Has the world ever not needed compassion? According to curators at the Princeton University Art Museum, "The earliest known mention of Guanyin" — also spelled Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion — "in China comes from a Chinese translation of the Indian sacred text the Lotus Sutra in 286, which records the deity's vow to save those in danger of murder, shipwreck, and other forms of suffering." But of course suffering didn't start around the time of the Lotus Sutra, nor has the need to ease suffering become any less vital in our times.
Our ceaseless need for compassion gives inestimable value to this tale about Kuan Yin, engagingly told from her little sister's perspective. Van der Meer draws from the many Chinese legends about the daughter of a cruel king who finds she cannot abide by his ways. The book begins with the tender scene of young Princess Ling waking to find her older sister Miao Shan calmly meditating at the foot of her bed, emanating the fragrance of a lotus flower. The sisters share a special bond of understanding. When their father tries to force Miao Shan to marry, causing her to flee from the palace, it is Ling who knows to follow her sister's familiar lotus scent to a spot in the dappled shade of a willow tree.
Van der Meer's description of what happens next could be the basis for an imagery practice:
"There sat Princess Miao Shan, relaxed and natural, surrounded by a group of wild animals lying calmly at her feet. A faint orb of light encircled them all. Miao Shan looked up from her meditation and smiled, motioning for Ling to come closer."
What a heartening image of peace and welcome! And the book continues in this vein, pulling us deeper and deeper into realms of compassion as Miao Shan — who becomes Kuan Yin — faces nearly impossible challenges with equanimity and overcomes them with the help of a tiger, a dragon, her own wits and inexhaustible vision, and her sister Ling's loyalty.
What sends this book over the top as a true treasure are the illustrations of Wen Hsu, a Taiwanese-Costa Rican illustrator. She has had a personal connection with Kuan Yin ever since her father told her bedtime stories about the goddess and she visited Kuan Yin temples with her grandmother. In turquoise, orange, pink, blue, and gold that sparkles off the page, she gives us image after image of the beauty and grace of feminine power devoted to bringing happiness, ease, and peace to all creatures. Any of her images could sit atop an altar to enrich contemplation.
Written for readers four to eight years old, the book brings us right up to the present:
"This is how Princess Miao Shan became the immortal Kuan Yin, the one who hears the cries of the world. To this day, millions of people call on her when love and compassion are needed. They visit her temples and say her name with their prayers. You can, too. If you feel frightened or need to find light in the darkness of any difficulty you are facing, the power of Kuan Yin's love can be awakened in your heart. Simply think of her and remember this story."
This book will not only intrigue minds but also help awaken hearts, in children and in those adults fortunate enough to get to read to them. You can get a further feel for the book by watching this three-minute video of Maya van der Meer reading the first few pages.