The Eastern Tradition of KUAN YIN
& The Tibetan Goddess TARA

In both Taoism and Buddhism Kuan Yin is the goddess of compassion, she is the Japanese Bodhisattva Kannon or Kanzeon, and is identified with the Indian Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, including all of the scriptures which apply to him. Kuan (Shih) Yin means "the one who hears the cries of the world and comes." John Blofeld says:

    "Rocks, willows, lotus pools or running water are often indications of her presence. In the chime of bronze or jade, the sigh of wind in the pines, the prattle and tinkle of streams, her voice is heard."

Kuan Yin's earthly name is Miao Shan (Wondrously Kind One): the following story of how it was that Miao Shan came to be the Bodhisattva of Compassion is recounted in John Blofeld's "Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin" (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1977).

    "In the eleventh year of the Chin T'ien epoch (2590 BC), there was a king who, on account of demerits stemming from a former life, was denied the blessing of a son. Accordingly he sought husbands of rare accomplishment and fine presence for his three daughters, hoping to breed outstanding grandsons, the best of whom would be well suited to inherit his kingdom. His youngest daughter, however, rejected all talk of marriage and, on reaching puberty, begged permission to reside at the White Sparrow Convent, there to engage in a life of pious contemplation. 'Agreed!' laughed the king, thinking that this gently nurtured girl would soon long for deliverance from harsh monastic austerities and could then be given the choice of remaining where she was or marrying some well-chosen prince.

    "Alas, the austere life suited her all too well and the king, his patience at an end, embarked upon a series of measures marked by increasing severity to bend her to his will. Rage mounting day by day, he finally had her dragged from the convent and imprisoned in a tower, there to be nourished on unspeakably revolting food. In vain! Drinking to drown his chagrin served only to increase it, until one day he shouted to his henchmen: 'A monstrous child so lost to filial propriety as to deny her father his dearest wish pollutes all under Heaven. The earth must be cleansed of this foul example of disobedience to loving parents, lest the fashion spread and corrupt future generations. See to it this night!'

    "Sorrowfully his attendants led the little princess to a lonely spot where the headsman awaited her, weeping but not to be delflected from his duty. The child was made to kneel and the headsman, grasping with both hands the terrible sword that had drunk the blood of many a brutal criminal, was preparing to strike when a blinding tempest arose. In a moment the stars were blotted out, thunder roared and a dazzling ray from Heaven shone down upon the kneeling victim. Ere the headsman could regain his courage, a gigantic tiger bounded from the darkness and carried the swooning girl into the nearby hills...

    "From a cavern in the hills, whither the deity had borne her, the Princess Miao Shan now descended into hell and there, by the power of her unsullied purity, compelled its ruler to release every one of the shivering wretches delivered to him for punishment...

    "Returning to the dwelling of the tutelary deity, Miao Shan received the signal honor of a visit from Amitabha Buddha in person! Assuming the splendidly shining form known as the Buddha-Body of Reward, he abjured her to seek safety on seagirt Potala, known to mariners as the Island of P'u-t'o...

    "An island diety, summoned from Potala, carried the princess to her new abode, travelling more swiftly than the wind. For nine full years Miao Shan, when not engaged in meditation, performed deeds of compassion which, crowning the merits acquired in previous lives, completed all that remained to enable her to attain the status of Bodhisattvahood. It was at this time that the charming youth Shan Ts'ia (Virtuous Talent) became her acolyte.

    "Thereafter, by virtue of her Bodhisattva's all-seeing eye, she beheld one day a calamity that suddenly befell the third son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. Wandering the ocean joyously in the form of a fish, he had been caught by a fisherman and was being carried to the market in a pail heavy with the living victims of the day's catch. Instantly Shan Ts'ai was dispatched to purchase those unhappy creatures and return them to the sea. His Majesty the Dragon King, apprised by his son of his deliverance, sent Miao Shan a lustrous jewel known as the Night Brilliance Pearl, by the light of which the Bodhisattva would be able to read sacred books to her heart's content, no matter how dark the night. The gift was carried by his own grand-daughter, Lung Nu (Dragon Maiden), who was so entranced by the virtue and loveliness of her uncle's deliverer that she vowed there and then to dedicate her life to the achievement of Bodhisattvahood. To this end, she entered Kuan Yin's service and has every day since been seen in her company.

    "Some years later, the Princess Miao Shan, divesting herself of her Bodhisattva's glory, returned to her own country for a space, and there converted her father and her mother, enrolling them as disciples of the Buddha."

Illustration: Angel of the Waters" and Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York City, by sculptor Emma Stebbins (1873), student of Charlotte Cushman (photo: Sara Cedar Miller, Central Park Conservancy -- see also New York Images).

The Tibetan Goddess TARA

Closely allied with Kuan Yin is Tara (Star), goddess of protection and compassion, worshipped by Tibetan, Mongolian, and Nepali Buddhists. According to "Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment" by Denise Patry Leidy & Robert A. F. Thurman (Shambhala 1997): "Tara is the archangelic and archetype-deity bodhisattva representing the miraculous activities of all buddhas. In myth she is born from Avalokitesvara's tears of compassion or from her own vow to be enlightened and stay a woman... There are innumerable manifestations of Tara, as many as beings require,* but her most famous are the peaceful White Tara, who brings protection, long life and peace; and the dynamic Green Tara, who overcomes obstacles and saves beings in dangerous situations."

Presented here is Tara's vow to remain in female form until all living beings attain enlightenment, from the translation by David Templeman of the "Origin of the Tara Tantra" by Jo-Nan Taranatha (b. 1575), (Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1981). See also "An Anthology of Sacred Texts By and About Women," edited by Serenity Young, NY: Crossroad, 1993.


    Long ago in an age before which
    there was nothing else,
    the Victorious One, the Tathagata Dundubhisvara
    came into existence and was known as the Light
    of the Various Worlds.
    The Princess "Moon of Wisdom"
    had the highest respect for his teaching,
    and for ten million, one hundred thousand years,
    made offerings to this Enlightened One,
    to his attendant Sravakas,
    and to countless members of the Sangha of Bodhisattvas.

    The offerings she prepared each day
    were in value comparable to all the precious things
    which filled a distance of twelve yojanas
    in each of the ten directions,
    leaving no intermediate spaces unfilled.

    Finally after all this
    she awoke to the first concepts of Bodhi-Mind.
    At that time some monks said to her:
    "It is as a result of these,
    your roots of virtuous actions,
    that you have come into being in this female form.
    If you pray that your deeds accord with the teachings,
    then indeed on that account you will change your form
    to that of a man, as is befitting."

    After much discourse she finally replied,
    "In this life there is no such distinction
    as "male" and "female,"
    neither of "self-identity,"
    a "person"
    nor any perception,
    and therefore attachment to ideas
    of "male" and "female"
    is quite worthless.
    The weak-minded are always deluded by this."

    And so she vowed:
    "There are many who wish to gain enlightenment
    in a man's form,
    and there are but few who wish to work
    for the welfare of living beings
    in a female form.
    Therefore may I, in a female body,
    work for the welfare of beings
    right until Samsara has been emptied."

*"innumerable manifestations of Tara, as many as beings require": There is a story in Taranatha's "Golden Rosary" about an old Buddhist woman sculptor who worked in Vajrasana, where there was a temple called the Mahabodhi (Great Wisdom). One day she built a shrine for Tara, but when it was finished the old woman felt regret, thinking: "Oh dear, she has her back to the Mahabodhi! -- that can't be right." Then speech came from the image itself saying: "If you are not pleased, I shall look towards the Mahabodhi." And the door of the shrine and the image both turned to face the Mahabodhi. This story names Tara as "Tara of the Turned Face," and names the old woman as "Mahabodhi."

See Martin Wilson, "In Praise of Tara: Songs of the Saviouress," Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1986/1996

Illustration: Green Tara (detail) from ASIAN ARTS

    Home | Women's Music Webring | Chronology & CD's
    Feminine Divine | Women Artists Illustrations | People & Places
    Missa Gaia | MIDI | Reference | Search
    or click on the icon below to go to the next page on
    Women's Early Eastern Spirituality Webring...