My first memory of Kwan Yin was my father smashing her to pieces. He was suffering from a chemical imbalance that caused him to have out of control rages. The tall graceful porcelain statue normally resided on the shelf used for flower arrangements. He was roaring through the house smashing things left and right. I stood frozen, totally incredulous that he could smash the Kwan Yin, of all things, the bodhisattva of compassion. My younger brother and I ran into the bathroom, locked the door and held on tight to each other.
My father was an Apache/Caucasian man who had embraced Zen Buddhism after moving to Hawaii in 1949. Our house burned down when I was in the third grade and he had it rebuilt as a Japanese house with tatami matting, shoji windows and the tokonoma room with two alcoves. The statue of Kwan Yin graced one side and a scroll of a carp swimming upstream hung in the other. Between them was a polished plum wood pole. I spent hours in that room lying on tatami matting reading books under the peaceful gaze of the Kwan Yin. My father often gave dharma talks at the dining room table. When I was twelve, of course, I would roll my eyes and pray he would stop talking. Later as I studied Buddhism as an adult I would hear echoes from my father’s talks in what the teacher was saying. He had laid a good foundation for me. He was actually a very nice man, very gentle and peaceful, except for the brief period before the medications became effective. His rages were phenomenal, real Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde stuff. Thank goodness he got over them.
Until he smashed her, the Kwan Yin statue was prominent in the house and in my father’s thinking and teachings to us. He taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow but we had to hold the bowstring drawn back at our cheek until we felt at one with the universe, then we could let it go. Powerful message for a teenage girl for you can’t be one with universe and have no compassion for it. He enrolled me in karate classes where I learned from an old Japanese man how to meditate and how to carry oneself peacefully in the world. My father also taught me to body surf by putting me on his very broad back and catching a wave. He bought me a surfboard and we would surf together at Waikiki.
After a relatively calm adult life at age 52 I was disabled by a small blood vessel bursting in my spinal cord leaving me paralyzed from the waist down. My life in the 15 years since has been, to borrow a phrase, the best of times and the worst of times …Best in that I have grown spiritually in ways I am sure I never would have otherwise, I now understand the compassion of Kwan Yin at a very deep level. It became clear as my life in the wheelchair progressed that compassion for myself was at the core. It is no accident that the heart sutra metta starts with oneself. I did nothing to cause my disability, no one else caused my disability, it just happened and I had to figure out a way to deal with it.
It was hard to adjust to having half the income I had before, hard to deal with all the agencies that were supposed to help and didn’t, and hard to endure the pain 24/7. The worst of times…a broken hip when the scooter tipped over, a broken leg when I fell down at the swimming pool, a broken ankle when I caught my foot in the door and didn’t realize it, gall bladder removed after gall stone attack, thyroid removed after a large goiter grew there, breast cancer recurring resulting in a double mastectomy. And through all this I was alone, no partner, 6,000 miles from home. Friends came and went though all this.
Shortly after I was disabled I attended a silent retreat. I was having a hard time with my anger in the sittings and a friend seeing that I was distressed put candies on my mat during a break. This act of kindness infuriated me, I threw the candies across the meditation hall (which luckily was empty). It didn’t occur to me then, but it occurs to me now, that my father might have been feeling the same when he smashed the Kwan Yin. The act of compassion was so painful and I was so out of touch with my own compassion that rage took it’s place.
When the sangha reassembled I left the hall and went to my room for I was afraid that I would scream out loud. I put the pillow over my face and screamed, and screamed and screamed. The screaming finally subsided into to sobbing. I was bereft, alone, isolated and totally miserable. As I sat there crying little by little my Buddhist practice came back to me. The metta, Kwan Yin’s gift to us…I wish for myself happiness, freedom from suffering…compassion for my situation. Breathing in, breathing out. After a long while I stopped crying and returned to the meditation hall. Everything was beautiful, my fellow retreatants looked so serene, dust motes were floating in the air, a slight fragrance of incense filled my nose, and the little Buddha statue sitting on the altar looked so peaceful. Breathing in, breathing out. I knew then I was going to survive.
A year or two after that I went on retreat with Bobby Rhodes (Soeng Hyang) from the Providence Zen Center, Rhode Island. While in dokusan with her, I experienced a profound connection to the universe. We had been talking about the koan she had given me and suddenly I got it. I “saw” (felt, knew, sensed, realized, became aware of, understood) in a deep mystical way how we are all connected from the beginning of time to the end of time, in every direction, and with every animal, plant and mineral. That realization continues to reside deep in me. I am reminded daily by the Kwan Yin statues that grace my living room. She is a daily reminder to be kind to everyone I meet…to myself as well. Her peaceful face is a model for me. Her peaceful pose demonstrates a total relaxation for me follow. She appears to me as having “got it” big time.
A year or so after that while recovering from surgery I was given an anti-nausea drug. I had an allergic reaction to it that caused a full body spasm. My head was pulled over to one side, my hands curled up and my toes splayed out. I thought, this is it, I am going to die, I will not be able to take another breath. But in that nanosecond I remembered that I had a practice and thought to myself, I am ready to go, I have no regrets…I was peaceful and calm as Kwan Yin. But then of course I continued to breathe and did not die. But this was a hallmark moment, I had never faced physical death before. Death of my life as I had known it, yes, but actually leaving the planet, no. Yet, one experience informed the other. Giving up the fear of death actually allowed me a greater freedom to live in my everyday life. Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff became my motto.
Before the near death experience I was curious about how I was going to manage and spent several years in my “let’s find out what we can do” stage. I was determined to be independent. I learned to drive with hand controls, I went back to school and got a PhD, and I worked for disability advocates.
But, after the near death experience things changed to the “OK, this is how it is going to be” stage when things settled down into routines. But, the routines were not working out well for me in Washington DC where I was living. I was finished with school, a potential partner dissipated, friends moved out of the neighborhood, my job lost its funding and I decided to go home to Hawaii to be with my family. I packed up my Kwan Yin collection and headed home.
She stands there graceful and serene, Avalokitesvara, on the corner of my camphorwood chest. Tall and tan and lovely she is in ivory and sepia. She looks as though she is carved out of an ivory tusk but she’s not and no elephant died for her sake. In her left hand she is holding a basket full of flowers and her right hand is in the gyan mudra and also holding the willow branch for the ease of suffering. Buddha in gasho rests in her hair. She has long earlobes and little bindi on her forehead. Her curved body fits nicely in the crook of my arm.
Next to Avalokitesvara on the camphorwood trunk in a relaxed pose is Guan Yin almost the same height, in bronze and copper patina. She sits peacefully with one knee up and her arm resting on her knee. She is holding a ball in her right hand and leaning down on her left. She has an ushinsha, long earlobes and a little bindi. She sits on a rock ledge. She is covered in gold necklaces, mardi gras beads, and a dried lei from a celebration.
Next to bronze statue is a white porcelain Kwan Yin from modern China. She is holding the willow branch in her left hand and a vase with the Waters of Compassion in her left. She is sitting on a pink lotus. As I picked her up just now to get a better look at her crown of Buddhas I was compelled to hug her. Something I have not ever done in the eight or nine years I have had her. It felt very good.
Overseeing the camphorwood trunk is a poster from Honolulu Academy of Arts of the life sized wooden Chinese Kwan Yin from 1000 AD that resides there. When I was little girl I would often sit at her feet and tell her my troubles. In those days she was located in the corner of a courtyard and you could get very close. But now she is up on a platform at the end of the Buddha gallery and not touchable.
I believe the Ancient Goddess never left us and Kwan Yin is her modern emissary. She may have been overrun by the male figures of Jesus and Buddha but I suspect she went underground. I understand that almost every household in Asia has a statue of Kwan Yin. The Catholic churches I visited in South America and Mexico all featured Mary prominently and Jesus off to the side. I think all the female saints are just the Goddess taking a form accessible to the women of that time.
Well, whatever the history may teach us, I am happy here with my little collection. We live happily together on the 25th floor overlooking Honolulu harbor. Rainbows appear quite often stretched out across the sky and the sparkling white fairy terns dance a pas de deux over the city. Life is good.
October 10, 2012