February 4, 2013

Celebrating the Divine Feminine: Guanyin East & West. ~ Deborah Bowman

In celebrating an image of the female Buddha we challenge the old myth with a new myth. We play with form to shake up habituated thinking and honor diverse paths to Buddhahood.

The old storyline is full of guys in charge.

The new script is written with a real heroine on the trail of Osama bin Ladin.

In ancient Buddhist scriptural texts, a woman must be reborn as a man to achieve Buddhahood. Now the Dalai Lama could name a girl child as his reincarnation.

In the New York Times travel section, I read about temples in Saigon dedicated to Quan Am (Guanyin) and immediately imagined a journey to photograph the divine feminine in Asia.

How astounding to stand in a temple with the female bodhisattva of compassion, large and centrally located on the altar!

For Chinese and Vietnamese worshippers it is no-brainer to supplicate a female image with a tradition steeped in female deities.

How glad I was to have traveled halfway around the world for this opportunity. The excitement was visceral as I took photos in temples of Guanyin statues from every angle, hoping one or two would be discernible in the smoky haze of incense.

Mainland China is seeing an unprecedented rise of megalithic statues of Guanyin, the largest reaching 253 feet on Hainan Island overlooking the South China Sea. By comparison, our tallest statue is another lady, the Statue of Liberty, at 151 feet.

While these large statues are being erected, many of the remaining Guanyin temples in China are being destroyed as modernization is razing older city sections. Luckily, Chinatowns are as common in cities of the East as they are in San Francisco and L.A. In Saigon and Bangkok you will find temples dedicated to Guanyin still popular with the families of Chinese immigrants that came generations ago.

In composing the book, The Female Buddha, one of my goals was to share these colorful and unique spiritual icons before they disappear.

While the devotional practices of offering prayers, incense and flowers at her feet seem regressive to some, faith in the grace of Guanyin reflects a conviction in the power of the feminine to teach and heal.

As an image of liberation, Guanyin stands tall, fingers on one hand in a mudra representing the wheel of Dharma and her other hand holds a vase of healing nectars. The first mudra symbolizes teachings on liberation from suffering and freedom from suffering. The nectar of wisdom and compassion in her other hand is offered as salve to the world.

The rise of Guanyin in the East is mirrored in the West. The spirit of compassion is reflected in the proliferation of service organizations as well as statues. In less than 30 years a little known nun in Taiwan, Cheng Yen, developed a volunteer organization of 10 million to build hospitals at home, provide significant disaster relief around the world, and much more.

In the United States, Buddhist organizations address the homeless, aids victims and the dying in greater numbers each year.

Like Guanyin, when we open our eyes with ever greater clarity we see the suffering of others and address it without hesitation.

She represents an inner vision that informs service and the ability to provide the proper antidote without denial or engulfment. As an icon, Guanyin teaches a love that is both deeply personal and transcends our mundane understanding of the word. She symbolizes a way to see through the artificial boundaries of self and other that complicates so much of our lives. From the evidence we see in the rise of Guanyin and the enlightened service she represents, there is urgent desire for this capacity worldwide.


Deborah Bowman, Ph.D. is a photographer, psychologist and professor of Transpersonal Counseling Psychology at Naropa University where she founded the TCP program and the Wilderness Therapy program. Deborah has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for 25 years. She is author and photographer of The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation and Love.  Visit her at http://www.thefemalebuddha.com


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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Olivia Gray

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