Observations of China's Religions
From a Trip July 1st to August 8, 2005
For some years I had difficulty explaining to myself why Buddhism is not the true religion and is inferior to Christianity. This is because, as it appeared to me, the spirituality in some important respects is almost the same in both religions and both religions have their saints who do miracles and influence society for the better. So how could I claim to have the true religion? How does one objectively determine which religion is from God? Or do they both have the same God? Or does it matter which path one takes? I can explain how and why Hinduism, Islam, Paganism, Atheism, and other religions are distortions of the Truth that Adam and Eve and the Prophets and Apostles had passed on, and that Judaism dismisses the prophecies of Jesus Christ, as well as demonstrate how and why Roman Catholicism and Protestantism partially revert to elements of these false religions. But Buddhism had eluded me until I went to Shanghai, China for the first time to visit the relatives of my wife (who is soon to be baptized Orthodox).
The main problem behind any search for or defense of the True Faith is the lack of knowledge of how spirituality works. I believe in ancient times such information was common fact, but in todayís ambivalent world, it needs to be learned and learned again. I say this because spirituality is (to use a modern term) a psychology of observing how the mind and soul work under the guidance of religious direction, and the modern psychology is based on carnality rather than on holiness. Another problem in this quest for the True God is ignorance or dismissal of important facts that would either support or weaken the logic of a religionís claims. All this is why I had problems knowing how and why Buddhism is not a path to salvation.
Buddhist beliefs and practices strongly parallel Biblical doctrines, Apostolic Tradition, and Christian monastic teachings in basic ways. Not only do Buddhists have some concept of a divine trinity, they also teach that their god is beyond our comprehension, just as the saints speak of the Fatherís Essence as being unknowable and indescribable. Buddhists even have various buddhas (a cross between a saint and Buddha himself, a historical man who is like a mediator or ladder to divinity) in their heaven that can be prayed to, as well as incense and statues for use in prayer, similar to our petitions to the saints, incense, and icons. But these and other things are the limit to the similarities as I was to discover from my reading and experience.
One main reason why I had such difficulty with discounting Buddhism was not only certain doctrinal similarities but also the spirituality, especially their monasticism. How can I explain to myself and others that the Apostlesí Tradition is superior to Buddhism, when they both appear to be doing and believing the same things? If St. Peter does a miracle and a certain Buddhist does the same miracle, and both are virtuous men, how can one judge between these religions? Are both from God? For example, near Ningbo, China one of my wifeís cousins some years ago got in a car wreck that resulted in a few visions of Buddha telling her some special plans that he had for her. From what I could gather, she was a devout Buddhist before and after this experience, but it is not clear (my translator was not skilled enough) how advanced she was in this spirituality and how involved she was with prayer. I got the impression that she was just a typical Buddhist who simply did her short, daily prayers without much more thought about her religion during the rest of the day. But about three years after her car wreck the spiritual changes that developed from her visions eventually led to her becoming a miracle-worker, healing the sick, reading palms, seeing the future, exorcising demons, etc. She is now quite popular in her area and many people go to her for spiritual advice and miracles. She is sincere and does not accept money for this, though there are times when she may accept some non-monetary recompense.
This miracle-worker is similar to the Apostles, and even some Christians in recent times, who
were also teachers and wonder-workers. And this begs the question again- how does one explain that Buddhism is a false religion when it seems to be like Christianity? How can one understand that my wifeís cousin is being manipulated by Satan? By Godís grace I found before I left for China a book called ďChrist, the Eternal TaoĒ by Hieromonk Damascene, who I had met while I lived in Nashville, TN. His book perfectly and clearly explained it all to me, so I was as prepared as God wanted me to be to distinguish between the spirituality of men and of God, and to utilize this insight in telling the Gospel of Christ to the Chinese whenever God provided the chance.
The first thing I noticed was the complete lack of temples and churches in China. I was not sure, so I asked my students (I also taught English there for two weeks) if this situation was caused by Communismís persecutions of religion. But they were convinced that this had always been the case, at least for temples, since Buddhism and Taoism have an ethic of establishing places of worship away from populated areas. So temples tended to be on the edge of or far beyond the towns and doubled as monasteries. Hence, all I saw in Chinaís towns was store after store and apartment building after apartment building. Americans may have problems with materialism, but Asia turns it into an art form. I asked some other students more questions about this and they said that most people simply pray at home before their little statues of Buddha or whatever. They laughed at the idea of Buddhists going down the block to pray at a temple, since such an ethic is more of a Christian practice not at all associated with the Chinese culture.
There are a few churches that are visible, though Orthodoxy is not yet legal. All that the Chinese have is a somewhat regulated Roman Catholicism and a forced inter-denominational Protestantism. China does not allow each Protestant denomination to exist, so a form of non-denominational Protestantism can only be practiced. As a result, a Methodist minister must modify his dogmas to conform to a type of pan-Protestantism or covertly preach his theology. This is not easy for some people. I actually happened to overhear an angry church-goer outside a Protestant church berate a minister dressed like an Episcopal priest. The man was angry that the priest or minister was involved in diluting the dogmas of whatever Protestant theology he had in mind, probably because of the law forcing all Protestant churches to conform to a kind of pan-Protestantism. So there is some degree of frustration caused by this law.
Not all Chinese people are traditionally religious, since Communism and its persecution have popularized the religions of Atheism and Agnosticism. But it may be true to say that about a third of the people are Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, and others. Since all Chinese people love Americans and Europeans and are now heavily influenced by our Western culture, they are receptive to the Gospel, though this does not mean that they want to convert. On occasion we were able to bring up the topic of Christ in our discussions with my wifeís relatives, friends, and their college-aged children. For example, I talked with a 2nd cousin about the importance of Jesus in the American heritage. But after a while the terms and ideas that I had to express became too difficult for my cousin. At that point my wife took over and spoke for a long time about the main stories of Scripture, the Gospel, and even the Holy Trinity. The cousin, her mom, and my wifeís sister were totally captivated by what she said. At another time there were a few other 2nd cousins who sat and listened to me for a long time explain the meaning of Christís death and resurrection. Of course, my wife was there to provide in Chinese any gaps to their understanding. Then there was a friendís son who was convinced that religion was a fairy tale and a superstition. I explained to him the inconsistencies in believing that God did not create the universe, as well as life, and then I threw his argument back at him by saying that his own belief that religion is a superstition may itself be superstitious. I could visibly see how that thought deeply affected him. And there were other times we talked about religion. So God did provide chances for us to teach the message of Jesus Christ, sometimes with me initiating the discussion and with my wife taking over in Chinese at some point, though also with my wife talking about the Bible, with or without me as a helper. But because these peopleís understanding of Christianity was very limited, I was only able to explain to one 2nd cousin the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, as well as introduce Orthodoxy, which is almost unknown to the Chinese.
Though we saw no interest to convert to Christ, particularly Orthodoxy, since it is such a new concept to them, we leave it up to God to do His will. We are still in contact with these people who have heard the Gospel or parts of it, and the message of Jesus will probably come up in conversations on the internet and/or when we return to China next year. The Chinese people want to learn English and modernize themselves, as they call westernization, and in the process some feel that they should learn about Christianity in order to understand who and what they are dealing with. As a result of this exposure, there is a growing number of conversions to Catholicism and Protestantism, so that these forms of Christianity are gaining tens of thousands of converts and sympathizers every year. It is conceivable to say that in 50 years there will be more Christians in China than Buddhists and Taoists, or at least Christianity will be a greater rival.
The Chinese heritage is mainly Buddhist and Taoist, which still have an impact in the lives of many people, if or not they are religious. These two religions are heavily guided by a theology of health and wealth, whereby people pray and pray for good health, good luck, good happiness, and good money. It is much like the modern health-wealth movement that has been popular among certain Protestant groups in recent decades. The Chinese have a long history with this spirituality and they have many symbols for luck, success, health, happiness, etc. everywhere. When people pray, they often pray for more money, better jobs, economic luck, etc., or their prayers have some indirect connection to health and wealth. But this is not just among the lay-people; even the temples are adorned with symbols and messages promoting financial success and physical health. In one area we visited a Buddhist temple and a Taoist temple, which were once frequented by the local kings for a number of centuries. When we entered the Taoist temple, there was a priest in every corner pulling tourists (who were all Chinese) aside and deeply discussing things with them. I was aware that the founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, taught ideals that parallel Orthodoxy more than Buddhaís did, so I assumed that these priests were donating their time and energy to giving people spiritual advice. One of them took one of our friends and spent 5-10 minutes with her. Afterwards I found out that he had read her future in her palm, which he said contained lots of money and success for her. But this could only come true if she paid him to pray for her every day at the price of 1 yuan (1 yuan is the price of a newspaper) per day. So she paid him 5 or 10 yuan. When we later walked by another priest, he called for us to sit with him, but our friend said that her palm had already been read. Then he said that it did not matter because his reading of her palm would be different. Such is the spiritual heritage of China. But it must also be stated that the Chinese people in social practice do strive to have an ethic of donating money to the poor and buying gifts, just as the Christian culture practices. Thus, they are not greedy in practice, but a major aspect of their religion is devoted to monetary concerns.
As a result of this fusion of God and money, nobody seemed to think that palm reading and paying priests for prayers were dubious methods of manipulating peopleís hopes and dreams. It was all part of their religion and worship, which is based on health and wealth, even for the monks. Moreover, outside the temples there are kiosks selling religious and secular stuff right along the walls and up to the doors. I told one of our Chinese friends that Jesus once destroyed a bunch of kiosks at the Jerusalem Temple because God should be the main focus and not money. He did not seem to grasp the point that the quest for money must be secondary to the soulís search for God. Nevertheless, there are Buddhist and Taoist monks who do give up all earthly attachments, including the yearning for money and possessions, yet the goal involves getting into their inner selves rather than into God. So this self-oriented form of detachment is part of their theology along with accommodating health-wealth beliefs, which is definitely ambivalent or duplicitous. But since they believe in reincarnation, this contradiction becomes moot because they do not consider the soulís purification to be an immediate necessity for this life. If people feel excited about giving up earthly attachments, then detachment is taught; and if others would rather yearn for success, then the monks will encourage this too. It does not matter to them because their religion says that holiness and spiritual enlightenment can occur in a succession of lives until we will all become absorbed into the Self as gods in a way that will eliminate individuality and what we now consider to be reality. The focus of all their forms of spirituality is man, not God.
This denial of present realities and the doctrine of reincarnation were recognized by the Early Christians to be logically flawed because these beliefs are saying that the essential distinctions between man and animals and between souls themselves and also between man and God do not ultimately exist, even though we can observe and see that they exist. But Buddhists do not even accept that this present age of sin is part of reality, which allows people to be more lax about sin and the seeking of holiness. Even doing good deeds is basically practiced not necessarily to attain holiness but to prevent bad things from happening, since what goes around comes around, which is a basic Buddhist doctrine that is still prevalent among the non-religious Chinese. This leads to a trust in oneself, in oneís own abilities to adhere to holiness instead of trusting in our Creator. Yet Buddhists do not actually believe that God is Person anyway. In fact, their god is so unknowable that they have no connection with it at all in any way, even in prayer. As a Buddhist monk told me, the god of Buddhism is merely a relative concept who does not demand or reveal an absolute and universal standard of Truth about itself. And he seemed proud of this ideal. Hence, God is taken to be what any devotee presumes or desires Him to be. In other words, feeble man is the determining factor in achieving enlightenment, not divine revelation. Buddhism allows man to trust himself to decide who God is & how to unite with him, rather than submitting to Godís standard of Truth and salvation as He reveals it to us. So Buddhists just pray to Buddha and wish to get to their heaven because of him, and then they assume that their spiritual experiences of transcendent unity with the divine are an objective truth, despite their assertion that there are no objective truths. Even Buddha himself, like their god, is not a static figure. Sometimes Buddha looks like a normal adult man or a prayerful man in their temples, and other times he is shown to be a fat, jolly fellow. This is the Fat Buddha, a statue of Buddha as a 400 pound man that is laughing and surrounded by signs of wealth. People pray before it and hope to acquire such earthly excess now or in the next life or in their heaven. Temples also have the Fat Buddha, thereby promoting carnal indulgence as a symbol of future spiritual or physical health and wealth along with the self-contradictory notion that man is the source of truth. Indeed, Buddha was a man whose own enlightenment cannot be objectively accepted as divine, contrary to Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead.
Toward the end of our stay I finally got to meet my cousin-in-law, the Buddhist miracle-worker. I expected to see a spiritually advanced monastic type, but she turned out to be more like an excited Protestant of the charismatic movement. A group of my wifeís relatives had all gone out with us to meet her and eventually everyone hung around her to listen intently to her spiritual lessons. Then she started reading everyoneís palms and poor my wife was pushed into taking part in it. While this was going on I left the room and sat with the miracle-workerís son and niece. They asked me why I was not taking part in this, and I told them how and why palm reading is a farce. The niece (my 2nd cousin-in-law) grasped the purport of what I said and agreed that it may be a matter of wishful thinking. When the palm reading was done, my wife told me what her palm supposedly said, and one of the things taught was that she does not work hard enough. That comment confirmed my cynicism because my wife works harder than anyone I know. From the second she wakes up to the second she goes to bed she is either thinking about work or doing some work, never resting. And I am sure that if I were to confront her cousin and challenge her on this palm reading that she would say not to take it literally or not to apply it to present circumstances or whatever. They just make it all up as they go. For instance, before my wife, came to America her palm supposedly said that she would never fall in love and get married. Plus, the Taoist monk that I mentioned earlier literally admitted that each palm reader can get different messages from the same palm. But I do not know if all monks think this way; there must be some Buddhists and Taoists who dismiss this spirituality.
The lessons that I learned from all this are that the Early Christians and the book ďChrist, the Eternal TaoĒ teach the Truth derived from the Apostles of the Lord. The human spirit, soul, mind, and body that God created without the use of evolution are designed to do miracles with or without God. Thus, every religion has its miracle-workers and prayerful devotees. For example, Fr. Seraphim Rose in his book ďOrthodoxy and the Religion of the FutureĒ recorded a true story
about a group of tourists from Europe who went to India in the late 1800ís. An Eastern Orthodox monk happened to be among them as they got off the boat and walked on the port. It was then that they were told about an amazing Hindu fakir, who after many decades of transcendental meditation could do miracles. When they came to this man, they saw him meditating before a fire and immediately a giant vision in the sky appeared. Everyone saw the same vision of watching themselves and other people doing things on the very boat that they were on just hours before. It was like watching TV, though TV had not yet been invented. The Orthodox monk was taken by surprise; but when he came to his senses, he made the sign of the Cross and said the Jesus Prayer, which caused the vision to disappear for him, eventually causing the magician-fakir to break out of his trance. The fakir knew that God had worked through the monk and he was quite enraged because of this. So according to what I have read and seen, there is a spirituality from man, at least partially influenced by Satan, and a spirituality from God. Godís spirituality is given to man and guides the soul to Him, seeking to make us as holy as He is holy. But manís spirituality has the ability to only imitate these effects, which can only go as far as manís spiritual abilities and intellect allow (Satan usually succeeds in adding lies as well, due to manís weakness). Because the human spirit can do miracles and acquire amazing virtues, people often confuse manís natural abilities with Godís uncreated energies working in us. Man thus becomes God in such situations and/or earthliness becomes mistaken for Heaven. Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit in the Churchís Baptism free us from this confusion, but only as long as Christians preserve the distinction between human and divine spirituality and seek to eliminate the sins within us.
Despite its Apostolic origins, Roman Catholicism in the last 800-900 years has not preserved a distinction between human and divine spirituality, nor has Protestantism. Instead, Roman Catholicism has mingled carnality with the original standard of Apostolic sainthood, diminishing humility and elevating human opinion as a way of attaining holiness; and Protestantism has made human opinions about salvation, sainthood, etc. into a basic theology, almost eradicating humility and sobriety as a source of salvation. This is why I say that my Buddhist miracle-working cousin is like a charismatic Protestant. She says that she constantly hears Buddha talking to her in private, as well as when she reads palms, heals people, exorcises demons, teaches, etc., naively accepting these voices as divine revelations, as though she knows that she is worthy of such honor, without any cautious and sober consideration that these visions are from the spiritual realm of evil. But the voices that she hears are not from God because the messages she gets can turn out to be false and she is speaking and acting through human impulses, not through years of prayer and practice in the spirituality of detachment, holiness, and divine grace. This became even more evident to me after having had a religious discussion with her in private. I asked very deep questions that were meant to probe into her soul to see the level of spirituality that she was involved with. Along with the Churchís interpretation of Scripture, I am aware of the spirituality of the Philokalia and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as well as their Apostolic interpretation of psychology, and I am somewhat conversant in St. Dionysius the Areopagiteís theology. Though I am not at all an expert in the teachings of these great saints, I do have some lay-personís grasp of what to look for when people claim to be guided by divinity. As a result, I did not get the impression that my cousinís miracle-working spirituality was at the level of the wisdom and holy perfection that Orthodox saints have possessed for 2000 years. Indeed, even ordinary Orthodox men and women surpass her in wisdom and holiness, though this cousin is a very sweet and genuine woman. But her spiritual knowledge was limited in wisdom and holiness due to a reliance on her own human powers rather than on divine grace. In fact, I was more impressed by the spirituality of Fr. George Calciu (jailed and tortured for the Faith by the Communists in Romania for over 20 years), who I was able to talk to for a few days, than I was with my cousin. So despite her claims of being a divinely-inspired example of Buddhism, the spirituality of St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. John of Kronstadt or any other Orthodox preacher is noticeably truer. There are many good Hindus and Buddhists, especially monks, who have achieved what appears to be spiritual perfection, being as holy as God is holy, but as Fr. Seraphim Roseís story about the Hindu fakir makes clear, the Cross of Christ triumphs as the Truth and the Author of our
existence. Any other religion is a human endeavor limited by menís sinfulness and/or influenced by Satanís lies.
I pray that these observations of China may help clarify for others what and where the True Faith is. If anyone has doubts about the uniqueness and exclusivity of Orthodoxy, or believes that other religions are paths to the same end or have the same God as ours, or that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are not movements toward Paganism, then I challenge you to do more research. Our God, our Doctrine, and our Church are the surest path to holiness and salvation that the Lordís Apostles established. Any other way is an attempt to appease human desires and assuage manís weaknesses, to make Christ more convenient and salvation conform more to human standards of religion. This is the difference that I learned between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism relies on the human mind for its divine revelation, as well as unverifiable visions, but Apostolic Christianity relies not on menís limited spiritual discoveries, but on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the only God who fully reveals Himself as the Way for man to be restored. The Buddhist revelation comes from human claims or opinions of divinity, while the Christian revelation comes from historical and verifiable witnesses of Christís Resurrection. So if or not God speaks through Buddhists, their theology cannot be objectively ascertained as truly divine, whereas the Gospel of Jesus Christ was powerfully and undeniably experienced by actual witnesses of the Lord, a witness that can still be experienced today through the Church in Communion and prayer. It is these things that prove Orthodoxy to be unique, exclusive, and the true religion. May the Lord guide us there.
ďEnter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.Ē Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14.