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The Bodhisattva Guanyin and the Virgin Mary Author(s): Maria Reis-Habito Source: Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol.

13 (1993), pp. 61-69 Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: Accessed: 26/07/2010 10:51
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The Bodhisattva Guanyin and the VirginMary

MariaReis-Habito SouthernMethodist University,Dallas
One of my early childhood memories is the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the blue and red colored windows of a small church in Normandy, bathing the statue of a blackmadonna and the child in a mysticallight. Elderly French women kneel in the church benches reciting the rosary: ". .. Holy Mary,prayfor us poor sinners, now and at the hour of our death. ..." Candles light a wall adorned with clutches, photographs, and countless tablets reading, "Maryhas helped," "Thank you Mary,""My child is healed," and so on. I kneel on a bench beside my father, who likes to join the afternoonrosaryalmost everyday during our summervacationin this small Norman town. For my first Holy Communion, I was given a reprint of the painting by the Italian masterFilippo Lippi Our LadyAdoring the Child. It was hung over my bed, and I would go to sleep and wake up again feeling protected by Mary's presence. In my Catholicprimaryschool, I was taught that the month of Mayis dedicated to Mary,and I would happily collect the first springflowersand bring them to the Maryin my room. My first encounter with Guanyin was very different from my intimate childhood experiences with Mary.At that time, I had just graduated from high school and was in Taiwan, studying the Chinese language. One day a friend took me to a small Ch'an hermitage in the mountains and introduced me to the masterthere. I was taken to a small room with an altaron which was seated a female figure, clad in a white garment. When the master and my friend burned incense, bowed in front of the figure, and asked me to do the same, I remarkedintelligently, "But in my book on Ch'an I learned that you do not set up images or worship idols." The masterreplied, smiling, "This is not an idol; this is you." This answerconfused and scared me since at that time I had no idea what the masterwas talking about. This paper attempts a comparisonbetween the BodhisattvaGuanyin and the Virgin Mary,two figures that are of the utmost importancefor popular piety in the Buddhist and the Christiantraditions, respectively.The fact that scholarsof Chinese religion have called Guanyin "the Buddhist Madonna" and the discovery of the Maria-Kannonicons, secret objects of worship used by Japanese
Buddhist-Christian Studies 13. ? 1993 by Universityof Hawaii Press.All rightsreserved.


MARIAREIS-HABITO Christiansduring the persecutionof Christianityin the Edo period, point to a very close relationship between these two figures. The comparison will be developed from three main points of departure: the scripturalbasis for, the popularcults of, and the spiritualsignificanceof both figures.

Judging from canonical scriptures alone, there is such a great difference between Guanyin and Marythat any comparisonseems to be doomed from the beginning. The name Guanyin is a short form of Guan-shi-yin, which can be translatedas "the one who listens to the criesof the world." Guan-shi-yinis the and is used for the first time Chinese translationof the SanskritAvalokitesvara in Sangharvarman's translationof the Pure Land Sutra(252 C.E.).1 In this early text, Guanyin does not yet have an independent status but is described as the assistantand future heir of the Buddha Amitabha. Guanyin'smain task in this sutrais to bring people from their deathbed to Buddha Amitabha'sPureLand. Kumarajiva'stranslation of the Lotus Sutra (406 C.E.), which devotes one whole chapter to Guanyin, helped give rise to the cult of Guanyin in China.2 This chapter extolls Guanyin's expedient and skillful means of protecting and saving sentient beings not only from all kinds of dangers and diseases but also from passions and ignorance. Apart from the fact that a bodhisattvadoes not in have innate sexual characteristics, this text, as in all other canonical scriptures, Guanyin is always addressed as "good young man," never as "good young woman." But the text enumeratesthirty-threedifferent forms in which the bodhisattvacan appear in order to teach and rescue living beings. Among these forms are female manifestations: to those who need to be saved in the body of a wife or a nun, the bodhisattva appears as a nun or a laywoman; to those who need to be savedin the body of a wife of an elder, a citizen, or a minister, the bodhisattvaappearsas a woman; to those who need to be saved in the body of a maiden, the bodhisattvaappearsas a maiden. In Hsiian-tsang'stranslationof the Heart Sutra (646 C.E.), Avalokitesvara is rendered into Chinese as Guan-zi-zai, meaning "the one whose gaze is unimpeded."3 In this text, one that is widely read and reveredby all schools of Buddhism, the bodhisattva teaches the truth of the absolute emptiness of reality, summarized in the famous lines, "Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness." The Tantric tradition, which was introduced to China during the T'ang dynasty,brought a number of texts in which Guanyin figures as the main protagonist and teacherof an assemblyof buddhas, bodhisattvas,and celestial and human beings. Among these texts, the Sutra of the Thousand-Handedand Thousand-EyedGuanyin, which was translated by Bhagavaddharma(around 650), is the most important and popular.4In this text, Guanyin teaches the Mantraof Great Compassion, which is recited by Buddhists in China, Korea,


Guanyin Bodhisattva,gold-gilt wooden statue located in Kuan Yin Temple, 170 N. VineyardAvenue, Honolulu. Photo by SusanWilcox.

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andJapan. This mantrais believed to possessthe power to wardoff all dangers, to cut through all delusions, and to guarantee rebirth in the Pure Land and attainment of Buddhahood. It is not until the Sung dynasty (tenth to twelfth centuries) that Guanyin is associated with an actual time and place. The legend of Miao-shan tells of Guanyin's birth as princess Miao-shan, who resists her father's wishes to get marriedand decides to enter a nunnery instead. When her furious father burns down the nunnery, she is sent on a journey to hell in order to become better acquainted with the suffering of sentient beings there. She comes back to earth, leads her life as a hermit, savesher fatally ill father through the voluntary donation of her armsand eyes, and appearsto him in the form of the thousandhanded and thousand-eyed Guanyin.5 This legend's impact has been so profound that Guanyin's birthday,entry into the monastery,and final enlightenment are still widely celebrated in China and other Mahayana Buddhist

Comparedto this abundance of materialon Guanyin, the sourcesabout the historicalwoman Maryof Nazareth are scant. Accordingto the Gospel of Luke, Marywas a maiden engaged to a man named Joseph when she was visited by the angel Gabriel, who announced to her that she had been chosen by God to



Botticelli's The Madonna of the Magnificat (detail) (1483-1485). Florence, Uffizi Gallery. Reprinted from The Lif ofthe Madonna in Art (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1985) with permission.

become the mother of a son conceived by the Holy Spirit. After the annunciation, Marywent to see her cousin Elizabeth, who greeted her with the words, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1:42). These wordswere later combined with the wordsof the angel Gabriel to form the prayerof the rosary. The Gospel of LukeportraysMaryas a pensive mother, who contemplatesthe

BODHISATTVA GUANYIN AND VIRGIN MARY miraculousevents surroundingJesus'birth and his acclamationby the prophets Simeon and Anna in the temple of Jerusalem. Maryseldom speaks, but again and again, as the gospel says, "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (e.g., Luke 2:19, 51). Almost all the biblical referencesto Maryshow her in relation to the divine mission of her son. From the Gospels, it is not, however, entirely clearto what extent Maryreallyunderstood or supported this mission becauseJesus' behavior toward his mother appears so harsh.7 At the wedding of Kanaa, he rebukesher by saying, "O woman, what have you to do with me?" (John 2:4). He distanceshimself from his family by asking, "Who is my mother, who are my brothers?"(Mark3:33). He addresseshis mother again from the cross,calling her not "mother" but "woman" (John 19:26). The book of Revelationadds a different dimension to the image of a Maryas a pensive mother, describing "a woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (Rev. 12:1). The woman is pregnant and criesout in pain at the birth of her child threatened to be devoured by a terrible dragon. But the birth takes place safely, and she bringsforth a "male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5). Since there are so few referencesin the Bible to Mary,earlyChristiansfelt the need to fill in the blanks by inventing stories about Mary'sbirth, her relationship to Joseph, and her death. The Protoevangelium ofJames tells about the appearanceof an angel to Mary'saged parents, promising them the birth of a child "who will be spoken of in the whole world."8 Mary'smother, Anna, promisesthe child to the temple, where the temple priestslater chooseJoseph, a widower, as Mary'schaste and fatherly husband. Another tale, known as the Pseudo-Melito, relates how, after her death, Mary was taken up to heaven, where she remainsincorruptand eternal.9 These tales gave rise to the most ancient Marianfeasts: the Nativity (8 September) and the Assumption (of body and soul into heaven, August 15). The appearance of the angel to Mary's parents was later interpreted as the announcement of Mary'simmaculate conception, which means that Marywas preservedfree from the original sin borne by all other human beings. After centuries of resistanceby the church hierarchy,the Marianfeasts were made official. The Immaculate Conception was declared dogma in 1854 and the Assumption in 1950.10


In popular piety, Maryand Guanyin do have more in common than the simple fact that their birthdaysare celebrated. While in the early iconographyGuanyin was still depicted with a small moustache, starting from the T'ang dynasty the bodhisattvagraduallyevolved into a female-looking, slender figure clad in a white garment. Because of Guanyin's promise in the Lotus Satra to grant a healthy male child to those who implore his/her name, the bodhisattva was


MARIAREIS-HABITO especiallyworshipedby women, whose whole existence depended on their ability to produce a male heir. Guanyin is often portrayedsurroundedby a crowd of small children, who cling to her garment and playfully try to climb on her lap. Guanyin was predominantly portrayedas female after the circulation of the Miao-shanlegend. Catholic women who desire a child or are about to give birth also pray to Maryfor protection. (On a personal note, when my own labor started, the first thing I put into the hospital bag was a small icon of the Virgin and the Child.) Both Maryand Guanyin areveneratedby fishermen and sailors,who prayfor protection from the dangers of the sea. In many places in France, beautifully decoratedboats carryinga statue of the Virgin participatein a water procession on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption. In countless tales and biographies of monks, Guanyin has miraculously appearedto those who invoke her name. One of the most famous centersof the Guanyin pilgrimage in China is P'u-t'o Island near Shanghai, where Guanyin is still believed to show herself to her devotees. Unlike in Catholicism,however, there is no Buddhist Vaticanto examine the credibilityof these apparitions. The most well-known sites of Marianapparitions are Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje;the latter, however, is not yet fully recognized by the authorities. The message that Maryhas delivered to the people who have seen her in Europeis basicallythe same: the world has gone astrayand can be saved only through prayer, repentance of sins, and the intervention of a loving mother, the only intermediarybetween sinful humanity and God. Interestingly, the necessity of repentance is also emphasized by Guanyin. And, while Christianityattributes to the rosary the power to overcome sin, Buddhism ascribesthe same efficacy to the Great CompassionMantra of the thousand-armedGuanyin.11 Both Maryand Guanyin areveneratedfor their healing powers. One interesting motif that appears again and again in Latin, Greek, and Coptic tales (twelfth to fifteenth centuries)of wondersworked by Maryis the power of milk from her breaststo cure blindness, cancer,and other illnesses. The same healing power is attributed to the "sweet dew" that Guanyin emanates, not from her breasts(an idea too erotic for the puritan Confucian censors of Buddhist scriptures), but from the tips of her fingers. While people from all over the world make pilgrimagesto Lourdes,many of them in the hope of being healed through the waterfrom the miraculousspring, Guanyin's "waterof great compassion" is believed by Buddhists to possess the same miraculous healing powers.12 Finally, Maryand Guanyin intercede not only on behalf of the living but especially on behalf of the dead. During Marianprocessions, during the evening prayerof the rosaryat church, or on the occasion of a funeral service, the last verse of the rosaryis commonly repeated over and over again by the whole congregation: "Holy Mary,mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the

BODHISATTVA GUANYIN AND VIRGIN MARY hour of our death." In the same way, the Great CompassionMantraof Guanyin is recited during everyfuneral or memorialservice.


From this discussionof common themes in Marianand Guanyin popular piety, several conclusions regarding the spiritual significance of both figures can be reached. Both figures are appealed to for help and protection in the most basicaspects of our lives, such as birth, mental and physical health, and death. Since, all over the world, it is the women who give birth and take care of the sick, wounded, and dead, it comes as no surprisethat only a female saint or bodhisattva is believed to possessenough understanding, love, and compassionto be of true help. In iconography, this unconditional love and compassion is expressedthrough the image of a mother holding a child. The child is everyone of us; the mother is those of us who nourish and care ratherthan compete and destroy. It is a sad fact that, in materialistic Western societies, women are valued less and less as mothers than for their ability to go out and earn and subsequently spend money. While in iconographyGuanyin is mostly portrayedas benevolent, ferocious images of Guanyin subjugating demons are also known. Mary too is shown crushing the head of a dragon, an image based on the passage in Revelation. This power of Mary'sto crushthe corporateevil of unjust social institutions and oppression has been rediscoveredby Christiansin Third World countries who struggle for socialjustice and survival.In this regard, it is no coincidence that in 1531 our Ladyof Guadalupe appearedto Juan Diego, a native Indian who had been a Christianfor only a short time, and not to the bishop. As in the other apparitions, Maryspeaks to those who are left behind by the establishment: natives, the helpless, and uneducated children. To many believers, there is no doubt that the overthrowof oppressiveCommunist structuresin the Eastis also due to Mary's intercession. The power of intercessionthat Maryand Guanyin sharespringsfrom the fact that they equally participate in the realm of the human and in that of the divine. As MaterDolorosa Maryhas shared all the struggles, fears, and sufferings of a human mother, and as queen of heaven she is the single most important spokeswoman on behalf of those who appeal for her help. Equally, the SurangamaSutra(T. no. 945) explains Guanyin's "two unsurpassedmerits" by the fact that the bodhisattvafully sharesin the enlightenment and compassion of all the buddhas above and in the plea for compassion of all sentient beings below. Finally, there are two levels of understanding regardingGuanyin and Mary. On the first level, expressed in popular piety, both figures are revered as "madonnas" or "deities of compassion." (Saying this, I am fully aware that


MARIAREIS-HABITO Catholic teaching is as opposed to calling Marya "deity" as the Buddhist hierarchy in China was opposed to the Miao-shan legend and its message that women are able to achieve enlightenment.) On this level of understanding, both figures are believed to be "out there," in Amida's paradiseor in the Christian heaven, and to come down and intervene on behalf of the faithful who appeal for their help. The second level of understanding involves what we can call a mystical dimension. It is the understandingthat was indicated to me in my first encounter with Guanyin in Taiwan that I related earlier: "You are Guanyin." This understandingis fully orthodoxin MahayanaBuddhism. Severalcommentaries on sutrasabout Guanyin, as well as poetry, clearlyexpressthe idea that Guanyin is nothing but our own selfless and compassionatetrue nature. On the theoretical or intellectual level alone, this understandingis, however, inefficacious and powerless.It is only the lifelong and committed practiceof meditation and compassion that is able to undo the subtle fetters of our ego attachment and give birth to the true Guanyin in us. A similarway of understandingthe "true Mary"would seem quite unorthodox in Christianity,yet it has been presented. In MeisterEckhardt's view, "virmeans the state of the personwho is free of all false images and is thereginity" fore able to bear God in himself or herself.13 To me, it is at this level that we human beings reach the true purpose of our existence in becoming the true Mary.It is at this level that Maryand Guanyin find a point of convergence.
NOTES no. 360. 2. Miao-fa lien-hua ching, T. no. 263. It has been translated into English by Leon

1. Wu-liang-shou as ching, Taishoshinshu daizokyo(hereafterabbreviated T.)

Hurvitzas Scripture the LotusBlossomof the Fine Dharma Columbia (New York: of
UniversityPress, 1976). 3. Pan-jop 'o-lo-mi t'o hsin ching, T. no. 251. For an English translation,see Donald State Universityof New YorkPress, 1988).

S. Lopez,TheHeartSutraExplained: Indianand TibetanCommentaries (New York: 4. Ch'ien-shou p'u-sa kuang-ta yian-man wu-ai ta-pei ch'ien-yenKuan-shih-yin


hsin t'o-l'o-ni ching, T. no. 1060. For a translationinto English, see The Dharani Sutra, Buddhist TextTranslationSociety,trans. (Talmage,California:DharmaRealm Buddhist University,1976). 5. For an excellent study of the Miao-shanlegend, see Glen Dudbridge, The Legend of Miao-shan(London:IthacaPress, 1978). 6. Such celebrationscan be seen in Chiin Yu-fang's video The Pilgrimage to Hang-

7. In this context, see Raymond Brown et al., Maryin the New Testament(PhiladelPress, 1978). phia: Fortress 8. E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, New TestamentApocrypha, vol. 1, trans. A. J. B. Higgins (Philadelphia:WestminsterPress, 1963), pp. 370-388. 9. See the summaryin ibid., p. 429. 10. Forthe development of the Mariandogmas, see Hinda Graef, Mary:A Historyof Doctrine andDevotion (New York:Sheed & Ward, 1964).

GUANYIN AND VIRGIN MARY BODHISATTVA into 11. The mantrais incorporated the Ch'ien-shou-yen ta-pei hsin-chuhsing-fa T. ritualof the thousand-armed Guanyin), no. 1950, by Chih-li(960(Therepentance 1028). in A "TheVirgin in 12. On Mary popular Mary: Goddess?" piety,see E. AnnMatter, to An Past TheBookof the Goddess and Present: Introduction HerReligion,ed. Carl Alone of All Her Sex: The Olson(New York:Crossroad, Warner, 1983);and Marina littlework Pocket Books,1976).Very (NewYork: Mary Mythandthe Cultof the Virgin "Die has as yet been done on Guanyinin Chinesepopularpiety. My dissertation, mit Avalokitesvara tausendHanden des Dharanides grossenErbarmens Bodhisattva sowieErforihrertextlichenGrundlage und und Augen:Ubersetzung Untersuchung Serica 1989),Monumenta schungihresKultesin China"(Ph.D. diss.,Univ. Miinchen, Series (Sankt-Augustin-Nettetal, 27 1993). Monograph in Meister Eckhart's Creation 13. See sermon20 in Breakthrough: Spirituality New Fox and with Translation, an introduction commentaries Matthew (Garden City,New by York: Books,1980),pp. 273-278. Doubleday