Women in Buddhism: Guanyin—A Mother Figure of Compassion and Universal Deliverance (3)

Speaker: Ven. Miao Guang

Personal Interpreter to Ven. Master Hsing Yun
Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings!   

I hope everyone is doing well.

This week, we are going to complete the “Women in Buddhism” series on Guanyin Bodhisattva’s Powers by bringing to you the last three types of Guanyin Power—Guanyin as an empowerer, an encourager of good and meritorious deeds, a spiritual life coach.

II. Remarks on the Previous Episode

Last week, we talked about Guanyin’s power as a Wise Liberator and a Beacon of Pure Land, both of which are related to ultimate liberation. The remaining three types of powers on the list will be connected to daily life practice. The Buddha’s teachings must be put into practice, and some of these practices empower us to resolve life’s problems, overcome challenges, and even transcend the limitations of ordinary life.

III. Guanyin’s Powers Continued (4): An Empowerer

In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, not only is Guanyin worshiped and revered so widely because of her power for liberating sentient beings and granting their wishes, it is also due to the spiritual cultivations related to Guanyin that have empowered sentient beings in so many ways. Quite often, the experiences can be coined “miraculous,” and in other cases, these experiences are said to be transformative on a personal level.

Last week, the story about the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Guanyin statue was mentioned, and the origin of such an image is found in The Great Compassion Dharani Sutra. What are the powers of the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Guanyin? We must mention the Great Compassion Dharani (Sanskrit: the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī or Maha Karuna Dharani). Enjoying a high degree of popularity in East Asia, the Chinese edition comprises 84 lines and is said to be a special chant used by Guanyin to deliver sentient beings. With the empowerment of this dharani, there is said to be no unresolvable problems, no undeliverable sentient beings, and no unattainable enlightenment. Guanyin Bodhisattva once made a vow that, “If there be any being who wholeheartedly chants the Great Compassion Dharani fail to accomplish their wishes, if these are the beings other than those who are unwholesome or insincere, I shall never attain buddhahood.” By sincerely and single-mindedly chanting the Great Compassion Dharani, sentient beings are empowered to attain happiness and peace, subdue all demons and evil as well as all illnesses, eliminate all calamities, secure their rebirth in the Buddha lands, and forever be save from the three lower realms of rebirth⁠—that of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. Those who chant the dharani will also be empowered by Guanyin’s great bodhicitta vow to attain supreme buddhahood and deliver all sentient beings.

Eminent Buddhist masters of the past and present have continued to encourage us to practice chanting this Dharani diligently and without stop. We are reminded that only those with sufficient virtuous roots are blessed enough to even hear about the name of this dharani, let alone chant it and uphold it. Continued chanting of the dharani also leads to endless unimaginable benefits. Many people who followed the instructions by sincerely chanting the dharani with pure minds for up to seven days were said to have supernatural experiences either by seeing the bodhisattva touching their head to bless them with wisdom or seeing unimaginable lights as well as sensing out of this world fragrances. 

Should you not be among this group of practitioners, don’t give up, don’t doubt yourself nor the bodhisattva, instead, continue to practice with sincerity and firm belief. We are not saying the goal is to experience supernatural responses, instead, the goal is to rise above your obstacles, and allow your virtuous roots to ripen.

Thinking about it this way, Guanyin Bodhisattva has already vowed to be by your side as long as you desire so. Even when you are going through the dark patches of life, one possible way out is to connect to Guanyin Bodhisattva through the dharani. As said in her vow, should you manage to chant the dharani whole-heartedly, you will be forever free from the three lower realms of rebirth, you will find a way out of ignorance, danger, sickness, and so on, otherwise she shall never attain buddhahood. This is truly a vow of great compassion and immense altruism to relieve all living beings from suffering.

The meaning of “dharani” is “to embody each and every dharma, and uphold the unfathomable meaning.” Thus this “secret language” or “sacred utterance” of the buddhas and bodhisattvas carries the following meanings:

  1. The dharani contains names of spirit or devi kings that will keep the less powerful spirits or devis in line, so none will commit any wicked acts to cause harm.
  2. The dharani is like an army decree that disciplines all beings and punishes any action that violates the decree.
  3. The dharani embodies a secret power that can eliminate your unwholesome karma without you knowing so.
  4. The dharani is a secret language among buddhas. Since it is not meant to be understood by ordinary beings, the utterances are never meant to be translated lest the meaning becomes distorted.

Like a compassionate mother who holds us and keeps us protected, Guanyin is always there to help us resolve life’s problems and fulfill our real life needs. Guanyin actually empowers us through the chanting of dharanis or mantras or mudras and contemplation. But today let’s just focus on the practice of dharanis to understand such a profound power.

If you have not yet learned to memorize the Great Compassion Dharani, you can also recite the six-syllable mantra—Om Mani Padme Hum, which is also a great mantra of Guanyin to help purify our three karmas and grant us her blessings and protection.

IV. Guanyin’s Powers Continued (5): An Encourager of Good & Meritorious Deeds

The fifth type of Guanyin Power is an Encourager of Good and Meritorious Deeds. Not only is Guanyin a keen giver of a helping hand to those who are suffering, she also actively encourages all beings to do good deeds themselves. Teaching by example, she reminds us continually the importance of reaching out to the deprived and needy. In fact, she is like the spokesperson of good deeds and altruistic practices. Not only has Guanyin successfully purified immeasurable wicked and evil hearts and turned these beings towards kindness and good deeds. She is also regarded as an icon of morality in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism.

Once there was a very hot-tempered butcher who treated his elderly mother badly. He was unfilial and always shouted at her. The only good thing was that he still knew to revere Guanyin and pray to her for good business as well as a beautiful bride. As the butcher prayed to Guanyin sincerely, so did his elderly mother. Her silent prayers were for her to one day manifest in front of her son and change his bad attitude so she will no longer have to be afraid of her son. Guanyin responded to both of them. She manifested as a lady who offered water to the butcher at the foot of the mountain and told him that Guanyin was waiting inside his house for him. She also told the butcher that Guanyin will be dressed with her robe turned inside out and shoes worn on the wrong feet. The butcher thanked the woman and rushed home to find Guanyin. As it was already past midnight, his mother was already in bed, when the butcher shouted for his mother to open the doors, the mother panicked and mistakenly put on the wrong shoes and her robe inside out. When the butch saw his mother rushing to open the door in such an attire, he finally realized that she had been the Guanyin who always looked after him.

In this story, the unfilial son finally realized that his own mother is the Guanyin whom he should revere, respect, and be kind to. Having demonstrated the importance of filial piety, Guanyin belief is thus widely accepted by the Confucian-influenced Chinese.

In another incident, there was a devout Buddhist who went to a temple everyday to pay deep respect and made offerings of delicious food and daily supplies. One day, Guanyin manifested in front of him and said, “No matter how good the food you offer me, I can never eat them. I just don’t need them. Instead, go and take a look outside the temple and see all those poor and hungry people. Feeding them and helping them will accumulate as much merit as doing the same for me.” The man obeyed Guanyin’s instruction and went on to help the poor.

The above two stories are just among the countless similar stories of Guanyin manifestations that are told throughout the history of Chinese Buddhism to show that encouraging people to do good by helping others, which in turn accumulates merits, is also a significant part of the Guanyin belief.

Merit is a good thing for those who pursue goodness. Regarding the accumulation of merits as depositing money in the bank, each day’s meritorious deeds will surely lead to a good outcome in the future. For those who do not expect anything in return, you will still have such good karmic merits stored for the future or, as an option, redirect your merits to your family, friends, and anyone in need.

For this, encouraging people to accumulate merits by doing good deeds is regarded as one of Guayin’s great powers.

V. Guanyin’s Powers Continued (6): A Spiritual Life Coach

The final type of Guanyin Power is a Spiritual Life Coach. While worldly life coaches help people make progress in their lives, feel better, and to attain greater fulfillment on personal or professional levels, Guanyin is a life coach who helps us power through to the greater spiritual attainment. Added with her power as a wise liberator, Guanyin helps the lost and confused develop greater awareness and insight so they can learn to navigate through life on their own.

Many followers of Guanyin turn towards mystic manifestations or divination to seek directions in life. As this is a common need among religious followers, and that Guanyin does have the supreme powers to satisfy sentient beings’ needs in this way, Guanyin is thus recognized as a beacon of life, a spiritual life coach who offers support and instruction to make the right choices.

Although stories of how Guanyin points out directions in life are not found in the Buddhist sutras, there are nevertheless records of devout Buddhists who received her support. Harshavardhana, an Indian prince of northern India, lost his father and brother during the invasion by neighboring kingdoms. In order to save his kingdom, he deliberated assuming the throne and attacking back to reclaim his land. However, he turned to a statue of Guanyin by the side of the Ganges for help in making the decision. Guanyin manifested herself and suggested that he does not do so. Do not assume the throne, instead, delve into the profound teachings of Dharma to master the way of a ruler. Harshavardhana listened to Guanyin and eventually became a powerful emperor who expanded his kingdom to South India.

When Master Xuanzang went west, he came across a statue of Guanyin which was said to offer tremendous supernatural responses to prayers and wishes. Master Xuanzang too had three queries that needed answers:

  1. I have risked my own life to come this far to India, will I be able to return to China safely?
  2. Can I, in this present life, realize my greatest spiritual aspiration of being reborn in Tushita Pure Land and cultivate alongside Maitreya Bodhisattva?
  3. The biggest question among Buddhists in China is whether buddha-nature is universal? Is it possible for all living beings to attain buddhahood?

He offered flowers to Guanyin and placed them on different parts of the statue. Each time, Guanyin gave an affirmative answer to his question. Yes, you will be able to return to China safely. Yes, you will be reborn in Tushita Pure Land. Yes, all beings possess the buddha nature. Such responses greatly encouraged all the witnesses in India, who pleaded to Xuanzang to please come back and deliver them when he attained buddhahood. As a wonderful spiritual life coach, Guanyin offered Xuanzang the greatest answers about ultimate liberation.

There is also the story about Bhāviveka who relied on the directions given by Guanyin to find Maitreya Bodhisattva.

After the Guanyin Belief passed into China from India, the Chinese came up with the Guanyin Slips that are drawn from a tub of bamboo sticks after making sincere prayer. On each slip is a poem or verse that requires deep reflection and pondering in order to understand what instruction Guanyin has given. While this is entirely a production of the sinification of the Guanyin belief, in reality, such practice has nevertheless offered some kind of inspiration, encouragement, and pointers towards doing good deeds for good merits in order for one’s wishes to be fulfilled.

VI. Conclusion

In conclusion, based on the six types of Guanyin powers we have discussed over these weeks, we can regard Guanyin as an archetype of compassion. A figure of compassion is always heart-warming, makes you feel safe, accepts you unconditionally for who you are, is ready to offer you the kind of help you need, and can never bear to see you suffer. That’s why in these three lessons, I have referred to Guanyin as “she.” Though generally presented as a male in India, Tibet and Nepal, Avalokitesvara is said to possess gender fluidity, and ultimately is regarded as a bodhisattva who has already transcended gender. However, other than the reason of being an archetype of compassion as just said, another reason for the tendency towards a feminine representation of Avalokitesvara in China has to do with the fact that the Chinese often prayed to Guanyin for children, especially sons. This often worked, and statues of Guanyin in certain temples would become known for their ability to bestow sons—such as an ivory statue at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that represents Guanyin as the “Bestower of Sons.”

Whichever we prefer, anyone who has faith in Guanyin and believes in her supernatural responses should remember to always pay respect to Guanyin, chant her name, or visualize her image with a pure mind, an undistracted mind, so that we can be one with Guanyin in body, speech, and mind. Just as described in the Avatamsaka Sutra, “The Bodhisattva is like the cool moon that courses through ultimate emptiness; once the sentient minds are purified of tainted thoughts, the moon of Bodhi wisdom shall manifest instantly,” we too, contemplate Guanyin in the same way, “My heart is the heart of Guanyin, and Guanyin’s heart is my heart.” This way, we shall truly be blessed with Guanyin’s powers.

Ultimately, the significance of believing in Guanyin is not to just pray to Guanyin for blessings or venerate Guanyin for merits, but to actually be a Guanyin ourselves by emulating her powers of a wish-granter, a wise-liberator, a beacon of Pure Land, an empowerer, an encourager of good and meritorious deeds, and last but not least, a spiritual life coach.

Just as Venerable Master Hsing Yun says,

Uplift the down-hearted with the Bodhisattva’s power of encouragement.

Relieve and save the distressed with the Bodhisattva’s power of a liberator.

Support the despaired with the Bodhisattva’s power of an empowerer.

Guide the lost and confused with the Bodhisattva’s power of a spiritual life coach.

Thank you for listening. May we all become a Guanyin to those in need. Don’t forget to end today’s session by listening to Ven. Master Hsing Yun’s Prayer to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.