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.
She was awed by the life-size wooden statue of an Asian woman wearing elegant red trousers and a jeweled crown, sitting with one leg up, foot on the seat of her chair, arm balanced casually on her upraised knee.
She bought a postcard of this androgynous figure who seemed the perfect blend of power and grace, and she quickly knew that she'd "set out upon a relationship with a being who embodied something profound, at once deeply female and universally human," she writes.
Dr. Reis Habito had a similar awakening when she discovered Kwan Yin as a 19-year-old German Catholic. She'd traveled to Taiwan to study with a Buddhist master who happened to have a devotion to Kwan Yin.
"It dumbfounded me," she says, describing her first glimpse of the statue. "I said to him, 'Who is that figure?' He said, 'Don't you see? That's you. That's not any idol. That's the true nature of our heart and mind, and she is just a form for that.'"
Dr. Reis Habito, who thought the figure looked like the Virgin Mary, wrote her dissertation on Kwan Yin, which led to scholarly articles exploring the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Kwan Yin in such journals as "Buddhist-Christian Studies."
The best known of all Kwan Yin's many representations may be the "White-Robed Kwan Yin," often called the "Buddhist Madonna" because she resembles images of the Virgin Mary. Draped in a white cloak, she holds a rosary in one hand and a vase of healing salve in the other. In some versions, she holds a child.
But it's the androgynous Kwan Yin who evokes the goddess' ancient roots. Her story began in India, where she was known, at the time of the Buddha, as Avalokitesvara, Sanskrit for "He who hears the world's cries." Avalokitesvara was a Buddhist bodhisattva--a person who delays his enlightenment to aid in the liberation of all beings--and his compassionate powers are expounded in the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
Today, especially in the West, the growing popular devotion to Kwan Yin transcends boundaries of gender, religion and culture.
"To me, Kwan Yin is way beyond religion," says Ms. Simone, who grew up Presbyterian but now claims no religious affiliation. "She doesn't want to be caught in a caste system. I was just in Los Angeles on the set of the film 'The One,' with the martial artist Jet Li. He's really into Kwan Yin--the male version of Kwan Yin."
"Kwan Yin is not limited by gender," says David Briscoe, a California businessman, who founded the Kwan Yin Society of North America in 1999. "In the Society, there is no attempt to confine or define Kwan Yin as exclusively female or male. A surprising thing has been that forty percent of the inquiries to our Web site have been from men."
To him, it makes a certain sense.
"My devotion to living the compassionate principles of Kwan Yin has allowed me to be a stronger man, a more masculine man in the sense that I am so much clearer and stable in my ability to be a good husband and a solid father."
The legend of Kwan Yin says that her compassionate spirit will manifest in whatever cultural and psychological context is necessary to help relieve individual and collective human suffering. Many believe her growing popularity in America is a response to social needs.
Many say that Kwan Yin, as the goddess of compassion, evokes the softer side of human nature--the innate softness and unconditional love that counterbalances the drive for competition and dominance.
"There is an embracing, nurturing dimension in every human individual that has been somehow underplayed," says Ruben Habito, professor of world religion and spirituality at Perkins School of Theology and Dr. Reis Habito's husband. He is also a resident teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center of Dallas, where chants to Kwan Yin occur several times a week.
"But when we see so much violence happening, that's what we need to focus on, and Kwan Yin is a very powerful symbol of that," Dr. Habito says. The connection between what people need to cultivate and awaken in themselves is also identified with the symbols of Kwan Yin."
Carol Simone says she learned to escape the sufferings of ordinary existence with her daily meditations with Kwan Yin.
"You have to get quiet," she says. "Then you start to feel yourself without all the thoughts funneling in. You get a deeper sense of the essence of who you are, and of your unlimitedness. It's more of a feeling of how blessed you are."