The Buddha that's become a non-binary idol

Written by Tom | 5th June 2020

Avalokiteshvara is a familiar figure for Buddhists. Considered to be the bodhisattva of compassion, they are said to provide help and assistance to those who pray to them. But over the years, Avalokiteshvara has shifted in form and gender, so much so that they’ve become a symbol for the modern day trans movement and a vessel for a proto-trans narrative. To find out more, we asked Asian Art expert Wim van Stormbroek to help unpack this enigmatic icon.

Avalokiteshvara, known as the Lord of Compassion, is one of the most revered Buddhist icons. Scores of temples, from China to Korea, have been dedicated to the bodhisattva and Avalokiteshvara often takes on other forms depending on the country. In China, Avalokiteshvara is known as the female goddess Guanyin which means ‘the Goddess of Mercy’, while in Tibet, they take on the male form of Chenrezig. This gender-shifting capacity has led the buddha to become something of a masthead for the modern day trans movement (those with a gender differing from the sex they were assigned at birth) and non-binary individuals (those who neither identify as exclusively male or female), who see a part of themselves reflected in Avalokiteshvara. 

The origins of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara has evolved in tandem with Buddhism. “Avalokiteshvara is perceived as female in China and a few neighbouring countries but not by the majority of the Buddhist world”, explains Wim. “In order to fully understand the transformation, you need to first know about Avalokiteshevara’s Buddhist origins”. 

Avalokiteshvara is often shown with 1000 arms so they can help the many

Buddhism first emerged in India, during the 5th century BCE, centuries before new strands of Buddhism surfaced in China. “The thoughts and philosophies of Buddhists diversified upon its arrival in China,” explains Wim. This was when Avalokiteshvera appeared in the form of Guanyin.  

“The close relationship between the devotees and icons of Guanyin revealed in some early miracle (a tale of a Buddha’s supernatural feats) was probably the main reason the historical figure [of Avalokiteshvara] started to morph into a female goddess”, he continues. “While most early miracle tales refer to Guanyin as a monk appearing in the dreams or visions of the devotee, the bodhisattva gradually appeared as either a “person in white” (baiyiren白衣人), indicating perhaps his lay status, or “woman in white” (baiyifuren 白衣婦人), indicating her female gender. There is clearly a relationship between the changing forms of the bodhisattva appearing in the devotees’ visions and dreams and the development of new iconographic representations”. 

Guanyin is the Chinese goddess of compassion

Art was a major and effective medium through which Chinese people came to know Guanyin. “It was art that most clearly documents the bodhisattva’s gradual, yet undeniable gender transformation”, says Wim. “Buddhist scriptures always present the bodhisattva as either masculine or asexual, however, the deity underwent a profound and startling transformation beginning sometime during the 10th century. By the 16th century, Guanyin had become not only completely Chinese but also the most beloved “Goddess of Mercy”. 

Modern trans symbolism

Academia is rife with speculations as to why the Bodhisattva defied gender (cultural norms such as the perception of compassion as a feminine quality is one example) but contemporary critical lenses have focused on the lack of attention given to the gender transitions by followers of the faith. “[The transition] was something which happened organically through history”, explains Wim. “It is only in our times that people have started to discuss this”. 

In Japan, Avalokiteshvara is known as Kannon – dubbed the goddess of mercy

That gender is performative, something evolving rather than a structure that binds our identity, is arguably one of the many tenets of Buddhism. “It’s good to keep in mind that within Buddhism, people believe in reincarnation within the context of a bodhisattva possibly being male or female. Not long ago, the Dalai Lama – who is a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara – stated that the next Dalai Lama could possibly be a woman, saying that if a woman reveals herself as more useful, the Lama could very well be reincarnated in this form”. In fact, the focus has always been on the Buddha’s compassion, so much so that Avalokiteshvara is often cited as a queer Asian Christ in interfaith dialogues, due to their sacrificial tendencies to postpone their own ascension into heaven in order to help others.

The importance of queer idols

With the amplifying of trans voices, it makes sense that ancient figures such as the Bodhisattva are being recast. For non-binary individuals, Avalokiteshvara can be read as a symbol of comfort, proving that it’s possible to move beyond one identity and cope in a world that often requires people to take on gender roles. For religious individuals who identify as trans, the Bodhisattva is read in certain circles as a reaffirmation of the illusion of gender in religion – that transcending gender can be one part of a process to reach Nirvana or heaven and that the body is but a burden, unbound by spirituality.  

Avalokiteshvara's name translates to 'the one who hears the cries of the world' 

But a more poetic interpretation of the Bodhisattva is the one linked to its very name; a literal translation being ‘the perceiver of sounds’ or ‘one who hears the cries of the world’. This is a figure who delays their own entry to heaven, in order to help others. For trans and non-binary people everywhere, acknowledging differences in each other and helping foster respect and understanding in a world that often doesn’t show that in return, is an experience lived by many. The Bodhisattva then serves as an appropriate figure for trans people, to remind us all to live compassionately. Wim notes, however, that as with any religious symbol and especially one held in such regard, we should always be conscious of appropriation. “It is important to be mindful when considering the fluidity of the Bodhisattva and placing it in the transgender context, as this is mainly a Western interpretation of an Eastern idol”. 

Still, there are few visible trans icons in history and even fewer so revered as Avalokiteshvara. Being able to see a part of yourself reflected in the past is as important as seeing that lived out in the present. And Avalokiteshvara in many ways, has served as a mirror for trans individuals, legitimising their feelings and place – not just in the world, but in history.


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