Who is this Goddess of Heaven scattering flowers?

ethnic china

Who is this Goddess of Heaven scattering flowers?

When we arrive in a country with a culture as different as China, it is as if a fog blanket covers our eyes, allowing us only a blurred vision of everything around us. Then we recognize the characters in their writing and the fog clears up a little. Later we get used to a series of signs that are repeated in a thousand and one formats, in paintings, sculptures, magazines and newspapers, and although in most cases we never manage to discover their meaning, their familiarity allows us to accept them in our days without having to ask ourselves what they symbolize.

There are times when we discover them, by chance, and it seems to us that we know a little more about the country in which we live, even though most of its inhabitants are as ignorant as we foreigners of the meaning of its most popular iconography.

Ladies scattering flowers seems to us so inherent to the oriental iconography of women that there is no need to wonder if it means anything else. Some readers of «The Matriarchy in China[1]» may remember that children are like flowers among some southern minorities and think, as I would have thought, that she is a heavenly goddess giving children to human families.

The Goddess in a Buddhist scene

Originally a celestial goddess, she ended up being painted and given to friends as a symbol of good luck and happiness, but her story is much more complicated. As Chen Liu[2] tells us in a brilliant article, that feminine image distributing flowers is indeed a Heavenly Lady, but originally it was part of a much more complex picture, of which a variable number of characters were also part, and in which flowers played the most important role. This is the scene of Bodhisattva Manjusri’[3]s visit to Vimalakirti[4], which was narrated in the so-called Vimalakirti Sutra, translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva and from this language to English[5].

The scene shows how during the mentioned visit[6] of Manjusri and his disciples to Vimalakirti, who have pretended to be sick in order to provoke that meeting, in the middle of their discussions about the Buddhist laws, the Goddess of Heaven makes her appearance and scatters upwards a basket full of flowers. The flowers fall on those gathered. When they fall on the Bodhisattvas, they slide down their bodies and end up on the ground. When they fall on the bodies of the disciples, they remain attached to them, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot be detached.

Flowers symbolize the secular life, the pleasures and beautiful things that this life offers us.

The words of the goddess

Seeing that the disciples keep on striving to take off the flowers without succeeding, the Goddess of Heaven said to Shariputra, one of them:

«Why do you try to take off the flowers?»

«These flowers are not in accordance with the Law,» he replied. «That’s why I’m trying to get rid of them.

The goddess said to him, «Don’t say these flowers are not in accordance with the Law. Why? Because the flowers make no such distinctions. You in your thinking have made up these distinctions, that’s all. If one who has left the household life to follow the Buddha’s Law makes such distinctions, that is not in accordance with the . One must be without distinctions to be in accordance with the Law. Look at the bodhisattvas-the flowers do not stick to them because they have already cut off all thought of distinctions. Just as evil spirits are able to take advantage of a person who is beset by fear, so because you disciples are fearful of the cycle of birth and death, the senses of form, sound, smell, taste, and touch are able to take advantage of you. But once a person has done away with fear, then the five desires that arise from these senses will not be able to get at him. So long as one has not done away with all such entanglements, the flowers will stick to him. But they will not stick to someone who has eliminated them all.”[7]

The transformation of the goddess

The Goddess of Heaven scattering the flowers was a religious motif that invited reflection on personal commitment to the laws of Buddhism. As such it is represented in one of the caves of Dunhuang. But later, possibly as Buddhism lost favor with the aristocratic classes of China, its complex religious connotations ceased to be of interest, while the image of the goddess distributing flowers, which remained a symbol of the riches and pleasures of secular life, was increasingly sought after and given as a symbol of good luck and happiness.

Then, only the Goddess of Heaven Scattering Flowers appears in the paintings, and later, to allow everyone to enjoy these good wishes, similar images were printed in series and distributed at an affordable price.

Now, when we see again the Goddess of Heaven Scattering Flowers, we will already know that this beautiful symbol not only expresses the best wishes of good luck and happiness, but also and originally, the opposite, that is to say, to reflect on the reasons we are still anchored to the desires of material pleasures and the beautiful things that life offers us.

 

NOTES

 

[1] Miraguano Ediciones. Madrid 2010.    

[2] From Narrative to Transformed Narrative: Visualizations of the Heavenly Maiden and the Maiden Magu. En Claudia Brown. Myriad points of view : new research on Ming and Qing paintings in the Roy and Marilyn Papp collection. Phoenix Art Museum. 2006.

[3] Boddisattva of Wisdom.

[4] Vimalakīrti, a rich lay Buddhist who is considered a paragon of Buddhist virtue.

[5] The most famous translation is Burton Watson’s

[6] When the ruler of the region and other officials visit him, he takes the opportunity to expound on the Dharma teachings. When the Buddha Śākyamuni learns of the situation, he asks each of his ten main disciples to visit Vimalakirti during his illness, but they all refuse, each claiming a past incident during which Vimalakīrti reprimanded him for some deficiency in his understanding of the Dharma, until Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, finally agrees to visit him.

[7] Translated by Burton Watson.

Image: Shizao. The goddess in the Summer Palace

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Who is this Goddess of Heaven scattering flowers?," in Ethnic China, 9 enero 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/who-is-this-goddess-of-heaven-who-is-scattering-flowers/.
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