Chapter 8: Kuan-yin’s Mercy

Buddha sets the Dharma Wheel in Motion

What is the true intent that gives Monkey purpose and motivation? In chapter 8, Buddha Tathataga says,

“I have three baskets of true scriptures which can persuade man to do good. …They are the scriptures for the cultivation of truth; they are the gate to ultimate goodness. I myself would like to send these to the Land of the East; but the creatures in that region are so stupid and so scornful of the truth that they ignore the weighty elements of our Law and mock the true sect of Yoga. Somehow we need a person with power to go to the Land of the East and find a virtuous believer. He will be asked to experience the bitter travail of passing through a thousand mountains and ten thousand waters to come here in quest of the authentic scriptures, so that they may be forever implanted in the east to enlighten the people.” JW I, p 184.

The author of Journey identifies the acquisition of the Buddha’s scriptures as the true intent, the Mission. They must be acquired and then brought back to the East to redeem the whole country by persuading man to do good. Hence the theme becomes social redemption through individual salvation.

Because this is the true intent of the whole novel, let us look at it a little more closely. The Buddha would give the words to them but the creatures of the East ignore and mock the true sect of Yoga. Hence the Buddha says in essence that a sage of the East needs to earn the scriptures through bitter travail. The knowledge is not enough; it must be accompanied by great effort.

Buddha is looking for a fellow Immortal to go to the East to find a virtuous man to partake of this arduous Quest. Kuan-yin, Goddess manifest, Bodhisattva of Compassion, volunteers to go. Who else but the Goddess loves her creation enough to show such compassion?

Kuan-yin: Bodhisattva, Goddess, and Mother

Who is Kuan-yin? On the most obvious level she is one of Buddha’s Bodhisattvas. A Bodhisattva is someone who has achieved enlightenment but refuses to leave this realm of suffering until everyone else also achieves enlightenment. The role then of the Bodhisattva is to assist the ignorant in this task by providing them with clues and tests to assist them on their way. Kuan-yin, as Bodhisattva, has so much compassion that she will do anything to help the suffering to achieve liberation. As such she is the most logical one for this task.

However we would be understating her importance if we just left you, the Reader, with the impression that she is merely one of Buddha’s helpers. This is just her Buddhist manifestation. For many Chinese women in particular she acts as the fertility goddess, granting pregnancies and healthy babies with the proper worship. For sailors and travelers she is Goddess of the Seas, protecting them on their long trading voyages. Her image is ubiquitous wherever there are Chinese communities. There are statues of her throughout Thailand, including the Grand Palace, with numerous votive candles, fruit, eggs and offerings of all type set before her. In Malaysia, one of the foreign destinations of Chinese traders, there is an enormous statue of Kuan-yin in the main Chinese temple, which dwarfs any images of the Buddha by several orders of magnitude. She is the Mother Mary of China, much more accessible to the average person due to her overwhelming compassion than the Buddha. And like Mary to whom she has some connection, she is the modern manifestation of the Goddess, with her connection with fertility and nurturing.

She actually has an incredibly complex evolution that is by no means settled. The traditional accounts of her development call her the Chinese version of Avalokita, a male Bodhisattva of India. Indeed when looking at evolving representations of Kuan-yin/Avalokita, the first appear quite male, the second as an effeminate male or masculine female, and the final representations are unmistakably female.

However Avalokita is different in significant aspects from Kuan-yin. Emanating from the Buddha’s right eye, he came out chanting the sounds, ‘om mani padme hum’ and was immediately enlightened upon hearing them. (Significantly these magical words are inscribed on the plaque, which seals Monkey under the Mountain of 5 phases.) For devotees of Avalokita throughout the Buddhist world chanting these words presumably bring enlightenment. This is Avalokita’s compassion - enlightenment through the sound of the sacred syllables, which he introduced.

Kuan-yin is also associated with sound. Indeed her name means ‘observer of sound’ - guan yin. But her devotees aren’t enlightened by chanting a sacred mantra, but are instead enlightened by her direct intervention in their lives. Kuan-yin’s sound is the suffering of ignorant humans. She hears any cry for help and responds with divine assistance. The sound is of pain. Indeed, as we shall see, suffering brings the ignorant to Kuan-yin, motivating them to submit to her teachings. Thus while Avalokita’s sounds are chanted by his followers to bring enlightenment, Kuan-yin’s sounds are the cries of her followers for assistance. Quite different.

Avalokita’s influence spread from India to Tibet, becoming Buddha’s primary earthly representative in the late centuries of the 1st millennium of the Common Era.[i] Many speculate that the worship of Avalokita spread to China from Tibet and then merged with the local fertility goddesses to become Kuan-yin. However Avalokita is never represented as a female in India, Tibet or Southeast Asia. Further Avalokita has 337 earthly incarnations, all of which were male except once as a horse. There are certainly no precedents for a female Avalokita. Indeed the traveling monks of this time period - mid to late first millennium, including Hsüan-tsang, the hero of Journey to the West, the monk Tripitaka, make no reports of female representations of Avalokita in either China or anywhere else.

However by the early centuries of the 2nd millennium Kuan-yin statues are everywhere. This is especially odd considering the low esteem in which women are held in Buddhism. The Buddha wouldn’t even allow his mother to join his school until his main disciple made a plea for her after she had walked hundreds of miles to be with him. And even then the Buddha placed women in an inferior role in the spiritual hierarchy. So to have a woman ascend to such a exalted position in the Buddhist hierarchy is almost miraculous.

Some writers connect Kuan-yin with Tara, a voluptuous Tibetan Goddess, who shares many of Kuan-yin’s traits, especially that of compassion. But besides the fact that Tara is relatively unknown in China, she is also portrayed as a voluptuous fertility goddess - big breasted and naked. Conversely Kuan-yin is always fully dressed, and although quite feminine, her breasts are delicate.

Others connect her with the Chinese divinities including Miao Shan, another goddess of fertility and compassion. A unique feature of these female divinities is that they are frequently real humans who become divine because of their extraordinary lives. There are more than one of these goddesses in southern China, whose main function is to protect sailors and grant fertility. This line of reasoning has more credence due to the fact that Kuan-yin is regularly referred to as a the ruler of Potalaka Mountain on the South Sea, coming from the Cave of Tidal Sound. While most of these goddesses are portrayed demurely, they are frequently shown in the ornate garb of an Empress. Kuan-yin is most often dressed quite simply - nothing fancy.

While each of these influences probably had some influence on the evolution of Kuan-yin there is one more unorthodox connection that bears exploring - the Mother Mary of Christianity. On the initial glance their iconography is incredibly similar - both dressed demurely, both frequently adorned with rosary beads, both shown with babies in their arms, both devoid of sexuality, both worshipped universally in their respective parts of the world. Although visually similar, what other connection is there? After all there is no Christianity in China at this time, you say.

This was the prevalent view through the 20th century. Then stone tablets were discovered which commemorated the establishment of Christianity in Sian in 600 AD.[ii] Sian is the modern name for Chang an, the capital of the Tang dynasty, which ruled during this time period. Further in 2001 archaeologists discovered a shrine to the Mother Mary in the vicinity of Beijing, which was commemorated in 638 AD. There is evidence that “Christianity thrived throughout China from the seventh to the ninth centuries as the imperially sanctioned ‘religion of light’.” [iii] These were the Nestorian Christians who refused to worship the Pope and to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus. They migrated east to escape persecution.

This was the same time period that the cult of the Mother Mary emerged in Europe, inspiring multiple churches and cathedrals devoted to Notre Dame, our Mother.

What happened? The tolerant Tang dynasty, which encouraged religions and cultures from throughout the world, was gradually replaced by the intolerant Tang dynasty after they lost a significant battle to the Muslims. In the latter centuries of the first millennium there was a backlash against foreign religions, including both Christianity and Buddhism. Hundreds of temples were destroyed and thousands of priests were defrocked. All evidence of Nestorian Christianity was destroyed.

Although the worship of both Kuan-yin and Mother Mary was virtually non-existent during the first half of the first millennium, by the first centuries of the second millennium the worship of both was nearly universal in their respective cultures. The emergence of Mother Mary is equally mysterious to the rise of Kuan-yin because this is the Dark Ages of Europe when literacy and record keeping were on the decline. Whatever the truth is, both are modern day representatives of fertility and compassion.

Carelessness, the great crime of alchemy

After volunteering to be in charge of Buddha’s task Kuan-yin doesn’t just fly to the East to bring the Mission. In her compassion she researches the journey for our virtuous man. She finds him four disciples. Each of the four is no mere mortal, but fallen Immortals. The first is the Curtain Raising Captain, (later renamed Sha Monk or Sand Monk) who carelessly broke a crystal cup at the Festival of Immortal Peaches. The second is the Marshal of Heavenly Reeds on Heavenly River, (later renamed Piggy) who got drunk at the festival of Peaches and dallied with the Goddess of the Moon. The third is a young dragon, who had accidentally set fire to the palace, burning some pearls. The fourth is Monkey, who had wreaked havoc upon heaven. Each of the four was banished from heaven to the world of dust here on earth for their transgressions.

On the surface for the Westerner, it is hard to understand why the punishments for the disciples are so extreme for such minor transgressions. The little dragon is to be executed for ‘inadvertently’ setting fire to the palace and burning some pearls. The Sand Monk accidentally broke a crystal cup. The punishment hardly seems to fit the crime. Additionally we find later on in the story that Tripitaka, our scripture seeking monk, has been given this incredible ordeal because he fell asleep at one of Buddha’s lectures and spilled a single grain of rice. Why then are the punishments so extreme?

On the surface, the extremity could be related with the Chinese obsession with orthopraxy - correct behavior. But this is like trying to swim through the air. The truth is that the entire alchemical process of transformation requires the utmost care to bring it to completion. As Chang Po-tuan says, “In all, there are thirty thousand intervals; beware of even the slightest slip.” (Inner Teachings, p28) Thus the dragon set the palace on fire burning the pearls. The pearls are an alchemical term for the internal pill of vitality that is created in the process. In his carelessness he has burned the pills of vitality. Interestingly this is a crime against his family. This points once again to the theme of social responsibility. His carelessness has not only affected him but his family as well.

Sexual Leakage

Another aspect of their sins has to do with leaking the vital energies. This also threatens the alchemical process by draining the vitality that is necessary to generate the transformational Heat. In this case it is somewhat linked with sexuality. A part of the Chinese tao is that sperm needs to be retained rather than carelessly dissipated in frequent sexual activity, which leaks the vital seed. This is a constant theme throughout the Journey. Tripitaka is a virgin who is constantly tempted and threatened with sex throughout the many episodes. Because he resists all temptations, the Journey is ultimately successful.

In the case of our Fallen Immortals, three of them had troubles at the festival of Peaches, which is a metaphor for sexuality. Sha Monk broke a crystal chalice. Piggy became drunk and had sex with the Moon. Monkey became drunk and stole the Peaches of Immortality. Each of their sexual transgressions is different. Sha Monk, Monster in Japan, presumably ejaculated, carelessly losing his vital seed. Piggy got overwhelmed by desire, lost focus, and had illicit sex, rather than focusing upon his practices. Monkey, although not losing his seed, became irresponsible, even though he was abstinent sexually. The idea behind Monkey’s allegory is that sexual abstinence, while granting immortality, is not enough, unless linked to true intent, the Mission.

Kuan-yin’s Compassion, forgiveness and purpose

Upon recognizing Kuan-yin, each of these Fallen Immortals, immediately submits to her. She doesn’t convince them with words. The pain and meaningless of their lives is all that it takes. Each wants to return to heaven. She gives them the opportunity. She tells them that they must submit to a scripture-seeking monk when he comes through. She says that joining his Quest will allow them to acquire the merit necessary to return to Heaven.

Again we find that knowledge plays no part in their conversion or in their potential redemption. Instead conversion comes from desperation, pain, or meaninglessness, not words. And redemption comes from good deeds, not understanding.

In alchemical terms, each of the elements is meaningless without true intent/true earth/Kuan-yin’s Mission to guide them. Although Monkey/lead has cultivated his vital forces, he is not grounded in true intent and uses his spectacular powers to run amok in Heaven. Kuan-yin talks about the evils of Mind without intent when she speaks of Monkey, honored not the Law, rashly sought to be a hero, mind puffed up. After spending 500 years beneath a mountain, wandering in emptiness, doing nobody any good, Monkey begs Kuan-yin’s forgiveness. He is tired of living willfully. She forgives him and tells him to be ready to submit to a Mission.

Similarly with each of these Fallen Immortals. Each of them is afraid that their transgressions against the Law are too great. After all two of them haven’t been following Buddhism’s vegetarian diet, but have instead been eating humans, including scripture pilgrims - an ultimate sin in any culture. But she forgives each of them as long as they submit. This ultimate forgiveness is her first level of compassion.

Kuan-yin’s next level of compassion is that she gives meaning to their lives. She has given Monkey the means to escape the cause-effect materialism of the 5 Phase Mountain. He can stay under the mountain or he can participate in an arduous and frustrating Quest. Kuan-yin bestows mercy by giving Monkey a Mission. He realizes there is nothing else.

This is the blessing that she has to convey on each of the members of the Quest. She does not convey peace of mind, understanding, worldly power, wealth, health, vitality, or immortality. Monkey has all of these already. She grants meaning, a Mission. However she says it’s going to be hard, excruciating, bitter travail. When the going gets tough and the separate members want to go back, they are reminded of the emptiness of their prior lives. They remind Monkey that if he leaves that he’ll just get in trouble again. Thus Kuan-yin in her ultimate compassion grants us the privilege of being part of a Mission. The Mission will be difficult, painful, ouch, but it is all there is. Thanks a lot.

Further it frequently takes great pain, or emptiness, to submit to the compassion of Kuan-Yin. One must have reached the end and realized the emptiness in order to submit to this excruciating Ordeal. It takes 500 years beneath a mountain, before Monkey submits to Kuan-yin’s Compassion.

The Tasks of the disciples

Upon conversion Kuan-yin gives each disciple a religious name and a different task. The Curtain Raising Captain, Sha Monk, is renamed Sha Wu-ching, ‘awaken to purity’ and is told to ‘seek refuge in Right Action’. The Marshall of Heavenly Reeds, Piggy, is renamed Chu Wu-neng, ‘awaken to power’ and is told to ‘follow the truth’. The Dragon, soon to become the White Horse, will be the means of transportation because of his flexibility. The Great Sage Equal to Heaven, Monkey is renamed Sun Wu-k’ung, ‘awaken to emptiness’ and told to ‘cultivate the fruits of righteousness’ . JW I, pp. 190-196

Briefly, the Sand Monk is the earth-stomach, who needs to awaken to the purity of good diet; while the refuge of Right Action is to follow the Mission of Tripitaka. Piggy must follow the truth of Buddhism, which in this case is Tripitaka’s task, and in so doing awaken to his own power. Monkey must seek to support the good while vanquishing evil. In order to distinguish truth from falsehood, he must move from absolute quietude, emptiness, the spot between yin and yang, awakening to vacuity, the point of No-Mind. At this point we leave our disciples who are awaiting the arrival of the scripture-seeking monk.

[i] Bodhisattva of Compassion, John Blofeld, Shambala 1988 p. 39

[ii]China Caravan, Robert Easton, Capra Press 1982

[iii]US News and World Report, March 5, 2001, p 51

Home   Chinese Alchemy   1. Journey Episodes   Previous   Next