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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

 

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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