Today’s story is one that comes from Chinese folklore. It’s one I learned in middle school as part of my literature class and was one of my first introductions not only to non-Western folklore, but also to Eastern religions and philosophies. Throughout the years, I’ve become more interested in meditation and Buddhism, having practiced Zen meditation for many years now. But I think the real reason I still love this story is because the deity it references gives her name to one of my favorite teas, making this truly a story to enjoy with a nice cup of Tieguanyin oolong.
“The Living Kuan-yin” is the story of a young man who is named Chin Po-Wan or “One Million Pieces of Gold,” and everyone who reached out to him on the streets was given money. But one day, someone asks Po-wan for help and he doesn’t have any money. All he can share is a bowl of rice. He wonders why, if his name means “Gold,” can’t he help this person by giving them gold. He decides to seek the living Kuan-yin, a goddess of mercy who allows all who visit her to receive the answers to three questions.
On his journey, he is helped by three beings. First, a snake overlooking a river crossing wonders if he will ask the Kuan-yin why he has not yet become a dragon. Then, an innkeeper has him ask the Kuan-yin why his twenty-year-old daughter has never spoken a word. Finally, he stays at the home of another man, who asks him to ask the Kuan-yin why his garden has no plants. Po-wan continues on his way and ends up asking the three questions of the three beings he met on his journey, and ignores his own.
He learns from the Kuan-yin that the snake on the cliff has seven pearls on his head. If he removes all but one, he will become a dragon. The innkeeper’s daughter will not speak until she sees the man destined to be her husband. And the rich man’s garden has buried in it seven jars of treasure. It will bloom if he gives away half of this treasure. Despite not having asked his own question, Po-wan leaves and returns to the three beings he had met previously. Upon telling the rich man about his garden, the man gives Po-wan half of the treasure in gratitude. When he arrives at the inn, the innkeeper’s daughter greets him by name, signifying that they are to be married. And finally, when he tells the snake what the Kuan-yin had said, the snake gives him the six pearls. So even though he never asked the Kuan-yin his question, Chin Po-wan is once again worth a million pieces of gold, and married as well.
Now, in understanding this story, it helps to understand a little bit about the Kuan Yin in Chinese culture. The Kuan-yin or Guanyin is a bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition. Her full name is Guanshiyin, which means “one who perceives the sounds of the world.” Guanshiyin is also a translation of the Sanskrit Avalokitesvara, who is named in the Heart Sutra as the bodhisattva of compassion. While the bodhisattva are sometimes called goddesses, that’s not exactly their function in Buddhist tradition. Much like Gautama Buddha, who was a man who attained enlightenment before helping others to find it themselves, bodhisattvas are believed to be those beings who have attained enough enlightenment to become buddhas themselves. The bodhisattva of compassion, however, vows not to leave the cycle of karma, as allowed by achieving buddhahood, until all beings have been released. They stay behind to help others on the path.
The thing is, the Guanyin also appears in other Chinese traditions outside of Buddhism. Taoist literature claims she was a mortal woman who achieved immortality. She is a popular folk deity worshiped in China, even being considered a fertility goddess in some traditions. Like many religions, it’s possible that the Buddhists absorbed a popular figure into their cannon, particularly given the Guanyin’s defining characteristic of compassion and generosity.
So in this story, a young man is going to seek the help of this bodhisattva or goddess. But, as her characteristic is compassion for all living beings, by bringing the pleas of three others to her, over his own needs, he shows his own compassion, and is therefore also rewarded with an answer for his own, unasked question. It’s interesting because his reward is material, which goes against the teachings of Buddhism, but at the same time follows the goals of a young man in Chinese culture, namely to be able to support himself and to gain a wife. And finally, because his original wish was to have the means to offer financial aid to others, granting him material wealth is simply a way to grant him the means to help others.
I find this story, while characteristically from an Eastern tradition, to be satisfying as a general folk tale. It doesn’t become preachy or instructional, as some of the koan-stories do, but instead shows the way to do good, rather than explaining how to do good.
“The Living Kuan-yin” from Sweet and Sour: Tales from China, by Yao-Wen Li and Carol Kendall [link]
Background about the Guanyin from Wikipedia [link]