Next to Buddha and the Dalai Lama, Kwan Yin is one of the most popular figures in Buddhism. Much of the eastern world has some likeness of her image in their homes.
But what was her story, and why are people still fascinated by her today after nearly 2000 years?
There is much mystery and conflicting legend about this figure, even now. But one thing is clear: she has inspired countless generations within and outside Buddhism.
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Origin: She is a He?
There are numerous stories and references to Kwan Yin throughout the east…so many, in fact, it would be impossible to write about all of them in this article.
Not only are her stories different, but even her name is translated in many different ways- Guanyin, Kwan Yin, Kuanyin, and Quan Yin are the most popular.
It may surprise you to know that originally Kwan Yin was not even known as a woman!
That’s because she is a representation of a certain being known as Avalokitasvara- a bodhisattva which literally means “one who looks down upon sound”. The “sound” in this case is the sound of those wailing in suffering.
This being is known for his compassion towards those in need, and feels so strongly towards helping others that he incarnates again and again in different forms. He has promised to never cease returning until everyone is free of suffering.
Avalokitasvara is depicted as a man or a woman, but Kwan Yin is usually a woman. This is because the principle value which motivates this entity is compassion, which is considered to be a more feminine trait.
That’s why there are so many different stories and interpretations of Kwan Yin- Avalokitasvara could have incarnated nearly anywhere, and supposedly did.
Kwan Yin in Modern Culture
Perhaps there is nowhere else that understands the entire picture of Kwan Yin’s story better than Chinese culture.
They fully appreciate that she is an incarnation of another being, and see no conflict with paying homage to her or Avalokitasvara. After all, they’re the same individual.
Even in more non-devotional schools of Buddhist thought, her likeness is highly venerated.
It’s the principles that she evokes- compassion, unconditional love, and service that inspire others.
Kwan Yin’s example will continue to inspire millions of people; and in a world filled with challenges, that is sorely needed.