Kwan Yin (Mae Kuan Im)
The Goddess of Mercy
In the past ten years, the Kwan Yin or (Mae/Mother) Kuan Im cult has become more popular among Thai people. There are now many more Kuan Yin images both inside and outside Theravada temples in Thailand. Many temples also have a “Welcome” sign related to the worship of Mae Kuan Im to attract tourists. These Kuan Yin images are not only in the southern provinces of Thailand where there are a lot of tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong but also in other provinces. The largest Kwan Yin image in Southern Thailand is located in a municipal park in Hat Yai.
Generally, when we think about Kuan Yin, many people think only in terms of “Chinese” people as worshippers of Kwan Yin. For Mahayana Buddhists, Kwan Yin is an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara in female form, also known as “The Goddess of Mercy or Compassion.” In Thailand, however, this cult is not only popular for Thai-Chinese but also other lay people who may not even be sure of their Chinese ancestry.
There are many Kwan Yin centers (samnak) in Thailand. Each center may maintain its own ceremonies, observances, and practices, which are related to Buddhism. We may say that the cult of Kwan Yin constitutes a bridge between Thai traditional belief and (Mahayana) Buddhism. Most Thai people worship Kwan Yin because they expect good luck or fortune. Perhaps they believe that Kuan Yin can give them a lucky number for their next lottery, or some people believe that Kwan Yin can give them some good advice for their business, family, health, or any of life’s problems. Other people may just want a peaceful place to “rest,” a refuge from the world, which they may not be able to find in some Thai temples.
The fascination with Kwan Yin also involves a strong belief in “karma.” To attain one’s wishes or expectations, people must practice “good karma.” Believers pray (phawana) using Kuan Yin chants. Such practices constitute a form of meditation. This meditation involves cleansing the mind as well as the body. Kwan Yin believers abstain from beef and often work their way towards becoming vegetarians.
Some observers have pointed out the importance of the new interest in Kwan Yin:
1) Such centers may be viewed as a new kind of gathering place for people to get together and exchange their experiences. This phenomenon creates a new “community,” which is not very different from people who use to frequent Buddhist temples in the old days;
2) Kwan Yin imagery and practices can be viewed as extension of Buddhist beliefs and practices, with Kwan Yin becoming a part of the Thai Buddhist pantheon;
3) Kwan Yin may serve as a surrogate mother for some Thai women. The movement is of special interest to women because for most Buddhist practices the role of women is subservient to men. Many other Thai spirits are female, such as The Goddess of Rice, Mae Phosop. Kwan Yin may be viewed as an extension of this tendency to deify female spirits of nature.