Deities, Prophets, and Avatars of Compassion

by: Rev. Karen Tate


Compassion is sometimes an elusive quality in todays capitalist and technological society.  Too many adopt a “survival of the fittest” mentality, detaching from those around them, denying or ignoring we are all interconnected.  Some never learn to show compassion to themselves, much less another.  Nevertheless, we cannot escape the parables and mythology in place to help teach us, enlighten us, uplift our spirits, and nourish our souls, so we become familiar with various deities, prophets and avatars of compassion. 


The Buddhist Goddess, Kwan Yin quickly comes to mind with her famous pilgrimage site of Putuoshan Island in the East China Sea. Reverence for Kwan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, crosses cultural and religious boundaries in both the East and West.  As she pours forth from her vase the waters of compassion, she has comforted many, and helped kept the essence of the Sacred Feminine alive for humankind.  


Whether he was genuinely a deity, a messiah or a prophet, thoughts may turn to Jesus.  Certainly a rebel of his time, Jesus bucked convention as he mingled among those on the fringe of society.  We all remember that angry confrontation in the Temple of the Money Changers as he rebuked  the status quo, as he embraced the down-trodden, as he healed the sick and tried to teach love and compassion.  Separate Jesus’ teaching  from the devisive dogma of institution and even recovering Catholics may revere his words and deeds. 


Then there is Florence Nightingale, a British woman of the Victorian Era, who felt divinely called, resulting in her elevating nursing  from the untrained ministrations of camp followers to the status of professional nursing we enjoy today.   Florence, an English feminist who felt women of her time led wasted and lethargic existences, shattered societal mores,  becoming an inspiration for nurses coming after her from the Civil War to conflicts as recent as the Vietnam War.  Perhaps best known for her soothing the suffering of soldiers,  she had many achievements, including beginning the Women’s Medical College in 1869. 


More contemporary models of compassion are Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.  Mother Teresa, known as the “Saint of the Gutters” held to her breast the indigent, the lepers, the forgotten, what some might call the scabs of society.  Her selfless care of the sick and dying in India garnered attention worldwide.  Though sometimes a controversial figure when it came to the sources of her donations and not upgrading her facilities to alleviate more suffering, the most powerful and influential would make time to speak to Mother Teresa and heed her requests.  She was quoted to say, “The poor do not want your bread, they want your love; the naked do not want your clothes, they want human dignity.”  Mother Teresa won countless awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. By 1969 she was operating  517 missions, 755 homes, over 1350 clinics,  in more than 120 countries.  Upon her death the prime minister of France, Jacques Chirac sadly stated, “This evening, there is less love, less compassion, less light in the world.”               


Within Buddhism, an unenlightened life is suffering, thus a fundamental basis of the spirituality includes understanding and developing the need for compassion for all things.  The Dali Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, believed to be the contemporary living incarnation of  Avalokitesvara, the male aspect of the bodhisattva Kwan Yin, has spoken much on the subjects of living a life dedicated to serving others, of being open-hearted, and practicing compassion.  He talks of transforming pride into humility and anger into love.  Of letting go of our “us” and “them” attitudes because we are all part of the whole.  He has described compassion as the opening of one’s heart and explains, “Compassion makes one see the picture clearly; when emotions overtake us, the lack of seeing clearly clouds our perception of reality and hence the cause of many misunderstandings leading to quarrels (even wars).”


If one wanted to experience the essence of the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy, it could easily be done by visiting a nearby Buddhist temple or your local Chinatown.  In my never-ending search for sacred places of Goddess, I found one particularly interesting temple located in San Francisco, which I’ve detailed in my recent book, Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations.




Tien Hau Temple

The Chinese Goddess, Tien Hau, associated by some with Kwan Yin and Isis, has her sacred abode on the third floor in one of Chinatown’s uniquely styled, colorful wooden buildings. This is also the spiritual home of one of the longest operating Taoist sects in the United States, a group that reveres Tien Hau, called Holy Mother of Heaven and Goddess of the Sea.  It is believed Tien Hau was once a mortal heroine, born around 960 CE on Meichow (Meizhou) Island in the Fujian Province of China.


Temple literature and the temple caretaker claim this sacred site was founded in San Francisco in 1852 to honor Tien Hau. Devotees brought the decor directly from China over 150 years ago as the Chinese began to settle in this new land. Those devoted to her built this temple to give thanks for their safe journey across the seas to their new home. Tien Hau (also spelled Tin How) was the protector of seafarers, fishermen, merchants, and travelers, but women had particularly strong faith in Tien Hau and called upon her in times of need or distress. Also called Ma Zhu, Tian Hou Niang (Heavenly Empress), Tian Fei (Queen of Heaven), Tian Shang Sheng Mu (Divine Mother of Heaven), she is one of the deities most venerated by the Chinese for her gifts of courage, compassion, and kindness.  Like Kwan Yin, Tien Hau hears the cries of humanity’s suffering.          

According to legend, Tien Hau, the only daughter in a family with four sons, began her spiritual journey at the tender age of 11 only to have her great power over the seas revealed to her eight years later. Falling into a trance state when her brothers and father were overdue from a fishing trip, Tien Hau had a vision they had been caught in a storm and were in danger of drowning. It is believed, while in this state, she was able to fly through the heavens and pull them from the waters and place them safely in their boat. Unfortunately due to her mother’s ministrations to pull Tien Hau from her seeming fainted condition, Tien Hau “awakened” before she could help her fourth brother. When she revived, she was grief stricken at his death in the raging sea.       


From that time forward, word of her power to save those at risk at sea spread throughout the land and when she was in her “trance state” her mother no longer called her back before she finished her tasks. She was endowed with powers to cure, and exorcise evil, as well as summon wind and rain to help her people. Though partial to those in the maritime professions, she spent her life helping those in need and crusading against evil until she died prematurely at the age of about 28. On the day of her death legend says a rainbow appeared where she rose to the sky and celestial music was heard from the heavens. Her body was preserved and is treasured in a temple on Meichow Island. Fisherman still claim they see her image clad in red clothing watching over them during rough seas.


When visiting Tien Hau’s temple in San Francisco, it is appropriate to bring an offering such as fresh fruit, which can be purchased from the many merchants along the streets of Chinatown.  Incense sticks, another good choice for an offering, can be purchased at the temple.


A statue depicting Tien Hau is located at the front center area of the temple, resplendently decorated with red light bulbs, golden lanterns, and an ornate golden Chinese decor.  Approach Tin Hau in reverence. Kneel on the red velvet pillows before her altar and speak to her.  She hears your anguish, your worries, and your pain.  She is also glad to hear your thanks.  Make an offering to her in love and appreciation. She offers you comfort and serenity.  This is the reciprocity of Goddess.


In keeping with the Taoist ideals of the balance of yin and yang, the masculine and feminine aspects of life, there are other male and female deities residing in the temple, one of which is Madam Golden Lotus.  Say a word to the Madam before leaving, and a nod to those other deities in residence who preside within this sacred temple.


Visitors may avail themselves of a unique and powerful service provided by temple clergy if they are fortunate enough to be there when temple attendants are there in prayer or service.  You may ask the residing caretaker or minister to endow a devotional icon or statue with aspects of Goddess.   This step should be taken only with the utmost consideration because it comes with a great responsibility.  Those devoted to Tien Hau (or a related Goddess deity such as Kwan Yin) believe once this act is performed, the Goddess must be cared for and tended daily.


If after serious contemplation you still wish to embark upon this commitment, bring your own deity statue (lovely representations of Kwan Yin are available in Chinatown) and ask the priest or priestess to invite the spirit of Goddess to live within it.  It will be necessary to leave the statue overnight when clergy will perform a ritual to accomplish this.  Upon returning the next day  to collect the statue or icon, the devotee may be instructed to place the image in a place of reverence and to attend to her daily by leaving fresh water or offerings such as a flower, incense, or prayer. Even if you are not instructed to do so by the clergy, it is understand you are aware of this necessity.  Of course a donation is customary for this service provided by the temple. This practice is common in the Hindu faith, and ancient Egyptians also believed deities resided in the statuary of home altars and temples alike.


Devotion to Tien Hau represents a centuries-old tradition that is still alive today. In Asia, Tien Hau has over 100 million followers who worship her at over 1,500 temples. Her most important temple is on Meichow (Meizhou) Island where it is believed she ascended into the heavens a Goddess. Celebrations in Asia in honor of Tien Hau include boat processions upon the water with fishermen decorating their boats with offerings and symbols of their devotion. Processions on land include pilgrimages to her temples and celebrations featuring competing dance teams dressed as golden dragons, colorful lions, and unicorns.  Devotees all give thanks to her for keeping them safe and bringing them good luck. 


Getting to the Tien Hau Temple

The Tien Hau Temple is located at 125 Waverly Place, one block west of Grant Street, which is the gateway to San Francisco’s Chinatown. The temple, also called Tin How, is at the top of a clean and well-lit third floor walk-up. Temple hours are approximately 10 am – 4 PM daily. Chinatown is most easily reached on foot or by bus. This is a very congested part of San Francisco and driving is not the best mode of transportation.


Here at Tien Hau’s San Francisco temple in Chinatown, practitioners whose culture and spirituality are deeply rooted in the East welcome newcomers of the West just discovering the rich tableau and inter-connection of Goddesses such as Tien Hau, Isis, or Kwan Yin.   That being said, readers are invited to partake of like-minded contemporary services and rituals such as monthly Sacred Sundays and the upcoming Isidis Navigium, a re-creation of an ancient rite of Isis held each March, reminiscent of the above mentioned Tien Hau celebrations. 



About the Author

For over two decades, Karen's work has been fueled by her intense interest and passion for travel, comparative religions, ancient cultures, and Goddess Spirituality. A prolific writer, published author, and tour organizer, Karen's most recent work blends her experiences of women-centered multiculturalism evident in archaeology, anthropology and mythology with her unique literary talents and travel experience throughout the world to pen Sacred Places of Goddess: 108 Destinations.  Her new book, Walking an Ancient Path, is expected out in early 2008.


Her published articles have appeared in both domestic and international publications since 1995. She is currently a contributing writer to Sacred History Magazine. Sacred tours she has led and organized have itineraries that circle the globe and through A Special Journey Travel, she continues bringing the like-minded to sacred sites to experience the joy of purposeful travel. 


An ordained minister, independent scholar of the Sacred Feminine, and graduate of The Women's Thealogical Institute, specializing in Goddess and Women's Spirituality, Karen's particular emphasis is on the roles of women and the study of comparative religions and ancient cultures in a modern or reconstructed context.  It is no surprise then that she is the founder of the educational, art, and cultural organization, The Isis Ancient Cultures Society.  An Adepta within the International Fellowship of Isis, Karen was ordained by one of the founders, Lady Olivia Robertson, at Clonegal Castle in Ireland.  More than a decade ago, the author began the Iseum of Isis Navigatum, a hearth of the Goddess within the FOI, which continues to fulfill her calling to help mid-wife the rebirth of the Divine Feminine in contemporary society. 

Tate's insatiable curiosity, scholastic achievements and special interests help define her focus of building bridges between cultural and spiritual communities and promoting ideals of partnership, inclusivity, compassion and continuing education.


To accomplish these goals, she is instrumental in sponsoring informative programs, workshops, ritual performances and artistic and cultural events in and around Los Angeles.  Karen resides in Venice, CA with her husband, Roy, her life partner for more than twenty years.  They are the creators, artists, and caretakers of the Isis Temple of Thanksgiving.


Karen was nominated for the Pagan Pride Day 2006 Community Service Award.