Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
THE topic of my discourse to-day is Kwannon Bosatz, or Goddess of Mercy as she is commonly known.
I am not going, let it be remarked at the beginning, to make any historical investigation of this deity, or Bodhisattva according to Buddhist terminology. I am not concerned here with the pedigree of Kwannon, who was originally a Hindu male deity of greatest energy, called Avalokiteshvara. Whatever history she may have had in ancient India, the deity is no more known to us as she or he was. According to our present knowledge, Kwannon has come to be identified with his consort Târâ and is no longer a male deity representing supreme energy, but as the goddess of mercy and love, the principle of universal lovingkindness. We shall take her, then, as we understand her in these latter days, ignoring altogether her historical development. Moreover, Kwannon is no more a Hindu deity, but has completely been naturalized in the Far Eastern soil.
In my opinion, man's religious needs are essentially the same whether he has his accidental
place of birth in the East or in the West. When he feels the needs, he endeavors to find the best means of gratification according as he is situated, either in his history or tradition or folklore or superstitious beliefs. From the material thus obtained he constructs the real thing needed, and with his intellectual development he elaborates it and brings it to perfection. When we see this finished production of man's inner religious yearnings, we altogether put aside its historical relations and appreciate it as it is as a manifestation of man's inner nature. Our consideration of Kwannon will then be from this standpoint.
Now, Kwannon consists of two words, kwan and on, which is an abbreviation of a fuller title, Kwan-ze-on. Kwan literally means "to see," "to perceive," or "to look upon." But let me remind you that this perception is not physical, not sensorial, but spiritual, inward, and transcendental. It is an insight into the true significance of things with the mental eye which is possessed by all sentient beings. The next character, ze, means the "world" or "universe," including everything that exists; and the last, on, is "sound" or "voice." Taken altogether, Kwan-ze-on is "one who perceives the world-sound."
Here I have to remark that the sound Kwannon perceives, it may be known to you, is not physical, that it has no reference to the wave-motion of atmosphere, which reaching our auditory
nerves is interpreted as sound. When we view things that are about us with the spiritual eye, they all become convertible to one another, so that one can be expressed by the terms of another: sound is color, color is taste, odor is sound, etc. From the sensuous point of view, this is altogether incomprehensible, for what the eye sees is color and what the ears hear is sound, and they are absolutely irreducible to each other's terms. In the phenomenal world individuation rules, and things cannot be otherwise than they appear to our particularizing senses. But when we transcend the limits of phenomenality, or when we look inward into the very reason of things, all forms of separation and particularization vanish, and taste becomes smell, sight becomes hearing, etc., which is characteristic of the supra-individual realm of ideality.
This being so, one who hears the world-sound is no more nor less than he whose spiritual insight has gone deep into the very foundation of existence, whose knowledge comprehends everything and understands the reason of things, why they are so and not otherwise, and whose life and thought are in perfect harmony with the mind that controls the destiny of the universe. He has gone, as we say, to the other shore, he is a Buddha, the enlightened.
If we wish to reach this stage of spirituality, we must train ourselves not to be distracted by the phenomenality of things, but directly to
envisage the ultimate essence of existence which is free from all modes of duality. In this, the perceiving and the perceived are not two, the hearing and the heard are not separate, the "I" and the "not I" are not what they appear to the senses. But there is but one reality and we can call it by any name. Buddhism is not particular in this matter of designation. You may call it God or reason or life or suchness or love, but let it only be noticed that you must not make it something altogether outside this universe, nor must you consider it a mere abstraction which has no business in this concrete world. To avoid this miscomprehension on the part of the untrained, Buddhism has called it "Sound" in this particular relation and declares that all things are of one Sound in which every discordant note is eternally synthesized. Not only the wind that blows, the waves that roar, the flute that whistles, but the mountains, rivers, oceans, suns, heavens, and everything that exists, are no more than so many variations of the Sound, eternal, ultimate, and unifying. Do not think that this is too hidden and esoteric; only train yourselves in the meditation of Buddhism, and you come to realize the truth of my statement. First, recognize the oneness of the ultimate principle, and think of its abiding in all things; and you will surely comprehend the point here somewhat mystically presented.
We often find another appellation attached to
[paragraph continues] Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and that is Bodhisattva (Bosatz in Japanese and Pu sa in Chinese). It means a sentient being whose essence is wisdom, and is a title generally given to a highly enlightened, saintly Buddhist, or, in fact, to any sage of any faith.
What constitutes the essence of this being is love that sacrifices itself for the sake of others. A Bodhisattva will deny himself if he knows that by so doing he can save his fellow-beings from suffering, misery, ignorance, and self-delusion. Or he may assert himself if he sees that his creatures can be saved best through this assertion. His only object of life is to benefit others, his only principle of life is love, and his means of achieving this end and of realizing this principle is wisdom. He moves by love and regulates his movement by wisdom. His fountain of love is inexhaustible, and every feeling and thought and desire and resolution and everything else comes from this divine source; but his love does not move blindly, but most intelligently, for he is not only pure in heart but enlightened in mind. He knows that his self is a delusion, that if it exists at all it is in others and not in himself, that it embraces the whole universe and is not groaning within the narrowest and darkest cell of his own person.
Kwannon, therefore, is not only love incarnate, but a representation of wisdom and enlightenment. But as we have wisdom more emphatically
represented by such Bodhisattvas as Monju (Mañjuçri in Sanskrit) and Seshi, we see in Kwannon the virtue of lovingkindness made most predominant, and for this reason the Bodhisattva has come to be represented as feminine. Whatever other virtues may be possessed by woman, she is adored for her tenderness, lovingkindness, longsuffering, and self-sacrifice. If she be without these qualities, however brilliantly intellectual or majestically imposing, she might be honored and respected, but she will never be an object of worship and adoration, for nobody will come before her, fall on his knees, and ask her for an all-embracing love--love which is pure, unselfish, and ennobling. Kwannon, therefore, will best be conceived as feminine.
When we ordinarily speak of love, we are apt to think of its blindness and exclusiveness. For love is contrasted with hate and associated with impulse. Because of the former, love necessarily discriminates and is prone to partiality and concentration; and because of the latter, love moves without regard to its consequence and knows not its ultimate purpose. But the love that makes up the being of Kwannon is not that kind of love, but that which is most comprehensive and universal as to embrace the entire universe, just and unjust, good and evil, pious and sacrilegious. In this love there is not a trace of partiality or discrimination. It is like rain that falls on all forms of vegetation, while each plant is benefited
in its own peculiar way. It is, again, like the sun that shines upon all forms of life, while the latter make use of the sunshine each according to its own nature. The sun or rain thus benefiting everything harbors no thought of discrimination. Kwannon's love for all sentient beings is no more than an exhibition of the universal energy of animation and enlightenment, which creates, fashions, and regulates the world.
It is now evident to you, I believe, that in such spiritual love as that of Kwannon there is no commercialism, no mercenary principle, which says, "I give you so much and in return expect from you such favor." Kwannon abhors this spirit of modern times which penetrates almost every fibre of our civilization. If you want to worship Kwannon, she must be worshiped in spirit and truth. You must have your heart cleansed of impurity, selfishness, and ignorance. You must have your egoistic impulses baptized by the water of enlightenment. It is only when you are pure in heart and humble in spirit that you are ushered into the presence of Kwannon Bosatz and become the recipient of all her infinite blessings. This is what Buddhism would call grace. Grace is not a special favor conferred upon an unworthy subject, but the legitimate result of self-purification.
Buddhists think love emanates from wisdom or samâdhi or self-reflection. As long as we are sense-bound, we are not able to destroy the wall
of individuation and to realize the universal principle of love; and accordingly our love is limited, impulsive, and exclusive. In order to realize the love of Kwannon, we must shake off the filthy garment of selfishness by means of sound contemplation and earnest self-discipline. Unreflective persons live generally on the surface of things. They are unable to assort and systematize the ever-varying impressions which they get through the senses. They move according to blind impulses and selfish desires, by which they are bound hands and feet. They are unreasonable. They do not penetrate the bottom of things where lies the reason of existence. They may sometimes do some noble deeds, but that is not enlightenment, only madness. What is done by fits and starts does not constitute wisdom. The love that originates from an impure source cannot be made the foundation of our religious life.
When the love of Kwannon is made concrete, it expresses itself in various forms according to the needs of circumstance. In the Pundarîka Sûtra Kwannon is described as incarnating herself in many different personages. For instance, when she sees it most expedient to save a certain class of people through a certain mode of expression, she will assume the special mode and exercise all her influence in that capacity. She will be a philosopher, or merchant, or man of letters, or person of low birth, or anything else
as required by the occasion, while her sole aim is to deliver all beings, without exception, from ignorance and selfishness. Therefore, wherever there is a heart groping in the dark, Kwannon will not fail to extend her embracing arms.
It will be interesting in this connection to compare the activity of Kwannon with what Paul conceives of the activity of God as in his first epistle to the Corinthians (xii, 4 et seq.): "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all." . . . .
This conception of Kwannon, it seems to me, has had a great influence in shaping the national character of my countrymen. Whatever tenderness of heart they may have, they owe it to the lovingkindness of Kwannon. Those who have traveled in Japan must have seen a great many shrines dedicated to her and multitudes of people gathering before them and offering flowers and incense and prayers. This may be a superstitious practice,--this worshiping of a mythological deity; but when we think what spiritual consolation and benefit the masses derive therefrom, we must be a little lenient in our judgment of their intellectual attainment. Being simple-hearted, they believe in the response by Kwannon to their earnest prayers. The universal wave of love is vibrating in every sentient being, and
when this innermost chord is touched through the deepest spiritual commotion one can suffer, it vibrates, and the vibration reaches the very source of life, which is the love of Kwannon, and there takes place the phenomenon called communion. The universal love-principle has thus made itself known to the human heart.
To add one more word. It seems to me that the Virgin Mary of your religion corresponds to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kwannon Bosatz. Human nature everywhere seems to request what Goethe calls "eternal femininity." Christians according to their needs have created Maria. Though she is a historical figure, she has been invested with all the necessary qualities that will satisfy their inner yearnings. Buddhists have Kwannon, who, whatever her historical standing in critical Buddhism, fully answers their religious cravings. From the Christian point of view, Kwannon is a Maria incarnate; and from the Buddhist standpoint, Maria is a representative of Kwannon among a class of people who designate themselves Christians. The truth must be one and humanity the same everywhere, and it is my earnest wish that the time will soon come when the East and the West will all join in the adoration of truth, disregarding all their accidental differences and contradictions.