The Spiritual Vacuum

This is the second posting in a series of reflections coming from my recent experience in China.

Chinese Religion and Culture

Historically, politically and religiously huge differences still exist between East and West, in general, and China and America, in particular. In contrast to less than 250 years of history as a nation, China has had 2100 years of emperors, beginning in 221 B.C. with the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty, finishing with the Qing (pronounced, Ching) dynasty in 1911, followed by not quite 100 years of two different forms of “republican” government. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been officially “communist” and ruled by a Central Committee. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate (or minimize) all traditional and foreign religions, and members of the Communist party are supposed to be atheists. However, for the masses, other religions are more or less tolerated and capitalism has been embraced to various degrees, as the country has increasingly opened up over the past 15-20 years.

Chinese religion and philosophy are rooted principally in Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism, with the three often co-existing side by side, sometimes even within one temple. The couple of guides that were willing to talk to me about how Buddhism is practiced helped confirm what I have read. In China, as well as in South East Asia, “Buddhism” as practiced is mixed with traditional religions, including beliefs in many gods and spirits in trees, stones and other inanimate objects, having been highly influenced by Taoism (emphasizing inner communion with nature) and undoubtedly other traditional religions. Ghosts and spirits are widely believed in as well.

A handful of animal figures represent key Chinese beliefs or values. The dragon is seen as both a dangerous and benevolent divine-like figure (in contrast to Western views of dragons), symbolizing power. The Phoenix represents the high value placed on longevity on life. Fierce mythological, winged creatures (guardians) are frequently depicted in sculptures and art.

As opposed to Theravada Buddhists (see “What the Buddhists Taught Me” under the category of “Inter-Faith Dialogue at, Mahayana (major way) Buddhism is practiced in China. Mahayana Buddhists are likely to view Buddha as a spirit to whom they can pray and who can come to help them. Like Hindus, Chinese Buddhists are likely to believe “in all the gods” (as one Chinese Buddhist informed me). Perhaps the closest parallel to Christians’ belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son for the redemption of humanity may be found among those Mahayana Buddhists  who see Buddha as benevolent, helping those who pray to him and inspiring enlightened Buddhists, called, Bodhisattvas. Refusing to enter Nirvana, Bodhisattvas choose to return to human incarnation to serve humanity until all reach enlightenment.

The Communist government has been officially atheistic since 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution (1965-67, especially), the Red Guard attempted to sweep away belief in the gods, including the traditional religious beliefs held by the masses. Religion was even outlawed for awhile. Today many young people consider themselves atheists, but practically, syncretistic forms of religion (a mixing of religious beliefs and practices from various traditions) exist in many places. In the past ten years, the number of Chinese people saying they are religious has tripled, and now represents over 30% of the population.

These shifts are very promising for the future of China, in my opinion. Largely stripped of the cultural dependence on superstition and ancient religious practices, a spiritual vacuum has been created.

But who and what is going to fill this spiritual vacuum? Where will they turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance?

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