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All About Mary

Buddhism and Interreligious Dialogue about Mary


The term Buddhism derives from the honorific title of Buddha ("the awakened" in Sanskrit), attributed to prince Siddharta Gautama (ca. 563-483 B.C.).[1] The first disciples are the five ascetics who pronounced monastic vows. In such a way the three pillars (or jewels) of Buddhism are constituted: the Buddha, the doctrine (dharma) and the community (sangha).[2]

There are two different types of Buddhism, the Hinayana and the Mahayana, which are born from a common root. The Hinayana is often called "small vehicle" and the Mahayana "big vehicle," because the Buddhist doctrine is conceived as a vehicle, a raft or a ship, which takes people through the ocean of the world of suffering towards a "hereafter," towards salvation, and towards beatitude.[3]

The great majority of Buddhists adhere to the Mahayana, and belong mainly to the northern countries of Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan.[4]

The Sutra (Sacred Books) Mahayana address their teaching in equal measure to monks and lay people, exhorting both to recite, copy and explain the Sutra, an assignment that the monastic schools of the Hinayana reserve for monks and nuns.[5]

"Compassion” is the supreme idea of this form of Buddhism. The Bodhisattva[6] is indeed the one who, even if he or she is capable of reaching the enlightenment, renounces it, stopping on the threshold of Nirvana,[7] in order to help all people to find the way of perfection.[8]

In the Bodhisattva there is a special presence called valokitesvara.[9] The name of Avalokitesvara (Gwan Um) is found in the "Sutra of the Lotus."[10] This name is composed of avalokita, which means observed, looked upon or one who observes, who looks, and isvara (lord). The general idea is that the bodhisattva observes the world and responds to the laments of the living.

In China and in Korea, Avalokitesvara was represented in feminine form. Today, she is venerated in all of Eastern Asia as a gentle compassionate Madonna; in China she is called Gwan-yin, in Korea Gwan-se-um. She is described as a model of mercy and could be compared to Mary, Mother of mercy. Like Mary, she dedicates her mission to mercy, as mother of everyone, and as mother in the church. So Avalokitesvara has made "the great commitment" to save "innumerable suffering people."[11]

How to speak about Mary

One must highlight "mercy" and "compassion" in order to talk of Mary to Buddhists. These two themes are representative of their doctrine. We can present Mary who suffers with people in order to help them, comparing her to Buddha (or precisely Avalokitesvara) who has suffered ascetically in order to save people from the pains of earthly life. In Buddhism there are many apparitions; therefore we can also talk to Buddhists about Marian apparitions. In addition, the act of helping the suffering would be a great virtue for them.

[1]Enciclopedia delle religioni, Ed. Garzanti, 1993, p. 85.
[2] LANGLEY M., Religions, Dlgin, IL, 19(versione italiana: Le religioni, Torino 1995, p. 28).
[3] FILIPPANI R.P., Il Buddismo, Roma 1994, p.38; Cf. LANGLEY M., Religions (Le religioni, pp. 29-30).
5 ROBINSON R., WILLARD, L.J., The Buddist Religion, Belmont, CA, 1997 (versione ne italiana: La religione Buddhista, Roma 1998, p. 127).
[4] Ibid.
[5] ROBINSON R, WILLARD L.J., The Buddhist Religion, Belmont, Calif., 1997 (versione italiana: La religione Buddhista, Roma 1998, p.127).
[6] Bodhisattva: In Buddhism, there are many saints called "Little Buddhas." They succeed entering Nirvana. Bodhisattva are a kind of saints who renounce entering Nirvana if this renouncement helps people who suffer.
[7] Nirvana: literally "blowing away," "extinction." This is the ultimate truth. absolute reality, a state of perfect union, fruit of illumination. but so subtle that it escapes precise description. Nirvana means liberation and ceasing of all suffering and the rupture of the countless repetitions of existential acts and events. It is the transcendental state of those who have reached perfection.
[8] BREEZI F., Le grandi religioni, Roma 1994, p. 34; LEE Je-suk, Buddhist Emptiness (Sunyata) and the Mystery of Incornation (Kenosis) in Christianity, in (Korean Christian thought), vol. 3, Seoul 1995, p.116.
[9] Avalokitesvara: One of the Bodhisattvas frequently appearing in feminine form.
[10] Cf. WILLIAMS P., Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, London; New York, 1989 (versione italiana: Il Buddhismo Mahayana (La sapienza e la compassione), Roma 1990, pp.291-292).
[11] Cf. AHN Jung-han, A comparative study between the Scriptural Images of and Kswn Eum. In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Licentiate of Sacred Theology, University of Dayton, 1994, p.32.
[12] For the comparison between Mary and Gwan-Um see: "Similarities and Dissimilarities between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Gwan-Um."

– This presentation was made by Dr. Choi Kyong Sun. It is a partial and modified text of observations developed in her dissertation, "Inculturation della chiesa Cattolica e Pietà mariana in Corea," (Dissertation Marianum, Rome 2001).


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