Each month, I delight in writing about a revolutionary woman. Whether she is from history or mythology, sharing the stories of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is one of my favorite things to do as a feminist, artist, scholar, and clergywoman. Yet, no matter how much research I’ve done, or how many times I’ve taught about an icon, new discoveries are made, revelations within my own heart and mind cracked open, so that there is sometimes the need to revisit a particular holy woman afresh. Such is the case this month with Guanyin. Though I wrote about her nearly two years ago, published a book including her story, and have taught a course with one session focused on her compassion and mercy, I realized that much about her has gone unsaid. Namely, she is an icon for queers, pacifists, and vegans. Before explaining why, let’s have a quick review…
Guanyin is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. In the Lotus Sutras, she originates from a bodhisattva named Avalokitesyara. Avalokitesyara is identified as male in the Lotus Sutras. Overtime, however, Avalokitesyara transitions from being identified as a male to becoming Guanyin, most often portrayed in feminine terms and referred to as “she.” Many scholars assert that Guanyin is androgynous and can take on the form of any sentient being. And this is how I’ve always written about Guanyin, as the divinely androgynous one who is most often portrayed in feminine form.
I’ve written about and claimed my queer identity as a lesbian within the confines of Feminism and Religion, but as I reflect on my earlier understanding of Guanyin, I realize that my placing her into the category of “androgynous” stemmed from my own cisgender privilege. Because I do not view the world through transgender eyes, there are important, meaningful, and revelatory things that I miss; if only I’d read Guanyin’s transformative story through her lens of compassionate mercy, I may have noticed it in the first place.
Upon doing more research on Guanyin and transgender identity I came to realize that she has been and continues to be claimed as a trans icon for many in the transgender community. The overt discrimination and tremendous social stigma against transgender people parallels the way many religious traditions damn, hate, and demoralize their existence in a manner that assaults the souls and violates the lives of countless trans people. In these ways, it is no surprise that many in the trans community find solace in Guanyin: a trans bodhisattva whose true identity is confirmed and celebrated as the Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin becomes a queer icon.
In addition to being a queer icon, Guanyin also functions as an icon for pacifists and vegans. In a recent conversation within the comments of Feminism and Religion, we were discussing women and war when a fellow feminist writer reminded me of the importance of naming and claiming pacifism. In writing, I assumed my readers knew my starting point was as a pacifist, but I did not specifically name it. I was reminded of the power of naming and how this naming can embolden others to claim such identities, as well. In these ways, I think it’s also important to name that Guanyin is an icon for pacifists. The rich iconography of her image often involves her having eleven heads so that she has more ears to hear all the cries of those who are suffering, or one thousand arms so that she can reach out to even more who are oppressed. Equally profound, Guanyin’s iconography involves having webbed fingers, just like the Buddha. Their fingers are webbed so that no one can slip through the cracks of their compassionate love. Guanyin so hears the cries of the universe that no one slips through the cracks into acts of violence. Guanyin’s hands are bearers of peace. Guanyin becomes a pacifist icon.
And it is not only humans who remain caught in the webbed fingers of her compassionate embrace, but all beings. In these ways, Guanyin is often portrayed in vegetarian and vegan restaurants as a patron saint of all beings, lover and protector of all animals. Because there is power in naming and claiming, I’ll also share that I am a vegan and that many of the reasons for my veganism—like Guanyin’s—stem from ecofeminist virtues that value the life, worth, and dignity of animals, the environment, and workers. A key feminist we can look to for understanding these seemingly disparate connections is Carol Adams. In her Sexual Politics of Meat, she reminds us of the intricate connections between the subjugation of women and the subjugation of animals. Meat eating is a feminist issue. Adams illustrates this most poignantly in the cycle of objectification-fragmentation-consumption.
In a carnophallogocentric world—one that values white meat-eating men as worthy of the most subjectivity—animals are objectified and denied subjectivity, viewed and referred to as “it.” This denial of subjectivity leads to fragmentation, which is most obvious in slaughterhouses, the majority of which are factory farms where animals are slaughtered every twelve seconds and then fragmented by an array of knives at the hands of workers paid unfair wages. In many of these factory farms, animals have no room to even move within their cages, their feet decompose due to standing in their own waste, and the waste that is removed simmers in giant manure lagoons; there are numerous reports of workers drowning in these lagoons. So, the process of fragmentation is demoralizing for animals, workers, and the environment. Fragmentation ultimately leads to consumption where what was once a live animal is now dead flesh on a plate, consumed by meat-eaters.
This same cycle of objectification-fragmentation-consumption applies to women. In media and popular culture, women are objectified and denied subjectivity as objects of lust and desire. We are fragmented in advertising and language as breasts, hips, butts, and thighs are often spoken of as “pieces of meat” or shown without a face or the rest of the body. This fragmentation leads to consumption, not so much on a plate as with the eyes, as objects of male desire. The subjugation of animals and the subjugation of women are inextricably linked in the sexual politics of meat, in a patriarchal society that values the construct of the need for meat-eating more than the reality of subjectivity within the lives of women and animals. With tears pouring from her eleven heads, Guanyin’s hands quiver as she holds these realities in her webbed fingers, compassionately carrying the weight of animals and human animals. Guanyin becomes a vegan icon.
This is a lot to take in. With one thousand arms, eleven heads, and a heart filled with compassion, something tells me she can handle it. Guanyin: the queer, pacifist, vegan icon.
So, I return to this Goddess of Mercy and Compassion anew. The painting and the words remain the same. Her iconography does not change, but her icon status does. It expands, much like her arms, to encompass more, represent more, embrace more. This icon venerated by queers, pacifists, and vegans hears our cries of suffering, and her heart cries out to us:
Hearing the deep cries of the world,
She offered mercies upon mercies
Out of her compassionate heart.
It’s worth noting, too, that the act of compassion and feeling of mercy and love is viewed as being Guanyin. Therefore, a merciful, loving, compassionate, and kind individual is understood to be Guanyin. In the moments when we show compassion, when we share mercy with all sentient beings, we become the Goddess of Mercy. When we become Guanyin, one less suffering soul slips through the cracks and is instead held in compassionate embrace.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com