by both Taoists and Buddhists, Quan Yin is variously considered a
goddess, an immortal, an ascended master, and a boddhisatva, or one who
has attained enlightenment but defers nirvana to assist others in their
own ascensions. Deferring the state of nirvana is the ultimate
sacrifice one can make, and Quan Yin (also Kwan Yin, Kuan Yen, and so
on) is renowned for her compassion for the suffering of mortals.
A variety of legends 'explain' her backstory; one of the most popular
describe her as the devout daughter of a rich man who wanted his
daughter to marry a wealthy but unkind man. Holding out for a kind man,
the girl was punished by her father by being secluded as a drudge in a
monastery, where the monks set her to all the hardest tasks. They
assigned so many chores to the recalcitrant maid that it left her no
time to sleep. Some forms of the legend take on a Disney flavor, as the
local animals come to her rescue and perform many of her chores, giving
her time to eat and sleep. The legends have variety of versions of the
father's recanting (or not), but all end with her turning her back on
'heaven' to stay on earth to assist in the elevation of mankind.
It is interesting to note that Quan Yin was originally a male figure,
often a pure youth; over time the image morphed into a female, and for
a period Quan Yin could be depicted either as male or female, but after
the tenth century, had completed the transition to complete feminity.
She is usually depicted as a lovely lady in flowing robes, with a veil
or hood draping the back of her head. She often is shown holding a vase
or vial, which is said to hold dew or pure water, with which she can
Other Quan Yin symbolism - a willow branch, to symbolize flexibility
and endurance; a fish or basket of fish - in parts of China she is the
patron of fishermen; a rolled scroll, representing the teachings of the
Buddha. She is sometimes shown seated on a large lotus, from which, in
some legends, she was born. She is also sometimes shown holding an
infant. Although the legendary Quan Yin was not a mother, she is often
compared to the Virgin Mary, and can be appealed to for fertility and
other maternal concerns.
Her legendary compassion for all creatures makes her the patron of
vegetarians. One of the best-loved goddesses in the eastern pantheon,
Quan Yin is worthy of a place on anyone's home altar.