Chapter 21: Kuan Yin & the Chinese Temple


Danna: “On our right is the most famous Chinese Temple in Malaysia, the Thean Hou Temple. It was begun in 1981 and finished in 1989. It is based upon ancient Chinese construction and style. Have fun exploring. Be back here in about 45 minutes.”

The temple’s land encompassed about 2 acres, according to the guide book. The temple, itself was about 5 stories high. However, as we were to discover, much of this was for show. It had the classic Chinese roof line and colors. The temple pillars were all red, the color of red cinnabar, the Chinese color of health and vitality. Red China. They were without adornment. Most of the walls were white, while the pagoda style roofs were of plain clay ceramic. None of this was adorned either.

What a contrast from the Batu caves and the Hindu temples we had just seen, the Buddhist temples of Thailand, the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan peninsula. The only notable external decorations were stylized dragons on many of the highest rooftops - on the corners - as they arched up to heaven. The Dragon’s spine. The dragons on the ends of the primary rooftops were facing each other, while the dragon’s on the diagonals were facing outwards. Presumably some type of feng shui balancing.

We were dazzled by the external appearance of this elaborate structure with its multiple roofs, all connected integrally. Miranda busily snapped pictures. We entered the first floor, expecting to see elaborate temple furnishing inside, especially after the Buddhist temples of Thailand. Instead we saw what looked like the interior of a grade school auditorium, institutional gray. Virtually nothing on the walls. Then we noticed that there were signs in Chinese calligraphy and English, on the external walls pointing the appropriate direction, ‘Temple ->’.

We obediently followed the arrows which led us in a square spiral up about two stories. The arrows first took us inside the perimeter of the building. What did it look like? Startlingly dull. Public high school stairways with plain square tiles that you might see in a public rest-room in international airports everywhere. Nothing fancy. Not even the slightest attempt. A strikingly beautiful exterior opposed by this exceptionally ordinary interior.

Most Christian churches aim to be beautiful inside and outside. Each inch of the Buddhist temples in Thailand are covered with ornate glass and ceramic work. Every inch of all the temple ruins in Angkor is covered with ornate stone carving. The same was true of the Temple of the Dawn in Bangkok. A mosaic of glass, gold leaf, and Chinese ceramics covers the whole temple with intricate patterns wherever you looked. Even Santa Barbara’s Court House has incredibly beautiful spiral staircases lined with beautiful tiles arranged in interesting patterns.

Then after a few stories of arrows we entered onto an open courtyard in the center of the temple. From inside to outside. In the center of this courtyard was a raised area, maybe 6 to 10 steps higher. At the front of this platform was a large pot filled with sand in which were plunged innumerable joss sticks - many still burning. Joss sticks are sticks of incense that are purchased from the temple, and burned for good luck.

Raised above this platform by a few more step was the main temple. It was covered by the same curved Chinese pagoda shaped roof which was topped by the same dragons, that had been regularly duplicated throughout the architecture.

There were no doors. This roof was supported by the same style large white pillars with ornate carvings of Chinese dragons. The red square pillars on the corners have Chinese calligraphy on them. However most striking are hundreds of small yellow lanterns, arranged in square patterns, which are strung from the roof of the main temple to the external roof. Miranda employed her camera to document this geometric repetition.

The front of this interior temple is separated into three sections by ornate white pillars. Inside each section was a huge statute of a Goddess. I recognized my friend Kuan Yin as the statue on the right. I rushed inside to greet her. I was reminded by one of the Chinese ladies guarding the temple that I had to remove my shoes.

Me: “Greetings Mother.”

Kuan Yin: “Welcome.”

Me: “I can see that you are well provided for here. You have innumerable joss sticks burning in front of you. You are well maintained, gorgeously represented, obviously well loved.”

Kuan Yin: “Yes they love me here.”

Me: “But why are the stairways and the other rooms so plain.”

Kuan Yin: “We don’t want you getting distracted with the physical beauty of the temple. We are jealous Goddesses. We want you to focus on us. The Thai temples are so beautiful that you forget about the Buddha, while admiring the art work. In this temple everything leads to us, the three goddesses. No distractions. Nothing to take your attention away from their worship of me.”

Me: “As the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion?”

Kuan Yin: “Sort of. Actually they call me the Goddess of Mercy. I’m here to help out in a time of need.”

Me: “I didn’t know they had goddesses in Buddhism.”

Kuan Yin: “Well strictly speaking they don’t. But the Chinese, even here in Malaysia, belong to Mahayana Buddhism, the broad path.”

Me: “I remember seeing you in Thailand, too. There was a well loved statue of you on the river. And then, surprise of surprises, we came upon you again inside the King’s palace. The Thais are Theravada Buddhists, hinayana, the small path. But they seem to worship you there, too.”

Kuan Yin: “Why not? I manifest the Compassionate Goddess wherever I go. I am the Universal Mother.”

Me: “But I thought you were the Bodhisattva of Compassion from Buddhism.”

Kuan Yin: “That is the name given to me by those on the path of knowledge. Those on the path of devotion call me Goddess or Mother, as you do. But if you prefer to call me a Bodhisattva, go right ahead. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

Me: “Some say you are the same as Avalokita, a Buddhist Bodhisattva from India (including the guide book).”

Kuan Yin: “This is true.”

Me: “But Avalokita is male, while you are female.”

Kuan Yin: “This is also true.”

Me: “He emanated as light from Buddha’s eye and began chanting ‘Om mani padme hum’. He quickly reached enlightenment chanting this phrase. This story has never been part of your Chinese history.”

Kuan Yin: “That’s correct.”

Me: “Some scholars claim that you are a mixture of the Tibetan Goddess of Compassion, Tara, and the Buddhist Avalokita.”

Kuan Yin: “Probably true. The humanist Chinese never liked the fantastic portrayals of the Indian gods. As Buddhism spread from India through Afghanistan through the Central Asian steppes and Tibet to China my representation evolved to fit the Chinese cultural context.”

Me: “Others claim that your iconography was borrowed from the Mother Mary of Christianity.”

Kuan Yin: “This could be true too. We spent a lot of time together when those Nestorian Christians were in China. However why not her from me?”

Me: “I’ve also heard that you’re connected with the Taoist Goddess Niang Niang.”

Kuan Yin: “Yes, I am.”

Me: “But which is the real truth?”

Kuan Yin: “All and none. Everyone wants to claim me as theirs. But I am the Mother archetype. I am Universal. I am part of many traditions, but I transcend them all. Why don’t you check out what this temple has to say about me. I think you might be surprised.”

Me: “Why do you say that?”

Kuan Yin: “You seem to view me in a Western way, as some kind of mythological entity, a divine archetype that is separate from humanity. Your Western gods are always so transcendent. In Eastern Asia it is quite different. Humans regularly become gods and gods can become human. We don’t have a caste system.”

Me: “What about Jesus?”

Kuan Yin: “A major exception, but the sole one. In your Bible God regularly speaks to humans but doesn’t become one, except in the case of Jesus.”

Me: “What’s this have to do with you?”

Kuan Yin: “According to Buddhist scriptures I have incarnated on the planet 33 times. I am like the Hindu god, Vishnu, who regularly incarnates in a human body to relieve humans of their suffering. One of Vishnu’s most popular incarnations was Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, which you’ve explored. Indeed even Gautama Siddhartha, the real human who achieved Buddhahood, was merely one incarnation of Buddha. The Buddha, or Bodhi, exists in each of us. Buddha was called the Awakened One, because he woke up to his Buddha nature. Buddhism doesn’t really believe in gods. The god-spirit is in each of us, not outside. It just needs to be awakened.”

Me: “What’s your point?”

Kuan Yin: “The Chinese view me as derived from a real human who achieved divinity. In my most popular incarnation, I was born on the 19th day of the 2nd month in the 18th year of the Xing-Lin Kingdom. This is a specific day in the 3rd century BCE in your Western terminology. This is not the mythological era; it is a historical time.”

Me: “But you are timeless. You are the Mother Goddess.”

Kuan Yin: “Not according to the Chinese who worship me here. They say that I was born a human. However to indicate my divine status Heaven arranged for all the flowers in the garden to bloom at my birth. Because of this my parents knew that I was special and named me Miao-Shan, meaning ‘miraculously kind hearted’. When I reached marriage age my father wanted to arrange my wedding. But I had other plans. I wanted to serve humankind, not my husband. I joined a Buddhist nunnery.”

Me: “But Buddhism hadn’t even reached China by the third century BCE. There weren’t even any nunneries to join.”

Kuan Yin: “Let’s not confuse a traditional story with facts. They have no relevance. This is not a scholarly history. This is popular history. This is what is believed, not what historians call true. Let go of your preconceptions to embrace a greater truth. Your obsession with literal facts will kill the baby, as you take her apart attempting to discover about life.”

Me: “Sorry. I was born and educated in America, the land of technology and science with its Either/Or logic.”

Kuan Yin: “Transcend your background. Don’t use it as excuse.”

Me: “OK, OK. Got your point. On with your story.”

Kuan Yin: “So my father, who was a king, was furious that I, Miao-Shan, had disobeyed him. He ordered the monastery that I had joined burned to the ground. All were destroyed but me, who emerged unscathed. He ordered me beheaded but the swords shattered. He ordered me hung but the ropes broke. He let a white tiger loose on me. But I got on his back and we escaped. I was then educated by Amithaba Buddha and eventually reached enlightenment. Later when my father got sick, I sacrificed my eyes and limbs to save his life. Because of my filial piety and my compassionate deeds, I became known all over the land. People came from all over to worship me. The rest is history.”

Me: “So, in popular Chinese belief you did not evolve as a god from contact with Hindu, Tibetan or Christian goddesses but instead came from a real human.”

Kuan Yin: “Exactly. The Chinese have a very worldly culture. Not at all transcendent like your Western God. We Chinese accepted Buddhism readily because he was a real human who achieved enlightenment and rejected Hinduism with their many gods. Besides their gods were too fantastic with their blue coloring and their many arms and legs. We don’t go for that kind of thing. Our divinities have human roots and look like humans. This is true of me and the other Goddesses here.”

Me: “Who are they?”

Kuan Yin: “Why don’t you ask the attendants.”

I looked around. A Chinese lady, simply dressed, was passing out free brochures to those who wanted them which explained a little about the temple. She also was raising money for an extension to this temple in another area. Evidently too many used this one and they needed more space. Quite a contrast from the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore. Impressed by the devotion surrounding the temple I contributed 10 ringgit to their cause.

Me: “What are the names of your statues?”

Attendant: “The one on the left is Goddess of the Waterfront, the center is the Goddess of the Ocean, and the goddess on the right is the Goddess of Mercy.”

Me: “What about Buddhism?”

Attendant: “They are all Buddhist.”

Me to Kuan Yin: “Goddess of the Waterfront? Goddess of the Ocean? Buddhist? I’ve studied a little Buddhism and I’ve never heard of goddesses referred to anywhere. Buddhism is actually too misogynist for goddesses and too practical for gods.”

Kuan Yin: “Remember this is a Chinese temple.”

Me: “Then where are the Taoist references? Where is the Confucian ancestor worship.”

Kuan Yin: “Let go of your preconceived notion of Chinese religion. You’ve read about what other intellectuals think about Chinese religion. This is Chinese religion.”

Me: “But I thought the Chinese were Buddhist. In this very important temple there are three huge Goddesses and then tiny little Buddhas around for adornment. It almost seems as if the Buddhas are worshipping you rather than vice versa.”

Kuan Yin: “Probably so. Similarly your Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary and place votive candles in front of her statue rather than Jesus. But they’ll tell you that Jesus is more important. The Mother Mary is just a lot more accessible. Similarly I am more accessible than the Buddha.”

Me: “But the Buddha is always the prominent statue in the Buddhist temples of Thailand.”

Kuan Yin: “So?”

Me: “It just seems that the Buddha plays a more prominent role in Thai Buddhism than he does in Chinese Buddhism.”

Kuan Yin: “Just because his statue is displayed more prominently in Thailand doesn’t mean that his ideas are followed any more diligently there. The Chinese who come to my temple are no less Buddhist than are the Thai people who worship in their temple. Similarly the French who worship at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, devoted to the Virgin Mary, are no less Christian than are the English Anglicans or the American Presbyterians. Just because the form of their worship differs doesn’t mean that the content differs.”

Me: “But the Buddha is everywhere in Thailand.”

Kuan Yin: “Many just worship the image of the Buddha, without following his ideas. Conversely many Chinese don’t worship my image, but follow what I stand for. You are just like that. In Thailand the image of the Buddha is prevalent, while here in Malaysia, we Goddesses are more prevalent. But the ideas behind us both are the same.”

Me: “But the Goddess of the Waterfront and the Goddess of the Ocean. These seem like minor deities.”

Kuan Yin: “Not to the Chinese traders from Hainan Island who made their way to Malaysia via Singapore and Malacca. These were the Goddesses who protected them on their ocean voyage. The Goddess of the Ocean is actually the Goddess of the Southern High Seas. Both of them protected the sailors and traders who made the treacherous voyage from China to the Malay peninsula.”

Me: “They seem to be local goddesses, but Buddhist?”

Kuan Yin: “Let go of the external form. It is distracting. We Chinese practice Mahayana Buddhism, the wide path. This means that all local forms of religion are acceptable to us. We can adapt to individual preferences. We can make it work.”

Me: “That seems a little corrupt.”

Kuan Yin: “Call it what you will. We call it the doctrine of expedient means.”

Me: “Expedient means?”

Kuan Yin: “We Chinese are a practical people. Any means is justified to bring the locals to the Buddha, including co-opting their local religious rites. We are just like your Catholics. We attempt to increase our customer base by merging with local traditions.”

Me: “I get it. Theravada Buddhism of Thailand and Cambodia is called hinayana, the small path, because it doesn’t affirm the local pantheons.”

Kuan Yin: “That’s one way of looking at it. However, while the Theravadans have larger and more gold plated Buddhas with less local gods and goddesses on display, a huge majority of them have spirit houses. Their local traditions are alive and well. Their Buddhas are just more prominent. Humans are humans everywhere.”

Me: “I’m still confused.”

Kuan Yin: “Your Catholics follow the mahayana, the large path, accommodating local traditions everywhere. Your Protestants could be said to follow the hinayana, the small path. They are more rigid on the acceptable forms of the religious rites and yet they still incorporate the local civil religion in their practices - almost unconsciously. This would include your rites and symbols of Christmas and Easter which have pagan roots, not Christian.”

Me: “I notice that the center statue is also called the Heavenly Mother. That’s quite a prestigious name for the goddess of sailors.”

Kuan Yin: “Yes it is. She is supposed to suggest the Emperor or Empress of China.”

Me: “Emperor?”

Kuan Yin: “Yes. The three of us establish heavenly harmony just as the Emperor establishes earthly harmony. Heaven and earth are combined by these correspondences.”

Me: “Heaven and earth aren’t separate?”

Kuan Yin: “Not at all. Our realms are very connected. Unlike the Hindu or Buddhist ascetics most Chinese believe in the dual cultivation of the internal and the external - the spiritual and the material - the mind and the body.”

Me: “Are you three goddesses unique to Malaysia?”

Kuan Yin: “Not at all. We three have been together a long time, centuries, if not millennia. As you might imagine, we were first worshipped by sailors. Our cult began in Fuzhou in Southern China, across the coast from Taiwan. The devotion to our trinity spread there next and then to Hainan Island in the most southern part of China. These seafaring cultures traded extensively with the cultures around them. Many from Hainan migrated to Malaysia, but continued to trade with the mainland. Hence our protection services were needed continually, every time a trading ship set sail, not just for the voyage of migration. Further the Chinese don’t tend to lose their connection with their homeland. It is frequently so strong that many still return to China to die and be buried there.”

Me: “But the perils of ocean travel is much less now. Why would they still erect a shrine to you goddesses in the late 20th century.”

Kuan Yin: “It is actually quite natural. It is a continuation of centuries of worship. I think it more unusual that you Californians have Christmas trees with fake snow, even though it has nothing to do with your climate.”

Me: “Touché. So externally the Chinese worship your trinity to protect them in ocean travel, while internally you reflect Buddhist principles.”

Kuan Yin: “Simplistically yes.”

Me: “Which came first?”

Kuan Yin: “We preceded the arrival of Buddhism by centuries, if not millennia. With the emergence of Buddhism from the West, I as the Goddess of Mercy made a easy and comfortable merger with the Bodhisattva of Compassion.”

Me: “So which is the real you?”

Kuan Yin: “Are you still obsessed with your Either/Or logic. We all have multiple names here. I am also called Savior of the Under-Privileged. The Heavenly Mother or Ma Fu, is also called the Dragon’s Daughter.”

Me: “Why?”

Kuan Yin: “In one of my incarnations I saved her from the fisherman’s net. She became one of my disciples. She and I are frequently shown together. In many shrines I am the dominant one, but in the seafaring ports she is dominant, because she gave her life to save her brother and father from a terrible storm, at least according to legend.”

Me: “It seems so confusing. Traditional Chinese local gods and goddesses mixed with real people, with a little Buddhism thrown in for good measure.”

Kuan Yin: “Lighten up. We serve multiple functions. We are approachable on many levels. We serve as receptacles of popular devotion. Notice that, even as we speak, there is a Chinese wedding going on, next to the wishing well. You intellectuals have your books to study Chinese religion. Those who actually believe and worship have this temple.”

Me: “But it is such a mish mash. No consistency.”

Kuan Yin: “Only to you Westerners with your Either/Or logic. We Chinese with our pattern based logic have no problem with inconsistency. The complexity just extends potentials while your Western logic limits them. Let go to embrace the multiplicity.”

Me: “I bow before the complexity.”

Awed, I knelt down and prayed before Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, Bodhisattva of Compassion, or simply the Mother. Whatever. I’m not holding on anymore.


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