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  • Karl Thunemann

Kwan Yin and the Golden Cord

I must have had some idea of Kwan Yin before Martin placed her in the clouds above me. Maybe I thought of her as a demure presence in a casual meditative garden. The compassionate one who never spoke. Something like that. No way to look it up.

Martin was my third significant tai chi teacher, and in many ways the best. He introduced me to the idea that in preparing for the opening move in tai chi there are 37 qualities—or is it 23? –to bear in mind A great number, which I have forgotten. Anyway, seven or eight were all I could ever bring to mind. But this epistle is not about Martin nor even tai chi, It is about Kwan Yin and the golden cord. Martin suggested that heeding both Kwan Yin and her cord is part of the tai chi opening.

Preparing for the opening move, one stands erect, yet pictures a rod running from the buttocks into the earth. But you are still relaxed—such a paradox, keeping all this discipline in place while remaining unforced. And as you pay attention to your head, you notice a golden cord attached to the top of your skull and running directly up to heaven. * Far aloft, Kwan Yin holds the opposite end. One would never dream of looking up to verify her presence. You just know that because she embodies compassion Kwan Yin has introduced that quality into a rite whose origins lie in the martial arts.

I know that Kwan Yin is not a goddess, but a bodhisattva, a being devoted to ending suffering in the world. She is the“Hearer of the Cries of the Suffering World.”

I do not recall that Martin introduced this idea, but the golden cord fits into the Taoist idea that heaven and earth yearn to be together, and that human beings standing erect can help to facilitate this. Quite the conduit, Kwan Yin’s golden cord.

Eventually this would suit me fine, for when I arrived at Martin’s class I was breaking a seven-year estrangement from tai chi. One of my complaints—well, Karl, this is not the occasion to enumerate your grievances, tell us about the golden cord, as you promised. I must confess that first I had to set aside the idea that I was Kwan Yin’s puppet and banish the once-popular song “I’m Your Puppet” from my tai chi mind.  

Okay, I lived with the golden cord for several years. As I recall, Martin never offered a theological explanation of the cord’s purpose. And for some reason, I was not curious. Now Martin is living in China and not easy to contact. I have searched the internet for explanations without avail. Still, my understanding of Kwan Yin has deepened. I know that Kwan Yin is not a goddess, but a bodhisattva, a being devoted to ending suffering in the world. She is the “Hearer of the Cries of the Suffering World.”

I learned to make devotions to her, chanting her favored mantra. I have read John Blofeld’s extraordinary book about Kwan Yin, which broadened and deepened my feelings for gods and other divine apparitions. †    ‡

As a beneficiary of Kwan Yin’s compassion, I feel moved to pay it forward. If compassion were a railroad, there would be no such thing as the end of the line. But only now am I beginning to see how inhibited I have become in this. I suppose this limit is due to my lack of contact with Kwan Yin through tai chi.

Getting out of bed this morning, I picked up my cane and considered how much I miss Kwan Yin. I don’t practice tai chi anymore. I am too unstable, out of practice. Well, sometimes I run through the first section of the 128-move yang form while waiting for my therapist, who often runs late. But that too seems to have passed. In the time of COVID-19, I talk with my therapist on the phone, not in person. My tai chi form has grown so ragged; I have to stop and wonder, what comes next.  I have used a cane for a few years—Eight? Nine? –but only recently have I started keeping a cane at bedside. How long has this been? Too long, except: It made no sense to go reeling out of control, near falling, as I made my way to the bathroom. How miserable I would feel—not only to go sprawling across the living room, but to pee all over myself because I could no longer hold it in.

I tighten the flange near the bottom of the cane and rise to my feet. I press the cane tip to the floor in front of me, tapping to find stability. Ah, here is that three-legged feeling. I think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s maxim for walking: Arrive with every step. And then I stop, aware of a singular quality. Yes, Kwan Yin is still here, reaching out from heaven. The golden cord remains; can I use it? No sign declares For tai chi sessions only.

I feel comforted, and tell myself, May I take the opportunity to observe this moment every morning. §


*  In Taoist terms, “heaven” is not a place where one is rewarded for having led a virtuous life. It is more like a place, perhaps a bit on the virtual side, the counterpart of earth—heaven being yang, the creative, and earth being yin, the receptive. But of course it is far more complex—and mystical—than that.

† I have even tried to wrap my mind around the idea that the essence of Kwan Yin first emerged as a male divinity in India, and achieved her female form after Buddhism was brought to China. Also, that the Tibetan figure, Tara, is essentially the same, only a bit more spicy. I “know” all this, but if forced to demonstrate mastery through an essay test, I would not pass. 

‡ Eventually I will write an epistle about Blofeld, a 20th-century exemplar, but this is not it.

§ Only now, having reached my conclusion, do I realize I have omitted my speculation about the origins of the golden cord. I could find nothing about such a cord on the internet, but gold figures frequently in representations of Kwan Yin. Discussions of her followers often extend to the Pure Land sect. These Buddhists believe that this earthly plane is too corrupt to be transformed—so the quest is to attain another realm, the Pure Land. But of course I am not a Buddhist, and I stand to be corrected.


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