Kuan Yin, the androgynous spirit of compassion in Buddhism, is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure or LGBTQ role model. Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Kuan Yin every year in July or August.
Christians honor Christ as savior, and Kuan Yin is a type of Buddhist savior figure called a bodhisattva — an enlightened person who is able to reach nirvana (heaven) but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save others from suffering.
Artists often show Kuan Yin with eyes in the hands and feet. They are like the wounds of Christ, but Kuan Yin can see with them.
Kuan Yin is also known as the goddess of mercy and goes by different names in different places, including Avalokiteshvara in India, Tara (female) or Chenrezig (male) in Tibet, and Kannon in Japan.
Writers and scholars who have explored the queer side of Kuan Yin include Patrick S. Cheng, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary; Hsiao-Lan Hu, religious studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy; and Toby Johnson, a former Catholic monk turned author and comparative religion scholar.
In the introduction to his 2003 essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ,” Cheng explains:
“Kuan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, can serve as a mirror of the queer experience. Specifically, Kuan Yin affirms three aspects in the life of queer people that are often missing from traditional images of the divine: (1) queer compassion; (2) queer sexuality; and (3) gender fluidity. In other words, Kuan Yin can be an important means by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can see ourselves as being made in the image of God.”
Cheng writes clearly about the connection between Kuan Yin and Christ in the section where he describes his personal search for queer Asian Christ figures:
“I have been intrigued by the possibility of Kuan Yin serving as a christological figure for queer Asian people. For me, it has been difficult to envision the Jesus Christ of the gospels and the Western Christian tradition as being both queer and Asian (although I do recognize that queer theologians and Asian theologians have tried to do so in their respective areas). It is my thesis that Kuan Yin might serve as a symbol of salvation and wholeness for queer Asian people of faith….”
Cheng’s latest book Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit was published in 2013. He is also the author of “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ”, “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.” His series on “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today” was one of the most popular stories of 2010 at the Jesus in Love Blog.
Hsiao-Lan Hu presented a paper on “Queering Avalokiteśvara” at the 2012 American Academy of Religion annual meeting. She noted that the Lotus Sutra says that Avalokitesvara will appear to teach different beings in different forms, based on what they can accept.
In the summary of her paper, Hu writes, “Of the 33 forms listed in the Lotus Sutra, 7 are explicitly female, indicating that the Bodhisattva of Compassion transcends gender identity…. What is the theoretical ground in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teaching) that justify or even propel such conceptualization? How does that theoretical ground compare to modern-day queer theory?”
She summed up her paper in the 2013 Women’s and Gender Studies Newsletter from the University of Detroit Mercy:
“Avalokiteśvara’s multi-morphic manifestation affirms different beings in their specific identities, while his/her transformability points to the possibility of moving beyond the confinement of any particular identity. For people of minority identities, the Bodhisattva thus can be both a source of comfort and a model for coping with reality in which they often need to perform different roles.”
Another LGBTQ perspective on Kuan Yin is provided by Toby Johnson in Kuan Yin: Androgynous spirit of compassion, which he wrote for the Jesus in Love Blog. Johnson begins by retelling the traditional story of Kuan Yin. Then he explains that it is “a nice myth for gay people” because:
“It says we’re really all One, all reflections of one another, that the distinction between male and female is illusory and needs to be transcended and that transcending gender is part and parcel with experiencing heaven now.”
A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality and Two Spirits. He is former production manager of Lethe Press and former editor of White Crane Journal. Johnson discusses Kuan Yin as an androgynous figure who embodies compassion in his articles “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara” and “Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.”
Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss applies the bodhisattva concept to queer Christian life in “Bodhisattva Christianity: A Case of Multiple Religious Belonging” in the 2013 book “Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians.” Goss pastored Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA) after serving as chair of the religious studies department at Webster University in St. Louis.
Images of Kuan Yin posted here were created by Tony O’Connell, Stephen Mead, and William Hart McNichols. Mead is a gay artist and poet based in New York whose work has appeared internationally in cyberspace, books, and galleries. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been criticized by church leaders for making LGBTQ-friendly icons of saints not approved by the church. His icons have been commissioned by churches, celebrities and national publications.
|“Avalokitishvara” by Tony O’Connell|
O’Connell is a gay artist based in Liverpool. Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, he has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995. He creates an artwork celebrating Avalokitishvara / Kuan Yin every year on his/her birthday. Viewers who look closely at his painting here will see an eye in the palm of the Compassionate One’s hand.
“There is an amazing statue of Avalokiteshvara in a Liverpool museum with a text that explains how the mustache was painted over to alter his gender as the people who met the monks on the spice routes from India struggled with the idea of a manifestation of compassion being male and wanted to see him as female. It occurs to me that there are subtle ranges of the same personality between Avalokitishvara, Kuan Yin and Tara as one gender ambiguous enlightened mind,” O’Connell said.
He explains that Tara came into being in compassionate response to samsara, the cycle of birth and death: “There is a beautiful scripture that talks about how even with all his enlightened abilities to benefit living beings, Avalokiteshvara saw the suffering of samsara was almost beyond measure. His heart broke for living beings and he wept tears of compassion. When the first tear hit the ground a lotus flower grew up and blossomed to reveal Tara. Her first words as a Buddha were, ‘Do not weep- I will help you.’”
For more about Tony O’Connell and his art, see previous posts Reclaiming sainthood: Gay artist Tony O’Connell finds holiness in LGBT people and places and Olympics: Spiritual art supports Russia’s LGBT rights struggle.
“Korean Christ” icon by Robert Lentz
“Christ Sophia” by Br. Michael Reyes, OFM (Christ with Chinese characters and lotus blossom)
Art by He Qi
Top image credit:
“Olga’s Kuan Yin” by William Hart McNichols ©
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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