The chapter consists of both a prose and a verse section. These practices have their basis in the early Indian Vajrayana : her origins lie with a yakshini cult in Bengal and Orissa, and her name in Sanskrit "connotes a prostitute or other woman of low caste but specifically denotes a prominent local ogress The only Mahayana deity that has entered the worship of ordinary Buddhists in Theravada countries is Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. In Ceylon he is known as Natha-deva and mistaken by the majority for the Buddha yet to come, Bodhisattva Maitreya. The figure of Avalokitesvara usually is found in the shrine room near the Buddha image.
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The amount of research that has gone into this book is truly staggering. Yu takes as her sources sutras, both from Indian and Indigenous to China, miracle tales, iconography, precious scrolls, rituals and writings of monks and lay people spanning almost years.
She also looks at Western, Chinese and Japanese scholarship. In addition to written documents, art work and iconography Yu also did extensive fieldwork in China about practices that exist today. By including how Kuan Yin is worshiped today and the effect the current religious beliefs have on her worshipers today really adds to the book. While a very academic text there is a definite personal level to the story that is being told.
She asks questions, explains what she is trying to uncover and summarizes each chapter succinctly. More than simply looking at the change Kuan Yin underwent in China Yu also looks at the different course Buddhism took. How local beliefs affected it and changed it, what was incorporated, and how these changes were viewed. The book begins by looking at the history of Avalokitesvara in Sutras that were brought over from India and how these scriptures were received.
Yu then looks at indigenous sutras, most of which were never included as Buddhist cannon, but were very popular. These scriptures were frequently distributed by monks and contained tales of the miracles that occurred when people recited them. One of my favorite promises from reciting the sutras was if you were a woman who wished to be reborn as a man you could recite the sutra a certain number of times and when you died you would be transported to paradise where you would be surrounded by dancing girls.
Yu, who admitted she knew very little about the history of art when she started her research, was able to combine the visual representations of Kuan Yin with their textual counterparts and beliefs. By doing this it becomes clear how and where the changes Kuan Yin went through took place, and patterns are developed that can show the progression that has been made.
One thing I found surprising was the rituals for confessing sin and repentance, not something I normally associate with Buddhism. It seems like earlier interests in the sutras were more practical, safety in this world or the next, with instant benefits simply by calling on the Buddha. However these rituals became increasingly more popular, and today are done frequently in temples. Yu traces the different forms of Kuan Yin popular in China, two monks that were later said to have been incarnations of Kuan Yin, the water moon Kuan Yin, the white robed Kuan Yin, and the thousand armed Kuan Yin.
The last took on the persona of Princess Miao Shan the legend of Miao Shan was one of the most interesting chapters in the book. She addressed marriage resistance, particularly looking at how this type of resistance to marriage was common in the Taoist writings about saintly women, rather than coming from either the Buddhist or Confucian traditions.
Miao Shan also visited the 10 hells to free those suffering there. As opposed to Mu-lien who was merely trying to free his mother and accidentally freed souls from hell, Miao Shan purposefully freed souls and eased the torments of those suffering there.
Lastly the chapter looked at the practice of Ke-Ku slicing off flesh from arms, thighs or livers to serve as medicine for dying or ill parents. This part looked at the history of self immolation and bodily sacrifice by Buddhist monks, and was more than a little gross! Yu made the argument that in order for Kuan Yin to become a true Chinese deity then she needed a mortal embodiment to become human before she was able to become a god.
After the legend of Miao Shan became popular festivals were now held on her birthday for Kuan Yin. The next chapter addressed pilgrimage sites. While not so interesting a chapter. It was interesting to contrast pilgrimages today with those made during the Ming dynasty.
Yu also managed to portray well the development of different pilgrimage sites, how this influenced different legends and ideas about Kuan Yin. In this case the beliefs in Kuan Yin of the south Seas. Yu also illustrated the money to be made in the pilgrimage business. Yu then looked at the feminine forms of Kuan Yin.
She challenged the notion that Kuan Yin was a repackaging of an existing Chinese goddess. She argued despite the popularity of the Queen Mother of the West in Taoism, there was little evidence to show a practicing cult for her.
It was not shown how or where she was worshiped by the people. She pointed out how the major deities in China were all male, set up in a male bureaucracy and had no real place for female deities. She argued that this lack of a strong female goddess presented a void that Kuan Yin was able to fill. She also made the interesting argument that a powerful female Goddess will not necessarily lead to greater equality among women, which was an interesting idea I had not considered before but made sense.
This chapter contained a great deal of interesting ideas about how religion affects women and gave me lots of food for thought. Yu then looks at the development of fish basket Kuan Yin, and the wife of Mr.
She gives several different versions of the story, and shows how they develop. She also addresses the idea of sexuality and the Goddess, how the wife of Mr. Ma can be seen as a tease, and contrasts this with a much less popular story of the Goddess who gave out sexual favors to any man who wanted them freely, and the men never felt desire again. She linked this idea with the Buddhist monks who gave of their bodies to save others.
Lastly Yu looked at the development of the Venerable Mother Kuan Yin and the way she was incorporated into lots of different sectarian religions at the end of the imperial era. There was so much in this book! The author covered so much and did it in such an interesting and informative manner. By making her work an interdisciplinary study she was really able to give a good glimpse of every aspect of the Goddess, and Bodhivista.
How not only Kuan Yin changed in China, but also how Buddhism changed. This was an excellent book on religious history but also social and cultural history as well.
Kuan-yin : the Chinese transformation of Avalokiteśvara
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