SOPHIA AND GUANYIN
The Moon rising on the indigo sea,
A pearl like a seed.
Open your heart to compassion and change:
The protector will blossom there.
Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).
“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. … The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.
Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.
Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”
One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and attraction, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.
- I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.
(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Chronicle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009