Becoming the Goddess of Compassion

Updated: Mar 21


Credit: The National Palace Museum, Taipei

Numerous attempts have been made to identify and honor the most influential women in history. Names such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Merkel, Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc. have been familiar to people around the world. The good news is that these women have been recognized and respected for their great contributions to human progress. The not-so-good news is that no religious figures have ever been paid such homage, except for Mother Theresa. That these latter figures are relegated to religious spheres shows how worldly this world is.

Among Christians, the Virgin Mary is undoubtedly worshipped as the holiest female figure, followed by St. Faustina, St. Joan of Arc, St. Margaret, St. Catherine of Alexandria, etc. Hindus also worship many Devi like Mahadevi, Parvati, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. Even the Taoist pantheon venerates female immortals. For Buddhists, one notable figure was already described in one of our previous posts - Longnu, or the first female Cardinal of Cao Đài. Above her is her master - the very Holy and Enlightened Guan Yin. Many studies have likened Guan Yin to Mary. For example, Nguyen (2017) found that they are both associated with compassion, faith, chastity, and ethics. Just as Mary is almost omnipresent in Catholic churches, Guan Yin can be seen in innumerable Buddhist and Cao Đài temples.


Her Holiness Guan Yin - A Woman like No Other


She has been no stranger to Asians throughout the last millennium. That she is the most venerated female deity is common knowledge across East Asia. While worship of the Divine Mother is still mostly limited to Tao followers, Her Holiness has transcended all spheres of society among both males and females, and the temporal and spiritual. It may have resulted from the popularity of the blasphemous Journey to the West which devilishly depicts our Mother as a coward consort and a fearful victim of the monkey king. Guan Yin, in contrast, is paid the utmost homage in her unsurpassed glory, wisdom, and compassion. Although the novel is politicized and utterly sacrilegious, this latter depiction might be considered its minute saving grace.

Non-East-Asians may wonder why she is so highly revered by society at large. Below is a story of one of her incarnations retold by the Bodhi Prajna Temple:

If one is to quote the lines which best capture her spirit, the ones here (taken from the original version) may be selected:

"The river of desire has mighty waves, the sea of suffering has fathomless depths. [. . .] I would never, for the sake of one lifetime of pleasure, plunge into eons of misery. When I reflect on this matter it causes me strong revulsion. I am resolved to seek to become a nun, to pursue religious discipline and study the true way, to attain the Buddha’s perfect wisdom, to repay my parents’ love and deliver all living beings from their suffering." (Dudbridge, 26)


Thousand-arm Guan Yin. Credit: But Thap Pagoda - Vietnam


Guan Yin in Vietnam

According to Buddhist beliefs, Guan Yin was also reincarnated as another nun named Thị Kính in medieval Vietnam. Here is her story retold by Hoang (2012):

Story of the Venerable Thi Kinh


The Origin of Her Holiness Guan Yin


Although feminists may be disappointed or refuse to believe in this, her origin has been proclaimed across Buddhist traditions. She is known as an avatar of the ancient male Bodhisattva named Avalokiteshvara. This belief reflects the blurred or non-existent line between sexes in spiritual realms. Souls may take on any form in the physical world. Once physicalized, they have to fulfill their roles or missions in line with universal laws pertinent to their forms.

Little is known about the life story of Avalokiteshvara. The first knowledge about this deity came from the renowned Lotus Sutra. The one who looks in all directions, i.e. the meaning of his name, is believed to have reached Buddhahood in ancient times but delays it to save other beings. In fact, he vows to save all beings in this world from suffering and rebirth before entering into Buddhahood. That is why he is hailed the Bodhisattva of great compassion. (Britannica, n.d.)

Below is a short description of Avalokiteshvara followed by an excerpt from the Lotus Sutra:

If sentient beings are in great adversity,

And immeasurable pain afflicts them,

The wonderful power of the wisdom of Avalokiteśvara

Can relieve the suffering of the world.

Endowed with transcendent powers

And having fully mastered wisdom and skillful means,

In all the worlds of the ten directions,

There is no place where he will not manifest himself.

The suffering of those in the troubled states of being:

Hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, and animals;

And the suffering of birth, old age, illness, and death

Will gradually be extinguished.

He who perceives the world with truth, purity,

And vast knowledge,

And with benevolence and compassion,

Should be ever longed for and looked up to.

(The Lotus Sutra, 301)


Her Holiness Guan Yin in Cao Đài


The origin of Guan Yin was confirmed by God's message as follows: "People call Quan Am (Guan Yin) the female Buddha. She came from the spirit of Avalokiteshvara, who was born at the time of the Shang dynasty." God also said that female deities are often dominant in Heaven not because they have more power or strength but because of their merit, virtue, and wisdom. The late Head of the Legislative Body - His Holiness Ho Phap - affirmed:

"The Divine family lineages normally gather at the Court of God. The most venerable and honorable of these is the lineage of the Guan Yin Bodhisattva; the second most venerable is that of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva; and the third most venerable is that of the Maitreya Buddha. These are the three most respectable and honorable lineages."

Therefore, Her Holiness has been chosen by God to preside over the Divine Tribunal along with the other August Ones (i.e. His Holiness Li Bai and Guan Sheng Di Jun), as well as over the Cao Đài Female College. If one looks carefully at the Cao Đài altar of God, they may notice that Her Holiness is the only divine female in the pantheon. This fact does not mean that She is the only female worthy of worship, but follows the principle of the Tao. The principle rules that yin contains yang in it and vice versa. The altar of God which belongs to the cosmic yang has Guan Yin stand for the yin element. Many other female deities are worshipped in the Divine Mother temple.

Among the Three August Ones, His Holiness Guan Sheng represents Jing (body jewel) and the Way of Saints; His Holiness Li Bai represents Qi (mind jewel) and the Way of Immortals; Her Holiness represents Shen (spirit jewel) and the Way of Buddhas. As presented in previous posts, His Holiness Guan Sheng exemplifies loyalty and courage at the highest level. His Holiness Li Bai sets an extraordinary example of wisdom and justice. Meanwhile, Her Holiness embodies the utmost compassion and harmony which has long been lacking on this planet, especially where war or the rat race is raging.




Teachings by Her Holiness


An enlightened being, I guard the gate of the Tao at the South Sea

And often guide spirits away from hell

From my Lotus throne, I always care about

And guide people of this world to the Tao.

---

This world of fleeting lives is but nothingness

Riches and properties are but nothingness

Parents and bonds eventually part ways

Wealth and honor end in nothingness

Ancient sayings go: everything is impermanent and empty

Now I say: all roads and plots lead to emptiness

Accumulating wealth brings endless suffering

On the way to hell, your hands are both empty.

---

The most precious element of the Tao is harmony. My brothers and sisters, let's contemplate it. The creation of the universe came from the harmony between Yin and Yang energies. The creation and sustenance of all living beings depend also on harmony. Even the organs inside of a body need harmony to function; otherwise, living beings cannot survive. As for the soul, if the six desires and the seven emotions rise against the conscience, and if they prevail, human beings will live solely according to the physical body’s needs, without realizing the divine will. What will be the value of a person without harmony? If there is no harmony in the family, there will be conflicts between children and parents, separation between husband and wife, and severance between brothers and sisters. If there is no harmony in a country, there will be turmoil. If there is no harmony in the world, humanity will go to war. Therefore, I'd advise you brothers and sisters to foster harmony first and foremost.




References

Dudbridge, Glen. The Legend of Miaoshan: Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hoang, Anvi. The Tale of Lady Thị Kính. Retrieved from https://anvihoang.com/2012/03/22/the-tale-of-lady-thi-kinh-story-summary/

Jing, Miao. Guan Yin Buddhist Story | Merciful Thousand-armed& Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara (Princess MiaoShan). Great Compassion Bodhi Prajna Temple, 2021.

Nguyen, Thao SJ. Quan Am and Mary: Vietnamese Religious, Cultural, and Spiritual Phenomena. Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 37, 2017, p. 191-208.

Stefon, Matt. Avalokiteshvara. Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Avalokiteshvara

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Part 1/8) from Lotus Sutra. Dharmachakra Wheel of the Dharma, 2016.

The Lotus Sutra. Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007.


Disclaimer: Out of compassion, we have disclosed the truths and wisdoms, and allowed sinful souls access to them. To redeem their bad karma, they must leave their sinful paths to return to goodness. Instead of repentance, many of them keep clinging to their ignorant ways of communism, capitalism, authoritarianism, militarism, etc. Our precious pearls have even been exploited to solidify their wicked godless regimes. Although they and their allies may deceive the unwise or harm the unarmed, their wiliness and cruelty can escape neither the law of karma nor the watch of Heaven.