The Legend of Miao-shan Translated by Glen Dudbridge
In Chinese Buddhism, Kuan-yin or Guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion, which is almost
always portrayed as female. According to a popular legend, Kuan-yin is an incarnation of a
princess by the name of Miao-shan who was eager to pursue a life of Buddhist celibacy despite
her parents’ wishes. The legend probably dates to the 6th or 7th century CE, although it was first
written down much later.
Tao-hsuan once asked a divine spirit about the history of the bodhisattva Kuan-yin. The spirit
In the past there was a king whose name was Miao-chuang-yen. His lady was named Pao-ying.
She bore three daughters, the eldest Miao-yen, the second Miao-yin, and the youngest Miao-
At the time of Miao-shan's conception the queen dreamed that she swallowed the moon. When
the time came for the child to be born, the whole earth quaked, and wonderful fragrance and
heavenly flowers were spread near and far. The people of that country were astounded. At birth
she was clean and fresh without being washed. Her holy marks were noble and majestic, her
body was covered over with many-colored clouds. The people said that these were signs of the
incarnation of a holy person. Although the parents thought this extraordinary, their hearts were
corrupt, and so they detested her.
As she grew up Miao-shan became naturally kind and gentle. She dressed plainly and ate only
once a day. In the palace she was known as "the maiden with the heart of a Buddha." By her
good grace the ladies in waiting were converted to Buddhism; all turned to the good life and
renounced their desires. The king took some exception to this and prepared to find her a
husband. Miao-shan, with integrity and wisdom, said: "Riches and honor are not there forever,
glory and splendor are like mere bubbles or illusions. Even if you force me to do base menial
work, I will never change my resolve to remain chaste."
When the king and his lady sent for her and tried to coax her, she said: "I will obey your august
command if it will prevent three misfortunes."
The king asked: "What do you mean by 'three misfortunes'?"
She said: "The first is this: when the men of this world are young, their face is as fair as the jade-
like moon, but when they grow old, their hair turns white and their face is wrinkled; in motion
or repose they are in every way worse off than when they were young. The second is this: a
man's limbs may be lusty and vigorous, he may step as lithely as if flying through the air, but
when suddenly an illness befalls him, he lies in bed without a single pleasure in life. The third is
this: a man may have a great assembly of relatives, may be surrounded by his nearest and
dearest, but suddenly one day it all comes to an end [with his death]; although father and son
are close kin they cannot take one another's place. If you can prevent these three misfortunes,
then you will win my consent to a marriage. If not, I prefer to retire to pursue a life of religion.
When one gains full understanding of the original mind, all misfortunes of their own accord
cease to exist."
The king was angry. He forced her to work at gardening and reduced her food and drink. Even
her two sisters went privately to make her change her mind, but Miao-shan held firm and
would not turn back. When the queen personally admonished her, Miao-shan said: "In all the
emotional entanglements of this world there is no term of spiritual release. If close kin are
united, they must inevitably be sundered and scattered. Rest at ease, mother. Luckily you have
my two sisters to care for you. Do not be concerned about Miao-shan."
The queen and the two sisters therefore asked the king to release Miao-shan to follow a
religious calling. The king was angry. He called for the nuns at White Sparrow monastery, and
charged them to treat her so harshly that she would change her mind. The nuns were
intimidated and gave her the heaviest tasks to do — fetching wood and water, working with
pestle and mortar, and running the kitchen garden. In response to her, the vegetables flourished
even in winter, and a spring welled up beside the kitchen.
Much time went by, and Miao-shan still held firm to her purpose. When the king heard about
the miracles of the vegetables and the spring of water, he was furious. He sent soldiers to bring
back her head and to kill the nuns. As they were arriving, mountains of cloud and fog suddenly
appeared, totally obscuring everything. When it cleared, Miao-shan was the one person they
could not find. She had been borne off by a spirit to a cliff in another place. The spirit then said:
"The land here is too barren to sustain existence." He moved her altogether three times before
they reached the Fragrant Mountain (Hsiang-shan). Miao-shan dwelt there, eating from the
trees, drinking from the streams.
Time went by, and the king contracted jaundice. His whole body was corrupt and festering, and
he could no longer sleep or eat. None of the doctors could cure him. He was about to die when
a monk appeared, saying he was well able to cure him, but would need the arms and eyes of
one free from anger. The king found this proposal extremely difficult to meet. The monk said:
"On Fragrant Mountain, in the southwest of your majesty's dominion, there is a bodhisattva
engaged in religious practices. If you send a messenger to present your request to her you can
count on obtaining the two things."
The king had no choice but to command a palace equerry to go and convey his message. Miao-
shan said: "My father showed disrespect to the Three Treasures, he persecuted and suppressed
the True Doctrine, he executed innocent nuns. This called for retribution." Then she gladly cut
out her eyes and severed her arms. Giving them to the envoy, she added instructions to exhort
the king to turn towards the good, no longer to be deluded by false doctrines.
When the two things were submitted to him, the monk made them up into medicine. The king
took it and instantly recovered. He generously rewarded the monk-physician. But the monk
said: "Why thank me? You should be thanking the one who provided the arms and eyes."
Suddenly he was gone. The king was startled by this divine intervention. Ordering a coach, he
went with his lady and two daughters to the hills to thank the bodhisattva.
They met, and before words were spoken the queen already recognized her: it was Miao-shan.
They found themselves choking with tears. Miao-shan said: "Does my lady remember Miao-
shan? Mindful of my father's love, I have repaid him with my arms and eyes." Hearing her
words, the king and queen embraced her, bitterly weeping. The queen was about to lick the
eyes with her tongue, but before she could do so, auspicious clouds enclosed all around, divine
musicians began to play, the earth shook, and flowers rained down. And then the holy
manifestation of the Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes was revealed, hovering majestically in
the air. Attendants numbered tens of thousands of voices celebrating the bodhisattva's
compassion resounded to shake the mountains and valleys. In a moment, the bodhisattva
reverted to her former person, then with great solemnity departed. The king, the queen, and the
two sisters made a funeral pyre, preserved the holy relics, and on that same mountain built a
Tao-hsuan again asked: "The bodhisattva can take mortal form in any place and surely ought
not to be present solely at Fragrant Mountain?" The spirit replied: "Of all sites at present within
the bounds of China, Fragrant Mountain is pre-eminent. The mountain lies two hundred
leagues to the south of Mount Sung. It is the same as the Fragrant Mountain in present day Ju-