Over the course of his travels in Asia, the Buddhist scholar John Blofeld (1913-1987) became an expert on Avalokiteshvara. During a sojourn in China in the mid-1930s, Blofeld encountered an old Chinese nun living in an abandoned monastery. After protesting that he would have nothing to learn from an unlettered old woman such as herself, she finally consented to tell her story and to instruct him in her method of visualizing Kuan Yin.

Talkative like many old people, she embarked upon a rambling story of her youth, mentioning the name and appearance of her native village, the number and characteristics of her brothers and sisters, and a great many other things

. . . As a young girl she had been betrothed; the boy had been killed in a local squabble and she had come to Canton to earn her living as a servant. Nothing notable had happened to her until she was well into her fifties when her current mistress, blaming her for the loss of a jade bracelet, had given her a beating and driven her from the house. After that, Ah Cheng, as she was called, had wandered about looking for work somewhere too far from Canton for the unjust charge of stealing to catch up with her. One night she had taken shelter in a temple dedicated to Kuan Yin where two nuns resided. In the middle of the night she had crept into the shrine-hall and addressed to the Bodhisattva a prayer in which despair was mixed with peasant cunning.

“Holy Kuan Yin, I’m done. No money for the boat tomorrow, no strength to walk to the next town, no money to stay here. Nothing. People say you help. I am not sure I believe them, so just show me it’s true!”

While she was earning her breakfast by sweeping out the courtyard and doing various odd jobs the following morning, an irate-looking merchant came running in, shouting to no one in particular: “Those rascals have left without me! Their mothers! Now who’s going to look after this little minx? Gets in the way all day long. I’d leave her here if one of you would take the price of her keep and a bit over to look after her till I come back. Any of you old black gowns willing, eh?”

There had been a mix-up. This coarse-mouthed but not ill-natured man had been stranded with some bales of cloth and a two-year-old niece a hundred li up river from his destination. Ah Cheng volunteered to go with him to look after the child and satisfied him so well that she remained in his service as nurse-housemaid until his death a few years later. During all that time she was treated as a human being and adequately paid! Never did she doubt that all this was due to Kuan Yin’s intervention or fail to do reverence to the Bodhisattva morning and evening.

 Lingzhao as the Bodhisattva Kannon, 16th century, Japanese, woodblock on print. Courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Lingzhao as the Bodhisattva Kannon, 16th century, Japanese, woodblock on print. Courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts.

“At first, you understand, Sir, I just recited Her name. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to see Her. So I asked at the temple in K’ai Ping how it could be done. A monk there taught me a fine method. You sit down on a hill-top or anywhere high enough for you to see nothing but the sky in front of your eyes. Otherwise a blank wall will do. With your mind you make everything empty. There’s nothing there, you say. And you see it like that—nothing, emptiness. Then you say, ah but there is something. Look, there’s the sea and the moon has risen—full, round, white. And you see it like that—sea, silver in the moonlight with little white-topped waves. In the blue-black sky above hangs a great moon—bright, but not dazzling—a soft brightness, you might say. You stare at the moon a long, long time, feeling calm, happy. Then the moon gets smaller, but brighter and brighter till you see it as a pearl or a seed so bright you can only just bear to look at it. The pearl starts to grow and, before you know what’s happened, it is Kuan Yin Herself standing up against the sky, all dressed in gleaming white and with Her feet resting on a lotus that floats on the waves. You see Her, once you know how to do it, as clearly as I see you sitting there with the window behind you—clearer, because Her face is not in shadow, also Her robes are shining and there’s a halo round Her head, besides the bigger oval-shaped halo cast by Her body. She smiles at you—such a lovely smile. She’s so glad to see you that tears sparkle in Her eyes. If you keep your mind calm by just whispering Her name and not trying too hard, She will stay a long, long time. When She does go, it’s by getting smaller. She doesn’t go back to being a pearl, but just gets so small that at last you can’t see Her. Then you notice that the sky and sea have vanished, too. Just space is left—lovely, lovely space going on forever. That space stays long if you can do without you. Not you and space, you see, just space, no you.”

Towards the end of this, her eyes had closed; no doubt she was actually seeing what she described. It was one of the deeply moving experiences of my life. Seeing her lie back against the chair, eyes still closed, I decided I must at all costs avoid breaking in on her peace; so, leaving a little “incense money” on the table, I slipped quietly away.

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