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  • Robert Wilf

Robert Wilf

The Transition of Guanyin: Reinterpreting Queerness and Buddha Nature in Medieval East Asia

Project Description

This paper evaluated the changing gender and role of Avalokitesvara in Medieval East Asian Buddhism. Avalokitesvara, better known by the Chinese name of Guanyin, is perhaps the second most pervasive figure in all of Buddhism after the historical Buddha himself. Part of this popularity comes from his adaptability and willingness to change to order to save everyone, no matter what part of society they might be from. It is thanks to this adaptability that Guanyin’s iconography varies wildly by region, with much of Theravada and tantric Buddhism depicting him as a man, while Mahayana Buddhism tends to revere her as the patron of women. From their earliest description, Guanyin was known to transcend boundaries to manifest their compassion in the world in a uniquely queer way. In this thesis I will look at the history of Guanyin’s arrival in East Asia through scriptures, miracle tales, and iconography in order to trace what caused their female form to become far more dominant there. Through this we will examine their queer identity and its mainstream acceptance and understanding in China and Japan as well as how these countries differ in interpreting this queer character. Finally, this paper concludes with a push to develop the modern transgender movement.

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Religious Studies

Faculty Advisor

Danielle Widmann Abraham


Worcester, PA