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"Deeply Female and Universally Human"

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The Rise of Kuan-yin Worship in America

by Jeff Wilson

One of the most fascinating things about Buddhism is how--considering that it is such an inherently Indian religion--it has managed to successfully cross so many cultural boundaries and display such a wide diversity of local variations.[1] The classic case has been the transmission of Buddhism from India to China, and the reimagining of Avalokiteshvara as a female bodhisattva has perhaps been the most popular subject of speculation. For example, Chün-fang Yü, in her magnum opus Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara, has meticulously traced many of the pathways by which the bodhisattva entered and was domesticated by Chinese culture.[2]

Today Buddhism is in the process of being transmitted to yet another cultural sphere, one arguably even more different from Buddhist Asia than ancient China was from India. This is the North American and European realm of the West, especially the United States of America, where Buddhism is one of the fastest-growing religions and enjoys a remarkably high public profile. It is natural to turn to the example of Chinese Buddhism to look for clues as to how Buddhism might once again be transformed in a new host culture. Yet, so far, only the most cursory consideration has been made of that famous Chinese figure Kuan-yin, whose worship now extends beyond East Asia into the temples and homes of many Americans.

Knowledge of bodhisattvas, especially Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, has been present to some degree in Buddhist communities of converts from the beginning. Nonetheless, what I wish to call attention to is the noticeable rise in devotion by convert Buddhists to particular Buddhist mythological figures. Where earlier periods in American Buddhism saw bodhisattvas relatively marginalized, appearing as a statue here or there or dismissed with a few words about what a bodhisattva symbolically represents, bodhisattvas are now a visibly growing presence in American Zen and other traditions, with a substantial industry of bodhisattva-related products, books advocating devotion to one or more figures, and large numbers of converts claiming Kuan-yin as an integral part of their Buddhist practice. Many Kuan-yin devotees are quite self-conscious in their attempts to attract newcomers to these movements and increase the profile of their favorite figure in Buddhist circles.

I believe that these bodhisattva movements, as highlighted especially by devotion to Kuan-yin, represent a new phase within forms of American Buddhism dominated by converts. It is a phase that shows significant changes in how supernatural, ritualistic, and iconographic aspects of Buddhism are related to this popular religious subculture and suggests a need to reassess current studies on it.

I must emphasize that the phenomenon I am talking about is one within convert Buddhism specifically, with some additional attention to Kuan-yin devotion among non-Buddhist Americans. Asian American Buddhist communities also include devotion to various bodhisattvas, and the presence of such devotion in these communities sometimes reinforces the devotion or interest of converts. Ultimately, Kuan-yin and other bodhisattvas are not "owned" by either cultural or convert Buddhists. But devotion to these figures in nonconvert communities is usually part of an inherited tradition that stretches back more or less seamlessly to earlier periods of American history and further into the Asian past. This contrasts with what I am trying to point out: the phenomena and forces behind the recent explosion of interest in bodhisattvas among convert Buddhists, who learn about, think about, and practice in relationship to these figures in ways quite different, in certain respects, from cultural Buddhists.

Obstacles and Contributing Factors to Kuan-yin Devotion

Chün-fang Yü herself notes in passing the rise of knowledge about Kuan-yin in America, attributing it to Buddhist immigration since World War II and to feminist interest. After the lifting of racist immigration laws in 1965, immigration from China and other parts of Asia brought significant numbers of Buddhists to the United States, which in turn contributed to a precipitous rise in the number of European Americans converting to Buddhism. However, there was less contribution to convert Buddhism from new immigrants than might be supposed. European Americans were often wary of practicing at Chinese American and other Asian American temples, where they might feel uncustomarily in the minority, and in many ways the new convert Buddhism was inhospitable to bodhisattva devotions and Buddhist mythology in general. Convert American Buddhists evidenced a marked preference for individualistic meditation practice, disdain for mythology and superstition, prejudice against ritual, and tendency toward psychological approaches to religion.[3] Asian American Buddhism was often conceived by these new Buddhists as being traditional and conservative, loaded with foreign cultural baggage and empty ritualism that needed to be jettisoned so that a purer Buddhism, more authentic to the spirit of the founder, could be recovered. In this approach is clearly seen an instance of the dominant Protestant mindset of North American religion applied to Buddhism by converts from Christianity.

These attitudes were especially true of Zen Buddhism, which, even with its historical connection to Kuan-yin (in the Japanese form of Kannon), was slow to adopt widespread bodhisattva devotion. For instance, Zen teacher Philip Kapleau published a dialogue between himself and some of his students in his 1979 book Zen: Dawn in the West. One of the students opens the dialogue by expressing distaste at the Lotus Sutra teaching that Avalokiteshvara saves those who call on him, which the questioner finds "impossible to accept."[4] Kapleau responds by suggesting that rather than a supernatural being, "Kannon is the embodiment of your own compassionate heart." But he also tries to leave a little wiggle room for more expansive ideas of Kannon by calling Kannon "a living reality who never fails to respond to impassioned cries for help from those who believe in him."[5] His students are dissatisfied and refuse to accept even this tenuous degree of supernaturalism. They demand to know why Kapleau speaks of Kannon as alive when the bodhisattva lived years ago, try to suggest that the Lotus Sutra teaching would unfairly free Hitler from his karmic due, and puzzle at why someone would want to sit before a Kannon statue instead of meditating in the zendo.[6] Even though Kapleau's replies describe Kannon as a vague "energy" of compassion that works subtly rather than directly in response to sincere pleas, his students become increasingly frustrated. Finally they begin to ask dismissive questions: "Is there a point in Zen training when you can dispense with the figures of both Buddha and Kannon and just do zazen?" and "I thought that Zen Buddhists didn't believe in miracles."[7] Kapleau finally agrees that the Buddha and Kannon are only rafts that can be discarded and that the real miracle is how Kannon helps practitioners to gain insight into reality.

Kuan-yin and other bodhisattvas, then, did not receive the warmest of welcomes. The initial converts to Buddhism in the post-1965 era by and large wished to leave behind the supernaturalist religions of their upbringing and sought refuge in an unfamiliar tradition that they imagined as rational, individualistic, and nonritualistic. However, the seeds sown by the spread of even antimythologizing Buddhism contained the potential to flower into greater engagement with traditional elements of Buddhist devotional culture, and over time Kuan-yin in particular would prove to possess elements attractive to many Westerners. After all, Kuan-yin was part of the ritual life of Zen that, even if in attenuated form, was transmitted along with the meditation practices. Also, Kuan-yin appears in a number of important koans, and this koan literature was of tremendous interest to converts.[8] Furthermore, Buddhism's success led to inevitable change. As Buddhism grew it attracted new practitioners by serving new niches; meditation simply cannot meet the wishes of all people potentially interested in Zen, and experiments such as the Kuan-yin movement provided other ways for Americans to interact with Buddhism.

When traditions such as Zen were concentrated in a small number of central sites--San Francisco Zen Center, Rochester Zen Center, Zen Center of Los Angeles--they could be more easily policed. But beginning in the late 1980s Buddhism expanded beyond centralized head temples into much wider and looser networks of branch temples, in many cases led by the first generation of women convert teachers. With the increase in the number of Zen centers and other temples, there was greater opportunity for different expressions and models. Today most small cities and even many rural areas have Zen or other Buddhist groups. Women and priests amenable to ritual and bodhisattva devotion lead temples in locations throughout the country and have found their own voices amid the parallel explosion in the number and visibility of media venues available for championing Kuan-yin and other previously marginalized aspects of Buddhism.

Why did devotion to Kuan-yin eventually succeed in the face of the antibodhisattva sentiment of earlier American convert Buddhism? Sometimes historians are faced with a difficult challenge in explaining why a particular figure or image becomes popular with a specific religious demographic. Luckily, no such difficulties pertain in the case of Kuan-yin. This bodhisattva is increasingly favored by convert Buddhists for some very obvious reasons. The first is gender: among a constellation of male buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats, Kuan-yin stands out as a female bodhisattva. She thus attracts the attention of many convert Buddhist women, particularly those who are actively looking for feminist or at least overtly woman-friendly approaches to Buddhism. For women who have left forms of Judaism or Protestant Christianity that are dominated by male deity images, Kuan-yin is a welcome alternative; for women who have left Catholicism, she is a warm reminder of the Virgin Mary, yet without the same negative implications for women's sexuality. Kuan-yin represents for convert women an affirmation that they, too, have a place in Buddhism. For both women and men, Kuan-yin's female gender makes her more approachable than the Buddha or Manjushri. She proved especially attractive in the wake of a series of sex- and power-related scandals that rocked American convert Buddhism beginning in the early 1980s; the male leaders who misused their positions were widely perceived as abetted by patriarchal Asian Buddhist models, and more egalitarian and woman-friendly models were advanced in many centers as a corrective.

Beyond gender, two closely connected aspects of the bodhisattva make her particularly appealing to convert Buddhists. First is her status as the embodiment of compassion, arguably valued even more highly than wisdom by these practitioners. Second is her ability to take on any form in order to help those in need. This is a characteristic of her compassionate activity, which is implicitly tied to her gender by Americans (women are often assumed to be the more caring and helpful sex by Americans, Buddhist or otherwise), and together these qualities of adaptable female compassion stand out as uniquely Buddhist contributions to religion. It is not my wish to argue that such qualities or analogous figures are in fact absent in non-Buddhist religions.

Finally, Kuan-yin is valued because she not only embodies these valued traits but, unlike ancient goddesses such as Athena or Isis, also has an enormous body of worshipers in the modern world. Adherents of the Kuan-yin movement thus do not feel they are attached to an abstract goddess artificially imagined in order to balance out the male vision of God, or to the dead cult of a lost religion; instead they see themselves as copractitioners with hundreds of millions of others around the world. The sheer number of Kuan-yin devotees in East Asia enables new devotees in America to feel that they are in solidarity with a large group, rather than scattered individuals subsumed in a culture that overwhelmingly affirms the male image of deity. While this attitude appears among converts to Buddhism, it is particularly important to New Age and neo-pagan devotees of Kuan-yin, as will be discussed below.

Print, Visual, and Material Sources in the Rise of the Kuan-yin Movement

Avalokiteshvara, the Indian bodhisattva of infinite compassion, is widely revered in Buddhist Asia. The bodhisattva appears in many forms, such as Chenrezig in Tibetan Buddhism, where he receives frequent devotion. But not all images are equally accepted by American convert Buddhists. The most popular form of Kuan-yin in America shows her in a flowing white robe with a high cowl, often holding a willow branch and a vase. Amitabha Buddha is usually depicted seated between her eyebrows and she may stand on the head of a dragon, near the seashore, or against the backdrop of a full moon. Sometimes a child or children accompany this Kuan-yin, in some cases cradled in her arms.[9]

A second image that is tremendously popular is of the bodhisattva seated with right leg raised in the pose of royal ease. This is a specific statue, the Water and Moon Kuan-yin Bodhisattva held in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.[10] Although distinct in the minds of art historians, in convert Buddhism these two forms seem to have been collapsed into a single idea of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Ironically, the Kansas City Kuan-yin is actually a somewhat androgynous male figure, but Americans persistently mistake it for female, and it is the perceptions that are important in this case. Together, these two forms of the bodhisattva are among the most easily recognizable images in American Buddhism, and it is likely that the majority of contemporary practitioners can readily identify either as Kuan-yin.

As mentioned above, the expansion of Buddhism in the late 1980s and 1990s also coincided with a growth in outlets for Buddhist information, and both contributed to the heightened profile of Kuan-yin. Such new venues included the Internet--first widely available in the mid-1990s--and many print publications, such as Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (established in 1991) and Buddhadharma (established in 2002).

The diminishing strength of the antisupernaturalistic critique and rise in interest in bodhisattvas in general among American convert Buddhists can be seen in the popularity of Taigen Dan Leighton's 1998 book Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and Their Modern Expression.[11] Leighton is a priest in the American Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. Explicitly conceived as a way to encourage appreciation of bodhisattvas by Westerners, Leighton's book focuses on seven figures from the Buddhist tradition, including Kuan-yin. Although he presents them as psychological forces and role models, the book nonetheless contains many miracle stories and significant information about devotional practices associated with these bodhisattvas, from pilgrimage to Kuan-yin's Pure Land of Putuoshan, to Jizo and the rituals of mizuko kuyo (memorial services for children lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, and abortion); and, differing from Kapleau, Leighton is frank that the Lotus Sutra is usually understood as advocating calling upon an exterior savior. The book thus reinforces the tendency of American Zen to psychologize Buddhism and simultaneously undercuts it with elements usually perceived as superstitious in convert Zen. Furthermore, while preserving a prominent place for modern reconstructed ideas of the historical Buddha--a perennial icon in Western Buddhism--it also decentralizes him by offering multiple alternative (and ahistorical) objects of veneration in the form of cosmic bodhisattvas. To help his American audience relate to them, Leighton offers famous contemporary personages as examples of bodhisattvas--for instance, he suggests that readers look to Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa as models of Kuan-yin's unflinching compassion. We can see in this work of the late 1990s a bridge between an earlier Protestant Buddhism that resisted elements other than meditation and avoided savior figures and ritual, and more recent reappraisals of ceremony, saviors, and devotion. Bodhisattva Archetypes reflects growing interest in these figures among American Buddhists and has also contributed significantly to greater interest among both priests and laypeople.

A number of publications are particularly relevant in the increase of interest in Kuan-yin specifically. First is a 1988 reprint of Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld. Blofeld's book rambles over the Buddhist landscape, exploring various aspects of Avalokiteshvara, but primarily it is focused on the female aspect of the bodhisattva and her worship in China. The book came to be quoted in many venues, including an excerpt in a special section devoted entirely to Avalokiteshvara in the spring 1996 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the primary Buddhist magazine for English readers.[12]

In 1997 Sandy Boucher published Opening the Lotus: A Woman's Guide to Buddhism. A very popular book, Boucher's work specifically singles out Kuan-yin as an ideal object of devotion for American Buddhists. She describes how she herself came to be a devotee of the bodhisattva in 1982, when a friend took her to the Nelson-Atkins Museum specifically to introduce her to Kuan-yin.

In the museum we entered a high-ceilinged room empty except for a splendid statue of a woman. She was about life size, with Asian features, dressed in gorgeous loose red trousers, a gold robe, wearing a jeweled crown, many bracelets, and long dangling earrings. She sat with one leg up, knee bent, foot on the seat on which she sat, her arm balanced casually on this upraised knee. She braced herself with her other arm. Her eyelids were nearly closed, as if we had come upon her in some sort of relaxed reverie.

    "How beautiful!" I burst out.
    "Yes," my companion said. "This is Kwan Yin."
    "Kwan Yin," I repeated. I had never heard those words before, had known nothing of this female figure, even though I had begun Buddhist meditation the previous year. . . .

Her serenity and power gradually reached out to me, engaged my senses until it held me there before her, filled with something like happiness and sorrow all mixed together. Mysteriously the space between us had become palpable; indeed the whole cavernous room seemed vibrant in her presence.

Eventually I gave up examining with my eyes the gold buckle that held together her robe, the earrings that I now realized were long pendulous earlobes, the lines like successive smiles on the skin of her throat, and just took in her whole figure. The feelings in me settled, and a stillness opened in and around me. . . .

She had come from that distant past on the other side of the world to sit, as tranquil as a lake on a windless day, here in a museum on the Great Plains of America. I was grateful for her presence.

As I drove east the next day, leaving the expanse of the Great Plains behind and entering the more densely populated industrial part of the Midwest, I kept a postcard of Kwan Yin, bought at the museum, on the car seat next to me. Sometimes I glanced at her, and without understanding why or how, I knew that I had set out upon a relationship with a being who embodied something profound, at once deeply female and universally human.[13]

This image in the Kansas City Museum seems to have the power to transfix viewers. They also project onto it what they want to see; Boucher, like many others, was mistaken about the one thing she most valued about the statue. As stated earlier, although admittedly somewhat androgynous with its supple form and pursed lips, the Nelson-Atkins Kuan-yin is male. It is noteworthy that Boucher carried away with her an image of the bodhisattva, cherishing it in an almost talismanic fashion.

Boucher followed up in 1999 with Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion: A Woman's Book of Ruminations, Meditations, Prayers, and Chants. The book, which opens with a quotation from Blofeld's work, is a manifesto of sorts that asserts through numerous examples the importance of the bodhisattva in the lives of many American women, Buddhist and otherwise. She proudly proclaims

As the feminine reasserts itself in Western spirituality, a towering female figure has arrived on our shores from Asia. Her name is Kwan Yin. She is the most revered goddess in all of Asia, and Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants naturally brought her with them when they came here. But her presence has also reached beyond the immigrant communities to enter the lives of countless European-Americans. . . .

Looking at how Kwan Yin has come to America, I realize that she is making her way in the lives of today's women, too. Women call upon her for help, revere her, write poems or songs about her, embody her in her pure compassionate energy. Those of both European and Asian descent respond to her wide, tender mercy.[14]

Boucher now leads workshops on Kuan-yin around the country. Other recent works on Kuan-yin include Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion by Martin Palmer et. al., and Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World by Christina Feldman. A host of New Age titles have also appeared that purport to channel or otherwise reveal secret teachings of the bodhisattva goddess.

Images, objects, and their marketing are another fruitful site to examine for evidence of the Kuan-yin movement. The Nelson-Atkins Museum Kuan-yin has appeared on the cover of many publications in the past ten years, including a best-selling book by the popular convert Buddhist author Lama Surya Das, Shambhala Sun (the most important English-language Buddhist periodical after Tricycle), and a translation of The Way of the Bodhisattva. When the Shambhala Sun Foundation sought to launch a new quarterly (Buddhadharma) to directly compete with Tricycle, they chose the Nelson-Atkins Kuan-yin to grace the cover of their initial issue. The statue has also been "honored" with inclusion in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Innumerable other depictions of Kuan-yin have also appeared on or in materials intended for convert Buddhists.

Kuan-yin is also sold directly as a painting, photograph, or statue. Often one can simply go to the nearest gardening store to find not only Buddhas but also Kuan-yins for placement in the yard. There are a number of specialized merchants, most connected to actual American Buddhist communities, that sell meditation cushions, incense, Buddhist statuary, and other goods. The largest is DharmaCrafts, run by the Kwan Um (i.e., Kuan-yin) lineage of Korean-derived convert Zen. Their large glossy catalogs contain many pages of Kuan-yin statues for sale, including reproductions of the Nelson-Atkins Kuan-yin. Kuan-yin has become so popular that major mainstream booksellers have begun to produce mass-market items related to the bodhisattva, such as the Kuan Yin Box--essentially a cheap portable shrine, which consists of a box with a small white statue of Kuan-yin, a little altar bearing an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, and a short book about the bodhisattva.

It is not only traditional representations of Kuan-yin that are being marketed and spread in convert Buddhism. The bodhisattva's popularity has also resulted in an entirely new iconography without precedent in Asia, in some cases specifically designed to domesticate Kuan-yin for her new American audience. One such example is Universal Mother Kuan-yin. Created by an American artist, this image depicts a woman in a vaguely Oriental robe, with a headdress. Her robe is open, revealing a pregnant stomach that is actually the earth itself, complete with oceans and continents. Naturally, it is North America that is the main focus of the image, printed across the bodhisattva's bulging belly. This rather unsubtle image combines the convert desire for a female bodhisattva, veneration of Mother Earth, and American-centricity into one neat package. DharmaCrafts introduced the image in their spring 2007 catalog, offering the Universal Mother Kuan Yin on both Tibetan-style prayer flags and small Japanese-style lamps.[15]

The increase of visual and physical representations of Kuan-yin translates into a higher profile for the bodhisattva in American Buddhism--it is now rather difficult to go to a Zen temple, or even many Tibetan or Vipassana groups, without encountering depictions of Kuan-yin. This naturally has increased the possibility for ritual and other practices related to the bodhisattva, thereby decreasing the relative profile of seated meditation in convert Buddhism. For instance, the Zen Center of Los Angeles has a Kannon-do, a small room set aside as a chapel for Kuan-yin. A white statue of the bodhisattva stands as the central object of worship, along with smaller images. Votive candles (sold by a local shop in this heavily Latino neighborhood and originally intended for worship of a Catholic saint, such as Mary) flank the image, and a prayer booklet with a picture of the Nelson-Atkins Kuan-yin sits nearby. Zen Center members can enter this sacred space to pray and light candles, presenting a different side of American Zen away from the meditation cushion.

Likewise, a towering wooden Kuan-yin in the back garden of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, carved by an American female devotee, overlooks a site for pet funerals and other rites. Meanwhile, Kannon ceremonies, often consisting of 108 bows and chanting of the Enmei Juku Kannon-gyo and Kuan-yin chapter of the Lotus Sutra, are becoming increasingly popular in convert Zen centers. Even Philip Kapleau's lineage--seen as somewhat bodhisattva-phobic in earlier times in the example provided above--has become heavily infiltrated by such practices.

One of the interesting phenomena revealed by attention to objects is the prevalence of Kuan-yin devotion among Vipassana (Insight Meditation) practitioners. Textbook descriptions of Buddhist traditions would suggest that Kuan-yin should not be present in the Vipassana movement, which is derived from reformist trends in modern Theravada Buddhism. Not only is Theravada Buddhism supposedly uninvolved in the worship of transcendent bodhisattvas, but the Vipassana movement specifically is alleged to be particularly aniconic and disdainful of more-religious elements in Buddhism. Yet Kuan-yin is venerated by converts committed to Vipassana practice, such as Sandy Boucher and Christina Feldman, and appears regularly on the altars of Vipassana centers and individual practitioners in America. Wendy Cadge notes, for instance, that Kuan-yin was specifically introduced to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in order to balance the male images of the Buddha; it is her female gender that they value.[16] Similarly, in my fieldwork in Richmond, Virginia, many Vipassana practitioners told me that they had Kuan-yin statues on their home altars, a phenomenon that I have observed in other parts of the country as well. Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in America also favor Kuan-yin and keep images of her on their altars, despite the presence of popular male Tibetan forms of Avalokiteshvara (as well as the female deity Tara).

The Great Goddess: Kuan-yin beyond Buddhism

Just as Kuan-yin is worshiped not only by Buddhists in China but by Taoists as well, Kuan-yin's charms are appreciated by Americans outside the Buddhist fold. Important American occult figures, such as Helena Blavatsky (1831- 91), founder of Theosophy, and Manly Palmer Hall (1901- 90), founder of the Philosophical Research Society, have given attention to Kuan-yin in their writings. But it wasn't until the New Age movement, which has roots in nineteenth- and twentieth-century occultism, that the bodhisattva began to attract consistent attention from non-Buddhists. The New Age movement, an extremely broad and eclectic collection of alternative spiritualities, began in the 1970s and achieved widespread public attention by the 1980s. Common beliefs relate to magic, crystal power, extraterrestrials, angels, Atlantis, the Egyptian pyramids, spirit channeling, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, chakras, and other somewhat unconventional religious ideas. Not a formal religion per se, the New Age movement sometimes clusters around the personalities and published works of prominent spokespersons, such as actress Shirley MacLaine and J. Z. Knight (Ramtha), but it is largely a decentered collection of individuals uninterested in fully organized religion. A related but to some extent more organized movement is neo-paganism, which attempts to revive the ancient pre-Christian and pre-Muslim religions of Europe and the Middle East.

New Age and neo-pagan interest in Kuan-yin follows many of the same patterns that American convert Buddhism does--which is hardly surprising, since they draw on the same demographic of disaffected religious liberals looking for an alternative to traditional Western Christianity or Judaism. Indeed, many convert Buddhists show more than a little influence from New Age ideas, and the dividing line between New Age and Buddhist material and ideas can be hard to find in some new Buddhist groups. New Age proponents are typically most interested in Kuan-yin's female gender, seen as a balance of, or even a rebuke to, the ideas of male deity common in American religious history. New Age women have found comfort in the idea that females, too, can be great spiritual beings, and, more abstractly, the female-coded qualities of compassion and nonjudgment are appreciated by both men and women in the personified form of Kuan-yin. For example, a New Age practitioner described the bodhisattva thus:

In this country Kuan Yin is known mostly to art connoisseurs, but in the Far East, notably in Japan, Korea, Tibet, and China, she is the beloved personification of compassion. Images of her can be found in homes, temples, and within thousands of shrines and grottoes beside roads and shaded pools. People of all ages bring gifts of flowers and fruit, but not in supplication. There is no need for that. Kuan Yin, like a wise and loving parent, knows and does what is best; does it with gentle guidance and never needs to punish or coerce. Of all the world's great gods, she is undoubtedly the kindest and most giving.[17]

Of course, in real life Kuan-yin does receive a tremendous amount of supplication. What is important here is the way in which New Age believers reimagine the bodhisattva specifically as never punishing or coercing people, a subtle jab at the God of conservative American Christianity. Kuan-yin is valued not simply for what she is but also for what she is not: not judgmental, not demanding, never turning her back on anyone or sending them to hell. She is used to critique and resist dominant religious ideas in America, carving out a new space where people who feel abused or disappointed by Christianity can seek alternate paths that they feel are more holistic.[18]

Beyond simply writing and talking about Kuan-yin, New Age believers have also developed a range of practices related to the bodhisattva. One is channeling Kuan-yin: spiritualists, usually women, claim to receive messages from, be possessed by, or even be Kuan-yin, and in the process they deliver teachings on karma, diet, future events, dolphins, and a host of other New Age concerns. For example, Marjorie Musacchio, a retired dental hygienist, offers private sessions with Kuan-yin. For a $150 fee, Musacchio will channel Kuan-yin for an hour, allowing clients to ask the bodhisattva questions and receive answers from a higher plane.[19]

Another form of Kuan-yin practice involves extended personal rituals, usually interpreted in the New Age culture as having psychotherapeutic value. An example is provided by Laurie Sue Brockway, a New York City-based interfaith minister, in her book A Goddess Is a Girl's Best Friend. The ritual participant sets up an altar with an image of Kuan-yin, vases, a bowl, and a picture of herself. The ritual begins by lighting incense and playing sad music while the participant chants "Om mani padme hum"--the Sanskrit mantra of Avalokiteshvara--nine times. Next she bows her head to Kuan-yin and goes into a reflective state of internal searching for the parts of her soul that need healing. The reader is instructed to bring all of her hidden pains to the surface and start naming them, pulling off a petal and throwing it into the bowl for each one. When this stage of the ritual is complete, the participant changes to happy music and relaxes. She holds the remaining flowers to her head and asks Kuan-yin to fill her with compassion and self-love. Then she offers a flower to Kuan-yin and one to her own image, and keeps one to place under her pillow.

Countless similar rituals abound in New Age circles; here, the appropriation of Kuan-yin gives the rite a particular female gender connection and emphasizes the value of compassion. Like many New Age rituals, this one is essentially self-oriented despite the appeal to an external power and can be performed by a single person without assistance from a professional or a clergyperson. The ritual is heavily informed by popular notions of psychology and the self-help movement, with only a tenuous connection to Chinese religion or Buddhism. Also of note is how Kuan-yin appears in this book about goddesses. Formal Buddhist ideas, such as rebirth, samsara, levels of bodhisattva advancement, bodhicitta, and so on, are ignored or elided in the reproduction of Kuan-yin by New Age proponents. She becomes a goddess like Isis or Aphrodite, with no particularly Buddhist or Taoist doctrinal content connected to her worship.

Indeed, she is most often appropriated as yet another local variation of the so-called great goddess, a kind of universal mother deity who is seen as appearing in different cultures under different names (such as Kuan-yin) but who is alleged to in fact be a single entity or concept that transcends any specific name or traditional depiction. This is one reason that Kuan-yin so often appears on lists of goddesses popular in New Age and neo-pagan groups. Kuan-yin's importance for New Age practitioners is less in her particularity as the patroness of great compassion or her ability to assist in the quest for nirvana than in her generality as another affirmation of female spiritual power and worth.

We can conclude that Kuan-yin worship is already an increasingly prominent part of the American religious landscape not only among Asian Americans but also among convert Buddhists and even non-Buddhists. Though this worship was initially retarded by convert Buddhist ambivalence toward savior figures, a new generation of female teachers and an expansion in the number of both practice groups and media available as venues for bodhisattva devotion have led to new developments that push convert Buddhism in directions in some ways opposite from earlier trends. At the same time, we continue to see the influence of psychological and relatively antisupernatural orientations in many interpretations of Kuan-yin by convert Buddhists. Kuan-yin's domestication in America involves different forces from those that acted on Avalokiteshvara in the transmission of the bodhisattva from India to China. But a fundamental parallel remains in the way that each population has reimagined Kuan-yin to suit its own religious and social needs.


[1] An earlier version of this paper was first published in The Journal of Contemporary Religion. The original draft was developed for presentation at the 2007 Lotus Sutra Seminar in Putuoshan, China. I would like to thank Dr. Gene Reeves for organizing the conference and Rissho Kosei-kai for providing the opportunity for the participants to meet and discuss our research on the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

[2] Chün-fang Yü, The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). Kuan-yin is only one possible spelling of the bodhisattva's name. Other spellings include Kwan Yin, Kwan-yin, Kwanyin, Kuan Yin, Kuanyin, Quanyin, and Guanyin, with the last, the pinyin spelling, being perhaps the most faithful to the Chinese pronunciation. Additionally, in Japan this same incarnation of Avalokiteshvara is known as Kannon, Kanzeon, or Kanjizai; in Korea as Kwan Um; and in Vietnam as Quan Am.

[3] See, for instance, James William Coleman, The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Philip Kapleau, Zen: Dawn in the West (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979), 200.

[5] Ibid. It is worth noting that Kapleau used the male pronoun for Kuan-yin. References to the bodhisattva as male are common in earlier convert Zen sources, virtually all of which came from the mouth or pen of male Buddhist leaders. But today, in the wake of the Kuan-yin movement, Kuan-yin is more likely to be referred to as female, especially by the growing body of women teachers.

[6] Ibid., 200-201.

[7] Ibid., 202-3.

[8] For example, the bodhisattva is referenced in cases 1 and 89 of the classic koan collection Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record). I thank Miriam Levering for her insight into how Kuan-yin's presence in koans ensured her a permanent place in Zen discourse.

[9] In actual fact, to art historians these are all different forms of Kuan-yin. However, my American consultants are unable to distinguish between these forms, and because this paper focuses on their attitudes and perceptions, I have chosen not to provide a detailed analysis of the various different Chinese manifestations of Kuan-yin.

[10] This figure is also sometimes referred to as the Seated Kuan-yin Bodhisattva. The Water and Moon Kuan-yin Bodhisattva, 11th/12th century. Wood with paint; height, 95 inches (241.3 cm). Northern Sung (960-1127 CE) or Liao (907-1125 CE) dynasty. Purchase: Nelson Trust [34-10]. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

[11] Taigen Dan Leighton, Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and Their Modern Expression (New York: Penguin Arkana, 1998).

[12] John Blofeld, "Kuan Yin," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 5, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 30-31. The appearance of this special section indicates the growth of devotion to Kuan-yin.

[13] Sandy Boucher, Opening the Lotus: A Woman's Guide to Buddhism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 57-59.

[14] Ibid., Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 1, 8.

[15] DharmaCrafts spring 2007 catalog: 1, 35, 56.

[16] Wendy Cadge, Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 178.

[17] Eloise Hart, "Kuan Yin: Goddess of Mercy, Friend of Mankind," Sunrise 34, no. 2 (December 1984-January 1985): 35-40.

[18] While the focus here is on Christianity, it is certainly the case that some New Age practitioners are seeking distance from other religious upbringings, such as conservative Judaism.

[19] See

Jeff Wilson is assistant professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison College, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of North Carolina. He specializes in Buddhism in North America and is the author of many publications on such topics as abortion rituals in Western Buddhism and Buddhist pluralism in the United States.