by Ernie Diaz
So, let’s get this straight. The government gives us a holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival, but not for this, the 23rd day of the third lunar month? A paid day of rest for a traitor to the first Chinese empire, but none for a goddess who protects Chinese cities and sailors from storm and tide? Why, that’s like a Christian nation having a paid holiday for a pagan fatso homebreaker, and none for the day Jesus rose from the dead. Following, a repost to remind us that saints and saviors almost never get the thanks they deserve.
Most of us air-breathers rarely face the dangers of the sea. But let’s all of us, particularly the sushi and fish-stick lovers among us, take a moment to honor the fisherman. A livelihood made afloat carries the constant risk of finishing the day at the bottom of the sea, or in a shark’s belly.
Those in dangerous professions cultivate an intimate relationship with higher powers. Fishermen are no exception. Portuguese cod chasers spying red clouds at dawn send a prayer to the Virgin Mary, no surprise coming from died-in-the wool Catholics. What may surprise, however, is the East Asian maritime deity, Mazu. She is worshipped in thousands of coastal temples from Qingdao to Thailand. Her story, a myth garnished with enough history to make one wonder, shows that the path to divinity is universal, as is the need for divine protection.
Long ago, on tiny Meizhou Island off the coast of Fujian, a fisherman’s wife broke with convention and prayed to the goddess Guanyin for a daughter. She already had five sons, so she may have been motivated simply by a desire to have someone else around the house to help clean and cook. Nonetheless, Guanyin was moved, and blessed the fertile mother with a daughter who would be remembered as a goddess herself.
The baby Mazu departed the womb bringing a fragrance of fresh blossoms, and filling the tiny delivery room with light. For an entire month after her birth, she neither cried nor cooed, leading her parents to name her Lin Mo (Silent Lin). At four, on a visit to a Buddhist temple, she stood before a statue of her patroness Guanyin, who blessed her with second sight. She made but small display of her gift, choosing instead to serve as an exemplar of compassion and humility, uncanny in one so young.
Lin Mo began formal study of Buddhism at ten, and proved so adept at memorizing scriptures that three years later she was made sole acolyte to a high-ranking priest, who also revealed to her the mysteries of Daoism. These mysteries included gong fu techniques, which would serve her well in times to come. Most often, however, when not engaged in scripture reading or meditation, she spent her time healing the sick and wounded in her village, her talent augmented by Daoist wisdom.
As the legend goes, one day Lin Mo was walking alone along a lonely beach, when a dragon burst from the sea. While fearsome, baneful things in the West, eastern dragons are manifestations of great spiritual forces, and often grant boons. This one proffered a bronze disk, which Lin Mo accepted with supernatural composure.
The disk, coupled with her second sight, brought Lin Mo wide fame as a protector of the fisherman. She forecasted weather unerringly, and never failed to warn of a storm in time to get the boats in and families to safety. Her father, relying overmuch on her powers, sailed out with her brothers in the face of an approaching typhoon, his eye on the vast schools of fish fleeing before it. Lin Mo went into a trance, ethereally transporting her storm-tossed brothers to shore one by one. As she was assisting her father to safety, her mother chanced upon her prostate form and cried out, waking her and drowning the father. With this tragedy, Lin Mo withdrew from public life, turning inward on her spiritual quest but still providing forecasts through her mother.
Not only the fame of her spiritual powers but also her unrivaled beauty spread throughout China. Two mighty Song generals traveled to see for themselves, and were inflamed with lust on beholding her. Both sued for her hand, and even her mother considered the proposals a great honor. But Lin Mo was more a creature of the spirit than of the flesh, and wanted no such honor. In the face of their rude and ongoing insistence she was forced to duel them, making them swear to serve her should they lose. Filled with classic hubris, the generals laughingly agreed. On Peach Blossom Mountain, the nearest hill on the coast facing Meizhou Island, Lin Mo taught the generals a devastating lesson in the gong fu she had learned at the feet of a master. As a result, both the generals and their retinues serve her in the ever after; their statues usually abut hers at shrines all over the world.
All of this took place in a relatively short span of years. When Lin Mo was only 28, she suddenly announced to her parents that it was time to go home. Ascending the same mountain on which she had won her eternal bodyguards, she assumed a posture of prayer and was enveloped in silvery clouds. When they cleared, she was gone.
Naturally, her ascendancy into the heavens made official the cult that had already sprung up about her. Soon thereafter, sailors began to report visions of Lin Mo, now called Mazu, appearing in red, warning them of encroaching storms or treacherous waters. In contrast to the traditional sea deities, the dragon kings, Mazu was kind and compassionate. Unlike the Guanyin, Mazu had once been human, and could understand the humble hopes and fears of the fishermen she had dwelt amongst.
Her fame spread quickly and durably. The Song Dynasty gave her the title “Princess of Supernatural Favor”. The Yuan dubbed her “Protector of the Empire and the Brilliantly Outstanding Heavenly Princess”. The Yongle emperor, always one for unmatched grandiosity, named her “Holy Mother of Heaven Above”. The Chinese diasporas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were largely undertaken by coastal peoples, who spread her worship to Vietnam, Malaysia, even to Los Angeles, where a temple in Chinatown preserves her memory to this day.
In fact, Mazu still serves as a talismanic protector of the East Asian maritime set. Taiwan alone has over nine hundred temples dedicated to her, and pilgrims the world over make their way to her home temple in Meizhou to offer precious gifts. Mazu’s birthday, on the twenty third day of the third lunar month, is celebrated with festivals in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, all East Asian cities where people realize the dark blessing of the sea, and the power in having a matriarch to keep them safe from it.