Miao Shan’s Tale
At the birth of Princess Miao Shan, the heavens shook, flowers fell and the air filled with fragrance; a special being had been born. Unfortunately, she was the third daughter of a king and queen who wanted a son, so she was a disappointment. When she came of age, Miao Shan’s parents demanded that she marry so they could have a son-in-law to rule the kingdom, but the princess refused, insisting that she would follow a religious path.
Enraged, her father assigned her the lowliest chores at the palace, hoping to humiliate her into marriage. The queen pleaded with the king to send Miao Shan to a nunnery. The king did send the girl, secretly instructing the abbess to give her the hardest work. As Miao Shan labored, beings from heaven came down to assist her.
When the king learned that the princess still refused to relent and marry, he became so angry that he commanded his army to burn down the nunnery. But once again his efforts were thwarted. Miao Shan pierced her tongue and spat blood into the air; her blood, magically turned to rain, put out the fire.
At his wit’s end, the king ordered that Miao Shan be taken into the public square and beheaded. Not so easy—as the executioner’s sword shattered mid-swing, his spear dissolved. Finally, all the executioner could do was strangle the girl with a silken cord.
But the Earth God Tiger leapt into the square, picked up Miao Shan’s body and took her away, slipping a pill of immortality into her mouth. When she came back to life, she went to a mountain where she began to meditate, pursuing her spiritual training for nine years.
Having accumulated terrible karma during his cruel reign, the king became ill. No one could cure him. Then a mysterious monk appeared at the palace to tell him, “If you can find a person who is without anger, ask them to give you their arm and their eye, out of which the cook will make medicine to cure you.” The king did not believe there could be such a person.
But the monk persisted, “No, there is someone without anger. She’s on a nearby mountain.” So the desperate king sent a messenger to ask this mysterious person if she would give up her arm and eye to save him. Lo and behold, this was Miao Shan, who chopped off both her arms, gouged out both her eyes, and gave them to the messenger. These were brewed into medicine, given to the king, and indeed, he was cured.
The king and the queen went to the mountain to thank this savior. When they saw her, they were shocked to recognize this mutilated woman as their daughter. Horrified and remorseful, the king finally recognized the cruelty of his persecution of Miao Shan, who, despite this treatment, had still been willing to give up her arms and eyes for him.
When the King confessed how ill deserving he was of her sacrifice, Miao Shan replied, “Having given up these human eyes, I shall see with diamond eyes. Having yielded up these mortal arms, I shall receive golden arms.”
At those words, Miao Shan transformed into the thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Kwan Yin/Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. She rose up and hovered above her parents, and then ascended into heaven.
After enduring humiliation, physical threat and even (temporary) death at the hands of her father, the king, Princess Miao Shan sacrificed her hands and eyes to be made into medicine to save his life.
Miao Shan is just one of the many manifestations of the celestial bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Yin, each with a story of transformations and exploits in saving human beings. Among these often gripping accounts, the one about Miao Shan caught me and has stayed with me for decades, not because I have found comfort in her story but because it has continually challenged me, opening the difficult subject of self-sacrifice, and sent me on a quest for deeper knowledge.
Hers is a magical tale that is in the ancient way, full of miracles. [See her tale above.] But one part of it has troubled me. Miao Shan’s sacrifice seemed to threaten something crucial in myself, as if my very life were in danger. Exploring this anxiety, I realized that besides the Chinese tradition from which she comes, Miao Shan inhabits a much more universal tradition—one that makes me particularly uncomfortable—and that is the convention of women as sacrificial victims, along with the expectation in every culture that women should sacrifice themselves for the good of men and children.
In light of this cultural imperative, some of us have a viscerally negative response to the Miao Shan story. I went on a weekend retreat with friends— mature women, mothers, some of whom had made great sacrifices for their children. These were women in the world who have occupations or careers, none of them Buddhists. I read Miao Shan’s story to them to get their responses. One friend reacted immediately, bursting out, “That’s disgusting!”
Another woman responded, “This is the history of patriarchy, where a woman’s extreme self-sacrifice is a central value.”
Why did my friends react this way, and why did I feel a comparable revulsion? Why did the Asian American women I interviewed for my book Discovering Kwan Yin express ambivalence about the selflessness of Kwan Yin? We were all reacting to centuries of tradition in which the ideal for women has been self-abnegation in the service of others.
Many of us were raised with the model of the self-sacrificing mother who was the angel in the house, who answered everybody’s need as she cared for children, husband and aging parents. Despite the cultural changes of the last forty years, women in Western culture still may be socialized to sacrifice their potential to the needs of the family rather than developing and acting from their own power. Because in my own young life I had unconsciously subscribed so thoroughly to those values, Princess Miao Shan’s sacrifice made me squirm.
Coming from a conservative midwestern background, when I married in the early sixties I stepped into a rigid set of expectations. Even though I was already a published writer and my husband had declared his support for my work, both of us assumed that I would take a secretarial job to support him while he went to school to earn a Ph.D., and that I would do the maintenance work as well—shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing his shirts, even editing and typing his academic papers. I never thought of rebelling or asking for a change. In order to accomplish all this support work, I had to pursue my writing in the few hours left after paid labor and all those other chores were completed. This arrangement lasted for years. I have no anger at my (now ex-) husband for this. I had been trained by my mother and father and by society to perform this way. Women of my generation who also had children, which includes most of us, made even greater sacrifices to support and raise their children. No wonder my friends and I reacted negatively to Miao Shan’s sacrifice.
Struggling with her story, I tried to put it in context.
First, I discovered that the sacrifice of living beings, animal and human, has been practiced in almost every culture and religious system in the world. Buddhism actually is one of the few religions that has spoken out against sacrifice. And yet I found instances of self-sacrifice in Buddhist lore, particularly in the Jataka tales, stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. In perhaps the most famous, the Buddha gives his body for food to a starving mother lion. In another tale, as the monkey king is escaping from danger with his subjects, he stretches his body over a deep canyon, creating a bridge so all the other monkeys can escape, and he is killed in the process. In both of these tales the Buddha sacrifices his own life, his own body, to save the lives of sentient beings.
In the ancient China in which Princess Miao Shan lived, a certain kind of socially sanctioned sacrifice was practiced. Evidence is found from 1500 BCE in the tombs of Chinese kings that their soldiers, wives and handmaidens were buried with them. In the tombs of the princes of the Wei State in the third century BCE, a hundred bodies were found, ninety-nine of them female. It was common practice to bury the wives alive, a piece of information that sends a shiver up my spine.
Miao Shan, whose father was a king, fits into the tradition of royal sacrifice. And because she was Chinese, she also fits into the tradition of filial piety.
But self-sacrifice, as we are painfully aware, is not just a thing of legend or the distant past. Think of the Vietnamese monks and nuns during the Vietnam War who set themselves on fire to protest the fighting. Or the Tibetan monks under Chinese attack who committed suicide in order to protect the soldiers from the bad karma of killing a monk. Think of the suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan—some of them women—whose acts engender terror, for they take innocent people with them. This very year, a young man in Tunisia immolated himself and triggered a revolution.
All these stories I find disorienting and frightening, partly because suicide has a painful place in my family history, partly because I am so invested in maintaining my own physical safety, and because I carry with me the shared memory of the sacrifice of women.
But on rereading Miao Shan’s story, I have an inkling that this fable may open to a different interpretation. I notice that repeatedly, Miao Shan rebelled. She stood firm against her father and, more radically, against convention. When the king set out to force her to marry, to provide a son-in-law to govern the realm, Miao Shan refused—and so this became a tale of resistance!
In early Buddhist stories of enlightened women, they typically are forced into marriage and domestic life. The Therigatha records the enlightenment verses of Indian women during the Buddha’s lifetime. In these stories, the woman often submits to marriage and pursues spiritual practice at home while carrying a full domestic load, until her husband and parents finally relent and let her leave to take on a religious vocation.
But Miao Shan did not dutifully submit. In twelfth-century China, where filial piety and obedience were integral to society, this refusal represented a huge transgression and took tremendous courage.
When her father assigned her the most unpleasant tasks in the palace, then sent her to a nunnery and instructed the abbess and nuns to make her life difficult, she entered wholeheartedly into the tasks. Far from being broken by his punishment of her, Miao Shan became more true to her spiritual nature and was aided by the animals and greater powers. We could speculate that she was in harmony with the universe and therefore received its support.
Nor was she a passive victim when the nunnery was attacked and burned; she performed a miracle to save herself and the other nuns.
When her father had her brought back to the palace to be executed, she was offered a final chance to save her own life by agreeing to marry. Yet she remained steadfast, and was killed.
Here again Miao Shan’s destiny prevailed over her father’s interference, for the Earth God Tiger saved her from permanent death.
On the mountain—mountains being holy in China—she set about doing spiritual practice in order to realize her true nature. She was meant to be the thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, but she had to earn that identity. For nine years she persevered. We can imagine her alone on the mountain, meditating, chanting, entering deeply into mystical states. She was honing her mind and body, developing utter clarity of mind, cultivating awareness of her interdependence with all beings, opening into bottomless compassion for all.
This period of Miao Shan’s life provided the foundation for her later action, preparing her to perform the sacrifice out of her own wisdom and compassion, by her own volition, and with clarity. In other words her sacrifice was a willed and conscious act, not conditioned or coerced in any way. Hearing that the king suffered so terribly, she simply offered her arms and eyes to heal him.
And why arms and eyes? The bodhisattva of compassion Avalokitesvara is shown with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes—in order to better step forward and save beings in the world. While Miao Shan, in her physical body, had only two arms and two eyes, lurking in the mystical or spiritual universe was her potential—her true nature—the transcendent figure of the great bodhisattva of compassion with the thousand arms and the thousand eyes.
After his cure, when the king went to the mountain to thank his benefactor, Princess Miao Shan became her true self—the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Kwan Yin/Avalokitesvara. With many miraculous signs, she ascended into the clouds.
Did Princess Miao Shan know this would be the outcome of her sacrifice? I think that she did know, particularly after her many years of practice. And if so, did she then, in actuality, give anything up?
But the story goes on. Returning to their palace, the king and queen forsook power and conquest; they taught love and compassion and brought their subjects into accordance with the Buddhist path. So Miao Shan’s sacrifice changed the lives of numberless sentient beings.
Viewed this way, perhaps the story is more about power than sacrifice. Miao Shan’s willingness to give her hands and eyes was fueled by the tremendous power of compassion, more powerful than the king’s rage and swords and fire and torture. And in the end, wasn’t it the energy coming through the king’s healed heart that triggered the transformation of Miao Shan’s maimed body?
The more I learned about Miao Shan, the more I began to relax with her story. While she seemed to lose so much in sacrificing her body parts to heal her father, in reality she neither lost nor gained, for her potential was always there within her, only waiting to be realized.
I still find the tale of Princess Miao Shan complex and challenging, but now I can view her act in the historical conditions of her time as the final step on her extraordinary bodhisattva path. More broadly, she has led me to understand that self-sacrifice, if undertaken with clear intention and wisdom, can transform both self and the world for good.