Quan Yin is one of the most revered deities throughout Asia and was originally considered to be male. However, as legend has it and in more recent representations, Quan Yin is now often depicted with distinctfeminine features and wearing a long flowing gown.
She is known in various forms and poses – indeed there are more than thirty representations. She can be seen holding a rosary in one hand, a symbol of her devotion to Buddhism and its tenets. Or, with a child on one arm serving as a reminder of her role in supporting and assisting childless women. Other times, she may be holding a willow branch, which is a symbol of being able to adapt and bend as needed, but not break in the process. Another common depiction of Quan Yin is one of having a thousand arms, with eyes in the palms. The eyes help her to see those in need and her arms allow her to help stop the suffering.
A popular pose today is of Quan Yin seated or standing on a lotus blossom, which is one of the main symbols of Buddhist purity. The Lotus blossom is considered to be a beautiful flower that grows out of mud. Therefore it demonstrates that our hearts should be pure like the lotus flower, even though our lives might be surrounded by impurity.
The style I particularly like and chose for myself was the more traditional and classical version of Quan Yin. She is shown riding the dragon, holding a vase containing the nectar of compassion and wisdom, pouring it into the Dragons mouth. This demonstrates her role of pouring this empathy and compassion onto the world.
She is the Chinese Bodhisattva to whom childless women turn for help. She manifests in any conceivable form wherever a being needs help. Quan-yin, whose name means ‘who contemplates the (supplicating) sound of the world’, is one of the four great bodhisattvas of Buddhism.
Quan Yin refused to accept Nirvana since she considers such acceptance selfish in view of the ignorance and suffering of the great majority still living on the earth. Her sacrifice symbolises an understanding of, and sharing of mankinds misery, infinite compassion, and a willingness to help those in distress. She protects us from danger so, her invocation ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is the most common mantras in Tibet and recited by Buddhists worldwide. It is found inscribed on prayer wheels, painted or carved on rocks, and even yak skulls.
Quan Yin is considered as the Divine Mother figure who is very close to the daily affairs of her devotees. She is merciful, caring, tender, compassionate, loving, protective, healing and all wise. She comes to the aid of her children everywhere. The mantra associated with Quan Yin is ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ which translates into….. ‘Hail the jewel (or pearl) in the lotus’. This seemingly simple mantra is indeed profound hence; it is worthwhile pondering its meaning during recitation.
There is an implicit trust in Kuan Yin's saving grace and healing powers. Many believe that even the simple recitation of her name will bring her instantly to your aid. You will not only find shrines dedicated to her in China, but in Burma, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. Her images are found in Buddhist temples as well as Confucian and Taoist havens. Altars dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy are found everywhere – shops, restaurants, even taxicab dashboards. In the home she is worshipped with the traditional ""pai pai,"" a prayer ritual using incense and prayer charts.
There are many legends about the origin of Quan Yin, consequently there is much scholarly debate as to the ‘true’ story. Here is one of the more popular versions.
In 7th century China, a king had three daughters. At the time of the youngest daughter’s birth, the earth trembled and a beautiful fragrance and flower blossoms covered the kingdom. The King named his third daughter, Miao Shan. She became noted for her modesty and many other good qualities, and scrupulously observed all the tenets of the Buddhist teachings.
Miao Shan grew up to be the Kings favourite daughter and so he wanted to find her a potential husband. He wanted her to marry a wealthy but uncaring man and she wanted to devote her time to helping others. Knowing that she could not openly disobey his orders Miao Shan took another course and told her father that she would only marry if by so doing she would be able to help alleviate the suffering of all mankind.
In desperation, the King decided to let her pursue her religious calling at a monastery, but ordered them to treat her so badly in the hope that she would change her mind. The monks forced Miao Shan to work day and night, while others slept. To everyone's amazement, whatever she touched, flourished. Her father, seeing this, became so frustrated that he banished Miao-Shan and she lived a life of seclusion for many years, pursuing a life of religious dedication.
One day her father became seriously ill. He was unable to sleep or eat; his doctors believed that soon, he would certainly die. As he was about to pass away, a monk came to visit the king and told him that he could cure the monarch, but he would have to grind up the arms and eyes of one free from hatred to make the medicine. The king thought this was impossible, but the monk assured him that there was a Bodhisattva living in his Kingdom who would gladly surrender her sight and limbs if asked.
The King sent an envoy to make the request of this unknown Bodhisattva. The envoy subsequently returned with what the monk had requested and he prepared the medicine. The King miraculously and instantly recovered. When thanking the monk, the King was chastised for not declaring his appreciation to the one who gave her eyes and arms. Suddenly, the monk disappeared. The king believed this was divine intervention and began his search for the unknown Bodhisattva.
When the Monarchs arrived they realized it was their daughter, Miao-Shan, who had made the sacrifice. Miao-Shan spoke up, ""Mindful of my father's love, I have repaid him with my eyes and arms."" With eyes full of tears and hearts full of shame, the family gathered to hug Miao-Shan. As they did so, auspicious clouds bubbled around Miao-Shan. The earth trembled, flowers rained down on the kingdom, and a holy manifestation of the Thousand Eyes and Thousand Arms appeared hovering in the air.
And then, the Bodhisattva was gone. To honor Miao-Shan the Monarchs built a shrine on that very spot – it is known as ‘Fragrant Mountain’.
For those that are inspired by the significance of Quan Yin and are interested in reciting her mantra – Om Mane Padme Hum; before you do so, read on to understand the importance of the words.
The first, Om(or Aum) is composed of three letters, A, U and M. These symbolise the practitioner's impure body, speech, and mind. They also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. All Buddhas were once just like us and then, on the path, they became enlightened. The development of pure body, speech, and mind comes from gradually leaving the impure states behind, and in so doing, being transformed into the pure.
Mani, meaning jewel, symbolises the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassionate, and loving. Just as a jewel is capable of removing poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the poverty, or difficulties, of cyclic existence and of solitary peace.
Padme, means lotus and symbolises wisdom. Just as a lotus grows forth from the mud but is not sullied by it, so the lotus indicates the quality of wisdom, which keeps you out of contradiction.
The last syllable, Hum, means inseparability or one-consciousness.
It is the belief that in practicising the mantra of Chengresik, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (The protective deity of Tibet), you may relieve negative karma and accumulate merit. Speaking the mantra aloud or silently, playing a mantra CD, wearing it, spinning prayer wheels with the mantra, and carving mantra into stones are the usual and continuing practices. OM MANE PAD ME HUM