November 20, 2012

A-Ma – Taoist Sea Goddess

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , at 11:11 am by Babs

A-Ma (also known as Matsu or Mazu literally “Mother Ancestor” or by her mortal name Lin Moniang) is the Taoist Goddess of the Sea who protects fishermen and sailors.  She is extremely popular among the Taiwanese, Fujianese, Cantonese, and Vietnamese people, who have cultures strongly linked to the sea.  The Matzu Islands are named after her.

The Person – according to legend, Lin Moniang was born in 960 (during the early Northern Song Dynasty) as the seventh daughter of Lin Yuan on Meizhou Island, Fujian.  She did not cry when she was born, and thus her given name means “silent girl”.  There are many legends about her and the sea.  although she started swimming relatively late at the age of 15, she soon became an excellent swimmer.  She wore red standing on the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in the most dangerous and harsh weather.

According to one legend, Lin Moniang’s father and brothers were fishermen.  One day, a terrible typhoon arose while they were out at sea, and the rest of her family feared that those at sea had perished.  In the midst of this storm, depending on the version of the legend, she either fell into a trance while praying for the lives of her father and brothers or dreamed of her father and brothers while she was sleeping.  In either the trance or the dream, her father and brothers were drowning, and she reached out to them, holding her brothers up with her hands and her fathers up with her mouth.  However, Moniang’s mother now discovered her and tried to wake her, but Moniang was in such a deep trance or dream that it seemed like she was dead.  Moniang’s mother, already believing the rest of their family dead, now broke down, crying, believing that Moniang had also just died.  Hearing her mother’s cries, in pity, Moniang gave a small cry to let her mother know she was alive, but in opening her mouth, where was forced to drop her father.  Consequently, Moniang’s brothers returned alive (sadly without their father) and told the other villagers that a miracle happened and that they had somehow been held up in the water as a typhoon raged.  There are at least two versions of Lin Moniang’s death.  In one version, she died in 987 at the age of 28, when she climbed a mountain alone and flew to heaven and became a goddess.  Another version of the legend says that she died at age 16 of exhaustion after swimming far into the ocean trying to find her lost father and that her corpse later washed ashore in Nankan Island of the Matsu Islands.

Lin Moniang (2000), a minor Fujianese TV series, is a dramatization of the life of Matsu as a mortal.

The Goddess – After her death, the families of many fishermen and sailors began to pray to her in honor of her acts of courage in trying to save those at sea.  Her worship spread quickly.  Much of her popularity in comparison to other sea deities resulted from her role as a compassionate motherly protector, completely different from authoritarian father figures like the Dragon Kings.  She is usually depicted wearing a red robe, and sitting on a throne.  She somehow became an empress figure during the Yuan Dynasty.

Her Worship – There are about 800 to 10000 Taiwanese temples dedicated wholly, or usually, partly, to Matsu.  Jenlan Temple in Tachia, Taichung County is the most famous Matsu temple in Taiwan, and an annual pilgrimage takes place there each spring.  Chaotian Temple of Peikang Township in Yunlin is another popular temple of Matsu in Taiwan.  Heavenly Empress Palace – Meizhou Ancestral Temple is on her native Meizhou Island.  There is also a temple on the Pescadores Islands.

In Hong Kong, around 60 temples are dedicated, at least partially to Tin Hau.  The temple in Tin Hau area, east of Victoria park, in Eastern district, on Hong Kong Island, has given its name to the area and to the MTR station serving it (Island Line).

Macau has three Tin Hau temples (one per Coloane, Macau Peninsula, and Taipa).  In total, there are around 1,500 Matsu temples in 26 countries of the world.  The name “Macau” is thought to be derived from the Templo de A-Ma a still-existing landmark built in 1448 dedicated to the goddess Matsu.

Matsu has also gained popularity in the west as well.  Many temples dedicated to Matsu are located in many Chinatowns in the United States.  The oldest Taoist temple in the United States is dedicated to Matsu, Tien Hau Temple in San Francisco, built in 1852.

Another Matsu temple that has gained notoriety in the west is located in Los Angeles, which is known as Chua Ba Thien Hau, an immensely popular tourist attraction in Chinatown.  The temple is also home to the Camau Association of America, a Chinese/ Vietnamese Teochew benevolent association.  On September 5th, 2005, the temple was completed after two years of building, costing about $2 million dollars.  The temple itself has become popular by many, mainly because of its annual 24-hour lion dances and legal firecracker display on chinese New Year’s Eve.

Festival of Matsu – Her birthday-festival is on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month of the Chinese calendar.  It falls in late April or early May in the Gregorian calendar.

Mazu, Chinese Goddess of the Sea – is a story of an extraordinary girl who became a goddess.  The Goddess Mazu’s stories even come to us in an unusual way.  Usually we have to search the works of poets and philosophers, historians and anthropologists, when wishing to explore the myths of the legendary ladies we call goddesses.  But ancient government edicts, court documents, Taoist scriptures, and even shipping logs provide the stories of the young girl and the goddess she became.

Mazu… a goddess, even after a millennium has passed… arguably the most worshipped in the world with over 1,500 active temples and 100 million devotees.  Hers is a fascinating story.

The Chinese goddess Mazu has many names and titles.  Known in different regions as Matsu, Ma-Tsu, A-ma, Tianhou, and other names, with numerous titles that include “Motherly Matriarch”, some experts feel she may be a version of the older goddess Kuan Yin (who is better known in most western countries), Mazy is deeply rooted in the hearts of her people, especially coastal areas in the East, and is best known as the “Goddess of the Sea”.

In folk tradition it is believed that, when you are facing great difficulty, you can call her by the name “Mazu” and she will immediately come to your rescue.  If, however, you address her as the “Empress of Heaven”, she will have to take time to put on her fine clothing and will be delayed in coming to your aid!

The Chinese Goddess Mazu originated with the deification of a young woman named Lin Mo Niang who had performed numerous miracles during her short life.  A kind-hearted girl with a vast knowledge of Chinese medicine, she was known as a healer, curing the sick while teaching peoples how to prevent illness and injury.  Many of the miracles she performed involved quelling storms at sea, so it is hardly surprising that she is known as the protector of all seafaring people.  Mazy was born on a small island in the straits of Taiwan off the coast of southeastern China in 960 A.D. Her middle-aged parents, the Lins, already had six other children, only one of them a girl.  Her mother prayed to the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, for another daughter.  Hearing her fervent prayers, Kuan Yin came to her in a dream; giving her a flower blossom to eat that caused her to conceive the next day.

The baby was named Lin Niang (in China the family name, or surname, comes first).  At her birth the room was filled with a brilliant light and the fragrance of fresh blossoms.  As a newborn, she was strangely silent.  alert and healthy, she did not cry at all during the first month of her life, leading her parents to nickname her Mo (which means “silent”).

As she grew it quickly become apparent that Lin Mo was gifted with remarkable intelligence and an eidetic (photographic) memory.  Supernatural powers were soon to become apparent as well.  Visiting a Buddhist temple when she was four years old, Lo Min began her incredible journey of spiritual enlightenment.  Standing before a statue of the goddess Kuan Yin, she was given her “second sight”, the ability to sense or “know” events that would happen in a distant time or place.  At the age of ten she began to study Buddhism, and when she was 13 she was accepted as a student by an elderly priest who, recognizing her profound spirituality, passed on to her the secret mysteries of Taoism.

One legend ascribes her mystical powers to an event that took place when she was fifteen.  Going with her girlfriends to check out their new dresses in the reflections of a pool, a sea creature erupted out of the water and was holding a bronze disk out, offering it to the girls.  Terrified, the others ran away, but the brave Lin Mo calmly accept the bronze.  From that moment on, she began to display unusual powers – powers that grew daily and made her a legendary figure at a young age.

Already held in high esteem by the villagers for her healing, Lin Mo could now predict changes in the weather and could announce when it was a safe time for sailors and fishermen to set out to sea.  to this day sailors from places as far-flung as China, Okinawa, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even San Francisco pray to Mazy before setting out… and give thanks to her upon their safe return.

Marine folklore is filled with tales of catastrophes averted when the goddess Mazy, dressed in red, appeared to sailors as a warning that unseen storms were rising and that their voyages should be postponed.

Many a seafarer has recounted times when the goddess Mazy appeared as a bright light on their troubled ships, arriving just in time to clam a storm and save their lives.  Some said that Lin Mo could actually ride clouds across the ocean, and appear in the flesh to rescue them.  Though there are numerous accounts of Mazu’s many sea rescues, none is as poignant as her mystical rescue of her father and brother when they were washed overboard by a typhoon that came up suddenly while they were at sea.

Lin Mo was at home weaving a tapestry when she fell into a trance, “seeing” the events that were taking her kin to a watery grave.  She used her spiritual powers to transport herself to their sides.  Propelling her elder brother to safety, she returned to rescue her father.  She was swimming homeward with her father clenched firmly between her teeth, when her mother noticed that Lin Mo, was slumped over her weaving.  Believing she was ill, her concerned mother woke her.  Lin Mo’s trance was broken and her father drowned.  Lin Mo walked into the sea and found her father, returning three days later with his body so he could be buried at home.  In some of her myths, she was engulfed by clouds that carried her across the waves to find him.  Regardless, the outcome was the same.  The bereft Lin Mo intensified her quest for spiritual growth, continuing her legacy of compassion and good works, but now she seemed more distant and “other-worldish” in her grief.

Like Kuan Yin, the goddess Matsu decided not to marry in spite of immense social pressure to do so.  Two warriors of great fame became inflamed with lust when they say the beautiful young girl and wanted to “marry” her.  She challenged the pair to fight her for the privilege, insisting that they would have to do her bidding forever if she won.  (Recall that learning the martial arts had long been a part of the training of Buddhist priests and undoubtedly was part of her studies as well.)  You can probably imagine how that fight ended!

General Chien-li–yen (Eyes that See a Thousand Miles) and General Shun Feng Erh (Ears that Can Hear the Wind) died that day during the fight that took place on Mount Peach Blossom.  To this day, the pair of defeated subordinates are seen by her side in statuary and images and as puppets in the annual processional that celebrates Mazu’s birth.  The entourage traditionally includes guards costumed as ancient soldiers, and thirty-six martial artists carrying special weapons.  Tens of thousands make the eight-day pilgrimage to the oldest temple of Matsu in Taiwan each year.  Countless other treks and festivals are held on her birthday throughout the coastal regions where the goddess Mazu is still revered.

Lin Mo’s death, at the age of 28, was as remarkable as her birth.  One day she simply told her family it was time for her to leave and that she must go alone.  Her neighbors and family watched as she walked to the top of a mountain near her home.

Reaching the top, Lin Mo was encircled by clouds of dense fog, and to the accompaniment of enchanting celestial music, was carried into the heavens in a golden glow of light.  Where she had been last seen, a great rainbow appeared.

In Chinese mythology the rainbow signifies the presence of dragon, a symbol of great blessing and good fortune.  The dragon is a serpent that quenches its thirst in the sea and, as a sky dragon, unites heaven and earth.

The rainbow also has special significance in Taoism – the colors representing the five Buddha families, with the color orange associated with the Bodhisattva, those who have achieved enlightenment but choose to remain on earth to be of service to their fellow humans.

Honoring her humility and compassion, her devotion and spiritual enlightenment, following her death Lin Mo was elevated to the list of Buddhist deities and declared a goddess by the Chinese government as well.  During the Millennium after her death, the Imperial Courts of several different dynasties raised her status with new and grander titles (twenty-two promotions in all) and the construction of new temples and extensive repairs to the ancient ones.  Yet the true power of the Goddess Mazy, who was once the female shaman Lin Mo, is the great and abiding love of her people.

Goddess Symbols and Sacred Objects of Mazu

Goddess symbols, individualized for each goddess, were incorporated into the worship of the ancient goddesses, where often worn as jewelry, and also used in the household decor as talismans to seek the goddesses special gifts, blessings, or protection.  A large number of goddess symbols have survived in statuary and other works of art.

Many of the goddess symbols come from the legends surrounding a specific goddess and were “characters” in her story.  Other goddess symbols were derived from the rituals used in the ancient rites of worship of these pagan goddesses.

Mazu (Mat-Su) is often represented by symbols associated with the sky and sea.  It si not surprising that many of our icons representing courage and compassion are derived from the ancient goddess symbols of Mazu.

General: Dragon, Turbulent Sea, Clouds, Sky, Rainbows, Raised Fist, SEa Serpents, Mountain Tops, Sailing Ships, The numbers 9 and 36, Mala (headdress with a beaded veil), Stone Stairways (Ladder to Heaven), Martial Arts, Swords and other Ancient Weapons, Spirit Flags.

Animals: Dragon (celestial), Tiger, Serpent, Pigs, Deer.

Plants: Peach Tree, Willow, Bamboo, Lotus, Peony, and Medicinal Herbs.

Perfumes/ Scents: Ylang-Ylang, Dragon’s Blood, Myrrh, Peony, Incense.

Gems and Metals: Pearls, Bronze, Pale Green Jade, Shoushan Stone (Alabaster).

Colors: Orange, Black, Red and Blue.

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