Kuan Im Chokchai

One of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Buddhism is Avalokitesvára. He is considered the founder of Mahayana Buddhism. If the Buddha is best known for teaching enlightenment, Avalokitesvara is known for teaching compassion.

The Bodhisattva travelled to China, where his legend turned him into a Goddess, known in the West as Kwan Yin, or in Thailand as Kuan Im. In India, She is worshipped as Tara. All these figures, whether Boddhisttva or Goddess, are very popular, even in countries where the formal theory of Buddhism doesn’t recognize her. (This should surprise no one who is familiar with the role of Mary in Catholic countries, honored far beyond her Biblical role).

Yesterday I had a brush with Darkness. I put that story on another social-network site which I use for items of short-term concern. It’s relevant here because it reminded me to be grateful for good health, so I decided it was time for a visit with my beloved Boddhisattva. Every Buddhist temple that I’ve seen in Thailand has at least a shrine to the Feminine, but in Chiang Mai there seems to be just one temple devoted especially to Kuan Im. So Esso and I went to check it out this morning.

The main Buddhist school in Thailand is Theravada, but an influx of Chinese at some point in history brought the Mahayana version. If there are doctrinal differences, I don’t know them; but there are different hierarchies, and, more visibly, different styles of art. I knew enough to expect that before we arrived, but I was still surprised by many of the twists. To start, there is a big pagoda at the entrance.

Next, a series of temples, numbered from 1-4, honoring different deities. What surprises me the most is that number 1 is Shiva. Yes, the Hindu god Shiva, who has no role in Buddhism that I know of. Why are Chinese-descended Thai Buddhists putting a Hindu god in the number 1 temple? I have no idea.

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Number two is also confusing. It’s a gazebo-like structure with a panorama of statues, some familiar, some not. (They are all facing toward the center of the gazebo, so the lighting is very bad for photos).

Number three is the familiar “laughing Buddha,” known in China as Ho Tai. Again, I’m not familiar with his role in the pantheon.

With number 4 we come to the main temple, the Kuan Im shrine. The culturally-familiar figure of Kwan Yin stands at the center, with a larger statue of the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara behind her, as if to honor her pedigree.

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There is a second level to this structure. We go upstairs to find a large seated Buddha in the place of honor.

But none of these are the main focus of the compound. The center is dominated by a huge dragon. The is an inviting pathway to enter its mouth, if you dare. Lying next him is an equally imposing tiger. You actually can walk all the way through these long structures; the insides are filled with… well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

I have already mentioned that this temple belongs to the minority Mahayana community. Many tourists come here from China, so you’d think this would be quite a draw for both tourists and Chinese-descended residents. But actually, we were the only visitors this morning; we had the whole compound to ourselves. When I wanted to buy a statuette from the gift shop, we were able to find someone in charge–a nun, of course, since it’s a women’s temple, I suppose. She didn’t seem too thrilled to be dealing with me, but whether that was more because of my race or my gender I cannot guess.

 

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