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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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Long ago there was an adorable little white parrot. His parrot parents raised him with great tenderness, and, in turn, the little parrot loved them with enormous devotion.  But the world is a cruel place for little birds and one day the parrot’s father fell victim to the predators of the jungle.  Then, after that tragedy, the white parrot’s mother became gravely sick.  With all of his strength and ability, he tended her and tried desperately to restore her health, but she kept sliding downwards.  In her delirium, the mother parrot cried out for sweet cherries of the sort grown in China and the little parrot set out to obtain some of the fruits, hoping they would help her get better.

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But when the parrot flew out to find cherries he found a world of traps, guile, and danger.  Cruel poachers captured the friendly bird and trussed him up.  Observing his sweet disposition and naivete, the hunters sold him to a miserly magistrate.  At first the parrot was mute with horror, but anxiety for his mother leant him eloquence, and he started to preach stories of compassion, kindness, and filial piety in hopes of swaying the judge’s cold heart.

Alas, the magistrate knew the value of sermons…right down to the candareen.  He charged admission to crowds to hear the parrot’s desperate pleas and moral adjurations and the petty judge laughed as he counted up the money he made from the parrot’s good heart.  But other people were listening to the cockatoo’s words with greater acuity.  The poachers came to the show boasting of how they were responsible for capturing the orator…but they left with troubled hearts and soon abandoned hunting and meat-eating.  Other listeners were also moved to improve their lives and act with greater righteousness, and the parrot begin to become famous.  Yet all the mean magistrate did was count money and laugh at people’s simplicity.  None of the parrot’s pleas ever moved him a bit.

One day a mysterious old begging monk with a medicine bottle listened to the parrot’s sermon.  “You have great strength as an orator, little brother,” the old monk told the parrot, “but words will never free you to return to your home.  Try this instead.” Then he whispered a ruse to the parrot.

The parrot was troubled, but he did as the monk suggested and he mimed a palsy and a brain storm and then he lay motionless.  Disgusted at the weakness of animals, the magistrate tossed the seemingly dead parrot into the mud and returned to other schemes.  When night came the parrot shook the dirt off and flew into a nearby orchard to obtain some cherries. Then he flew back to his mother as fast as he could.

Alas, when he returned to his ancestral nest he found his mother had already died and was a sad little mummified husk of feathers.  Inconsolable the little bird tossed the cherries aside and buried his mother with his fading strength. Then he fell to the ground in a heartbroken swoon of grief.  That is how the goddess Guanyin found him.

The immortal goddess of infinite compassion, opened her bottle of elixir and sprinkled the healing balm on the white parrot with a branch.  When he opened his eyes he beheld the universal savior of living beings standing above him.  Bathed in the heavenly light of the stars, Guanyin was radiant beyond words.  The parrot bowed down to her and begged her to accept him as an unworthy disciple.

Guanyin is the goddess of universal compassion.  The Bodhisattva has seen beyond the illusions and lies of this world and realizes a key truth of life: animals have souls. They are capable of happiness and sadness. Like you or me, their hearts know grief and love. They are real beings in a universe which is otherwise empty.

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And so Guanyin picked up the trembling bird and wiped the grime from his feathers and the tears from his gleaming orange eyes.  Great rulers and sages have sought Avalokiteśvara’s grace with costly presents, pleading, erudition, splendor or Buddhist orthodoxy, but the parrot’s unwavering filial piety and kindness are closer to her heart than such things. With a wave of her bough she arranged for the parrot’s parents to be reborn in a life of glory, happiness, and honor.  The little parrot though she kept as her most dear disciple.  He flies next to her as she goes everywhere.  In his beak he holds what seems like a precious jewel.  If you understand this story though you realize it is actually something more valuable–it is  understanding, care, concern, kindness, and solicitude.  It is love, of course.

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Guan Yin and her Disciples (Yuan Dynasty, ca. 14th century) ink and color on silk

Avalokiteśvara, known as Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Infinite Love, has heard the agony of the whole world and felt the pain of all living beings as we suffer and strive.  She has seen beyond the glittering facade of lies–past all Māyā–to a realm like an abstract lotus where the only things are little blips of energy and the consciousness of all living beings in an infinite sea of nothingness.  Don’t be deceived! Guanyin is an illusion too. She is made up. So is this tale. I just wrote it the way I felt it should be (although it is based on 鸚鴿寶撰, “The Precious Scroll of the Parrot”)  But there IS truth here. Animals have souls, insomuch as anything does. To have a soul is to worry about others.  It is more important to Guanyin than money, prestige, cleverness, or empty worship. The truth of life is you will suffer and fail. You will die. But if your life has care for others, it has infinite meaning.  Grasp the truth of kindness and you too may fly beside the goddess for a shining moment and touch the trembling world with her divine light.  

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Rescue parrots in a Bird Sanctuary comfort each other

 

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Ferrebeekeeper recounts a lot of mythological stories and religious tales–using almost the same voice as we use to tell non-fictional stories.  However, it is critical to remember that such folklore and mythology is not true…at least not in the same way as history or science are real (and even those reality-based disciplines are shot through with ambiguity and factual inadequacy: truth is a very lofty ideal indeed!).  Instead religious tales tell a complicated moral or ontological truth about our species by means of symbolism.  How we interpret this symbolism is all-Important.

I had a classics professor in college who gave us a reading about the Punic War from Livy.  Livy (who himself lived in politically fraught times) prudently cited the failure to properly observe the state religion as one of the reasons the Romans lost a huge Punic War battle (or as Livy stated it: the Romans failed to sacrifice enough to the gods of Olympus).  On the midterm, the professor asked why the Romans lost the battle and many students dutifully regurgitated Livy’s exact answer in their little blue books.  “I was surprised to find so many pantheists in this class!” said the professor as he handed back the books and explained why readers need to think carefully about what they are reading (and also why so many students did not have the grades they expected).

It might seem like I am writing about this subject because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of contemporary religious sentiment. For example, based on their actions and pronouncements, many contemporary Christians seem to believe that the central message of Christianity is that they (fundamentalist Christians) are always right about everything and God will take them to heaven to live in happy bliss when they die (even as he casts all of the people they personally dislike (and pretty much everyone else) into eternal hellfire).  Gods are a metaphor for the self—unless you happen to be devout; in which case your god is an actual magical entity who cares about you personally but mostly despises everyone else.

Ahem, anyway…Instead of talking about whether evangelical Christians fail to understand Christ’s message of kindness and giving, I wanted to draw people’s attention back to a Greco-Roman story we told here a while ago—the story of Asclepius, god of healing.  Asclepius was the son of the beautiful and terrible god Apollo (whose myths always fascinate and horrify me).  According to the myth, Asclepius mastered healing to a profound degree previously unknown to mortalkind.  Through study and devotion, he obtained the ability to alleviate all of people’s suffering, anguish, and illness.  His art was so profound that he could even stop death itself.  Unfortunately, Asclepius became so great as a healer that he lost sight of the healing itself.  He began to think of himself as one of the gods.  He was originally drawn to medicine out of sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.  But success changed him and he began to only heal those who gave him enormous amounts of gold.  Because of this Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at him.  Asclepius was incinerated utterly. His quasi-divine healing prowess vanished from the earth because of his hubris and people were thrown back into lives of suffering and death.

Now here is my point.  I suppose if we had a devout pantheist here they would say “Zeus is all powerful and Asclepius offended him by trying to imitate that power!  Hubris will always be punished. All hail Zeus!”  Since the pantheists are pretty much gone though (except maybe in my history class), we can look at the story on its own.  Asclepius was a human, and he his mastery of healing represents humankind’s surprising ability to master this subject to an enormous degree.  But Asclepius was arrogant and selfish.  He started to misuse his healing arts for profit. When he stopped caring about being a physician first and began to lust for gold and power instead of wisdom, his healing art was lost and everyone suffered.  The story has a patina of magic, but it is a metaphor about real things. Indeed, it should seem intimately familiar to any American who has been forced to contend with our for-profit healthcare system (even before the contemporary American medical industry mixed up the staff of Asclepius with Hermes’ rod of commerce). Seem from that vantage, the story of how Asclepius was destroyed when he forgot his true purpose doesn’t just sound like an ancient Greek myth about hubris.  It sounds like a rebuke to contemporary healthcare companies which are so stingy, cruel, and greedy that they are shortening people’s lives.  Worrying about gold instead of research and healing didn’t work out so great for the greatest physician.  Perhaps it is a mistake in contemporary medicine as well.

Of course, a careful reader might also ask whether I was being completely honest when I said that this post has nothing to do with Christianity in contemporary America.  This particular myth about somebody who incurs a terrible all-consuming price for losing their compassion is Greek—but the moral seems… familiar. A great rabbi once asked a seemingly hypothetical question “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” I don’t believe in souls as real things.  They are symbolic of what is eternal and all-important in our little lives as pieces of the great gestalt of human life.  Perhaps the question could be interpreted as, “what if you lose the most important aspect of yourself by being greedy and power-hungry?”  The story of Asclepius provides a ready answer to that question.  Perhaps the New Testament has similar answers, which people are overlooking.  Physicians need not lose their healing.  Christians need not abandon what is truly divine within Jesus’s words.  Perhaps the Romans need not even lose the great battle, but we are all going to have to focus a bit harder on the complicated symbolic aspect of the text.

Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

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The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later).   To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.

I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal.  Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.

Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind).  Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter.  They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.

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One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd.  After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung.  Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured.  Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”

[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up.  Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side.  More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.

Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up.  They worked their tusks under her back and under her head.  At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down.  Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth.  Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her.  When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground.  She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…

Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back).  Just as most people tend to favor one arm,  elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right.  Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt.  In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot.  Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.

You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

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Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world.  In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost).  As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era.  As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness.   Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.  Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam).  Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous.  Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole.  All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa:  he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus.  Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics.  A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.

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Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife.  Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning my position as bishop” -Santa

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning from my office as bishop” -Santa

Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding.   He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt).  Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.

A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist).  Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts.  The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?

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Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable.   Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity.   The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.

Dear Reader, this is Ferrebeekeeper’s 500th post!  We have gone to some crazy places on this blog and I wanted to thank you so much for joining me.  Together we braved the Scythian steppes and walked among ruthless mounted warriors. We went back in time to the Ordovician, when the oceans were ruled by giant tentacle monsters.  Fearlessly you have gone with me down to the black mansion—the ghastly hell of Chinese mythology where brutal torture spans across lifetimes.  We have even stared into the ever-hungry black hole which lies at the center of the spinning galaxy.

Contemporary Chinese Portrayal of Guanyin

For our 100th post we celebrated with Oshun, the beautiful Afro-Caribbean love goddess. For the 500th post, however, I wanted to write about a goddess even more transcendent and inspiring–Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.  East Asian deities can be a stern and pitiless group, but Guanyin is the counterbalance to that.  As the bodhisattva associated with kindness, she is uniquely venerated in China, Japan, and the other Buddhist nations of East Asia.  Guanyin protects the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble. She has vowed never to rest until all sentient beings are free from samsara—the endless painful cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Long ago Guanyin obtained Buddhahood—she apotheosized beyond this world to Nirvana—but then she turned back from absolute tranquility and bliss in order to help all other knowing entities transcend suffering.

Avalokiteshvara statue (8th century, Sri Vijayan period, Thailand)

As a principle goddess of the most populated region of Earth, Guanyin has many names and attributes. In South Asia, where Buddhism originates, Guanyin was Avalokiteśvara a male bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of Buddha.  As a fundamental force of existence Avalokiteśvara could actually be male, or female, human or animal, or none of the above.  In the Tang and Song dynasties, as Buddhism became the dominant religion of China, Guanyin gradually became associated with the motherly goddess of kindness and her form changed into what we know today.  In Chinese Guanyin was originally called “Guanshiyin”, which means, “Attending to the cries of the world” however her name was shortened during the Tang dynasty (because it violated the naming taboo of Emperor Taizong–who was born Lǐ Shìmín).  Taoists worship Guanyin as well, but they believe she was a Chinese woman from the Shang dynasty who found a path to immortality and now looks after the weak.

In Vietnam she is revered as “Quán Âm”

Guanyin is almost always portrayed standing or sitting on a water lotus as an allusion to the Lotus Sutra texts (additionally, adherents to Pure Land Buddhism believe that she sequesters the souls of fallen believers in a lotus and wafts the flowers to Western Paradise).  She is usually portrayed in a flowing white dress holding an object in both hands.  In some traditions she bears a vase of perfectly pure water and a willow branch, while in other iconography she holds rice, tea, or a pearl.  Guanyin is traditionally portrayed with a Chinese crown and an Indian royal necklace. Sometimes she is accompanied by two warriors or by two children.  Occasionally she is shown with a dragon or a parrot (the little parrot’s story is touchingly sad and merits its own post).

Guanyin

In some statues and paintings of Guanyin she is pictured with 11 heads and a multitude of arms.   The story behind this highlights the overwhelmingly merciful nature of Guanyin.  Despite her utmost divine efforts, Guanyin realized that there were countless unhappy beings still in need of her aid. Her struggles to comprehend the problems and suffering of so many caused her head to burst into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (who rules the paradise of the Pure Land) caused each of these fragments to reform into a complete head, with which Guanyin was able to hear the cries of the innumerable suffering souls. She tried to reach out and help the beings who needed her aid, but her two arms also shattered into fragments. Once more, Buddha came to her aid and magically granted her a thousand arms with which to relieve suffering.

Giant Guanlin statue at Wat Plai Laem in Thailand

Divinities reflect the deepest aspirations and emotions of their believers.  The fact that Guanyin, goddess of love and compassion, is one of the most popular divinities in China, reflects a happy truth concerning human nature.

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