to be a male. The willingness of the bodhisattva to help others in any situation was a trait before he was transformed into a female in China…but American Buddhists consistently derive her compassionate mutability from the fact that she is female. (Wilson, 2008, p. 290)

The Water and Moon Kuan-yin Bidhisattva in the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, Missouri is another example of cultural imposition on the gender theme. According to Wilson, the exhibit “…is a somewhat androgynous male figure, but Americans persistently mistaken it for female.” (Wilson, 2008, pp. 290-1) Nevertheless, despite obvious differences in origins and cultural perceptions of the bodhisattva and of the social conditions from which the bodhisattva is believed to protect women, the tradition(s) and the label Buddhism are perceived as a unified category which offers any devotee the chance to belong to something old, tested, and relevant. The sheer number of Kuan-yin devotees in East Asia enables new devotees in America to feel that they are in solidarity with a large group. (Wilson, 2008) The local group becomes national, collective (international) and diachronic.

Such instances mirror the dangers of transferring traditional elements from one culture to another uncritically, since Buddhist teachings “do not explicitly address the kinds of psychologically intimate relationships so important to many Western women, and in particular they do not address power differentials in male-female relationships.  Yet, at least in one Korean American Buddhist community, where women comprised the vast majority of attendees at devotional practices and chanting, the women [found in Buddhism] a rationale for self-actualization. The concepts of karma and Buddha-nature in particular were crucial in this construction of a positive, active self for many women, who described it as a process of becoming one’s own subject, “finding and knowing one’s own mind,” and “taking matters into one’s own hands.” (Finn, para. 10)

Wilson, J. (2008). Deeply female and universally human: The rise of Kuan-yin worship. Journal of Contemporary Religion. Vol. 23, No. 3, October 2008, 285-306
Finn, J. A look at Korean American Buddhism, gender, and identity: A UCLA graduate student reports onProfessor Sharon Suh’s colloquium presentation at the Center for Buddhist Studies. (n.d.) . RetrievedNovember 10, 2009, from http://www.international.ucla.edubuddhist//print.asp?parentid=34189
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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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