Embracing the Trans Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin

Tranquil and composed, representations of Kuan Yin loom in the shadows of Buddhist temples, museums, and Chinese restaurants. With a name that means “one who hears the cries of the world,’’ Kuan Yin provides solace and inspiration, not unlike the Madonna or Guadalupe. But the legends associated with Kuan Yin are differently complicated than those of her Christian counterparts. She/he — perhaps “they” is best — is sometimes described as having once been a man, but is now a woman, and, other times, as a being with the ability to appear as a man or a woman. There is a fluidity to Kuan Yin’s shifting gender that can startle, intrigue, and comfort. As a figure that transcends maleness and femaleness by embodying both and neither, Kuan Yin illustrates an embrace of embodiment that avoids the usual traps of gender essentialism. As a trans image, then, Kuan Yin is well situated to help us imagine how we might take sex/gender very seriously even as we ma

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