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Barbara O'Brien

Goddesses of Mercy

By August 21, 2008

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Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times today contains a sentence about the Chinese "goddess of mercy," Guanyin (Kwan yin), that I don't think is accurate. But maybe Kristof is right and I'm wrong. Kristof writes,

When the first Westerners arrived and brought their faith in the Virgin Mary, China didn’t have an equivalent female figure to work miracles — so Guan Yin, the God of Mercy, underwent a sex change and became the Goddess of Mercy.

You may know that Guanyin is a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. My understanding is that until the time of the early Sung Dynasty (960–1126), the bodhisattva was portrayed in art as male. From the 12th century on, however, in much of Asia, Avalokiteshvara took the form of a mother-goddess of mercy.

During this time there were Nestorian Christians living within the Mongol Empire, but I don't believe the Nestorians venerated Mary. All the reference books says the first Catholic missionary to China was John of Montecorvino (1294-1328), who arrived in China in the early 14th century, when a female Guanyin was already well established in Chinese Buddhist iconography. For this reason I don't think there was a direct connection between Guanyin and Mary.

However, it is interesting to me that during the 10th through 12th centuries, when the image of Guanyin was becoming popular, the veneration of Mary also was on the rise in Europe. Was there some cultural cross-pollination the historians don't know about? Or some other factor that made mother goddesses particularly appealing during that time?

August 21, 2008 at 5:15 pm
(1) Eppou Koji says:

Well, the Silk Road is very ancient and heavily traveled from Eastern Europe to China.
But, the question then becomes, was there something in the lack of a merciful Kannon that Buddhism seemed to lack?
My hunch is, Yes; The early Buddhists were thoughtful and intelligent, and they might well have been open NOT to Mary, but to Kannon, and Mary might well have been the touch they needed.

August 21, 2008 at 5:40 pm
(2) Ave Maria Gratia Plena says:

Given the nature of their heresy Nestorians refused the title Theotokos, Mother of God, to Mary and instead went for Christotokos. If you are interest. You can find out more about the Nestorians in China at http://www.nestorian.org/the_nestorians_in_china___the_.html

Whatever the appetite for Goddess worship might have been in China in the Middle of Ages there was none at all in the solidly Monotheistic continent of Europe. There was, thankfully a great growth in devotion to the Theotokos but of course no one thought of her as a goddess.

August 21, 2008 at 5:46 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ave Maria — Any being with Mary’s attributes in any other religion but Christianity would be called a “goddess.” So she’s a goddess as far as I’m concerned. Just saying she isn’t one doesn’t cut it with me. And I understand the cult of Mary was hitting a peak in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

August 21, 2008 at 6:02 pm
(4) Ave Maria Gratia Plena says:

Well the Christians that didn’t worship her knew that they weren’t worshipping her so you saying that they did wouldn’t have cut much ice with them.

On the subject of the Nestorians further research reveals that they, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, refer to Mary as ‘The Ever Virgin’, ‘Second Heaven’, ‘The Arc of Light’, ‘The Mother of Light and Life’, etc. So its arguable that this might have had an impact on ancient Chinese culture.

August 21, 2008 at 7:24 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ave Maria — you’re a hoot. Call it veneration, call it worship, but the relationship of European Christians of the Middle Ages to Mary and Chinese of the same period to Guanyin is identical. The only difference is that Guanyin “worship” is more of a folk practice, whereas Mary “worship” was encouraged by the Church. So the same behavior that would be called “worship” in the Chinese Buddhists is not worship in Europe? Uh-huh. It’s worship in Europe, too.

The only difference is that formal Buddhist practice general doesn’t consider Guanyin or any other manifestation of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva to be an external spirit separate from humans. Rather, the bodhisattva is an archetype representing the activity of karuna. Through tantra, one practices to realize the bodhisattva as oneself.

Take this to the “Buddhist Christian dialog” in the forums, please.

August 26, 2008 at 2:45 pm
(6) michael Nolan says:

An excellent read and wonderful information.
We thank you,

Michael Nolan
American Buddhist Sangha , Davie Florida

January 10, 2010 at 1:26 am
(7) YY Tang says:

There is a very well written book on this subject called “Kuan-yin: the Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara” by Chun-Fang Yu (The ISBN is 023112029X)

Hopefully it will answer any questions you may have.

February 1, 2012 at 6:41 am
(8) Uwe says:

I am ahsame the way you define this amulet.Pay some respect even you have some knowledge abt it.Thx you

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