The Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin) Garden

The Great Compassionate Mother
The Bodhisattva and Her Two Attendants

Leaving the Arhats, we move across the bottom of the Courtyard from this Garden of Wisdom to the Garden of Compassion, retracing in a way the history of Buddhism as we leave the presence of the Buddha's early followers and approach an arrangement representing the fully-flowered Mahayana tradition.

We have already met Kuan Yin in her more masculine, Indian form of Avalokitesvara in the Bodhisattva Hall. Here, in the Garden, she appears more typically Chinese: seated on Mount Potala, wearing an Amitabha in her hair, and accompanied by her two attendants, Lung Nu the Dragon Maiden and Sudhana (or Shan Ts'ai) the Virtuous Talent. It is unnecessary to say much about her here, beyond highlighting the elements just mentioned. But we will inevitably have to discuss her as we explore the Garden, as she is its central figure and reason for being.

Just as the Arhats in their Garden exemplify the school of Southern Buddhism, the figures in this Garden represent the Mahayana. In Temple literature, the Garden is sometimes referred to as "The Salvation Paradise of Guang Shih Yin P'u Sa," or Kuan Yin; every figure in the Garden relates to her vows to save all sentient beings who call on her name. This is the fullest expression of the Mahayana Bodhisattva Ideal.

Standing just below Kuan Yin as she sits on her mountain are a boy and a girl. Perhaps it is natural that such a "mother figure" would have acquired children, but it is interesting to note that, while she encounters both of the children individually in scriptural sources, the three were never seen together until popular art and storytelling reworked the materials. Some feel this is a popular Buddhist imitation of the Taoist figures of the Golden Boy and Jade Girl who have been accompanying the Jade Emperor since the Tang Dynasty.


Most of Kuan Yin (as Avalokitesvara)'s scriptural encounters with the Dragon Maiden Lung Nu appear in esoteric texts in which the Bodhisattva brings esoteric rituals to the Dragon King; the King's daughter in return presents Avalokitesvara with a precious Jewel. The Dragon King's daughter also appears in Chapter 12 of The Lotus Sutra, where she presents a Jewel to the Buddha (and not incidentally is turned into a man and achieves Enlightenment). Although Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was present at this event, no dialogue is recorded between them.

It remains for popular literature to bring the two together. In one story, it seems that Kuan Yin (as Miao Shan) heard the cries of a very special fish who had been caught. This fish was the Third Son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, who had been out for a swim "incognito," disguised as a carp. Of course, Kuan Yin rescued the hapless creature. (By the way, when you see Kuan Yin with a dragon, it's usually this Third Son.) In gratitude for Kuan Yin's help, the Dragon King sent his granddaughter with--you guessed it--a Jewel to present to Kuan Yin in thanksgiving for her uncle's rescue.

Well, despite growing up with dragons--or perhaps because of it--Lung Nu was overwhelmed by the Presence of Kuan Yin, and asked to become her disciple on the spot. Kuan Yin accepted the young lady as her attendant, and the rest is--er--history.


Shan-Ts'ai is another story. As far as scriptural sources are concerned, the boy and the Bodhisattva meet in one of the best-known Buddhist scriptures. In the Hua-yen (Avatamasaka or Flower Garland) Sutra, Shan-Ts'ai as the monk Sudhana sets out to study the Dharma from fifty-three teachers; Avalokitesvara is stop number twenty-eight on his itinerary.

Later, in popular literature, he is an orphan living a hermit's life, and desires to return to her tutelage (now as Miao Shan). To test his sincerity, Kuan Yin arranges to have various immortals dress up as bad guys. They play-act a scene in which, to escape the ruffians, the lady jumps off a cliff. Undaunted, the boy jumps off, too, following her even to certain death.

And in fact he does die. Kuan Yin shows him himself as he ascends from his battered body down below and, now free, he can accompany her on any necessary adventures.

Kuan Yin is often depicted with the virtuous young monk and the elegant princess. Looking at their statues, we can see a sort of Yin and Yang present:

female vs. male

lay vs. monk

elegant vs. plain

Chinese vs. Southern

supernatural vs. human

And so, just below the Bodhisattva, we see this pairing of opposites.


Face the figure of Kuan Yin and say:

O Kuan Yin! From your place on Mount Potala, hear the cries of all sentient beings.

Come swiftly to our aid.

Send your attendants Lung Nu and Shan Ts'ai to help us.

Send the Four Deva Kings of Heaven to help us.

Send the Four Dragon Emperors of the Deep to help us.

And help us, too, to help others when they call, being your eyes, ears, and hands.

Now turn your attention to each of the figures in turn, starting with the Dragon Maiden Lung Nu and the Virtuous Talent Shan Ts'ai:

O Lung Nu, Grand-daughter of the Great Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean:

You have dedicated your life to serving others through serving Kuan Yin;

Let me do the same.

You have presented Great Jewels to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas;

Let me present my most precious things to these Great Ones.

You have grasped Enlightenment despite the doubts of others;

Let me also persevere in my progress.

O Shan Ts'ai, diligent monk who traveled far and wide to learn the Dharma:

You were willing to serve others through serving Kuan Yin even unto death;

Let me do the same.

You have sought out Kuan Yin not only for her Compassion but for her Wisdom;

Let me also keep these in balance.

You stand before Kuan Yin in reverence, with palms joined and hands upraised;

Let me also maintain my devotion.

Return to the Arhat Garden ||| INDEX  ||| Continue to the Four Kings

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