The Kuan Yin Shrine has stood in a small Chinese community in Bangkok 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, virtuous and had a strong desire to help others. She was born with many birthmarks that the Chinese believe signify a persons holiness, but her parents despised her for the veneration she received. She 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 and told her father she wished to live a chaste life doing good for others. Her father was angered and tried various ways to convince her to accept his demand. The king and his wife tried to convince her, they sent her lady’s maids in to convince her and then he resorted to harsh treatment. He forced her to work in the garden and limited what she was allowed to eat and drink. Her two sisters came to her and begged her to end her suffering by submitting to their father’s wishes.
In the midst of all of this, Miao Shan told her father that she would obey him if it would prevent three misfortunes. When pressed for what she meant, she told her father that if her marriage would prevent old age, illness and death that she would gladly submit. They all knew this was not the case, so the king continued to punish her for refusing his demand.
Soon after, her mother and sisters were moved with compassion and asked the king to allow Miao Shan to follow her heart and live a religious life. The king relented, but only after he had contacted the nuns at the White Sparrow monastery and ordered them 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. Even so, there were miracles surrounding her. The garden wherein she worked flourished during winter and harsh weather and a new spring bubbled up next to the kitchen.
When the king heard about these miracles, he 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 to various places until finally ending up at Fragrant Mountain. Miao Shan lived there for many years, living off the fruit of the trees and drinking from the streams.
Several years later the king became very ill and no doctor in his kingdom could cure him. When the king was on his deathbed a monk appeared to him and told him that the king could be cured if he could procure the eyes and arms of a person who was free from anger. The king was despondent at not knowing such a person, 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. 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. The king was desperate and followed the monk’s instructions.
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, he killed innocent people and 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.
Once the monk received the items, he made them into medicine which immediately healed the king. When the king 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 the items he needed to be healed. Upon seeing the Bodhisattva they all recognized her 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. After she left, the king, queen and princesses built a funeral pyre and gathered holy relics which they then preserved. Soon after they returned to the 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. In Thai she is known as Jao Mae Kuan Im. She is greatly revered and shrine 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.