Gwanseeum and Mary share a sisters’ bondOne comes from Korea, the other from Palestine. One is Buddhist, the other Christian. Yet they seem as alike as twins. How can this be?
The Christian sister is Mary, most revered of Catholic saints. The Buddhist is Gwanseeum, most revered of Buddhist saints or bodhisattvas.
Both commonly wear white, although Mary also favours blue. Both carry strings of beads for prayer and meditation. Mary’s rosary has 165 beads; on each you pray and meditate on her joys and sorrows. Gwanseeum’s has 108 beads; on each you meditate on the 108 human emotions.
In depiction, the rosary is often presented to Gwanseeum by a bird; Mary is shown with a dove, the Holy Spirit, her spouse.
Gwanseeum stands on the lotus; one ancient title is Padmapani, “lotus-born one.” Mary stands on the rose; one ancient title is “mystical rose.” The lotus mixes dark and light: dark waters, bright, clean blossoms. The rose mixes joy and pain: sharp thorns, delightful blossoms.
Mary often poses under a willow branch, as “Mater Dolorosa,” mother of sorrows. Gwanseeum often holds a willow branch. Both are healers, as at Lourdes. Mary soothes the hurt, turning eyes of mercy towards us, according to the traditional formulation; Gwanseeum’s thousand eyes see the hurt, and her thousand arms stretch to help. No coincidence that the bark of the willow produces aspirin, universal painkiller.
Gwanseeum often carries a pearl, a gift from the Dragon King of the Sea, which glows at night. Mary sometimes carries a pearl, representing her name, said to mean “Star of the Sea.” Mary protects sailors, her shrines common in harbours. Gwanseeum also protects sailors, stills the waters and rescues ships. Her shrines are also common at the water’s edge, as with Naksan Temple, with its giant statue looking seaward.
Gwanseeum sometimes rides a dragon’s back; sometimes the Dragon King kneels before her. Mary stands on a serpent, showing her conquest of the serpent of Eden.
In China, Gwanseeum statues commonly show a baby cradled to her breast. In Korea, a child often stands before her. As, of course, with Mary.
Was Mary a Buddhist tradition brought West? Impossible: Mary’s esteem among Christians is mentioned in the Koran. Lady Godiva’s will, in 1041, left a rosary, explaining it was “to be hung around a statue of the Virgin.” Francis Xavier, first missionary to Japan, arrived only in 1549, and Matteo Ricci, first in China, arrived in 1582.
Was Gwanseeum a Christian tradition brought East? Equally impossible. Gwanseeum once was known as Avalokitesvera, and was male; but Marco Polo described a string of 108 beads used in South India in the 13th century to count prayers. And when Xavier arrived in Japan, he was astonished to find rosaries already familiar to Buddhists there.
There seem, in the end, only three possible explanations for these strange twins from opposite ends of the earth. The first and simplest is that there is a real spiritual being out there―call her Our Lady―of whom Mary and Gwanseeum are two descriptions: as different as two artists’ depictions of the same model, painted from memory.
The second is that both represent the concept “mother,” universally resonant, and the implications of this concept are the same, regardless of culture. Right down to all mothers loving to meditate using strings of beads.
The third is that there was an original Goddess of whom Mary and Gwanseeum are survivals, lost to us in her original. She might have begun in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or the Indus Valley. Here the question becomes: how was she so compelling that she survived down to such fine details, on opposite ends of the earth and without support of any consistent theology, any reason to continue her worship?
Your call. But either way, one comment seems appropriate:
One fine spot to say your rosary is Okchon-am. Its rock carving of Gwanseeum appears around a river bend on bus No. 8 eastbound from Hongje station. Compare Myongdong Cathedral, with Marian shrines behind and before: Get off at Myeongdong station, line No. 4, and walk north, following the vision.
By Stephen K. Roney / Contributing Writer
Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo.