Guest Room: The White Robed Goddess and the Heart

The Image of White-robed Guanyin Helping to Cultivate the Heart

Nirtan Ekaterina Pasnak

This year there have been several retreats using the theme “Dimensions of the Heart,” based on the verse from the Vadan:
Man’s ideal shows the height of his heart;
man’s understanding shows the depth of his heart;
man’s perception shows the length of his heart;
man’s sympathy shows the breadth of his heart;
but the fourth dimension of man’s heart is seen by all that it contains within itself.
Each day of the retreat was dedicated to one of these dimensions, the height, depth, length and breadth of the heart, as well as that elusive fourth or maybe fifth dimension shown by all that the heart contains.

Gakuo Zokyu (Japanese artist, active about 1482-1514). Water-Moon Kannon, late 1400s/early 1500s. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 104,5 x 44 cm (painting only). The Cleveland Museum of Art

To comprehend these ideas better and make them sink deeper into the consciousness, I felt a visual image was necessary, something that could be placed in the heart and make the teaching work from within. Suddenly, at the retreat in Barcelona, during a discussion of the ideal, an image of white-robed Guanyin came vividly to mind. This is a traditional image used in Chan and Zen Buddhism, depicting a bodhisattva called Avalokiteshvara in India and Guanyin in China. A bodhisattva is a highly spiritually evolved being, who instead of attaining the final release of buddhahood, prefers, out of compassion for humanity, to return to the earth to help people find the way towards the truth. Tibetans believe that rinpoches [highly respected lamas] for example, are reincarnated Avalokiteshvaras.

The image of white-robed or water-moon Guanyin evolved during the 13th century, when mysticism in the form of Chan Buddhism had wide acclaim. The meaning of this image was shown to me by Professor Matsumoto of the University of British Columbia, a devout Buddhist teacher of Chinese art to whom I am deeply grateful.

This composition often depicts a contemplative female figure cloaked in a white mantle, sitting or standing in a desolate mountainous landscape beside a still lake, gazing at a reflection of the moon.

Muqi, White-Robed Guanyin, Crane and Gibbons, hanging scrolls, ink on silk, 13th century. Each 173.9×98.8 cm. Daitokuji, Kyoto

This iconography of white robed Guanyin was started by Muqi in the late 13th century whose simple work with brush and ink created an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation  This peace and loving kindness radiates from the whole figure of the bodhisattva, as if it was painted directly from life from a deeply meditative and evolved human being. Muqi himself was a monk and his meditative experience is directly reflected in his painting. A flask beside Guanyin contains the elixir of eternal life, and the message is clear: the one who follows this path of wisdom and sympathy for all suffering beings will attain eternal life and find release. This painting by Muqi has been kept for centuries in the Zen monastery in Kyoto, Japan, fulfilling its spiritual purpose.

Coming back to the phrase of Murshid, how can we see the dimensions of the heart in this beautiful image?

Man’s ideal shows the height of his heart…

The visual representation of the ideal can be perceived in the image of the moon. As the sun is too powerful to look at directly, we can see its reflection in the form of the moon; so it is with the Truth. It cannot be seen but can be perceived through a series of reflections. Guanyin does not look at the moon in the sky, she looks at the reflection of the moon in the lake. What is that lake? It is the heart itself. When the lake of the heart is still, then the reflection of the moon can be seen clearly. This moon high up in the sky can be perceived as the visual representation of the ideal of man. The higher in the sky is the ideal that is reflected in the heart, the higher rises the “ceiling” of the heart.

Man’s understanding shows the depth of his heart…

The depth of that lake of the heart is the understanding. The deeper is that lake, the more it can absorb various points of view, and the more profound becomes our understanding.

Man’s perception shows the length of his heart…

Perception is the ability to stretch our kind, sympathetic attention toward others and see their feelings reflected within the lake of our heart. To maintain the watery image, this could be visualised as the invisible tentacles of an octopus-like heart that senses the condition of the heart of another. In the metaphor of the contemplative bodhisattva, these “tentacles of sympathy” are all the streams, waterfalls and rivers that descend into the lake. They are feeding the lake; they bring fresh water into our lake, connecting us with the world around us. The further we can stretch out, the longer is the reach of our heart, the more encompassing it becomes, the happier it becomes as it knows not isolation. In some images of the Guanyin we can see behind her a descending waterfall, representing the stream feeding the lake of the heart.

Man’s sympathy shows the breadth of his heart…

Sympathy or loving kindness is the very nature of the bodhisatva Avalokiteshvara and represents the ideal of Buddhism. As Buddha taught, it is not enough to achieve great skill in concentration and meditation, to be able to control one’s body and mind. In order to achieve the final release or buddhahood, the adept must develop the attitude of loving kindness, sympathy and compassion for all sentient beings. What does it mean to sympathise with others? All humans have faults, and willingly or unwillingly cause us pain. Murshid teaches us in the texts first published in the blog here and here, that we should ”drink all urge of criticism”; we should be able to forgive the faults of others and overlook them. That can be achieved only if the shores of the lake of the heart are wide enough to receive all, absorb all and not be affected by the troubles of the world. This turbulent world is symbolically represented by two panels on either side of Guanyin, the agitated stride of the crane who cries out with a  human voice the sorrows of the world, and the protective embrace of the frightened mother gibbon holding tight her little baby. It is a world that has no influence on Guanyin. The lake of her heart must be so infinitely wide that she sits in total peace and serenty, able to accept all, sympathise with all and yet remain unaffected.

but the fourth dimension of man’s heart is seen by all that it contains within itself.

This dimension describes the “akasha” or space of the heart itself; it can be seen in the quality of the water, how polluted or clean it is. The notion of a white-robed deity evokes the ideal of purity, and speaks of the clean and transparent lake of the heart, whose surface is like a polished mirror and is not rusted, as Murshid said. It is only when the waters are clean and not mixed with other substances, when the bottom is also polished and reflective, and the surface of the waters are still, that the heart is able to reflect its Divine nature and see the Truth within.

Muqi’s painting is a triptych, with two more panels added to the central image of the water moon Guanyin. The powerful and graceful crane that cries out with a human voice as he walks decisively forward is on Guanyin’s right side, while the two gibbons, the mother and her little baby sitting on the pine branch, are staring at us in fear on Guanyin’s left. Both panels give an unsettling feeling, reflecting the suffering of the world that stands outside the protective, contemplative environment of a monastery–or a Sufi retreat at the Dargah! Release from that suffering can be found only in the spiritual realm, in the state of meditation represented by Guanyin. Another interpretation of the three panels can be through the understanding of the flow of energies, of jelal, jemal and kemal. Life constantly flows from the active side (represented by the stride of the crane) to the receptive side (shown by the motherly embrace of the gibbon) and it passes through kemal, the place of absolute stillness, which is best experienced in mediation, as in this image of supreme compassion.

This highly spiritual painting has been used for almost a thousand years in Zen monasteries to inspire monks to follow the path of loving kindness and help them in their spiritual development. It can help us in our Sufi training as well. If we can see within our heart the image of that infinitely loving, compassionate and inwardly still white-robed Guanyin, with the moon and the endlessly large lake, wide, deep, clear and transparent, with myriad streams and waterfalls descending into it, and thereby keep attuned to the perfect silence, serenity and loving kindness of the bodhisattva, then we could cultivate our hearts and expand its dimensions to infinity, so that it may contain the whole of the universe.

6 Replies to “Guest Room: The White Robed Goddess and the Heart”

  1. Abdel Kabir

    Wow… What a fantastic metaphor of the lake and the heart; and what a wonderful interpretation of these Muqi paintings. Thank you very much Nirtan and Murshid Nawab, very beautiful and inspiring. Love

    • Mahila

      Gracias Nirtan magnífica y bella tu claridad para que sintamos más vivida mente las enseñanzas en nuestros corazones.
      Recibe un amoroso abrazo y otro para mi querido Maestro Nawab.

  2. Nuria Daly

    This is a most beautiful image of the Divine Feminine and something that can be meditated on – endlessly.
    Thank you both.

  3. Sakina

    Thank you, thank you Nirtan, by giving me/us this image, the Message becomes more and more “simple” , this is what it is. ..thank you

  4. Juan Amin Betancur

    Thank you dear Nirtan! A wonderful Sufi teaching uncovered by your pure sentient heart in such a beautiful painting. And in addition, a detailed and inspired lecture of ancient eastern art. Thank you again and again…

  5. Bhakti Parkhurst

    Thank you so much for this, Nirtan. Many, many years ago when I was a young woman, i met a Ch’an monk in Sydney, who asked me a question, which I answered. My reply prompted him to tell me that I needed to develop my heart, that I had been knocking on too many doors and that it didn’t matter which door I chose, but that I needed to choose one and enter. He also talked about the reflection of the moon in water . it was being translated from Chinese, so at times it was difficult to understand . He talked about seeing the moon even in a puddle. This last part of his message was always a little abstruse. Was I to look in puddles? Now with your explanation I understand the reference. At the time we were all given Chinese names, and I was given a name meaning the wisdom of the autumn moon. It has taken me well into the autumn of my life to understand the metaphor of the reflection of the moon in water. Thank you. With deep gratitude Bhakti.


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