The Kuan Yin Shrine of Bangkok has stood in a small Chinese community for almost 200 years. Before the current shrine, there were two other shrines on the site that were built during the reign of King Taksin, the only ruler of the Thonburi Kingdom of Thailand (1767-1782). Over the years, those two shrines fell into disrepair and King Rama III (1824-1851) ordered them torn down and rebuilt. Since then there have been minor repairs and upkeep done on the shrine, but for the most part it stands just as it did when it was built during Rama III’s reign.
As with most Chinese shrines, this one has a tragic story behind it. This shrine was built in honor of a princess known as Miao Shan, the youngest daughter of an ancient Chinese king named Miao Chuang Yen. Her mother was named Pao-ying and she had two sisters, Miao-yen and Miao-yin
Legend has it that Miao Shan was a very kind, gentle, and virtuous young woman who had a strong desire to help others. She was born with many birthmarks, which the Chinese believe signify a person’s holiness. Her parents despised her for the veneration she received as a result her birthmarks. In contrast, Miao Shan dressed plainly and became known around the palace as “the maiden with the heart of a Buddha.” Almost all who came in contact with her were touched by her goodness and grace and converted to a pious life of Buddhism. All except for her father. He continued in his desires for power and wealth.
As a young woman, Miao Shan’s father arranged for her to be married, but she refused, telling her father she wished to live a chaste life doing good for others. Miao Chuang Yen was angered and tried to change her mind. The king and his wife at first tried to convince Miao Shan to change her mind. When that didn’t work, they sent her lady’s maids in to convince Miao Shan to agree to the king’s demands. When that also didn’t work, the king resorted to hard labor. He forced her to work in the gardens with the servants and gave her very little to eat or drink. He treated her harshly, so much so that those around her were moved with compassion. Her two sisters came to Miao Shan and begged her to end her suffering by submitting to their father’s wishes.
After speaking with her sisters, Miao Shan told her father that she would obey him if it would prevent three misfortunes. The king demanded an explanation, to which she told him if her marriage would prevent old age, illness, and death, that she would gladly submit. Enraged by her this explanation, the king continued to punish Miao Shan.
Miao Shan’s mother and sisters ached for the pain Miao Shan was enduring and begged the king to allow her to follow her heart and live a religious life. The king relented, but only after he ordered the nuns at White Sparrow monastery to make Miao Shan’s life as miserable as possible. The nuns were afraid of their king and did as he asked.
Miao Shan’s life was full of hard labor and long hours. She was subjected to harsh treatment and deprivation, but she did not complain or retaliate. The nuns felt sorrow for their treatment of Miao Shan and awe at the miracles surrounding her. Her garden flourished during harsh weather and a new spring bubbled up next to the kitchen where she worked.
Upon hearing of the miracles at the monastery, the king ordered his soldiers to kill the nuns and bring Miao Shan back to the palace. When the soldiers arrived, a heavy fog descended on the monastery and a spirit whisked Miao Shan away, moving her each time the soldiers got near. The soldiers eventually gave up their pursuit and Miao Shan found a home. She lived peacefully on Fragrant Mountain for many years, living off the fruit of the trees and drinking from the streams.
Many years later, the king became very ill and no doctor in his kingdom could cure him. Many tried, but all failed. Hope was lost for the king recovering from the illness nobody could understand. Upon the king’s deathbed, when all felt his time was gone, a monk appeared and told the king he could be cured, but only if he could procure the eyes and arms of a person who was free from anger. The king was despondent, for he knew such a person would be impossible to find, but the monk told him of a Bodhisattva (person who lives countless lives in an effort to ease the suffering of others) who lived on Fragrant Mountain who would be able to help him. The monk told the king that he would obtain the two things he required if he would send a messenger to the mountain to ask the Bodhisattva for them. In an act of desperation, the king followed the monk’s instructions.
The king’s messenger rode as quickly as possible to relay the request to Fragrant Mountain. On receiving the king’s envoy, the Bodhisattva thought over the things the king had done: how he disrespected the teachings of the Buddha, how he suppressed those who wished to follow the Buddha, how he killed innocent people, and how he dealt unkindly with those who displeased him. Yet, as she thought of these things, she was moved with compassion towards his plight and gladly cut out her eyes and severed her arms in order to help him. She instructed the envoy to plead with the king to turn away from his wicked life and to embrace goodness. The king’s messenger promised to do as the Bodhisattva asked and hurried back to the palace.
Once the monk received the eyes and arms, he made them into medicine and ministered to the king. The king was immediately healed and filled with compassion and gratitude. When he tried to reward the monk, the monk told the king that he should be thanking the person who provided the arms and eyes instead. The king ordered a carriage to convey his wife and daughters to Fragrant Mountain to thank the Bodhisattva for giving him what he needed to be healed. The king’s wife and daughters immediately recognized the Bodhisattva as Miao Shan and embraced her, weeping bitterly.
As they embraced, clouds encircled them, music began to play, the earth shook, and flowers rained down from the heavens. The holy manifestation of the Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes hung majestically in the air over them and divine attendants sang in celebration of Miao Shan’s compassion. In that moment, Miao Shan received her arms and eyes back, becoming as if they had never been gone from her. With a solemn farewell, Miao Shan departed back onto the mountain to continue her path towards Enlightenment. Back at the palace, the king, queen, and princesses built a funeral pyre to Miao Shan and gathered holy relics which they preserved. Soon after, they returned to Fragrant Mountain to build a stupa in which to house the holy relics of Miao Shan.
Ever since that day, Miao Shan has been known as Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, to the Chinese. To the Thai people she is known as Jao Mae Kuan Im. She is greatly revered and shrines have been built all over the world in her honor. Below are the pictures of my visit to the Kuan Yin Shrine in Bangkok.
Click the images to make them larger.