Thursday, February 10, 2011

She who hears the cries of the world


Kuan Yin is a Bodhisattva, an emanation of Avalokitsevara, the embodiment of compassion, of whom she is the female form in East Asia: a goddess of mercy in the traditional folk traditions of both China and Japan.

I am reading John Blofeld's charming book on her, "Bodhisattva of Compassion : The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin". Blofeld is a wonderful writer - an English convert to Buddhism who encountered China in the 1930s and 40s before established traditions were swept away.

As a teenager he had encountered a statue of the Buddha and developed an intense urge to possess, venerate and lay flowers at his base (a curious reaction for a middle class English boy of the 1920s with no obvious familial connection to Asia). It was an experience that later made him ponder the possibility of reincarnation: imagining for himself a previous life as a Chinese Buddhist monk. If nothing else this imagination suffused his descriptions of both Buddhist and Taoist hermitages in China (of the 30s) with great empathy and a sense of nostalgia and longing. In this incarnation he was, however, robustly 'unmonastic' savouring many of the sensual delights of East Asia and marrying a Chinese woman and playing the full role of a householder.

It set him on a path that led to his discovery of China - its three religious traditions, most especially Buddhism and Taoism - and both his career as teacher and scholar and his own spiritual path. He brings to his writing an empathy for the subject and its different embodiments - from high metaphysics to mystical practice, from living form in saintly practitioner to the humblest forms in folk tradition and hope. He is always aware of his modern, potentially skeptical audience and yet does not allow it to corrode the fullness of his exposition and his willingness to entertain stories of other dimensions of reality not counted for in our dominant materialist philosophy. He blends personal anecdote and recollection of a living tradition with lucid exposition of complex ideas.

One marring presence is the occasional side swipe at Judeo-Christian tradition (though not always wholly unjustified) as mainstream expositions of Christianity had clearly not grafted well! It is a pity, however, that he does not appear to have truly tasted of Christianity in its mystical, contemplative form.

One of those possible points of comparison and difference is around notions of forgiveness. Kuan Yin is the Bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world and responds with compassion: she tends tears, binds wounds, and gently, playfully nudges us towards the paths of enlightenment.

One of the differences between this and the apparent realities of Christianity, as was noted by the great 'Catholic' Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo, is that in this there is no acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness. Kuan Yin embraces all without the demands of judgment in the embrace of compassion that loosens the binds of ignorance: no reparation is demanded of the supplicant, only the offer of transformation is extended. She is an ever present mother whose love is unconditional. This appears in contradistinction to Christianity with its language of judgment, even potentially final in its verdict. However, there is strand in Christianity that comes close to Kuan Yin exemplified (by amongst others) Mother Julian of Norwich who writes that in Christ there is no forgiveness for in Christ, our true home, there can be no separation. Forgiveness implies a time when love was withheld waiting a choice of bestowal and in Christ this is impossible for His very nature is love (a love that Julian makes maternal in her image of Christ as our mother).

Here the two traditions emphatically touch and greet.


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