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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Kwan Yin inspires women to find divine femininity

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

In 1977, Kathy Phillips discovered Kwan Yin at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Irene Matsumoto reflects near a Kannon statue at Palolo Kwannon Temple. Women in search of a connection to the divine feminine have long turned to this bodhisattva — also known as Kwan Yin — for guidance.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Phillips had taken the bus to the museum, where a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy still sits with one foot drawn up and her elbow resting on her knee. The English professor, busy with grades and papers, looked over at Kwan Yin and sighed.

"Now, Kwan Yin, how do you get so relaxed?" she asked.

Today, more than a quarter century later, Phillips can relax herself, with a book of poems about Kwan Yin about to make its debut at local bookstores. "This Isn't a Picture I'm Holding: Kuan Yin" has been published by the University of Hawai'i Press and will be available Friday.

Signs of Kwan Yin punctuate O'ahu, from the Chinese Buddhist temple near Foster Botanical Gardens, to the Japanese Palolo temple to the Waikiki curio shops selling her likeness in repose as well as at attention.

Like others who have paid homage to the bodhisattva who has inspired generations of women, Buddhist and otherwise, in Kwan Yin, Phillips has found comfort in the concepts the ancient figure embodies: compassion, enlightenment and mercy.

Kwan Yin is inspiring women to find their divine feminine, and inspiring cultures to embrace their softer — dare we say maternal? — side.

Who, exactly, is this figure who goes by many names (see story, this page) and whose profile has grown in stature both within and outside Buddhism?

Her rising profile

Kwan Yin, revered as the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is inspiring women to discover the compassion within.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Women — especially those looking to espouse the divine feminine, like the Mary followers in Catholicism and "goddess" followers — are taking to Kwan Yin, too. Several articles written about her, which can be found in the archives at belief.net, talk about her rising profile.

Women have long sought a counterpoint to male-dominated religion. Author Phillips was happy to look to the Buddhist figure after finishing a fiction project on another female icon: St. Ursula.

"I like using a figure larger than life to begin with," said Phillips. "... Both Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are available to women, but Mother Mary is not a model I identify with. Kwan Yin is a model I identify with — she's not anybody's mother or daughter."

It's also the goddess within: Kwan Yin is the ideal, she added, proof of "the Godspark in everybody.

"When you get calm, we can be that calm, understanding soul," Phillips said quietly. "She's not a distant goddess."

Inspiring Hawai'i

In Hawai'i, Kwan Yin came with plantation workers, who would erect altars in their camp homes. Chinese workers, especially, had a special affinity for the bodhisattva. (After the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when many items of Buddhism were destroyed, in many areas Kwan Yin statues were restored before even other Buddhist statues, Phillips notes in the introduction of her book.)

At the Kwannonji Temple in Palolo, Rev. Irene Matsumoto talks about her transformation from elementary school teacher to Buddhist priest. Matsumoto followed in the footsteps of her mother-in-law, a Tendai Buddhist abbot who helped create the small neighborhood temple, and her husband, Bishop Chiko Richard Matsumoto, whom she assisted until his death in 1995.

Matsumoto learned in her years as a helper at the temple that women clung to Kannon, as she is called there, and would offer special prayers for their children to the bodhisattva — especially the female forms that dot the altar.

Kwan Yin is often pictured with a lotus flower ("from the murky water comes a beautiful flower," she explained) or with a pitcher of oil, being tipped out, like the mercy flowing out of her jar. (Some scholars also remark that the jar has a uterine connotation, further sealing Kwan Yin's fate as a "she.")

A particularly popular statue is one with Kannon and a baby, what's often called the "madonna" Kwan Yin.

"Kannon may change form, to be whatever you need," said Matsumoto, who had a special affinity for Kannon. She gained comfort from her connection to the bodhisattva after her husband died, especially to the Kannon who listens to one's cries.

"I always felt as if I could have a guardian in Kannon," Matsumoto said.

Next year, the Kwannonji Temple's 70th anniversary will be a gala festival on Kannon Day, which falls on June 19 in the Western calendar, or if you follow a lunar calendar, can be as late as August. (The Kuan Yin Buddhist temple in Honolulu celebrated its Kuan Yin festival the first week of August.)

Perhaps the most notable influence of the bodhisattva is through the art and images of Kwan Yin, which can be found in Hawai'i's museums and curio shops, on street corners and in home altars — evidence that Kwan Yin is as at home in a temple as she is on the streets.

Kwan Yin quandaries

Kwan Yin is often featured as part of the ruling triad of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, Hawai'i's most common sect: There's Amida Buddha, the Buddha of boundless light; to his right is Seishi (also known as Mahasthamaprapta), the bodhisattva of strength and power; and to his left is Kwan Yin.

"This Isn't a Picture I'm Holding: Kuan Yin" will be available in bookstores Friday.
Buddhists don't officially have "gods" and "goddesses," but Buddhas and bodhisattvas. A Buddha is one who has attained enlightenment. A bodhisattva is one who could have gone off to nirvana for enlightenment, but has chosen instead to continue incarnating, to help others.

Some Buddhists depict Kwan Yin as female, others as male, others as neither.

But it's commonly known that Kwan Yin wasn't a "she" at birth.

In India, he was known as Avalokitesvara, "one who hears the world's cries," whose compassionate powers were expounded in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

The Buddha figure changed in China, where he was transformed as a she in about the 6th or 7th century A.D., scholars say. Kwan Yin continued to be portrayed as a male until about the 10th century. Bodhisattvas can embody any form.

In the 12th century, the legend developed of the Buddhist saint, Miao Shan, a Chinese princess who lived 500 years before and was widely believed to be the Kwan Yin.

Monks settled off the coast of Chekiang, where Miao Shan lived, and it was said that she helped save the sailors from sickness and shipwreck. That reinforced the idea of Kwan Yin as female.

Power to women

This is one of several shrines and figures inside the Palolo Kwannonji Temple, a Japanese Buddhist institution, depicting the divine feminine.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

In general Buddhist tradition, one has to be masculine to become a Buddha. A Buddha possesses the 32 marks of a "great man," one of which includes male genitalia, explained the Rev. Al Bloom, a professor emeritus of the UH Religion Department.

Buddhists believe it would require many eons of reincarnation for a woman to become a male and achieve enlightenment.

However, according to the 35th Vow of Amida Buddha, if a female believes in the Buddha when she's dying, the Buddha comes to meet her. Accompanying her, she transforms immediately into a male and enters into the Pure Land.

"It's weird, from a Western point of view," Bloom said. "It's kind of a misogynist moment. I try to encourage women to reject that view by understanding the ancient Buddhist context of the vow, which actually affirms women with immediate transformation (graphically portrayed in Chapter 12 of the Lotus Sutra), compared to long eons required by general Buddhist tradition."

English professor Phillips hails Kwan Yin's transformative powers, but cites another reason she's growing in popularity.

"It helps to have a role model who's a woman," she said.

Reach Mary Kaye Ritz at 525-8035 or mritz@honoluluadvertiser.com.

• • •

Kwan Yin's many faces

While many Westerners use the name Kwan Yin, because it seems easiest to pronounce, the name and spelling varies in Asian countries.

China: Kuan Yin, Guan Yin.

Japan: Kannon, Kanzeon (the Palolo temple uses Kwannon in its name).

Vietnam: Quan Am.

South Korea: Kwan Seum Bosal.

Signs of Kwan Yin around O'ahu

Kuan Yin Temple: 170 N. Vineyard Blvd.; 533-6361. Some daytime visits are permitted. Be respectful of the nuns.

Honolulu Academy of Arts: 900 S. Beretania St.; 532-8701. The art museum has several representations of the Buddhist figure.

Palolo Kwannon Temple: 3326 Pa'ale'a; 737-5177. This Japanese Buddhist temple has several outdoor renderings of the bodhisattva and many more inside. As above, be respectful.

Tendai Mission: 23 Jack Lane in Nu'uanu, has an almost-two-story, thousand-armed Kwan Yin, probably male, in its courtyard.

Mural at the Miramar Hotel: 2345 Kuhio Ave., Waikiki; 922-2077.

Chinatown Cultural Plaza: 100 N. Beretania St. You'll find several representations here.