Kwan Yin’s Hands

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Dharma Glimpse for Dharma Talk Sunday
Christopher Kakuyo Sensei,
Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship

In my tradition there is a story of Kwan Yin, the embodiment of compassion. She is known as “she who hears the cries of the world.” Her very name is derived from the Chinese word, Guanshiyin, which means to hear the cries of others. The goddess started out as male in India and over the generations evolved into the female form we have now and represents the first transgender bodhisattva. I believe this transformation was the longing for female energy to be represented in the Buddhist canon. In China, her representation of compassionate action took hold and in Japan she was to have a powerful influence. In Japan she is known as Kannon.


Her mythic story is one of my favorites. Wanting to free all beings from suffering she set about doing just that. Not realizing how hard this would be, her head split into eleven pieces. I appreciate that image. It can feel like that sometimes. I know from my years working at the Utah State Hospital, that just hearing the cries of the suffering can make one feel as if your head and heart is going to explode. In the mythic world of Kwan Yin, her head and heart did just that. The Buddha of Boundless Compassion Amitabha sees what has just happened and wants to help, so he gives her 11 heads. With this gift she is now able to listen deeply, but now she finds herself overwhelmed by all the pleas for help and her two arms shatter. This time Amitabha gives her a thousand arms and in each hand is an object that can be used to help the suffering. In the mythic world and in mine, she is still using her thousand arms to help all those in need of compassion.


I love this story because in it I see each of us, especially those who have chosen healing as their life’s practice, such a vocation is an extension of this goddess’s compassionate energy. When Amitabha Buddha gifted the 11 heads and a thousand arms, he was letting her know that she had the capacity and the help to accomplish her deepest wish to relieve suffering.


At first glance 11 heads and a thousand arms seems fantastical but let us move beyond such thinking. For me, the 11 heads and a thousand arms are less about Kwan Yin’s physical appearance and what they represent. They represent each of us. Redemption alone, healing alone, is not possible; we are all deeply connected, interdependent, woven together in the tapestry of living. If just one person is sick, are we not all on some level sick also? Vimalakirti was a great Buddhist practitioner and I love this quote from him, “because living beings have these illnesses, therefore I too am ill”


The most important message of this myth is that Each of us is Kwan Yin’s face of compassion, each one of us is one of her hands reaching out to someone in suffering. Kwan Yin is not some superhero of compassion but a symbol and representation of the community of caring and healing. She is not something “out there” she is us; we together are her.


It is my deepest wish that we all can become Kwan Yin and by doing so inspire Kwan Yin, that each of us together can create a reciprocal circle of caring that can fill the world with compassion and healing.

May it be so.

Christopher Kakuyo Sensei,
Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship

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