More Than a Vietnamese Folktale – the Goddess of Compassion

“To my mind, Kuan Yin’s gentle form is a worthier symbol than the figure of a tortured being hanging from a cross or of an awesome father god.” John Blofeld

I’ve known Kuan Yin for some years now as Quan Am, her Vietnamese name.  My Vietnamese mother is Buddhist and my Irish American father was, of course, Catholic.  I was not raised in the church as a child because my father thought we should decide.   As a Vietnam expert who spoke the language fluently, he embraced Eastern philosophy and tradition.  A mystic or perhaps John Blofeld, if he were alive, might suggest my father was Buddhist in a previous life.

As parents, we hope to teach our children the important things and many do so through their churches and temples.  Because of my lack of religious indoctrination, the journey is a long one, both for me and my children.   Much of it includes reading books on religion, studying great literature, and listening to learned teachers, whether a priest, a rabbi, a monk, or an expert speaker.  Yet wisdom and lessons come in conversations every day, and in quiet moments, or on a mountain trail, or with children, or like the following, experienced in a medical room with my mother.

Here is a story she told me about Quan Am.

Long ago in Vietnam, there lived a gentleman’s daughter named Kinh.  Visiting the temple one day, she fell in love, but not with a man; she wanted to commit herself to the temple, its selfless devotion to ease the suffering of others appealed to her.

Kinh told her father.  But he would not hear of it.   

Her appearance was as lovely as her temperament and for this, she was known far and wide and had endless suitors.  Her father arranged a marriage to a respectable man with a bright future. 

The daughter was torn between her duty to her father and her longing to serve others.  But there were no women in the monastery then, only boys and men could join.  This is how it was.  

So Kinh obliged her father out of a sense of filial piety.  She married as he wished.  She was not long married when one night, she woke and could not sleep.  Daylight entered the room and she saw a long hair protruding from a mole on her husband’s face.  She did not wish to criticize him and decided instead to remove it in his sleep.

She took the cutting shears and tiptoed carefully by him.  As she leaned towards his face, bringing up the shears, he woke.  He seized her hand in a fury and accused her of trying to take his life.  He threw her out of his house and banned her from the town.  She left him and her family in disgrace.

Kinh wandered for many miles and towns, taking alms and food as charity.  She had a lot of time to think.  When she could see the next town, she noticed a beautiful monastery situated in a peaceful setting by the river.  Before she arrived, she shaved her head, bound her chest and shed her clothes for rags.  She came to the monastery and begged them to accept her.  The monks were impressed with the eloquence, the sincerity, and the bearing of this handsome youth, so they welcomed him. 

Over the years, Kinh grew in learning and practice as well as regard.  And she kept her secret.  When the monks went into the river to swim or to bathe, she declined.  Everyone believed her to be shy.  She was graceful and handsome as a monk and one of the girls fell in love with her, professing her love and pleading for her to leave the order to marry. 

One day, the monks discovered a baby at the temple door, it was the young girl’s and the note accused Kinh as the father.  Kinh was forced to leave the temple and she raised the baby on her own.  After the boy was grown up, Kinh became sick and wrote a letter to her parents before she died.  When the monastery and town learned Kinh’s identity as a woman, they were shocked. 

The story spread.  For a lifetime of silent suffering and limitless compassion towards others, Kinh was recognized by the temple as a Bodhisattva of Compassion, Quan Am.

A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being and all its manifestations, including those in prior lives, in different places, in different states of being.  This story is popular in Vietnam, but there are endless stories about her.  She is known as Kuan Yin in China and different names throughout Asia. If you’ve ever visited Buddhist temples and noticed the statues and symbols, you have likely come across her. She is revered as a Goddess of Mercy and Observer of the Cries of the World.

In his book Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin (  Book link ), John Blofeld shares the story of his forty year “quest” to understand the enigma of this renowned and charming figure, whether she was symbolic or existed.  Blofeld was an English sinologist of some acclaim, having devoted his career to Eastern studies, especially Buddhism and Taoism.

There’s no doubt the reach of Kuan Yin’s influence, not only in my mother’s life, but throughout Vietnam and Asia. Blofeld’s own path reveals an exceptional story about her.  He spent much time trekking to remote places, meeting with gurus, talking with Zen masters, Taoist sages, lamas, and seeking understanding through study.   His personal experiences with Kuan Yin and the folktales and legends he recalls are delightful reading, as is his transformation and change over the course of the book.

Blofeld first saw Kuan Yin as a goddess of fishermen in a temple.  When traveling in South China, he stopped for the night and came across a pleasant spot in the outskirts of town where there was a temple to her.   

“[It was] scarcely more than a shrine room  . .  The place, though redolent of poverty, had an air of being much frequented.  I had barely had time to take in the ancient beams, the faded calligraphic inscriptions, tattered banners and coarse china furnishings of the altar when I heard the sound of many footsteps . . .  Not wishing to be in the way, I would have left, had not the caretaker . . . gestured for me to stay.

“A group of boat-women came hurrying in.  Dressed in pyjama-suits of cheap, black cloth . . . they sank to their knees and kowtowed three times with a grace I had not expected from people of such coarse appearance. …. Lighting incense-sticks and candles taken from a table near the door, they chanted a brief and far from tuneful melody, then repeated their kowtows and hurried away.”

He learned that the peasant’s conception of her is simple.  She was a goddess and that was all that mattered to them, yet the author began to realize that she was much much more.

Blofeld wrote about his senior friend Ta Hai, a Chinese physician and “keen Buddhist” who mastered many forms of Buddhism. “I learned more from Ta Hai than from any other man,” wrote the author. That is a powerful statement from someone who met so many exceptional teachers.

“I think, Ah Jon, you are still foreign-devil-man and cannot learn to think like Chinese.  Why you care about logical, not logical?  Truth have plenty faces. As you see things, so things are.  As you expect things, so things come. Why?  Because your mind make them so  . . .  I and my friends tell you and tell you and tell you that appearances are all in mind.  Why you not understand?  Outside mind – nothing!”

“Yes, but –“

“Listen, Ah Jon.  Pure Land teacher say fix mind on sacred name or speak sacred mantra many, many times, then your mind become still, yes?  All obscurations disappear. That way, you know, plenty people get objectless awareness which is first step to Enlightenment. That is very good, no?  So why you care HOW they get it?  All of us Buddhists are looking for goal higher than man can see or imagine.  You agree?   . . . You want to study Buddha Dharma, you must study mind.  Only mind is real, but now you try to put front door and back door on it! Self?  Other? Inside? Outside?  How can be?  Some people look for Enlightenment in mind.  Some people look for Bodhisattva.  You find them different? Never can be!  Why?  Because whole universe live inside your bony skull.  Nowhere else at all.  Amitabha Buddha in your skull.  Kuan Yin Bodhisattva in your skull . . .You ought to welcome compassionate Buddha’s thousand ways of teaching thousand kinds of people.” 

This gave me so much to think about.  The world in us.  All of it is in our own mind; that everything is created from mind alone.  Mysticism.  Mysticism is part of each of the world’s major religions.

Blofeld studied the various sects of Buddhism and their respective approaches to Enlightenment.  Not unlike the various denominations of Christianity, each has its own sutras (teachings or discourses) and mantras. Ta Hai convinced Blofeld that all kinds of people required vastly different methods.

And for me, there is comfort in this.  The kneeling, the Hail Mary’s, and the rosary of my father’s early life seem to complement the meditative rituals of my mother’s Buddhist chants and prayers to Quan Am.

There’s a lot in this book I don’t understand and the same goes for Kuan Yin, or Quan Am. I’ll come back to the book since it’s worth rereading.  It will be different for me next year because I will be different.  And the stories my mother told as well as what I’ve learned from Blofeld have already changed me.

Siddhartha said that no one steps in the same river twice, because every moment the river changes and so do you.

(Read the story of Blofeld’s life told by his protégé, Daniel Reid.  It is a singular and powerful examination of a man’s place in this world and his dying wish about Kuan Yin, a legacy his daughter fulfills.  The Wheel of Life, Daniel Reid )

May 3, 2014


  1. Suzanne Stormon

    So many stories about Quang Am. Statues of her stand all over Vietnam. I find her the most comforting of any part of any religion. I love her compassion.

    I am starting on a memoir about me, my (deceased) Vietnamese husband and our daughter. I am trying to remember all the stories he told us about his home in Vietnam. I’m so sorry I didn’t get there before he died.

  2. mylinhshattan

    Thank you for sharing, Suzanne. I’m sad to hear about your husband, but glad to know Quang Am gives you comfort. Stories like this keep the culture alive and show our humanity. So good luck getting them down in your memoir.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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