A Footprint on the Shore

On a trip to Kuan-yin’s sacred island, Sandy Boucher finds the Bodhisattva of Compassion not among the tourist-thronged monuments but within herself.

Sandy Boucher

Inspired, illuminated, she crouches on Lo-chia Island, a tiny dollop of land in the restless brown waters of the South China Sea. She hunkers down and springs above the waves, her white robes billowing, winglike, behind her, one strand of glistening black hair falling on her neck from her tightly wound bun, her eyes beaming forward at the green hills of Putuo Island. One foot strikes the shore with such force that it sinks into the rock, making a footprint. She is home.

“She” is Kuan-yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Her home, where she has received her pilgrim guests since the tenth century, is also called Mount Potalaka (“holy mountain”) and Putuo Shan (shan meaning “mountain”). My traveling companion, Phyllis, and I arrive there not with Kuan-yin’s ecstatic leap but by a two-hour van ride from our Shanghai hotel to Lu-chao Harbor, then by boat to the island.

Several stories chronicle Kuan-yin’s arrival on Putuo Shan. One concerns a statue of her that was peacefully residing at Mount Wu Tai, a sacred mountain on the Chinese mainland. A Japanese monk named Egaku admired the statue so much that he “acquired” it and set off by sea for Japan with his treasure. But when his boat neared Putuo Island, the sea filled with iron lotus blossoms and the boat could not move forward. Frightened, Egaku prayed ardently to Kuan-yin, and the boat moved closer to Putuo’s shore, where a resident saw its predicament. He transformed his own home into a shrine and took the statue in. Once Kuan-yin was installed, the lotuses disappeared from the sea, and Egaku’s boat was released to sail back to Japan. The shrine became known as the “Temple of Kuan-yin Who Refuses to Leave.”

Though Phyllis’s parents were first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants, she grew up in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles and knows only a shred of Mandarin. We have undertaken this pilgrimage because of our shared fascination with the multifaceted deity who is the most beloved goddess in all of Asia. We plan to stay on the island: to meditate in the temples, perhaps to experience a vision of Kuan-yin, and to organize a retreat on Putuo for Americans. I also want to interview the nuns who live on the island, and have engaged a translator.

Kuan-yin has a curious history. As Chinese scholar Ch n-fang Y says, “Of all the great Buddhist deities, Kuan-yin alone underwent a sexual transformation.” When the Indian bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was brought to China in the fifth century, the Chinese made him their own, but over several centuries, by associating miracles attributed to him with indigenous female life stories and images, they transformed him into the female Guan Shih Yin, or Kuan-yin.

Suddenly, putuo island, green and hilly, rises from the sea before us. After settling in at our hotel, we join the people who stroll in the sweltering twilight. We’re both inordinately excited and somewhat surprised to be here, where for the last thousand years pilgrims have come to receive Kuan-yin’s blessings and even catch a glimpse of her. I’ve come for a deeper identification with the quality of compassion embodied in Kuan-yin—for a softening, a connectedness to the sacred.

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