Cultivating Compassion with Kuan Yin

Photography || by Polly C Photography
Creative Direction || Amanda Boleman
Makeup & Wardrobe ||
Kinnaree Designs
Model || Rosie Chen

Kuan Yin was the first goddess I ever intentionally made contact with. On retreat in Costa Rica with Camille Willemain, my intuition led me to select the Bodhisattva of Compassion when choosing a goddess to work with. After learning more about her, I realized that she had actually visited me in human form during my time living in Thailand in 2015. She appeared as a Buddhist nun named Tuum who helped me through a rough breakup with daily meditation practices and reminded me that the spiritual path does not look the same for everyone. She taught me to be gentle with myself despite my perfectionist tendencies berating me for not wanting to renounce to the forest and commit to a life of ascetic meditation.

Both Tuum and Miao Shan, Kuan Yin’s name during her time on earth, were ready to commit to the lifestyle of a virginal nun, but their families rejected it. Throughout the months I spent with Tuum, she longed to be at peace and meditate all day even though her parents didn’t support the idea. They pushed her to go to nursing school instead, and she was still working to pay off those debts.

“You cannot control your karma,” she told me with a tinge of sadness in her voice.

Unfortunately, Miao Shan suffered an even worse fate.

THE LEGEND OF MIAO SHAN

Legend has it, Kuan Yin so deeply understands the suffering of humans because of the difficulties she faced on earth. Back in 700 BC she incarnated as Princess Miao Shan, born to a corrupt king who cared more about filling his pockets than allowing his daughter to live out her purpose. He arranged for her to be married despite her total lack of interest. As they prepared for the big day, Miao Shan sat in prayer for hours on end. Her mother tried to stand up for her, which only made her father more and more angry.

His fury got the best of him, and he banished Miao Shan to a tower in hopes she would come to her senses. But with no one to talk to and only dry rice to eat, she was all the more focused on her devotional prayers.

Realizing he’d been defeated, her father sentenced her to death. The king’s soldiers loved the girl and didn’t want to kill her, but they feared what would happen if they didn’t carry out his orders. She accepted her fate and walked quietly behind the soldiers out into the forest.

Out of nowhere, a divine tiger leapt out of the woods, taking the girl in its mouth and carrying her away. He spit her out in a rocky low mountain cave, which started to dissolve just as the tiger disappeared. Miao Shan found herself floating in purgatory.

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As the ruler of the dead approached her with flames darting out of his head, she began to pray as she always had. The ghosts drifting around her began to move towards her radiance. Slowly, they started floating upwards to earth, slipping into the bodies of newborn babies to begin the wheel of life once again.

Miao Shan also found herself back on earth, in the cave where the tiger left her. As always, she began to pray. Light started to rise within her, and suddenly the Buddha appeared. He handed the girl a peach and gave her instructions to flee to the island of P’u T’o Shan off the coast of China. Here she could hide away from her father, who was hunting her down after he heard about the tiger. The Buddha told her that if she ate the peach and waited one year, she would reach perfect enlightenment and her father would never be able to find her.

So of course she followed the Buddha’s instructions. One year later, the light surrounded her and she recognized she was at the point where she could step away from earthly life forever.

At the threshold, she stopped.

No one who reached this place had ever stopped themselves from attaining full enlightenment. But Miao Shan thought of all the people who were still suffering on earth, struggling to see the light. In that moment she made a vow to stay on earth until every living being was holy.

This vow brought upon a transfiguration, and the compassionate bodhisattva Kuan Yin was born. She remains on her paradise island, answering every prayer that is directed her way.

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While Tuum was never swallowed up by a divine tiger or transformed into a bodhisattva by the Buddha himself, she taught me so much about compassion and suffering. After hearing this legend, I knew Kuan Yin was working through her to teach me lessons of service to those in need and detachment from stories of the mind.

So imagine my delight when I recognized the goddess again while on retreat in Thailand at the start of 2018. This time she came fully embodied in my sweet Taiwanese sister Rosie. There is a gentle kindness that emanates from Rosie, making everyone around her feel at ease.

Growing up in Asia, she has worshipped Kuan Yin for most of her life and was honored to be seen in her likeness. Here she describes what this figure means to her:

“To me, Kuan Yin is the ultimate goddess of compassion. In Chinese, sometimes we call her ‘Kuan Shi Yin,’ meaning ‘Observing the Sound of the Mundane.’ She has accumulated so much virtue and good karma that she could have ascended to Buddha-hood long ago. But she has heard and seen so much suffering on earth that she wants to alleviate people’s suffering before she can enjoy that total freedom of enlightenment. This touches me so deeply. Some teachings even said that normally it takes countless lives to achieve enlightenment but if like Bodhisattva (Kuan Yin), we aspire to help all patient beings, then it’s possible to achieve enlightenment within one life.”

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The moment I saw Rosie, I knew she was the person to channel Kuan Yin’s essence for these images. It was even more moving to learn of her direct experiences with the goddess:

“When my grandmother got lung cancer and was diagnosed as stage 3-4, I kneeled down on the floor and asked for 5 more years with her even if I needed to give away 5 years of my life. After that prayer, my grandmother lived for 5 more years. Later when my father was hospitalized in one emergent outburst, I also prayed with all my heart to Kuan Yin, and luckily my father recovered later. I can always rely on her. There is an unshakeable faith that she will always answer your prayers as long as you pray for good.”

ABOUT KUAN YIN

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Kuan Yin is a manifestation of the Divine Mother, and she is often described as Mother Mary of the East. She is the personification of love and compassion and serves on the frequency of freedom, transmutation, mercy, and justice.

She is depicted in many forms, each revealing a different aspect of her gracious presence. She can often be seen holding a vase, pouring compassion out onto the world. Representations of her with a child gave her the reputation of the child giver. Wearing flowing white robes and carrying a lotus in hand, she is the ultimate symbol of purity.

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As she is said to live on a magical island surrounded by the ocean, water is one of her most prominent emblems. When I’m in the shower, I love to visualize her loving compassion cascading over me in a fountain of cosmic water, instantly purifying my thoughts from lower vibrations.

WORKING WITH KUAN YIN

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A benevolent bodhisattva, Kuan Yin is always there to answer the cries from anyone suffering.

“Even people with no strong religious beliefs can ask for her help when needed. Her compassion is there for all, not just for those who believe in her,” Rosie explains.

I suggest calling upon her when your compassion starts to slip, or when you are being especially hard on yourself. Her gentle energy is a reminder to approach your path with warmth and caring. Sometimes being kind to ourselves is the only tool we need to solve the blockages we are facing. Rosie recommends softening into your heart to feel her presence.

“I soften my look and then my heart, feeling the vastness inside. I feel carried by her unconditional love and acceptance. Kuan Yin energy is so encompassing and including that I feel my existence is ok, with all my virtues and vices. When I reach that kind of self-acceptance through connecting to her, I extend that love to people around me too,” she explains.

You can also try chanting, which is said to be the most deeply rooted way of honoring her. The Goddess Path by Patricia Monaghan says that walking and chanting her name can lead to transformative thoughts and ideas, and I can’t help but find bliss in the synchronicity that it was Tuum who taught me to do walking meditations!

Whether seated or walking, you can simply call her name to draw her near. You can also try the sacred mantra of compassion from Tibetan Buddhism - Om Mani Padme Hum - to open the heart chakra and invoke a sense of calm and healing.

From this place, you can transform any harshness that remains and see the divine light within yourself and others. And so it is.