Her story begins in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Within the lands that blended between China and Ancient India there lived a king- Miaozhang who had three daughters – Miao-yin, Miao-yoo-an and Miao-shaan.
The King was not an easy man. He ruled his domain with a ferocity intended to keep order not just amongst his subjects but also amongst his family- being as tough a father as he was a regent.
From a young age his daughters knew to obey his commands and direction. Questions were not an option when interacting with their father. The only response he ever wanted was ‘Yes, your Highness”. If they were lucky, he might settle for “Of course, your highness”.
Despite the harshness of their father, life as a princess in this royal family was blessed and abundant. The three princesses never wanted for anything and their fear of their father was matched by immeasurable gratitude and love for him as well. The king lavished his princesses with fine garments as well as the best of tutors, so their minds were as developed as was the way they presented themselves to the world.
The two eldest sisters were content and proud. Miao-yin and Miao-yoo-an enjoyed palace life, believing that their roles had been granted to them by the universe; so it was that when their father found suitable husbands for them, they accepted with a delight at how the riches of life were continuing on for them.
Though her life seemed to be the same as her sisters, Miao-shan the youngest, was always different.
As with all princesses her birth had been deemed divine with some saying that flowers rained down from the sky as she took her first breath. However the fact that once more the queen had not birthed a son and prince made her parents resent their infant daughter and she was shunned with little regard.
So it fell upon the attendants and servants to nurture and care for the young princess and it was their care and inherent humility that saw Miao-shan become as humble as her sisters were proud. She spoke softly and never saw herself as being above anyone, not least the servants who provided and looked over her. She did not care for the elaborate dresses or adornments her father provided and chose the simplest of the gowns offered to her, so that if you looked upon her you would not even imagine her to be a princess of the same standing of her sisters.
Miao-shan though was still a royal daughter and noble life still enveloped her future.
The youngest princess watched each of her sisters marry and though she celebrated for them it was also with a heavy heart. She had no care for marriage as it was designed for a princess. Miao-shaan’s mind wanted to explore all the world had to offer. Miao-shaan’s spirit wanted to know what was beyond imperial life.
When the king called his youngest daughter before him to announce that the time had arrived for her to marry, Miao-shaan said “Yes, Father……but…….”
As her father glared she made a simple this request of him-
“I will be happy to marry, should my marriage ease misfortune. I wish my marriage to ease the suffering that comes with age- that it will ease the suffering that comes with illness and that it will ease the suffering caused by death.”
She then added “If my marriage cannot do this, then I ask I be sent to temple to study the ways of the buddha.”
The king’s face grew red and he began to bellow.
“You are asking to marry a healer when a princess should marry a man of power and means!”
For the King’s narrow mind could not see beyond the words his daughter spoke.
He then ordered her to her chambers with the added command that she remain there until she remembered the respect and obedience that should be shown to him. She was not to return to her father unless it was to agree to her marriage.
Several days passed and Miao-shaan remained in her rooms. Her sisters visited to talk sense to her but Miao-shan’s mind could not be changed.
The king now ordered her food be reduced to dry bread and water alone. She remained resolute.
The king furthered the punishment upon his daughter now demanding she do chores alongside the servants.
This she did with no hesitation or remorse. Mio-shaan also sent her response; which was to plead once more to join a convent. Now the queen and her sisters knowing the princess would not concede joined her in requesting this of the king.
The king relented and Miao-shaan was sent from the palace to a nunnery perched upon the side of a mountain. Her heart rejoiced as she entered the temple and was handed her robes to change into. Slipping out of her silk finery and into the simple woollen cloths would mark the beginning of her new life. She threw her embroidered silks to the side as though they were poison.
Then the cruelty of her father made itself known again as the temple elders informed her that her role would not be one of a student, but that of a servant.
The king ordered that Miao-shaan be given the hardest of chores and with a list so long that she would not have little time to sleep. The princess’s heart was so full at the opportunity to serve that she did so without exhaustion.
Even when more chores were added, they seemed to be done quickly, slipping into her already heavy routine as though they has always been a part of it. No matter how hard her routine would become there did not seem enough that could ever break her dedication, instead spirit found more ways to support her.
Animals surrounding the temple felt her plight and helped her. Bears would break wood for her, birds would beat their wings to help dry washed clothes as they hung and snakes would lead her to fruits and herbs.
Life became richer when her father simply wanted to make it more confronting.
When the elders could see Miao-shaan could not be broken and felt how full her heart was, they defied the king’s orders and allowed the princess to study as the other novices of their order did.
The king heard of this and was furious- not only had his daughter now gained exactly what she desired but she had gained alliance within the temple as well. His daughter was now utterly lost to him. All that he had to hold over her now was his power as a king.
He ordered the temple be burnt to the ground. However Miao-shaan saw the flames begin and put them out with her bare hands. When others ran to her aid, they found her hands without a mark or wound upon them.
When this news reached the palace, the king was even more enraged. He now sent an assassin to end Miao-shaan’s life.
The assassin made his way to the mountain side, lying in wait behind trees until Miao-shaan appeared outside to gather wood. He drew an arrow and let it fly towards the princess, but as it neared her a great gust of wind carried it away. The assassin quickly let another arrow fly. This time it fell to the ground before him as though it weighed of lead.
Rushing forward more determined than ever to complete his task, he lunged at Miao-shaan bearing upon her with a small axe but as he bore the axe down it shattered as though made of glass.
The assassin now had only one weapon left: his bare hands. Pushing the princess to the ground he wrapped them around her small delicate neck.
Miao-shaan looked into his eyes and saw his fear. It was a fear she knew well. It was the dread that the king’s orders would not be fulfilled and the wrath that he would incur. Miao-shaan’s heart was pierced with pain as it felt the darkness within the assassin. She closed her eyes and surrendered to the hands that gripped her neck, asking spirit to pass the karmic debt of his actions to her instead.
When she opened her eyes Miao-shaan knew she was no longer of the earthly realm. She now stood surrounded by dark figures. Whisps of flames danced between them. Each one bellowed in agony, as though crying for relief from an anguish that would not end.
Miao-shaan should have been overwhelmed with fear as she saw and heard what surrounded her. Instead her compassion felt the deep pain each of the entities was wrapped in and her heart sent them love.
As she looked upon each form offering them this love, they began to transform. Their suffering eased, their cries were quietened, and the flames softened and cooled. Small rivers of the purest blue water began to flow across the ground and blossoms appeared beneath her feet.
Yanluo, the King of Hell who ruled this realm saw and felt of all this. He was most displeased as well as confounded. For never had someone bought love and compassion to his domain. It rendered him almost powerless. Almost. For he was still the master here.
The grand demon knew that it would take eons to break the princess’s spirit, if in fact he could at all. In the time it would take to do this he would lose even more of his dominion to her light. Banishment was the only solution.
Yanluo summoned a tiger born of celestial energy. It strode towards the princess and lowered its head before her, letting her know that no harm was intended. Miao-shaan stroked its cheek, then sat upon the great cat, letting it carry her back to the earth realm.
One cannot return to the human realm the same person as the one who left it. The being who now stood upon the earth was no longer a princess and she could no longer bear the name granted by her parents.
As the tiger carried her back to the earth realm she heard the spirits call her by a new name- Guan-shiyin – “the one who hears the sounds of the world”
Guanshiyin walked back into her temple home and the monks and students looked upon her in awe and fear; believing her to be a ghost. She touched each person upon the cheek to reassure them she was not and then shared her experience in the realm of darkness and fear.
As she spoke her story some heard a tale of redemption and renewal, whilst others heard the triumph of love over anguish. Guanshiyin knew each one heard exactly what they needed in that moment.
Guanyishin then found a new home upon Fragrant Mountain and it was here that pilgrims now came to her, to hear the story that they needed from Guanyishin. Each person sat before her and afterwards she would not recall their gender, their looks, their name nor their dress. She would recall what they carried in their heart and what they desired of life.
Guanyishin would see each person as a perfect being. Each one sat before her as their unique expression of spirit. Her only wish for them was that they would see themselves with the grand love in which she saw them; that they would also know the majesty that was their very essence.
So powerful was this unconditional love for each person that as they sat before her, that Guanyishin would transform in their beauty and radiance, so that could see their own truth. Some saw a young woman, some an old man. Every version of person imaginable was soon reported as having received the pilgrims.
Guanyishin was now revered as a bodhisattva: one who is enlightened as is a buddha but has yet to return to nirvana.
At the palace, the king’s life had turned to turmoil. He still ruled and had power, yet his body had grown weak with an illness deep within that no healer could cure. He knew his physical suffering was the result of a deep conflict he felt within his essence; his ego told him he had acted as a king should towards his young princess, yet his spirit felt grief for how he had treated his own child and he now saw his illness as his punishment.
One night an unknown monk arrived at the palace and offered his healing talents. Those caring for the king had tried everything by this time and were grateful for another’s advice. The monk looked upon the king’s body, then placed his hand upon the king’s heart. Together they took several breaths and then the monk spoke.
“You need the eyes and arms of someone free from anger. From these I will create your cure.”
The king began to laugh.
“Old man why not just tell me I shall soon perish. You are asking for the impossible!”
The monk shook his head.
“Sire I assure you this is possible. I know of a bodhisattva upon Fragrant mountain who can acquire these for you.”
The monk sent some servants to the mountain were Guanyishin now resided and explained what was needed of her. Guanyishin sat still and quiet for a moment. She was being asked to help heal a man who had ordered the destruction of a temple and all who lived within it. He had ordered the death of his own child. The illnesses he suffered were the result of the karma he had created.
To intervene, to rescue him, would negate the very laws of universal justice.
However, she had done so for the assassin and to do so for her father would offer him healing beyond the relief of his bodily suffering; it would reach into his very soul. Guanyishin took a deep breath, then took out her eyes, and allowed her arms to be taken.
Back at the palace the monk received the offering with reverence, boiling them into a potion. The king now drank without the knowledge that it had come from his very own exiled daughter.
Within days the king’s ailments were completely resolved and just as Guanyishin had imagined, within his very heart he felt a change and healing that washed through every cell of his body.
He asked for the monk to come before him.
“I laughed at what I thought to be impossible. Yet now I sit here with a strong body and warm heart. I am in debt to you which I hope to pay. The one who sacrificed their eyes and arms can never be properly paid. Yet I must at least try to do so.”
The king asked that he be taken to the one who had given him so much.
Soon a royal procession led by the king, queen and the two princesses made their way to Guanyishin’s mountain. All that they knew was that the bodhisattva who lived here had sourced the cure for the King.
It was not until the king and queen were before Guanyishin and looked upon her that they understood this incredible sacrifice had come from the bodhisattva herself. Then they heard her voice welcome them. It was a voice they knew but hadn’t heard in many years. They realised it was Mioa-shan, their precious one, sent away all those years ago.
The king fell to his knees before his now mutilated daughter. Weeping, he cried out to her as the queen and princesses wailed beside him.
“After all I had done to you. After all your own suffering. You could still offer me this!”
Guanyishin smiled, “I had no need for what I gave to you.”
As her family looked upon Guanyishin a warm light wrapped around her and for a moment they once more saw their daughter and sister restored and whole.
It was in her complete form that Guanyishin’s spirit now ascended to the heavens. In that place her family would build a stupa so that her ascension would be marked and celebrated for ever more.
Nirvana called to Guanyishin who was now as pure as any buddha that had been before her. Though as she went to take her final step away from the earth into this heavenly realm she stopped. From below a great sound rose to her. With her ears opened by the love and compassion that encompassed her very being, she heard the suffering of so many souls around the world.
Each soul cried out to be free from karma and ego. Each being was searching for the unconditional love that Guanyishin embodied, and that so few others could offer.
Guanyishin turned away from nirvana and returned to walk the Earth vowing to help every soul who chose to release their suffering.
“I will not leave until each and every one is ready to make way to heaven in complete love and freedom.”
And so Guanyishin remains with us with a heart so full that she transformed once again.
Her face became many so that she could look upon everyone no matter where upon the earth they stood and called to her. Her two arms shattered and became one thousand so she could reach out to every soul.
Her legend danced across China, through the lands of the east and across the seas to Japan. Each place embraced her not just as a bodhisattva but as a holy mother, ready to love and honour any person who came to know her.
Some saw her upon mountain tops calling to sailors and calming waves to save their ships. Some saw her upon a dragon soaring through the skies to look upon us all.
She offered pure water, a loving embrace and fresh blossom to anyone who sought her love and guidance. Then when they were complete with life, she would place their soul within a lotus flower which would carry them to the heavens.
Her name shifted as she became part of each land- she is known as Kuan Yim, Kwan Im, Kanonn and many variations between all these. Though most know her as Kuan Yin.
Kuan Yin’s story continues now two thousand years on. Her image and story now has made way across the world with those of her faith. She has innumerable temples and statues that people make pilgrimage to, not only to pray and meditate with her but to thank her for the limitless love and compassion that she eternally offers to us all.
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