Thursday, January 12, 2012

David Marshall: "Guan Yin"

I read Chapter 8 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. This chapter is entitled “Guan Yin”. Guan Yin is an East Asian goddess of compassion. Marshall opens this chapter with a story about a man’s concubine and his son. The son hated his father’s concubine because his father paid more attention to the concubine than to his wife, who was the son’s mother. On a family picnic, there were bandits nearby, and the son planned to kill his father’s concubine, thinking that the bandits would be blamed. But the concubine cried out to Guan Yin, and the son could not lift a finger against her. The son eventually became an official in Taiwan, and he told an American friend that the concubine was immoral, but that Guan Yin, a compassionate bodhisattva, desires to save every sentient being, regardless of how moral or immoral they are.

(On a side note, what would Marshall do with this story? It’s an eyewitness account of an event that appears to be supernatural. Does this account verify the existence of Guan Yin, the way that Marshall believes that the Gospels as eyewitness accounts support the truth of Christianity?)

Marshall believes that there are parallels between Guan Yin and Jesus. He quotes Guan Yin as saying: “Yes, the world has need of me, even if I have to die. My love can overcome death.” At the same time, Marshall does not think that, overall, Guan Yin has challenged immorality in China. Marshall talks about brothels in China. “Guan Yin has been worshipped [in the Dragon Mountain Temple] for a hundred years without disturbing business”, Marshall says on page 97. “She reaches out her thousand arms to the brothels, one for each girl in the district, and draws back…cash.” Marshall says that China needs an intolerant Savior, one who gets angry and overturns tables in standing for justice.

But Marshall tells a mythical story about Guan Yin that depicts her as transformative. The story dates back to 1102, and it’s about Miao Shan, an incarnation of Guan Yin in China. Miao Shan’s father (a king) had her killed because she would not marry his choice to be her husband. Wikipedia’s summary provides more details: the suitor was wealthy, and Miao Shan offered to marry the suitor if her father would ease suffering in aging, illness, and death. According to Marshall, after her death, she went to hell. But Miao Shan transformed hell, as “Irons fell off prisoners” and “Ogres learned to smile” (page 94). When her father became sick, Miao Shan visited him and healed him after plucking out her eyes. Marshall states that the king repented in response to his daughter’s gesture, and she became whole again.

The wikipedia summary tells a variant of the tale, which discusses what happened when the executioner sent by the king tried to kill Miao Shan, and failed because she had some sort of supernatural protection:

“Miao Shan, realising the fate the executioner would meet at her father’s hand should she fail to let herself die, forgave the executioner for attempting to kill her. It is said that she voluntarily took on the massive karmic guilt the executioner generated for killing her, thus leaving him guiltless. It is because of this that she descended into the Hell-like realms. While there she witnessed first hand the suffering and horrors beings there must endure and was overwhelmed with grief. Filled with compassion, she released all the good karma she had accumulated through her many lifetimes, thus freeing many suffering souls back into Heaven and Earth. In the process that Hell-like realm became a paradise. It is said that Yanluo, King of Hell, sent her back to Earth to prevent the utter destruction of his realm, and that upon her return she appeared on Fragrant Mountain.”

Essentially, Miao Shan took the guilt of her would-be executioner, went to hell, and liberated suffering souls, on the basis of her own good karma that she had accumulated in her incarnations. She does sound like Jesus, in a sense. I am not an expert on Chinese religion, so I do not know if some maintain that Miao Shan was based on Jesus, or if scholars think that there are simply common themes that appear across different cultures.

These are beautiful stories. I do think that it would be better if Guan Yin stories encouraged more social and moral transformation, but that’s a problem that all sorts of religions have, including Christianity: they can get to the point where they sanction the establishment rather than challenging it. As far as China needing an intolerant savior (Jesus) is concerned, I can see Marshall’s point—-if the savior is intolerant about moral matters, or issues pertaining to social justice. But intolerance concerning doctrinal points? That doesn’t make as much sense to me.

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