by Liza Simon
Kuan Yin may just be Honolulu’s unofficial patron saint: Images of her are everywhere in our Island city. She looks like a female Buddha, but to be more precise, she is a bodhisattva, an enlightened soul who could have gone on to Nirvana but opted instead to hang around and help us mere mortals. As such, her specialty is providing comfort and compassion to those in need.
photo by Joseph Singer
Once you look for her, she’s easy to find: She presides over the bustle of the Chinese Cultural Plaza, gazes placidly from a mural on Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, beckons those who stroll by her patch of shade in Foster Botanical Garden, reclines—perhaps a bit saucily, with one raised knee—on a pedestal inside a tranquil corner of the Honolulu Academy of Arts. In the city’s Asian restaurants, paperweight-sized Kuan Yins adorn cash registers and discreet altars. At bus stops up and down city arteries, pendant-sized Kuan Yins hang from the necks of working moms and grandmas.
University of Hawaii English professor Kathy Phillips was so inspired by Kuan Yin’s local ubiquity that over the years, she wrote poems on the deity; they were recently published in the whimsical but wise little book, This Isn’t a Picture I’m Holding: Kuan Yin. Phillips explains that many immigrants brought Kuan Yin to Hawaii from their Buddhist homelands because the goddess is a charismatic female role model, not to mention a real survivor. "Kuan Yin is like an internal ideal," Phillips says, offering a bit of advice on the behavior that the deity models daily: "If someone throws a pebble into your pond, the surface will ripple, but there’s no reason why the depths can’t be very, very still."