Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ASWM Rising!

I am so excited. I have been invited to give an opening poetry reading on the first evening of the first Conference of the Association for Study of Women and Mythology, April 23. I will be reading with the great Diane Wolkstein, whose work on Inanna has been so influential on me, and I am very excited to hear her new work about Kuan Yin, a goddess who has increasingly been entering my life of late.

In honor of this performance, which I take as a charge to use the power of rhythm and poetry invoke the energies of the goddesses into the event, I am trying to figure out how to pack and bring a special secret mask, made by Stonecoast alum, the brilliant fantasy writer and all-around creative dynamo Michaela Roessner. . . tricky because I have to take a plane to read at the Los Angeles Festival of Books immediately following!


Christopher Woodman said...

Oh dear, Annie, I don't know if I dare.

I don't like the spelling "Kuan Yin" or "Guan Yin," partly because my experience of her is entirely through her South East Asian manifestations —Thailand, of course, where I have lived for 15 years, but also in Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Burma. The fact is that all these communities are entirely feminized already, to a fault even, and there is no need to emphasize her femininity — as I feel the "yin" spelling does, which caters to the western assumption that she's NOT YANG. Indeed, I have never encountered this reading of her name anywhere but in the West — in reality, it seems to me, she transcends gender.

"Guan Yin," I'd like to suggest, leads to western, New Age constructions that reduce who she is to the black/white reading of the great symbol of the Tao, to dualism, in other words, and makes it harder to see that black dot in the middle of the white, and the white window in the black which so complicate each side of the equation, bringing us all back to square one.

"Kwan Im" is the more usual abc transliteration in my area.

Historically, mythopoeically perhaps is the better word, Kwan Im's gender is constantly changing. Avalokitesvara becomes Tara and blends even into that most beautiful of all Buddhas, Maitreya -- most westerners usually assume "Tibetan" when they see Maitreya and usually assume as well that he's female with such a narrow waist, generous hips, and chest filling out into breasts, so seductive and beautiful.

He's the Buddha to come, not yet realized, and Kwan Im is part of him and is him.

My wife has two of them on her altar with Ganesha in between -- who is also gloriously feminine even with his great, irrepressible trunk gob-smacked in the middle of his face. The Buddha is on a higher level above them in her shrine -- and behind them all is a painting on cotton of Kwan Im which the light shines through, illuminating the whole pantomime.

It's a discourse, not a pantheon -- everyone of them is in the process of becoming something else. Like Kwan Im herself.


Christopher Woodman said...

I should have mentioned that the Kwan Im on the left is a gift from my sister-in-law from Taiwan, the Kwan Im on the right from Burma but given as a gift to my wife from Bill and Ida who live in Mexico, and the Kwan Im on the wall hanging behind the shrine from Chine, the godmother of my grandson — from Hong Kong.

How we grow, how we discover.


Annie Finch said...

Thank you Christopher for sharing your experiences and views from Thailand! It's an interesting idea that the "Yin" spelling, which does seem to predominate in the West (I notice it on my new favorite CD, "Songs of Kuan Yin" (which I honestly can't stop listening to), as well as in the way Wolkstein refers to her new research) is a way to compensate for the masculine-dominance of Western Culture.

Christopher Woodman said...

That’s not quite what I meant, Annie, not that it "compensates for the masculine dominance in Western Culture," but that it reflects it. Our assumption that the Yin in Guan Yin’s name is the YIN principal is exactly what we tend to do in our culture, and why even with our best intentions we sometimes short-circuit ourselves by trying to make things too clear.

Let me try again.

The question I asked is if the Chinese character "Yin" in "Guan" + "Yin" (as we transcribe "Kwan Im's" name in the west) is the Chinese character for "Yin" as opposed to "Yang." As I understand it in relation to "Kwan Im's" name, "Yin" is an entirely different character and has nothing to do with the character for the great Feminine Principal. YIN not only makes it too easy for us, but it simply isn't there in the sense that we would like it to be.

My argument would be that it is better for us to steer away from placing "Yin" in her name, that not doing that would perhaps help us to go deeper.

That relates to another question: where does "Kwan Im" come from herself, geographically speaking, and as I understand it, Indonesia is the most likely origin. Of course there is also a whole magical migration of meanings, sightings and hunches from just about everywhere in Asia, but that’s true of almost everything to do with Avalokitesvara!

My favorite manifestation is in the great faces at Ankor Wat, the Bagan temple in particular -- also straight from Indonesia and as deep and ambiguous as it comes.

Keep it ambiguous, I’d say, resist the western tendency to make sense out of things by tidying them up. Even the ‘Tao’ can become a "bottom line" in our thinking, and "bottom lines" are not to be trusted in the true nature of thngs.

In ancient China there were name taboos, and it was really difficult because it was illegal, for example, to call the emperor by his name. That taboo is deep, deep, deep, and even my dear little 8 year old Thai niece, "Pop" (as in "popular" or "pop music"), has a real name that is never mentioned by the family except in a whisper — Pichaya, the ‘Woman with the Shining MInd,’ a goddess straight out of the Ramayana and companion of Avalokitesvara too.

Some things are better not said just as some things are better not ‘studied.’

We discussed this before, I remember, and we both learned a lot. And what better place to talk about the unutterable than ‘American Witch,’ which is wonderful!


Annie Finch said...

Thank you for clarifying, Christopher!

I understand that in Japanese there is a tradition of a taboo around the word for "bear." Even in the way children don't often or normally use their parents first names, we have that kind of respect-through-silence.

wf said...


There are many who desire Enlightenment
in a man's body, but none who work for the
benefit of sentient beings in the body of a
woman. Therefore, until smsara is empty, I
shall work for the benefit of sentient beings
in a woman's body!

wf said...

Tara's vow to continue to be born in a woman's body to benefit beings is a slap in the face of Buddhism, at least in Tibet, where Tibetan nuns have little of no funding compared to monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project was started by Elizabeth Napper to provide nuns with the basics to practice Buddhism. Like the virgin Mary for Catholics, most Tibetans venerate Tara even as they exclude women from positions of authority. White Tara provides healing and long life.



Green Tara is a protector goddess (buddha). She sits with her right foot poised to rise to protect the meditator from anything that would block the path to a Buddha's realization.

On a lotus seat, standing for realization of voidness,
(You are) the emerald-colored, one-faced, two-armed Lady
In youth's full bloom, right leg out, left drawn in,
Showing the union of wisdom and art - homage to you!
Like the outstretched branch of the heavenly turquoise tree,
Your supple right hand makes the boon- granting gesture,
Inviting the wise to a feast of supreme accomplishments,
As if to an entertainment-homage to you!
Your left hand gives us refuge, showing the Three Jewels;
It says, "You people who see a hundred dangers,
Don't be frightened-I shall swiftly save you!"
Homage to you!
Both hands signal with blue blue utpala flowers,
"Samsaric beings! Cling not to worldly pleasures.
Enter the great city of liberation!"
Flower-goads prodding us to effort-homage to you!

... First Dalai Lama (1391-1474)

To develop compassion for all beings we first realize that all beings have been our loving mother in numerous past lives. Mother Love. A Mother's Sacrifice. These are the basis for opening the heart. Since Tara personifies Great Compassion, she is the mother of all Buddhas.

Christopher Woodman said...

That's beautiful, WF. I think that's a better way to place Kwan Im in perspective, and also a better way to grasp her true function — i.e. poetically.


My response above was just a caution, Annie -- I think the dubious YIN that gets sucked into our discourse when Kwan Im’s name is transliterated into abc even limits her, makes her into one of our New Age constructions which has little to do with her reality.

Poetry is better – to keep Kwan Im’s power alive keep it in images, not in principles. Bow down before it, don’t define it.


Here's a little story. Just recently my Thai Traditional Medicine Doctor wife had a white Afrikaans student who was professionally a South African ‘Sangoma.’ In other words, she was a real live ‘Medicine Woman' with a multi-racial practice near Johannesburg. I took the student to some local Buddhist temples I particularly like, and one of them had up a sign that said “NO LADY ALLOW.” I was embarrassed – I love Thailand and am always disappointed when I have to explain to my friends why women are not allowed in the most sacred spaces in the temples.

“Don’t apologize,” Vicki said. “I’m not the least offended. We Medicine Women know just why we’re not allowed in those places. Women are much too powerful, and I know that if I walked in there I could really wreck the place. That’s why men are so afraid of us, that’s why men put up those signs.

“All women know that,’ she said, “at least they ought to. We really do have to be careful.”

And we both laughed our heads off.


Christopher Woodman said...

85% of the respondents to a recent Bangkok survey on the 'Burqa' or 'Full Veil' support the French government's ban on women wearing it in public in France.

My question would be, if one polled the veiled women themselves, what would be their answer? Would they say yes, we know that to reveal ourselves is a danger to mankind, that we are quite willing to cover up ourselves to give mankind a chance? God gifted us with all this power, after all, and therefore why shouldn't we assist Him by hiding it in public? How else is mankind to survive the glory that He created in our sex?

I don't mean this as an idle question at all, Annie -- I'm not making fun of anyone. I'm thinking of WF's Green Tara with her one foot poised to take the ground should we need protection in our meditation.

So how do we veil ourselves if we know our gifts, so to speak? If we've outgrown our bodies, and know ourselves not as man or woman any longer but as that which resides complete alone and nowhere, who are we? How do we function?

I suspect Kwan Im is a manifestation not of the answer, but of the mood one needs to be in to ask the question. Kwan Im is a support, a method, a tool, shield or weapon, depending on how you need her, and not another creed or dogma.

That distinction is hard for westerners to grasp, brought up as we all are in the mindset of Monotheism and/or The Monolithic Truth That's Always True Because It's In The Books (scientific or religious). My feeling is that Poets have to re-educate our culture now by finding images that can move us on without having to challenge or replace our old beliefs.

Which, if they do, will simply move us on out of the frying pan and into the fire. At least that's what I think.


Whittling away at why I'm still uncomfortable with that YIN, whether or not it's a valid translation from the Chinese.

Also getting round to saying why I think poetry is more important today than it ever has been since the very beginning.