One of two unexpected spiritual resurgences here in Thailand is the expanded cult of Mae Kuan Im (the other being the cult of Genesh). One of the largest and most opulent shrines to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy is on the south side of Chiang Mai. In the picture accompanying this essay she is depicted standing atop her transporter, a great dragon, dispensing blessings symbolized by water flowing endlessly from a jar.
For a more complete account of the various identities of Mae Kuan Im, refer to the Wikipedia article on Guanyin on the Internet. The remainder of this essay deals with two issues: (1) how Mae Kuan Im became so dispersed throughout religions of South and East Asia, (2) and why her cult has arisen in Thailand at just this time.
Huston Smith [The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1991, p. 143] blithely tells us, “The Dalai Lama is the bodhisattva who in India is known as Avalokiteshvara, in China as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin, and in Japan as Kannon.” The Wikipedia article reiterates the same claim. C. Kerenyi, a protégé of Carl Jung, demonstrates the process by which such mythological transferals take place.
The Voguls worshiped—and perhaps still worship—one especially among their gods who bears the name of “The Man who Looks at the World.” He is a god let down from heaven in two variations: with his mother and without her. With his mother he was “let down” in such a way that he was born as the son of a woman expelled from heaven. She fell upon the banks of the River Ob. “Under her right arm-pit two ribs broke out. A child with golden hands and feet was born” [Munkacsi]. This manner of birth, the emergence of the child from its mother’s right side, betrays Buddhist influence. The Bodhisattva who later became Gautama Buddha entered his mother’s womb from the right side and at the end of ten months left the right side of his mother again in full consciousness and immaculate; thus it was according to the northern sect—Mahayana Buddhism, as it is called” [Lalitavistara]. “The Man who Looks at the World” is the exact translation of “Avalokiteshvara,” the name of the world-ruling Bodhisattva in the above religion whose missionaries dispersed throughout Northern Asia. Avalokiteshvara is just such a divinity compassionately observing the world as the god of the Voguls became. From the latter’s titles—which refer to him as a goose, swan, or crane—we get a glimpse of his original nature. [Munkacsi]. Golden limbs are characteristic as the new-born Buddha of the Avalokiteshvara world (our world) “who gleamed, shining like gold worked in the fire by the Master’s hand [Sutta Mipata]. The orphan’s fate has nothing to do with all this and leads us into a world quite different from that of the Dalai Lama, the present day embodiment of the Avalokiteshvara. [Kerenyi, C. 1949. “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times” in Essays on a Science of Mythology by C.G. Jung and C. Kerenyi. Princeton: Princeton University Press]
The Virgin Mary has also been identified with Guanyin. In what sense, however, are Mae Kuan Im, the Dalai Lama, the Lord Buddha, and Avalokiteshvara the same? The mechanics to discern this are in the science of mythology, rather than theology. Theologically, the Virgin Mother Mary and Mother Kuan Im are separate contexts. Theologically, a Thai (Theravada) Buddhist would have to be broad minded to identify the Lord Buddha with either the Hindu Avalokiteshvara or with any Bodhisattva including Mae Kuan Im.
I believe it is no mere coincidence that the cult of Mae Kuan Im has re-emerged into prominence at just this time in Thailand. Several reasons could be cited. First, the cult of Mae Kuan Im has reappeared all over South East Asia, particularly wherever the Mahayana branch of Buddhism has become stronger through the contributions of ethnic Chinese in dispersion and the interest of Chinese tourists. Second, Mae Kuan Im is considered the patron of the childless and the destitute, leading to reliance on her by those with particular needs. Third, Mae Kuan Im is female in a time and region where masculine religion predominates; her cult is a refuge and implied protest against the adamant refusal of the dominant religions to provide women equal status. Fourth, the cult of Mae Kuan Im in Thailand involves an alternative form of meditation through chanting that devotees attest offers elevated levels of serenity. Finally, and most importantly, the cult of Mae Kuan Im coincides with the economic emergence of Thailand as an economic power in the region especially prior to the economic downturn of 1997. A central aspect of this variety of faith is its connection to prosperity, which is a core value in Thailand. Those who visit shrines and centers of devotion to Mae Kuan Im testify that they are motivated by hope for inspiration and results with regard to their business enterprises, their gambling (especially in the lotteries which abound in the country), and their health and relationships. Mother is the care-giver, the refuge in times of distress and turmoil.
A friend of mine is a devotee, persuaded by overwhelming evidence, he claims. He has been diverted from a lucrative business selling a Thai confection (and from traditional evangelical forms of Christianity) by visitations from Mother. Typically she instructs him where to travel on journeys with unspecified purposes, which often produce gifts of religious statuary, some of which are rare and valuable. “She tells me where to go,” he says. “She sent me to a distant temple I had never seen before and when I arrived the abbot was standing at the gate holding this,” he pointed to an elegant jade Buddha image. “The abbot said he had a dream that he was to give it to me.” Our colleague had to break off his narration at that point because the line of people waiting to see him for personal messages from Mae Kuan Im was growing restive.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.