Sunday, 4 November 2012

Kwan Yin

Eeek! I looked out of the window just now, and this is what I saw - snow on the hills over Bath, and it's only the beginning of November!

I have a busy weekend coming up - I go to a wedding on Friday, then the next day I take a young friend and her brother clay shooting to celebrate his birthday. then in the same evening, I celebrate the 50th birthday of another friend. I was on the phone to the shooting-ground to make sure I didn't have to book up, when halfway through the conversation, I looked up to see the snow. I paused for a second or two, and had to remind myself what time of year it is.

Sarah Toa has just posted about the almost ritualistic way she is disposing of some cherished objects, and it reminded me of two things.

The first was that scene in the film, 'Harold and Maude', where the young man and his elderly lover are standing on the pier of a seaside amusement arcade, and he has just made her a metal name tag using one of those 'punch it yourself' machines, on which he has stamped his undying love for her.

When he hands it to her, she says that this is the most wonderful gift she has ever received, then immediately throws it into the sea. Seeing the look of horror and dismay on his face, she quickly says, "Now I will always know where it is!"

The second is that - when I was a young man - an unusual antique dealer gave me a present of a little wooden, Buddhist figure of Kwan Yin, dating from about 1750. Kwan Yin was the Chinese deity representing compassion, and the deity herself was a woman who achieved enlightenment and was about to leave the earth never to return to it's misery, when she had a last-minute wave of compassion and turned back to stay behind and help all the suffering people on earth, rather than bask in paradise for all eternity.

For this reason, all Kwan Yin figures are represented in a classic, cross-legged posture, but with their shoulders turned slightly to one side to show that she turned back to help others.

My little figure was a dark reddish coloured wooden thing which had been heavily lacquered with traces of old gold, and sat about 6 inches high. The dealer told me that I must never sell it, and I never did.

Beneath the wooden figure was a lid to a small compartment, and when you prised the lid off, there was a little bundle of ancient coloured silk, and inside this silk where dozens of little gifts to Kwan Yin, given by her previous owners. I found seed-pearls, incense, silk threads, tiny shards of gold, etc. etc.

The other rule attached to this gift was that the little compartment should never be opened without leaving another gift for her, and because space was short, the gift should be carefully considered.

Over the years, this domestic goddess had been misused and abused, culminating in an act of such barbarism, that I felt extreme compassion for the goddess of compassion herself.

Someone - many years before - had prayed to this Kwan Yin for help, and when the help did not seem to arrive, he/she punished her by cutting off her hands. Where her hands should have been, resting on her lap in front of her, there were crude saw-cuts exposing the bare wood she was made out of. You will find many antique Kwan Yin figures mutilated in this way.

So my gift to her was a tiny ink drawing of a pair of hands, carefully folded up in the bundle of silk before the lid went back on. I hope she accepted them in the apologetic spirit in which they were given.

One day, I had to move house and was worried about the safety of my Kwan Yin, so I gave her to my mother. I told my mother all that I have told you now, and she opened the little trapdoor and left her own little gift. I don't know what that gift was, and never will.

Kwan Yin sat by my mother's bedside for many years, and was there at the very moment she died of a heart attack in bed, whilst watching T.V. My mother came out with the best last words I have ever heard anyone speak the instant before death. She didn't like the program they were watching, and turned to my father saying, "This is a load of rubbish. What's on the other side?"

My eldest sister was left in charge of the house-clearance after the death of Dad, and - being a devout and cultish Christian - abhorred the little Kwan Yin, suggesting it should be thrown away in the rubbish. I once again took charge of Kwan Yin, and she lived - unnoticed and gathering dust - in a little niche high in the wall of my previous workshop in town.

Then, one day, a young woman came in and immediately was drawn to the little niche, to the exclusion of all else - she was the only person to have noticed Kwan Yin over about 5 years. She asked if she was for sale, and I said that she was definitely not, but she could take her for free. The young woman said that she really must give me some money for her, but I said that she definitely must not.

I told the girl all I have told you above, and she left with Kwan Yin, promising to take good care of her. I hope that Kwan Yin has taken good care of her too.


  1. SNOW... My goodness.

    No doubt the young lady who received your kind gift had large threepenny bits, and a cute smile. You devil!

    1. Maybe, but she wasn't so generous as I was.

  2. Harold and Maude
    One of my favourite films

    Psychiatrist: That's very interesting, Harold, and I think, very illuminating. There seems to be a definite pattern emerging. And, of course, this pattern, once isolated, can be coped with. Recognize the problem, and you are halfway on the road to its, uh, its solution. Uh, tell me, Harold, what do you do for fun? What activity gives you a different sense of enjoyment from the others? Uh, what do you find fulfilling? What gives you that... special satisfaction?
    Harold: ...I go to funerals.

  3. Snow! My goodness--a friend of mine who lives in the UK said they were predicting a cold winter this there year, but i didn't hear an early one as well!

    I love the story of Kwan Yin. My father was in the Korean War and whilst in the Orient, he picked up a small, teak Buddha. He's standing, hands stretched up, and laughing. He told us kids to rub Buddha's belly for luck, and it sat on his dresser for years. After Dad died, i kept the Buddha. One of his hands is partially off--i can't tell if the wood split, or if he was dropped once, and his hand chipped away. I still sometimes rub his belly.

  4. I am having a bit of trouble connecting with Blogger today - maybe this is the light dusting of snow? (This is the 2nd time I have written this, for instance.)

  5. Hi Tom, that is a lovely Kwan Yin story. Mine is standing, not sitting, and she is holding a baby.
    Snow! But what a great view from your window! Odd, summer is coming here and it has just started hailing as I write this.
    Thanks for the link.