Calling Upon Ourselves as Kwan Yin


We have been seeing so much suffering in our world as of late, some of it brought on by events such as the pandemic, others brought on by our unwillingness to see things as they are, a learned and at times deliberate ignorance. We may see ourselves as eagles but really many of us at times, myself included are nothing more than a wobbly kneed ostrich with our heads in the sand.  

We learned a long time ago, to turn our heads and look away because it was just too hard to see or too hard to see our own complicity, whether it is environmental degradation, racial injustice, sexism, egotism on and on and on.  This makes us like many of those that came before us unwise, foolish, ignorant and deluded. 

Not seeing the world as it is we make believe a world, where endless consumption is possible and the same hubristic scientific innovation of better living through chemistry, well save us ( god I am hoping} or that electing our first black president demonstrates our post-racial poltitics, as as Terrance Kennan has written in Zen Encounters with Lonliness, ,

 “ we do not leave make believe behind when we emerge into so called adulthood. We just call it rationalism.”   

This ignorance, this being trapped in the ever constricting world of our fear, shame, denial, hate and indifference,  are just different shades of the same word Dukkha – suffering, dis -ease, 

What I am seeing in our ourselves our families our communities, our  planet – 

the samsaric cycle of the six realms seems less poetic and more visceral more literal than metaphorical – 

In a real way the Buddha Dharma has taught me that it was not someone else that was killed while praying in a Church in Sugarland, Texas or Walmart in El Paso, or senselessly without regard under the knee of a police officer, 

 it was not someone else  it was me , it happened to my family, my community, All  of us are harmed by these acts of violence. We are not separate, we are one, intimately connected. I want to remember that it is not the world out there that is burning but the whole world that is suffering fear, loneliness, anger, and hopelessness.

I know this and yet how many times… 

have I  heard of yet another  mass shooting, another black man or woman killed or murdered  in police custody  and my first response was simply to say to myself, not again and I went about my day at work and didn’t think about it again till I was driving home and listening to the details on the radio. Is this not a privileged place to live? Where I can just turn it off as if it didn’t happen. 

At times I am worried because I feel myself becoming desensitized and turning away. I realize that sometimes I have to, to take a breath but I know I can’t turn away

It seems like it’s taking more effort to face the suffering and acknowledge the fire burning the world so I turn to the story of Kwan Yin and Amitabha Buddha.

I want to share with you the mythic that it might help you in your everyday life.  The imaginal is not concerned with something being literal or real but it’s about something that expresses the deepest aspiration and wisdom of our shared human experience. 

Being Homo- Naratus  we story, that is what we do. I think that myth can help us take the same stumbling block,  in our tendency to story a life that constricts us, that closes us off  and harnesses it is a new way giving us the  ability to transform our lives. I appreciate this from James Hillman

Each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as … an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.

I want to talk about such a unique image that can guide us in our calling our aspirations as compassionate followers of the Buddhas – that image, the myth is that of  Kwan Yin

For those who do not know of her – she is also called the Goddess of Compassion being the embodiment of compassion is also known as the mother of all the Buddhas,

Her very name is derived from  the Chinese word, Guanshiyin, which means to hear the cries of others. 

One of my favorite things about her story is that she started out as male in India as Avolokistvara  and in Tibet Chenrezi who the dalai lama is considered in reincarnated form.  

Over the generations he evolved into the female form we have now and represents the first transgender bodhisattva.   

I believe this transformation was the longing for female energy to be represented in the Buddhist canon. In China, her representation of compassionate action took hold and she is an integral part of Chinese Buddhism and culture and in Japan she too was to have a powerful influence upon not just the culture but on Shinran Shonin. 

In Japan she is known as Kannon. 

We open our mythic tale with Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, Goddess of Compassion making a great vow to never rest until she has freed all sentient beings from the endless cycle of suffering.

Wanting to free all beings from suffering she set about doing just that. And after some time,  she realizes that despite all of her endless efforts, there were still countless unhappy beings yet to be helped. 

After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, and what seemed like the impossibility of fulfilling her vow she got a splitting headache and heartache. 

I appreciate that image. It can feel like that sometimes when we open our heart to the suffering of others, we feel it and many times our own hidden and unattended suffering.  

I know from my years working at the Utah State Hospital, that just hearing the desperate cries of the suffering can make one feel as if your head and heart is going to explode.

In the mythic world of Kwan Yin, her head and heart did just that. It broke into 11 pieces in some stories a 1000!

In our version of the story, the Buddha of Boundless Compassion Amitabha  (Amida Buddha – these two are tight) sees what has just happened and wants to help, so he gives here 11 heads. With this gift she is now able to listen deeply,  see more possibilities of how to help, but now she finds herself overwhelmed by all the pleas for help and her two arms shatter. 

This time Amitabha gives her a thousand arms so she can reach out to those in need. In some depictions of her, with her thousand arms ( in some stories 10,000 arms!) you will notice that in each hand is an eye to see and an object, a particular implement that can be used to help the suffering. This is an active bodhisattva.   

In the mythic world and in mine, she is still using her thousand arms to help all those in need of compassion.

This story speaks to me in the only way the imaginal can, when my faith in the everyday capacity to make a difference wanes, the mythic image of Kwan Yin reignites me determination, courage, vision and wise hope. 

Kwan Yin is more than just a myth, just a story, she expresses  our deepest aspiration, the deepest wish inside of us,  she is me, she is you, she is what all of us can be.

Some Sundays we recite from our practice book these words,

“We call upon Kwan Yin to inspire our lives

We call upon ourselves to inspire Kwan Yin

We call upon ourselves as Kwan Yn.

The friend and enemy as Kwan Yin.”

We call upon ourselves as Kwan Yin.

What can we do when the world is on fire? 

First, we need to put out the fire in our own hearts and turn and face our suffering and the suffering in the world. We will then come to see how they are interdependent, attending to the one is attending to the other  attending the other is attending to the one. The circle is our reality; the linear is an illusion. By attending to the suffering in the world  and letting our hearts and arms be broken is the way that we can be given a thousand more. 

What can we do when the task is impossible? We do what we can. It is that simple, but the thing that I must, that we must guard against, is letting the frequency and size of the suffering keep us from doing what we can.  

At first glance 11 heads and a thousand arms seems fantastical but let us move beyond such thinking. 

For me, the 11 heads and a thousand arms are less about Kwan Yin’s physical appearance and what they represent.  They represent each of us. 

Awakening alone, healing alone, is just not possible; we are all deeply connected, interdependent, woven together in the tapestry of living. 

 If just one person is sick are, we not all on some level sick also?  Vimalakirti was a great Lay Buddhist practitioner and I love this quote from him, “because living beings have these illnesses, therefore I too am ill”

The most important message of this myth is that each of us are Kwan Yin’s face of compassion, each one of us is one of her hands reaching out to someone in suffering. 

Kwan Yin is not some superhero of compassion but a symbol again in the worlds of James Hillman,  The goddess of compassion is…

an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as … an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.

She represents our community of caring and healing. She is not something “out there” she is us; together we are her. Her vow is accomplished through  our multiplicity. 

It is my deepest wish that we all can become Kwan Yin and by doing so inspire Kwan Yin, inspire each other, to deeper compassion and to action,  that each of us together can create a reciprocal and ever expanding  circle of caring that can fill the world with compassion and healing. 

Let this be a call not to close our hearts but to break them wide open so that the light can be set free, 

so that our thousand arms will be untied in the work of the Buddhas, as we take one step at a time, one deep bow at a time, helping one person at a time.

Namu Amida Butsu

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