Imagining compassion: Guanyin

An earlier post told the story of a boy named Cyril, who was abandoned by his father and taken in by a stranger, a hairdresser named Samantha.  For such an emotionally charged story and relationship, it is interesting that Samantha shows very little emotion, even when she is holding Cyril in her arms to comfort him and to keep him from tearing at his face in grief and rage.

There is no transition in the film The Kid with a Bike during which Samantha gets to know Cyril and his story and then develops affection or even just pity for him.  Samantha is waiting in a doctor’s office, minding her own business when Cyril crashes into her, knocking her and her chair to the floor.  As with Rosetta, human touch acts to transform characters in Dardenne films.

The next day Samantha appears at the home from which Cyril had escaped, with the bicycle that his father had sold without telling him.  As she’s driving away, Cyril speeds up with his bike and stops her to ask if he can come on weekends to stay with her.  Next thing we know Cyril is a regular fixture in Samantha’s life.  Not only does this all happen suddenly, without any transitional development, there is no back story to explain why Samantha starts caring for Cyril, with deliberate emphasis on the multiple meanings of “caring.”

In an interview the director Luc Dardenne addresses this seeming lack of motive.

Kindness has a mysterious aspect. But wanting to find Samantha’s reasons is tantamount to minimizing her kindness. Because kindness, certainly more than Evil, scares people. Kindness isn’t rational. Samantha feels called upon by this kid and she responds to his call. She chooses him and he likewise chooses her. That was enough for us. And for Cécile as well.  Bonnaud

Dardenne is referring to Cécile de France, who plays Samantha in the film.

Samantha does not feel sorry for Cyril.  She does not pity him.  She just opens herself to him.  “Compassion” comes from the Latin words for feeling with another, suffering with another.  Samantha’s selfless feeling for Cyril shows when her boyfriend demands that Samantha choose between him and Cyril.  Samantha chooses Cyril.  We see and hear Samantha choose compassion over passionate love.  In real life bodhisattvas have to make choices.  We do not see, however, the clash between love for someone and compassion for everyone over which I struggled when reading Santideva.  No, we see Samantha’s selflessness reject her boyfriend’s selfishness.

In Mahayana Buddhism compassion arises from selflessness.  Compassion is not a self that is so big that it can love the whole world.  Compassion comes when no self opens up to the suffering of the world.

Popular East Asian devotion imagines compassion as Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.  She hears the cries of all the suffering so strongly that she does not move on to the state of nirvana, but stays in this vale of tears to help those in need.   In one legend she even goes down to hell to extinguish the fires and drive out Yama the demon.  (Studholme 122-3)

In his movie Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón imagines a future hell on earth in which undocumented immigrants to England (called fugees) are rounded up, held in cages on the streets, and then shipped to an abandoned city, which is wiped out at the end of the movie.  Along their route to this camp, random fugees are pulled out to be tortured and killed in scenes obviously modeled on Abu Ghraib.

Guanyin appears in the character of Miriam, a nurse-midwife who accompanies a pregnant fugee, an African woman named Kee.  Miriam manages to get herself dragged off the bus to the camp in place of her frightened, confused charge, who has just broken water in front of the uniformed thug who is going down the aisle ordering fugees off.  We last see Miriam as a dark bag comes down over her head. The bus pulls away past lines of fugees on the ground, naked fugees being beaten, and then bodies of fugees.

Miriam reminds us of Guanyin, not merely in her selfless sacrifice, but also by what she does in an earlier scene.  Miriam and Kee are seated in the back seat of a car on its way to a hideout for resistors to the regime when a burning tree trunk rolls down the hill to block the road.  A screaming mob comes out of the woods to attack the car.  As the driver throws the car into reverse and a motorbike pursues, Miriam puts her arms around Kee and leads her in chanting Guanyin’s mantra, Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ.

This mantra is perhaps the best known and most widely recited mantra in Mahayana Buddhism.  The Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra not only relates the descent into hell, it tells a story of the origin of this “six-syllable formula,” which brings the reciter into the “innermost heart” of Guanyin.

What is really important … about phenomena such as Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ is not their meaning, but their function.  …  In the words of a contemporary Tibetan lama, ‘A mantra is a series of syllables whose power resides in its sound, through the repeated pronunciation of which one can obtain control of a given form of energy.’  … According to this point of view, then, Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ might be said to be a means both of entering into the presence of [Guanyin] and of appropriating some of the bodhisattva’s power.  Studholme 105-6

Many contemporary American Buddhists think of themselves as engaged in mindfulness practices that are based on or confirmed by the latest advances in neuroscience.  They are uncomfortable with mythological stories such as those filling the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra.  They get even more uncomfortable if one starts to explain that Guanyin is really a female form of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is an emanation of the Buddha Amitabha.  John Blofeld was more sympathetic towards such religious beliefs, but in researching his study Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, he spent much time and energy asking East Asian Buddhists if they really believe that Guanyin is real, or nothing more than a myth “used to persuade unlearned people to concentrate … and thus achieve one-pointedness of mind though unable to perceive it proper purpose.”  A Chinese physician named Lao retorts, “Is justice real?”  (86-87)

I’m not going to get into Lao’s arguments about the reality of mental objects, nor into justifying or debunking Guanyin as a myth or a practice.  The point of this post is to present Guanyin as a way to imagine compassion as a means of being with pain, suffering, and illness.  In terms of activity, there are many ways “to be with” someone who hurts, suffers, or is sick.  As an American, the words “handle,” “manage,” or “deal with” come to mind.  Then, there’s the desire to “save” someone from pain, suffering, or illness.  I’m not going to argue against such understandings of Guanyin’s role.  I’m not even going to go off into my views on not-doing in order to get everything done.

I’m just going to ask one question: who?  Who is handling pain, suffering, and illness?  Who is managing?  Who is doing the saving?  These questions apply whether or not I am the person in pain, or another is. This is the same question that Ezra Bayda asks about “the helper syndrome.”  Are you the big self who thinks he can save the whole world with his love?

Although some of the Mahayana texts, such as the Lotus Sutra (Reeves) and Flower-Ornament Sutra (Cleary 1993) imagine Avalokiteśvara as an all-powerful being encompassing universes, there are many stories of Guanyin as a weak, powerless little girl who brings compassion into the world.  Such is the vision of the director Wu Tianming in his 1996 film The King of Masks.

East Asians probably recognize the Guanyin trope very quickly in the story of the little girl Gou Wa (“doggy”).  Even if not, there are traces of Guanyin throughout the film.   The old man Biàn Liǎn buys a statue of Guanyin/Avalokiteśvara to bless his search for a son to whom he can pass on the secrets of his trade as a performer.  At first it seems as if the bodhisattva has not done her job when Biàn Liǎn discovers that he really bought a girl, who bears the marks of beatings after previous deceptive sales were uncovered.  We also see scenes from the classic Chinese opera of Avalokiteśvara’s descent into hell and follow the life of the androgynous singer who plays that role and who ultimately helps Gou Wa save the old man.

Avalokiteśvara not only takes the female form of Guanyin, even as Avalokiteśvara the bodhisattva appears to be transgender.  An old Chinese poem uses this ambiguity to bring us back to how we imagine compassion and little self:

The Dharma-body of Kuan-yin
Is neither male nor female.
Even the body is not a body,
What attributes can there be? …
Do not cling to form.
The bodhisattva is you:
Not the picture or the image.  (quoted in Paul Williams 234)

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