Avalokiteśvara, Kuan-yin, and Kuan-shih-yin

By David Reigle on May 30, 2013 at 9:21 pm

In the translation of Book of Dzyan, stanza 6, verse 1, Kuan-yin is distinguished from Kuan-shih-yin: “By the power of the Mother of Mercy and Knowledge — Kwan-Yin — the “triple” of Kwan-shai-Yin, residing in Kwan-yin-Tien, Fohat, the Breath of their Progeny, the Son of the Sons, having called forth, from the lower abyss, the illusive form of Sien-Tchang and the Seven Elements:*” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 32). Note that the spellings Kwan-Yin and Kwan-shai-Yin were adopted by Blavatsky from Samuel Beal’s 1871 Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, before the Wade-Giles system of transcription for Chinese became standard, in which the spellings are Kuan-yin and Kuan-shih-yin (today the pinyin system has become standard, in which the spellings are Guanyin and Guanshiyin, although the Wade-Giles system is still used in many books and for many words). Then in a chapter titled, “On Kwan-Shi-Yin and Kwan-Yin” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, pp. 470-473), Blavatsky further distinguished Kuan-yin from Kuan-shih-yin, concluding: “To close, Kwan-Shi-Yin and Kwan-Yin are the two aspects (male and female) of the same principle in Kosmos, Nature and Man, of divine wisdom and intelligence.”

As is well known, Kuan-yin and Kuan-shih-yin are Chinese translations of the name Avalokiteśvara, taken as Avalokita-svara. On Avalokiteśvara versus Avalokita-svara, this is another question for another time. The Chinese word kuan translates the Sanskrit word avalokita, “seen,” and the Chinese word yin translates the Sanskrit word svara, “sound.” The Chinese word shih in the longer name, Kuan-shih-yin, means “world.” Thus, Kuan-yin means “Perceiver of sounds,” and Kuan-shih-yin means “Perceiver of the sounds of the world.” The reason for the addition of the word shih to the name of this bodhisattva is obvious, to make clear what sounds are perceived; namely, the cries of the world. The names Kuan-yin and Kuan-shih-yin, then, refer to the same bodhisattva, being no different than Helena Blavatsky and Helena P. Blavatsky. These have been used interchangeably from the earliest translations of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese, starting near the end of the second century C.E., right up to the present in China.

No one doubts that the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara transformed into a female deity in China. This occurred around the beginning of the second millennium C.E., as can be traced in his/her representations in art or iconography and in written texts. No one knows why or how this happened. About four theories for this have been proposed, and are described in what is now the standard work on this subject, Chün-fang Yü’s 2001 Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara. However, it is not the case that the name Kuan-shih-yin was and is used for the male deity, while the name Kuan-yin was and is used for the female deity. They are both names of the same deity, whether first as a male, or later as a female. As stated in Chün-fang Yü’s opening sentence of her Introduction, “Kuan-yin (Perceiver of Sounds), or Kuan-shih-yin (Perceiver of the World’s Sounds) is the Chinese name for Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who has been worshiped throughout the Buddhist world.” Then in her chapter on Scriptural Sources (p. 36), “Kuan-yin and Kuan-shih-yin, therefore, were names used interchangeably in the earliest translations.” The fact that the male and female forms or aspects of the deity are to be distinguished is not in question. There is, however, a significant error in the terms used by Blavatsky to make this distinction. Her use of the name Kuan-shih-yin for the male and Kuan-yin for the female is erroneous.

Category: Avalokiteshvara, Book of Dzyan, Kwan-Yin | 1 comment

  • Nicholas says:

    “Significant error” only if one presumes that sexual distinction is fixed and there are two fully separate beings. In the Transactions (CW 10:378) HPB writes: “Kwan-Shai-Yin and Kwan-Yin are synonymous with fire and water. The two deities in their primordial manifestation are the dyadic or dual god, bi-sexual nature, Purusha and Prakriti.”
    Also she reminds us (in the new SD Commentaries) that the sloka 7 has *** – meaning she cannot reveal what “is now known as Kwan-shai-yin”.


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