Kuan yin

Kuan yin (in Pinyin, Guanyin) is a deity with multiple identities, including multiple gender identities. According to the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha said, “If living beings in this land must be saved by means of someone in the body of a Buddha, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva will manifest in the body of a Buddha and speak Dharma for them.” And if someone needs to be saved by this boddhisattva, Guanshiyin, who is also known as Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara, will manifest him/herself in whatever form works best:

“If they must be saved by someone in the body of the wife of an Elder, a layman, a minister of state, or a Brahman, he [sic] will manifest in a wife’s body and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden, he will manifest in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a heavenly dragon, yaksha, gandharva, asura, garuda, kinnara, mahoraga, human or non-human, and so forth, he will manifest in such a body and speak Dharma for them.” [trans. from City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Web site

Guanyin2

Above: “The Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), 1300-1400 CE,” Asian Art Museum, catalog no. B61S37+

Guanyin also became a Daoist deity, a female immortal; one can chant a spell to the Daoist Guanyin “whereby one will accomplish unimaginable virtues, and give evidence to the penetration of the absolute.” (Guanyin mizhou tu)

Guanyin

Above: A Daoist Guanyin, adapted from Henrik Sorenson’s article “Looting the Pantheon.”

“The increasing Daoist appropriation and transformation of the Avalokiteshvara cult and the associated teachings which took place during the later imperial period, is also reflected in the mid-Qing work, the Guanyin xin jing bijue (‘Secret Explanation on the Heart Scripture of Avalokiteshvara’). This text, which to all appearances and purposes appears to be a Buddhist commentary on the Prajnaparamitahrdaya sutra, one of the most important and popular Buddhist scriptures in China, on closer examination turns out to be a Daoist commentary on the Buddhist sutra. In addition to its full-scale doctrinal modification, it casts Avalokiteshvara in the role as a female immortal (nuxian) from the Zhou dynasty (1122–255 BCE). … the level of appropriation [of Buddhist deities by Daoism] could, and often did, go well beyond superficial borrowing, ending with something akin to full-scale integration.”

— Henrik H. Sørensen, “Looting the Pantheon: On the Daoist Appropriation of Buddhist Divinities and Saints,” The electronic Journal of East and Central Asian Religions, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, 2013), p. 62.

Fudo Myoo

FudoMyoo

Fudo Myoo is a Japanese Buddhist deity, one of the Five Great Kings, or Godai Myoo.

The Godai Myoo “are considered to have great magical powers to fight against heresy, passion, ignorance, illusion, and other spiritual obstacles. The most popular Myoo in Japan is Fudo, whose name means literally ‘The Immovable One.’ He is an incarnation of Dainichi Nyorai, who is an idealization of the truth of the universe, from whom all other Buddhas and boddhisatvas are born. Fudo is thought to fight against all evil to protect Buddhist law.” — Selected Works: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, c1994), p. 179.

This image is a digitally manipulated photograph of a sculpture in the Asian Art Museum labeled “The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Japanese: Fudo Myoo),” dated to 1100-1185, catalog no. B605146+.

Doumu

Doumu

Above: porcelain image of the Taoist deity Toumu [Doumu], made in Fujian province in the 18th century, now in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (catalog no. B60P1362).

“The Dipper Mother [Doumu] is a star deity and a Daoist adoption of the Tantric deity Marici, a personification of light and dawn. As a savior and healer, she is invoked through visualizations that unite the adept with cosmic light and ‘oneness with cosmic principles’ (75-76). As the cosmic mother of the nine star-gods of the dipper, she is a nurturer and instructress, but the Dipper Mother also maintains her own salvific powers and authority.”

From a book review by Sara Elaine Neswald of McGill University on the Daoist Studies Web site (2 Dec. 2004), of the book Women in Daoism by Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn (Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003).

———

Update: August 12, 2019: Entry on Doumu in E. T. C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922), pp. 144-145:

Goddess of the North Star

Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jen Huang or Human Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns. She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative position as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yu, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yuan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.

Tou Mu wears the Buddhist crown, is seated on a lotus throne, has three eyes, eighteen arms, and holds various precious objects in her numerous hands, such as a bow, spear, sword, flag, dragon’s head, pagoda, five chariots, sun’s disk, moon’s disk, etc. She has control of the books of life and death, and all who wish to prolong their days worship at her shrine. Her devotees abstain from animal food on the third and twenty-seventh day of every month.

Of her sons, two are the Northern and Southern Bushels; the latter, dressed in red, rules birth; the former, in white, rules death. “A young Esau once found them on the South Mountain, under a tree, playing chess, and by an offer of venison his lease of life was extended from nineteen to ninety-nine years.”

Poems as theology

I have a tough time reading academic theology, and prefer to get my theological fix from poetry. I’m promiscuous in my theological tastes when it comes to poetry — how can I resist the cranky Buddhism of Gary Snyder? or the strange pacifistic Roman Catholicism of Denise Levertov? or the Black humanism of James Weldon Johnson?

Of course, sometimes it’s good to be parochial, and engage with one’s co-religionists. When I started listing some of the poems by Unitarian Universalist poets which have most influenced my theology, I realized that I prefer poets who are mystics and Transcendentalists. Since mystics and Transcendentalists are theologically suspect, I further realized that I shouldn’t be wasting my time getting theology from poetry rather than from works of academic theology.

Yet I’ll bet there are other people out there who get their theology in poetry. If you’re one of them, which poems have most influenced your theological thinking? If you happen to be a Unitarian Universalist, which poems by Unitarian Universalists are your theological mainstays?

And in the interests of full disclosure, below I’ll list some of the poems by UU poets that influenced me. Continue reading “Poems as theology”

Ceremonial deity, Phillippines

Ceremonial Deity, Philippines

Above: Sketch of a “ceremonial deity,” Philippines, c. 1930. Wood and shell. Asian Museum of Art.

One of delights of going to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is seeing the diversity of depictions of deities. Today I particularly noticed the unnamed deities — like this sculpture of an unnamed ceremonial deity, made in the Philippines around 1930. Why do we not know the name of this deity? Is it because it is a minor deity, and thus not widely identifiable (though perhaps readily identifiable by a devotee)? Did it never have a name that could be spoken by humans? Or was this a deity like the Roman Lares familiares, the household gods, who don’t seem to have had names, or whose power was so geographically restricted that their names perhaps were known only to the household they protected?

I think that the end of Christendom is allowing us to see such minor deities more clearly. In the worldview of Christendom, only the major deities — the wildly transcendent deities, Jehovah’s direct competition — were worthy of serious attention. Now maybe we can pay a little more attention to the many minor deities who inhabit the metaphorical space between those distant transcendent deities and mortal creatures.

Medusa

I’m writing lesson plans and teacher resources for a curriculum for upper elementary grades on Greek myths. The core material in the curriculum was developed with Tessa Swartz, a middle school student who had taken classes with me where I piloted some of the preliminary material. Tessa proved to be a valuable collaborator, especially given her sensitivity to the essentially alien nature of Greek myths, and her willingness to go beyond the common trite interpretations of many of these myths. As we developed the core material of the curriculum, both of us got interested in the figure of Medusa. Here’s an excerpt from this new curriculum, a teacher resource on Medusa:

Medusa as imagined by the artist CarvaggioWhen we chose stories for this course, both of us placed the Medusa story at the top of our lists. What makes Medusa such a fascinating figure? The face of Medusa contains great power: the power to freeze others into stone. On the other hand, we considered Medusa’s killer, Perseus, to be little better than a bully, a strong-arm man who coerces others into doing what he wants through violence or the threat of violence. So the story of Medusa can lead to interesting explorations of power, and the use of power.

Let’s look at Medusa first: Continue reading “Medusa”

REA: Last day of the 2014 conference

BlogNov1214a

(em>Above: Yes, there were arts and crafts at the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. In keeping with the more interactive approach at the 2014 conference, there were several opportunities for conferees to participate in interactive projects around the topic of unmaking violence. Here, conferees decorate a “peace pole.”

BlogNo1214d

Above: REA president-elect Mai-an Tranh, professor at Eden Theological Seminary, speaking at the final plenary session: wrapping up this year’s conference, and tying this year’s conference topic to next year’s topic. Tranh used Henry A Giroux’s “disimagination machine” as a central theme in her talk.

BlogNov1214c

Above: In the final plenary, Evelyn L. Parker of Perkins School of Theology led conferees in an interactive theatre exercise. She invited ten conferees to imagine with their bodies what the “disimagination machine” might look and feel like. Then she invited the rest of us “spec-actors” to disassemble the machine. In the photo above, a conferee is gently removing a piece of the machine.

BlogNov1214b

Above: The close of the conference, just before the business meeting.

REA: Experiential and multimedia

The Religious Education Association 2014 conference was more of an experiential, multimedia experience this year — as befits religious educators, who often have a progressive pedagogy. Here’s some evidence that this conference is not just the same old lectures-with-Powerpoints:

Taiko Legacy Chicago at opening Plenary

Above: Taiko Legacy Chicago, live performance at the opening plenary session, accompanying a slide presentation

BlogNov0814a

Above: Andrea Bieler’s professionally produced video, which included tours of sit-specific art works

BlogNov0814b

Above: Participatory opening ritual about (un)making and (re)membering violence

BlogNov0814d

Above: Photo from Precious Blood Reconciliation Ministries, one of three field trips to sites and organizations in Chicago where people are actively working to unmake violence. In the photo above, the center of one of Precious Blood Reconciliation Ministry’s “truth circles”; the four key values of the truth circles are printed on the four cards: confidentiality, listening, respect, and truth.

And while photos were not allowed during her performance, I have to mention “Unveiled,” a one woman play about five Muslim women, written and performed by Rohina Malik.

I should also mention the superb plenary talk by Willie James Jennings. He eschewed the usual Powerpoint slides, and simply spoke to us. He didn’t need slides: his voice, his delivery, what he had to say was gripping on its own, without any need for multimedia. His talk was a reminder that the spoken word can be performed as a lively art, one just as engaging as a one-person play.

REA: “My God, what have we done?”

Leah Gunning Francis opened the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. She introduced the plenary speakers, and informed us that unfortunately Gabriel Moran was not able to be present. Francis lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and given that the theme of this year’s conference is “Religion and Education in the (Un)Making of Violence,” she showed some of her photographs of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri — to the great interest of the conferees.

The first “speaker” was Andrea Bieler, Professor of Practical Theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany. Bieler did not appear in person; her presentation was a video, in which she spoke, and showed various works of art and other material.

Bieler’s video began with a statement by Theodor Adorno: “The principal demand upon all education is that Auschwitz does not happen again.” Bieler extended this to other instances of systematic violence, including systemic racism in the United States, the state terrorism and “disappearances” in Argentina and Chile, apartheid in South Africa, etc.

In the video, Bieler laid out a nuanced argument, beginning with theories of memory and winding up with a discussion of remembering violence through aesthetic art. I was most interested in her analyses of several site-specific art works in Berlin, particularly the Chapel of Reconciliation, built near the site of the Berlin Wall.

Continue reading “REA: “My God, what have we done?””

UNCO arts and crafts

UNCO is not all talk.

Deb brought supplies from her crafts closet to UNCO 14, and set up a table with collage materials, including a couple of old hymnals. She put a placard on this table: “Revision A Hymn.” Yesterday I found a hymn written by the British Unitarian Sarah Flower Adams — “Nearer My God to Thee,” set to a tune by Lowell Mason — and spent half an hour revisioning it while I chatted with other people who came to play with Mod Podge and paper and cloth:

BlogOct2114a

Totally meaningless collage. But I do admit to loving Lowell Mason’s enjoyable singable humn tunes.