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Creating a sustainable Buddhist feminist thealogy : Guanyin devotion among American women






Doctor of Theology


Iwamura, Jane N.
Gabriel, Victor
Gauthier, Jitsujo


This dissertation aims to highlight the significance of Guanyin as a vital Buddhist feminist thealogical resource. Guanyin devotion is gaining popularity among Buddhists in the U.S. She has become an especially powerful symbol of devotion for a wide range of American Buddhist women—convert and ethnic alike—as well as for a small group of transgender-identified women. The transformative qualities of the female deity allow an embodied access to the divine, one that is rooted in relationality and subjectivity.

Guanyin, is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who embodies both male and female gender identities. It was during the T’ang Dynasty (618-906) in China that Avalokitesvara began her feminization into Guanyin (also known as Quan Âm (Vietnamese), Kannon (Japanese), Guan-Eum (Korean). In female form, Guanyin’s non-dual, reflexive qualities offer American Buddhists gender-specific identification through symbols and images that androcentric Buddhist sources do not.

In the construction of a “Buddhist Feminist Thealogy”, subjectivity and experience become primary sources of normativity. The reversal and substitution of primary patriarchal symbols, and the re-vision of androcentric interpretations of Buddhist texts are shown by changing “theology” to “thealogy”, therefore purposefully employing new language that supports the spiritual feminine. Interviews and ethnographic observations with Guanyin devotees, such as the women who attend retreats led by Buddhist teacher Sandy Boucher, Buddhist women from various Asian American communities, and transgender individuals, were conducted in order to provide insight into the ‘lived’ realities of those for whom Guanyin is a primary resource in their spiritual practice. Buddhist texts, images and artwork depicting Guanyin will also be discussed as important source materials for understanding the perspective of the practitioner.

Guanyin devotion is part of a remythologizing movement in feminist spirituality. Through symbols and imagery, her transformative, compassionate, non-dualistic qualities open up to a world of inclusivity. These qualities are important for heterosexual women, as well as LGBTQ women and men, as Guanyin facilitates non-judgment, love and acceptance amidst patriarchal societal norms.

Degree Granter

University of the West



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