SAN FRANCISCO--Carol Simone darts through the green-tiled pagoda gate into the streets of Chinatown, seeking images of Kwan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion. She strides past dragon-wrapped red lampposts, past pungent herb shops, past the Gold Mountain Sagely Monastery, where songs of Buddhist nuns float from second-story windows.
"There's an amazing Kwan Yin, in jade," she says, suddenly stopping before a shop window filled with figurines. "And that's called the thousand-armed Kwan Yin, who often appears with pheasants and peacocks and tigers and birds. Then there's one who is more motherly, like the earth mother. And that one there--holding healing salve in a little bottle."
A former Silicon Valley advertising executive, Ms. Simone is intimately familiar with the many manifestations of this beloved deity, whose influence is slowly spreading through mainstream American culture after inspiring millions of Asians for centuries. She's been a devotee of the goddess since 1989, when she first spotted a rare statue of her in an antique store window.
Riveted by the exotic statue, she asked the shop owner about it. He explained that she was Kwan Yin, the ancient goddess of compassion, who is a protector of women and represents the energy of unconditional love. Ms. Simone bought the statue and used it in her daily devotions, in which she meditated on Kwan Yin's message of compassionate kindness.
"I began feeling unconditional love for the first time in my life," says Ms. Simone, who then decided to devote her life to the devotion of Kwan Yin.
Five years later, on a trip to New York, Ms. Simone was walking down Fifth Avenue with a friend when they came upon a homeless woman lying naked in a garbage bag in front of Tiffany's, the infamous jeweler. Their offers of help were refused by the woman, who didn't speak English.
Yet, Ms. Simone says, when she looked into the woman's eyes, she felt the same magnetic force of love she'd experienced coming from Kwan Yin's eyes.
"I could see part of myself that I never saw before in that woman's eyes," she says. "We spend too much of our time being afraid of other people according to their skin color, their religion, their sex, or their country. We miss the soul part of everybody. We get scared.
"I could have been very afraid of that woman on the street. She looked very mentally ill at one moment. But when I chose to go near her, as an aspect of myself, and not be afraid of her, then all that melted away."
Kwan Yin's name--which means "She who hears the cries of the world"--is different in every country. She's Kannon or Kanzeon in Japan, Quan Am in Vietnam, Kwan Seum Bosal in Korea, and Guan Shih Yin in China. There are various spellings in the United States, though Kwan Yin is often used because it's the easiest for Westerners to pronounce.
"This parallels the renewed interest in the Virgin Mary," says Maria Reis Habito, a Kwan Yin scholar who teaches Japanese and Chinese history at Southern Methodist University. "People are looking more and more to the feminine dimension of spirituality. They're trying to find values other than the competitive ones."
There is a new wave of Kwan Yin statues, fountains, devotional materials, meditation supplies, paintings, images, books and Web sites.
This summer, Kwan Yin events are taking place all across the country. In August, the annual weeklong Festival of Guan Shih Yin (an alternate spelling of Kwan Yin) is at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a monastery in Northern California's Mendocino County.
Buddhist author Sandy Boucher, author of the 1999 book "Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion" (Beacon Press, $20.), is leading Kwan Yin retreats for women in New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington. Boucher teaches the art of invoking Kwan Yin's energy through guided meditation, chanting and altar-making.
Ms. Boucher discovered Kwan Yin at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, Mo., while she was on a book tour in 1982.