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Meet Gyanyin- a Buddhist, transgender icon

accessible yoga gender identity inclusive yoga lgbtq lgbtqia trans rights trauma sensitive yoga yogasutras Jun 04, 2024
An image of calm to suggest infinity

We were playing in Glasgow’s Burrell collection. My 6 year old niece and I, roaring by a display of tiger masks, when Gyanyin caught my eye. Buddhist statues often make me feel calm and I was so inspired to read how this Boddhisatva has become something of an transgender icon. In the 900's in China the Indian male God Avolokieteshvara, was transformed into the female Goddess of compassion, Gyanyin.

Boddhisatva's are beings who put the liberation of others before their own personal liberation. For Indic cultures, ultimate freedom is being able to step off the treadmill of life-death-rebirth, a cycle called Samsara. Boddhisatvas sacrifice this, to be of service to others. 

Gyanyin started life in India and over time became the goddess of mercy & compassion. Could there be anything more apt than an all-seeing, all-hearing, transgender Bodhisattva. A being who is called upon by worshipers in times of uncertainty, despair, and fear? In a world with so many rules on how we are allowed to express our sexuality, that tries to confines everyone to a limited, binary option of male or female, and often punishes anyone who does not stick to the hetero “norm”- this figure of Gyanyin and all she stands for feels like such a liberation. 

The Guanyin mural shown illustrates some of the forms Guanyin takes when s/he manifests on Earth. The mural depicts Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, which describes the way in which Avalokitesvara appears to all who need help, in whatever form.

There is no place where they will not manifest themself.
The suffering of those in the troubled states of being:
Hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, and animals;
And the suffering of birth, old age, illness, and death
Will gradually be extinguished.

The Lotus Sutra, trans. Tsugunari Kubo and Akira Yuyama, Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai 2007, p. 301

Avalokitesvara/ Gyanyin, manifests on earth as either male or female, deity or human. Whatever form is most needed.

The complex interweaving of different strands of Eastern philosophy are pretty much impossible to unravel. But the exquisite wisdom teachings, whichever path we trace hold one thing in common- life is too complex to be portrayed as a simple duality. 

Despite the strictures of mainstream society in India, despite the elitism often associated with yoga today; the philosophical foundations of these traditions describe the potential for ultimate liberation for everyone. Liberation is not prescribed upon moral grounds of "right" and "wrong" but a path of discovery- discovering the truth beyond the cultural norms; and that frees us from needing to obey cultural rules.

Whether we refer to Samkhya of Patanjali’s sutras, or to Advaita vedanta, or Buddhism the nature of reality is seamless- such that our human mind is not adapted to grasp the limitless potential of existence. Yoga philosophies evolve and develop, merge and divide over millennia. But they are always radical advocates for complete liberation.

Liberation simply cannot be expressed by two halves, by duality, by anything so simple! Yoga’s purpose is to help us see beyond the limitations of binaries. 

 Yoga’s purpose is to help us see beyond the limitations of binaries. 

"by absorption in the infinite.....  one is not afflicted by the dualities of opposites”. Patanjali Sutras II48-49, translation Bryant. 

In yoga philosophy (mostly), the body is a microcosm of the universe or the multiverse. We are a part of the whole. Exactly how this micro-macrocosm unfolds, has been a matter for debate for millenia. 

On of the most famous examples is in the Bhagavad Gita- Arjuna is having a panic attack as he considers the need to go to war with his own family. Krishna finally persuades him that since each individual represented by - atman or self- is still a part of the whole- Brahman- it cannot be entirely cut from the root. So even in death we remain a part of the continuous fabric of reality. 

The Chandogya Upanishad gives the analogy of clay- the clay is clay before the pot, it is still clay as a pot and even after the pot smashes, it is still clay.

There is also a rich tradition of those who go against the mainstream wisdom of the time and push Indic culture to new fields- the Buddha is the perhaps the most renowned of these free thinkers. For the Buddha there is no separate self, but rather- anatman or no-self. 

But wherever these philosophies take us the fact remains- reality is a seamless whole. Gender fluidity sits comfortably in a yogic perspective & wakes us up out of our simplistic dualist world view.

Yoga's is so powerful because we work simultaneously on so many levels. The sutras offers us ways to look and reflect on our own prejudices by recognising the role ignorance has in forming our ideas & experiences. The sutras describe how "avidya" or ignorance underlies all prejudice and is the foundation for hatred or aversion  "dvesha". This is described in Sutra II.12 on the "kleshas" , the obstacles to knowledge, contentment & to yoga. Avidya is the root cause of aversion and by educating ourselves and challenging our perception of reality we expand what we feel comfortable with. 

In turn we start to experience ourselves as wholly acceptable & learn love for ourselves as well as others. There is always another side to truth and until we see the both truths- the one we want to believe and the one that irks or terrifies us, we limit our perception of reality. Otherwise avidya- ignorance limits our perception.

Yoga teaches that we do not need to fit into neat categories of right vs wrong, male vs female, heterosexual vs. queer, black vs white, jew vs. muslim. Our freedom does not come from improving ourselves, or changing ourselves to fit in. It comes from realising we are a part of a complete interconnected whole. An undivided reality without division & without preference.

Yoga is a path of liberation. If we find our mind constrained by fear or ignorance it gives us practices to shift and expand our awareness. Free of our fears & prejudices, we can embrace reality beyond dualities. It is a path deep and radical acceptance that can free us of our fears & our shame. 

One that also encourages us to check our prejudices, to think beyond the binary and to thank all those who live differently, so that we can all appreciate life’s incredible diversity. There is no judgment here. It’s an invitation to live closer to the truth with a map of the path to follow. 

Our work is to help create a world where this is reflected in our thoughts and actions. A world without prejudice.


If you enjoyed this blog you may be interested in:

Inclusive Yoga Course practical ways to share yoga for our times with strategies for asana, inclusive philosophy, with lessons re. racism & gender.

Bursaries we seek to offer yoga that is inclusive. As such we offer bursaries for those affected by discrimination & who's income has been limited. 

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The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Edwin Bryant, North Point Press

Website: smarthistory.org




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