Monday, 18 April 2016

The Goddess of Mercy: Tea and Temples

Temple of the Goddess of Mercy

Of all the many Chinese temples in George Town and throughout the Prince of Wales Island, the central temple, the oldest, and the acknowledged spiritual centre of the Straits Chinese is the temple of the Goddess of Mercy on Pitt Street. It is not as splendid as many of the more lavish temples - in fact it is small and humble - but it is regarded as the most auspicious and the most blessed. 

As is the usual practice, its location was chosen according to the requirements of sacred geomancy (feng sui); it was made to open onto a long vista towards the sea. Originally, it was sacred to seafarers, the temple of sailors and traders from South China who travelled to and from the Malacca Straits. 

At a certain juncture, however, Arab traders constructed a building in the line of sight of the temple, for which the Chinese put a curse on the building. Then, at much the same time, a large area of sea was reclaimed so that what is now Beach Street, which was once the foreshore, has ended up being further inland from the dock. In this process the entire feng sui of the Pitt street temple has been lost. 

Moreover, its function as a temple for seafarers has ceased to be relevant and instead it has become a temple for the great Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. She is the patron goddess of seafarers, but her broader attributes as goddess of universal mercy have come to the fore and the whole Chinese community – not just sailors and traders – today see the temple as their spiritual home. Chinese come from far and wide to visit the temple. On any given day it is a busy hub of pilgrims and devotees. 

Cast-iron censors in the temple forecourt 

The site of the Goddess of Mercy temple in George Town is marked by two wells, known as the two 'Dragon Eyes' (although it is said there is a third well under the main altar, a third eye.) This is a picture of one of the wells in the forecourt of the temple, accessed from Pitt Street. 

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A few notes on this goddess:

*Guanyin is one of the major deities of Chinese religious practice in South Asia. She is extremely popular and widely venerated.

*In Boodhist reckonings this deity is the male boddhisatva AvalokiteĊ›vara who appears in the Lotus Sutra in a masculine form but who may take other forms according to the requirements of ‘skilful means’. In China, the deity is feminine.

*The Chinese tradition gives many accounts of the origins of this goddess aside from the accepted derivation from Boodhist sources.

*The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the chapter concerning Guanyin, is often treated as a separate sutra by the Chinese. It is read, chanted and recited throughout the Sino-Asiatic world.

*The names of Guanyin in various languages refer to “he/she who hears crying” or similar. That is, the deity who hears human suffering.

*This goddess is known as Kannon to the Japanese (after whom the camera brand was named.)

*The goddess is assimilated into Taoism as one of the immortals, Cihang Zhenren, a woman who lived in the Shang Dynasty.

*The resemblance between Guanyin and the Christian Virgin Mary has often been noted and is sometimes made explicit in iconography. She is often depicted as a mother nursing an infant. When Christianity was banned in Japan, on pain of death, Christians would use statues of Guanyin as a substitute object of veneration.

*She is known as the ‘Guide to the Pureland’. Many believe she guides the souls of her adherents to the western Pureland after death. 

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There is a very fine Chinese tea called Tieguanyin, a name meaning 'Iron Goddess of Mercy' - Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea or Tea of the Iron Boddhisatva. It is an expensive premium variety of oolong tea from the Fujian province prepared by a complex curing process and is widely sought among tea connoisseurs. The present author was fortunate to find and sample some in a tea house in Cintra Street in George Town. Regarding the origins of the tea there are several legends. Here is one:

There was once a peasant farmer named Wei who every day would pass by a derelict temple containing an iron statue of the goddess Guanyin. Over the years he watched its condition deteriorate and felt very sorry that, being poor, he did not have the means to restore the temple. One day, though, he went to the temple, swept it out and lit candles, thinking it was the least he could do. That night the goddess came to him in a dream. She told him of a cave behind the temple and promised him that a treasure awaited him in return for his devotion. The next day he went to the cave and found a shoot of a tea plant. He took it, planted it in his field and nurtured it into a bush. Then he gave cuttings of the plant to his neighbours and they planted them out. Soon they began selling the rare tea as "Tieguanyin", the tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy. They all prospered and grew rich and at length the temple was restored.


Harper McAlpine Black

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