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Gwan-Um and Mary: Similarities and Differences

Gwan-Um and Mary

Similarities and Dissimilarities Between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Gwan-Um

First, Mary is a historical woman, a Mediterranean woman, who gave birth to Jesus the Word Incarnate. She is a woman of Nazareth, to whom God's personal presence descended for the salvation of human beings. Gwan-Um is not a historical person. However, legend describes her originality as a princess, Miao Shan. She is a idealized woman who personifies the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, so as to fulfill the Pure Land in this Samsara (earthly world). Historical records about these two women, Mary and Gwan-Um, are rare within the scriptural passages, but veneration and devotion dedicated to them are abundant in popular traditions: prayers and liturgical rites. Both, Mary and Gwan-Um, are not goddesses. Mary is not a feminine face of God. Neither is Gwan-Um a goddess, but the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara among the many bodhisattvas.

Second, Mary is an "interior-oriented" woman, who hears God's will, responds to him with sincere faith, follows her Son's salvific mystery from the beginning of her vocation. She hides herself in the shade of her Son to glorify the Father and the Son. Gospel passages show us her humble attitudes, and her selfless abnegated actions. (c£, MK 3:31-35 par. Mt 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21; John 2:1-5) She fulfills her mission with an exterior act in salvation history through her merciful love as Mother of the Church (cf., at Cana, foot of the Cross and Upper Room). By contrast, Gwan Urn is an "exterior-oriented" woman, because of her "interior reality" as a bodhisattva. She willingly transformed herself from one of the buddhas in Nirvana to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Gwan Uum, so as to hear the cries of the world. Thus, her mission begins with a apparition, an embodiment, wherever and whenever people cry for help.

Third, the ultimate goal of devotion to Mary in Christianity is Jesus: Per Mariam ad Christum. Christian faith must be rooted only in Christ: per Christum ad salvationem. There is no salvation without Christ. Faithful people meet "Christ in faith" through "Jesus in history", for Jesus is the Word Incarnate. In this context, Mariology belongs within Christology. Buddhists' devotion to Gwan Um for Nirvana is, so to speak, "per Gwan-um ad Nirvana." There is no necessity to view Gwan-um as mediatrix. Rather, Gwan-um is giver of Nirvana, Pure Land.

Fourth, we learn about Mary and her status through Scriptural passages in the OT and NT. In other words, it is true that the Scriptures offer us spiritual, prophetical, prepositional, and sometimes doctrinal teaching on Mary. On the contrary, Gwan-um-kyong presents no identity for Gwan-um, and begins noting directly her benefits and graces for crying people. It is very difficult to figure out the historical identity of Gwan-um through the Buddhist scriptures. Rather, Gwan-um-kyong is similar to the Marian prayers: "Akathistos Hymn" of the Eastern Church in style or form of literature, and "Litany of Loreto" of the Western Church in content (invocatory prayer).

Fifth, Mary and Gwan-um are both depicted as perfect disciples; Mary is the first disciple of Christ (cf., Infancy narrative in Luke's Gospel), Gwan-um is one of the beloved disciples of the Sakyamuni Buddha (cf., Gwan-um-kyong VIII: 1-10). But Mary reserves herself, as anawim, to respond by her "Yes." She articulates the promise God made to his people. She prays through her profound reflection on the events in which she is involved, and prays within herself and for her community.

Sixth, Mary was committed to her vocation from the Annunciation to the foot of the Cross, and, even in the primitive church, was so compassionate that she shared her faith as Mother of the Church with its first members. She took her part in the Church as the Mother of All. Gwan-um also took the "vast vow" to save "countless hundred thousand myriad kotis of living beings" with her undivided other-centered mind. She committed herself to fulfill her mission towards suffering people. Both are portrayed as Lady of Mercy, Mother of Mercy. But, Mary as the Mother of God is more contemplative than Gwan-um. Their commitments, being with people and of people, are great exemplars for the faithful to imitate.

See also: AHN Jung-han, A comparative study between the scriptural images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Kwan Eum, In Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree Licentiate of Sacred theology, University of Dayton, 1994, pp.181-183.

– 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). The text was modified and adapted by Father Johann Roten, S.M. with the permission of the author.

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