The Theosophical Forum – July 1941

KUAN YIN, THE BUDDHIST MADONNA (1) — Hans Nordewin von Koerber

The Madonna-concept, both Christian and Buddhist, is a product of the genius of the Indo-European race. The Buddhist concept, in particular, had its inception in India, its youth in Central Asia, and received its elaboration and conventionalization in China through the inspiration of the Chinese people.

The Madonna-concept can be rightly evaluated only if we approach the god-concept of the race, which forms the background for the Madonna. If asked for information by a stranger unfamiliar with its meaning, we naturally will proceed to tell him of God, of St. Mary, and Jesus, the child, and of the relationship they have to mankind in particular and the universe as a whole in an attempt to make him see the significance correctly.

Thus it will be useful also, if we first take our imagination far away to India and erect as clearly as possible the god-concept that the ancient Brahmans had conceived and practised. We find, for instance, in The Bhagavad Gita, in the tenth chapter, the following statements concerning God, the Creator of heaven and earth:

I am the Self, seated in the heart of all beings; I am the beginning, the middle, and also the end of all beings. . . Having pervaded this whole universe with one fragment of Myself, I remain. . . . Understand thou, O! Man, that thou hast gone forth from a fragment of My splendor.

And in the sixth chapter of the same text we read:

However men approach Me, even so do I welcome them, for the path men take from every side, is Mine.

This only one God is called Janardana, that is "Infinite Glory." What a remarkable name that is; so much depends on the name that we give Him! As the name is, so is our attitude and approach to God. If we call Him Lord, we see in Him a lord with the corresponding amount of reserve on our part; if we call Him Judge Righteous, we see in Him a judge with the natural amount of fear in our heart; if we call Him the God of all gods, we approach Him accordingly; and so will our attitude be different, if we see in Him a God of Love and Compassion, or a Father, or Infinite Glory, etc. The prerequisite for lofty conceptions such as Infinite Glory, Father, God of Love and Compassion, and similar ones, are on the part of the race:

(1) powerful ability to perceive
(2) efficient susceptibility to receive
(3) unobstructed mentality to conceive
(4) an equivalent spiritual power not to abuse or misuse what comes to men in the nature of divine revelations.

There are races well endowed in that way, and others that are less gifted, and again others that are gifted very modestly only.

Of this Janardana it is said in the first chapter of the Vishnu Purana:

The only one God, Janardana, takes the designation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, accordingly as He creates, preserves, or destroys. . . He is the cause of creation, preservation, and destruction.

This means that God continuously manifests in a threefold way, namely as a creative energy, as an ordaining and maintaining energy, and as a transforming and dissolving energy. Such a triplicity (called trimurti) reflects the essential nature and character of the godhead and is certainly identical with the trinitarian aspect of the godhead such as has been conveyed to us by the various Christian mystics throughout centuries, namely: LOVE (the creative energy), WISDOM ( the ordaining and maintaining energy), and WILL or HOLY GHOST (the transforming energy).

Around these three fundamental and concomitant manifestations of the Godhead had, in the course of time, developed philosophies and rituals; soon the three basic qualities of Janardana were made into deities, i. e., Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. Therefore one speaks of the "three religions": Brahmanism, Vishnuism, and Shivaism. The Brahmanic civilization, as a social system, had been built up on the foundation and the essence of these three religions. As it is always the case in every civilization, there comes the time when the spiritual content vanishes more and more in proportion to the degree of mental and moral negligence on the part of mankind to whom the revelation originally came. If that takes place, the system becomes clogged with wrong thoughts and interpretations, the spirit becomes subdued, and soon petrification is the result.

Such happened also in ancient India. As a consequence of that there arose in the fifth century b. c, a young man by the name of Gautama Siddharta Sakyamuni, "The mighty of the Sakya family, the most victorious on earth," a prince of royal blood, the heir to the throne of his father, who took issue with the churches then well established. He had great compassion with suffering mankind and was himself struggling in the effort to solve the social problems of his days.

After receiving what they call "illumination" (bodhi), he became a buddha (an illumined one) and thus was the Buddha of our age or Kalpa. For well conceivable reasons he did not stress the existence of the godhead, although he certainly knew of it; it is beyond doubt that he had enjoyed the best education that India could give him in those days, and that he was well acquainted with the several "isms" of his time. He taught that the world came into existence by itself and is ruled by well-ordained laws. He neglected, however, at least in public, to draw the necessary conclusion, namely: where there are laws, there must also be a lawgiver, in other words, there must also be an Intelligence Supreme. Thus he put himself on an atheistic ground. This atheistic momentum is, of course, reflected everywhere in his own philosophy. He also maintained the belief in the cycle of reincarnations (metempsychosis), upheld Karma, i. e., the Law of Action and Reaction, and professed to have found the means to overcome this law of Karma and thus to be freed from the compulsion of rebirths, leading to a condition of freedom and beatitude, called Nirvana.

On such a ground, covering at least 2,000 years of evolution, has developed the seed for the Buddhist Madonna, a concept that was to grow mightily much later, about 1,000 years after the death of Buddha.

Gautama Siddharta was born in b. c. 561 and died in b. c. 480. About 150 years later, to be exact in b. c. 325, Alexander the Great, a Greek, the phenomenal conqueror and scholar, extended his domain to what today is Afghanistan and northwest India (Punjab) and established there a most prosperous outpost of Greek civilization and thought. It was through this contact with Greece and her several divinities (including the one great unknown god, in whose honor they had erected a temple in Athens) that theistic elements crept into the atheistic philosophy of the Buddhist church. When in b. c. 250 King Asoka officially accepted Buddhism and thereby became the Constantine of the Buddhist church, the Buddhist dogma had already considerably changed towards the positive. While this development went on, an ever-growing distance became noticeable between the orthodox Buddhists and the ones of northwestern India. This led, about 500 years after the death of Buddha, on the occasion of the Fourth Church Council (100 a. d.), to the great dissension and split: Hinayana and Mahayana, the former perpetuating dogmatic loyalty and narrowness with Pali as its sacred language, the latter breathing freedom and greater possibilities, using Sanskrit as its sacred language. Several developments in India gradually pushed Buddhism aside; it was completely expelled from its native land during the tenth and eleventh centuries, that is 1500 years after the death of Buddha!

Hinayana Buddhism with its atheistic dogma spread to and settled in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and French Indo-China. It also gained a foothold temporarily in the Malay Archipelago (Java in particular).

Mahayana Buddhism with its strong theistic tendencies — a mixture of Brahmanic and Greek thought — came to China about 900 years after the death of Buddha during the Wei Dynasty (386-550) and spread from there to Korea and Japan, and later to Tibet and Mongolia where it became closely associated with Hindu thought and native deities. This conglomerate religion of Tibet and Mongolia is usually called Lamaism.

It was in China, through the medium of theistic Mahayana Buddhism with its Greek inspiration, that the Madonna concept rose to prominence. Let us now trace this concept from its inception in India to its perfection in China.

Some time during the third or fourth centuries, two imaginary figures had developed in the "pantheon" of Mahayana Buddhism, whilst it still was in vogue in N. W. India and Central Asia, namely the Dhyanibuddha Amitabha, and the Dhyanibodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Both figures had reached completion in their evolution sometime during the fifth or sixth centuries, when the deification of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Saints was well on its way.

Who is Amitabha? Since Buddha, the historical one, is gone and no longer within the reach of mankind, dogma deemed it necessary, compelled by public dissatisfaction, to create a spiritual counterpart of him for the purpose of functioning on earth. Here is not the place to ventilate the several hypotheses that exist on this subject; it is sufficient to state that the essence of Gautama Siddharta became projected and embodied in a meditative or contemplative type of a buddha (a dhyanibuddha), who is, together with others of the same category, permanently functioning and residing in the likewise imaginary paradise Sukhavati, located in northwest Tibet. There he is constantly exerting himself for the benefit of humanity by way of profound contemplation. No mortal may enter that paradise. However, man can approach Amitabha and communicate with him effectively through the medium of the congregation. Therefore, in Mahayana Buddhism Amitabha received more attention than Gautama Buddha himself, yea, he is the center of the worship, and as such most powerful. In China, Amitabha is called Omitofo, and in Japan, Amida.

Who is Avalokitesvara? In order to satisfy the expectation and the prayers of both the worshipers and the faithful ones the creation of meditative Buddhas was not enough; Dhyanibodhisattvas were still to step into the picture. Usually, a bodhisattva is a human being (sattva) who has already succeeded in obtaining a certain amount of illumination (bodhi) and need, therefore, not return any more to earth for another incarnation. After his physical death he will be a buddha. The meditative Buddha Amitabha is so frequently moved in his compassion for suffering mankind that he deems it necessary and helpful, temporarily to take on the bodily form of a human being who is on his way to perfect illumination (i.e., the bodily form of a bodhisattva). In such a way Amitabha can walk among men and teach, can help and console, and live with them, can eat and sleep with them just as the Lord Buddha himself did when he walked over this earth. Naturally, such a temporary manifestation found an immense echo, and it is Avalokitesvara "the Lord (isvara) who graciously looks (lo-kita) down upon (ava) mankind," who actually is the most cherished and the most beloved divinity in the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism. Yet let us not be forgetful of the fact that both Amitabha and Avalokitesvara are merely imaginary figures.

And in China, there happened something extraordinary to the Dhyanibodhisattva Avalokitesvara. He had to perform a metamorphosis of a peculiar kind; he had to become female. Several influences led to this change. Only the most significant influence may be mentioned here. The Chinese were taught that Avalokitesvara is a lord of greatest compassion and profound divine love. It is just here at this psychological juncture that the genius of the Chinese race proved to be unwilling to accept this as it was. The Chinese can see in a lord, in a ruler, in an elder, in a father, a person of greatest respect and admiration; they can discover in him an abundance of friendliness, benevolence, and similar characteristic traits, but there is always a distance, a reserve, that remains. Genuine, real love — so they say — is only possible in a mother, where there is no distance between her and her child. And thus the Lord of Compassion and Love became female, a goddess. She rapidly developed to a national deity; yes, it is safe to say, that for some time she became the national divinity of China. Her name is Kuan Yin, an attempt to translate the name Avalokitesvara. This Kuan Yin concept was pretty well established by the end of the thirteenth century, that is, 1800 years after the death of Buddha. Kuan Yin prominently shows all the virtues of real womanhood: motherly love, humility, endurance in suffering, nobility in character, never failing in co-ordinating and subordinating her motherly instincts — really the most perfect representation of true and indisputable womanhood such as it should be in accordance with the ideal conceived by the genius of the Chinese race. From China Kuan Yin was introduced to Korea, and from there to Japan. In both lands, however, she never was accorded the place of a national deity. As such Kuan Yin exclusively belongs to China.

A word will still have to be said about the materials of which Kuan Yin figures were and are being made. The kind of material is really of importance as the means by which the artist wants to show the inner nature of his conception as well as to arouse a corresponding emotion in the onlooker. The innermost of every unit of matter is spiritual, or, in other words, the substance of matter is spirit. Grass is grass because of its inner nature, tree is tree, not because of the name that man gives to it as the designation of a species, but because of the concept placed into it, because of the spiritual essence it contains and because of the purpose it reveals. Thus for the same reason water is water and not stone, fire is fire and not soil, etc. In other words, water is water because of its inner nature and fire is fire for the same reason. Water, ever in readiness to be used, shows humility and only thereby the right preparedness to serve; it betrays divine energy and thus quickens; it shows divine contempt of what is dirty and thus cleans and diffuses. Fire, reflecting God's benevolence, emanates warmth and light, two requisites absolutely necessary for Life; it also reveals the holiness of God and is thus consuming and thereby purifying. In a similar way we have first to disclose the innate spirit of the jewel, of the semi-precious stone, of wood, and of whatever material that may be. Both the artist, i. e., the creative genius, and the artisan or craftsman, i. e., the reproducing mind, intend to represent their conception of the madonna through the most appropriate means available, that is, through the right material that suggests to the onlooker the correspondence between the spirit inherent in matter and the spirit contained in the conception of the artist.

If, therefore, the artist wishes to stress heavenly charm, he takes sandalwood because of its grace and scent. If he wishes to emphasize luminous virtues he uses jade; if diversity in virtues he selects the carnelian. If he wants to show refinement in character he avails himself of ivory. If spirituality is his vision, rock-crystal appears to be the most appropriate material. Marble suggests noble solidity and permanency, sardonyx heavenly emotions, quartz divinity in action, onyx luminous irridescence by virtue of spirit, and turquoise homogeneousness with the all-pervading ether. Lacquer is used to suggest successful evolution, horn to show freedom from poisonous qualities, and iron to disclose power to protect from evil forces. Clay and porcelain in general is used, if the artist is especially concerned with the concept of heavenly pliability or heavenly beatitude, white porcelain (blanc de Chine) in particular to stress the lovely innocence in virtues. By way of painting the artist attempts to express the esoteric approach to the divinity and through her to nature.

This interpretation of the Buddhist Madonna would not be complete without a few remarks relative to the styles of the figure. Characteristic are its posture, its attitude, attire, and attributes. In order to bring out this distinction appropriately, it is well to state first that Gautama Siddharta Buddha (the Lord Buddha) is usually represented in his classical attitude, standing, as a thinker, or teacher, garbed with a very simple monastic robe, while the Dhyanibuddha Amitabha mostly appears as being seated in the oriental fashion, cross-legged, upon a white lotus flower, holding the ambrosia vessel in his hands which are resting in his lap one above the other, palms upward. His hair has no adornment, only showing more prominently the topknot (ushnisha); his forehead is provided with the third eye, the eye of wisdom (urna). The attitude of crossing the legs with both soles of the feet upwards symbolizes that his whole body, including his feet that normally show downward and touch the ground, has become illumined; the celestial powers are thus streaming perfectly through his feet as well and bringing about a harmony of the two conflicting energies in the universe, i. e., bringing about the conciliation between the positive and the negative principles. The white lotus symbolizes the process of purification through which Buddha has gone successfully; therefore, he has the privilege as well as the right to be supported by the all-conquering and purifying forces of the spirit of the lotus. The ambrosia vessel represents the mendicant's bowl into which he received earthly food, and which is the bowl whereinto heaven now places its bread, ambrosia, for the nourishment of mankind.

The bodhisattva type is characterized by a standing figure of Greek fashion, and in China its distinctive attribute is the treating of the hair, in which the topknot (ushnisha) is drawn up into a mitre shape, often adorned with jewels, or concealed by a tiara. Other attributes frequently appear, such as necklace, armlet and girdle, trailing scarfs over arm or from the waist, elaborate pleats of skirt or cloak, ear-rings and long swinging chains, all derived from Indian sources. Beside this, the Dhyanibodhisattva Avalokitesvara usually wears a five-leafed crown, of which the leaf in the middle shows the figure of Amitabha, his spiritual father. Thus we have in him an Indian divinity-concept placed in a Greek body showing attributes that represent ideals and fashions of India, Central Asia, Mongolia, and China. In addition to this, the Avalokitesvara figure in Korea discloses certain Korean features, the one in Japan Japanese characteristics, and the one in Tibet Tibetan traits. In the latter domain we find, for instance, figures of paintings representing Avalokitesvara with six arms and eleven heads, or with a thousand arms and eleven heads. In this way the primitive and therefore very natural mind of the people wishes to emphasize superexcellency and efficiency in seeing, hearing, thinking, helping, etc., on the part of the deity. Avalokitesvara as Kuan Yin in China is always represented as a charming and attractive woman or deity, usually sitting in the royal pastime attitude (the maharaja lilasana), in which the left leg is bent and the right knee raised to support the right arm, which is propped against the background, usually an aureole or a niche. In such a posture she represents the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion; if she is sitting in such a way on a rock looking downward upon the waves of the ocean playing around the rock, she is seen as the protector-deity of the seafaring people.

At times she appears to be popularized and thus raised to the rank of a buddha-deity sitting cross-legged on the lotus flower.

She also appears as the protector-deity of mothers and is then represented Christianized by way of holding a child in her lap or in her arms.

Sometimes Kuan Yin is also represented in the true bodhisattva style as standing, holding the ju-i scepter in her left arm and a scroll in her right hand, the latter symbolizing truth divine as it has been written into the many forms of creation and then gradually abstracted and recopied by man in his book of law. The ju-i scepter, a Taoist symbol, is in the nature of a staff that ends in a peculiarly shaped leaf and intends to express the fulfilment of our purified desires. Divine fulfillment of our desires is only possible if they are in harmony with cosmic laws, or as the Christian would say, in harmony with the Will of God, which alone means real freedom and happiness on the part of the spirit.

If she holds in her right hand a gourd, or a pomegranate, whose many seeds suggest multiplication, and in her left hand a bottle containing dewdrops, i. e., heavenly water, the element of quickening, she then appears in the role of making alive those who are in death, as well as in the role of the one who is ushering in the Coming Buddha, Maitreya, "The Loving One," "The Lord of Love." Most remarkable statues of Kuan Yin and Maitreya, particularly showing them in this role just referred to, can be seen in the Munthe collection in our own Los Angeles Museum.

It will be in order to conclude this sketch by way of briefly comparing the two philosophies that are behind the Buddhist Madonna and the Christian Madonna.

In doing so we may arrive at the following picture:

Kuan Yin St. Mary
An ideal, abounding in inspiration, beauty, strength and loveliness. A reality, most sacred, noble in character and devotion, super-strong in sacrificing.
The child of an imaginary spiritual father: Amitabha. The mother of a real child, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
This child developed into a friendly, most compassionate and ever-helping goddess attempting to lead humanity through fulness, purification to a life of beatitude. In the child of Nazareth arose the most benign, the most perfect and only savior of the world in whom dwelled the Godhead in and who alone could say, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." "The Father and I are One."


1. Address given to Town and Gown Club of the University of Southern California, March 28th, 1940. Dr von Koerber is a professor in the Department of Asiatic Studies at this University. (return to text)

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