Asian Buddhism and the Lay Population

Mmmmm…….another blog post about nothing that I am an expert on. Just an observation from my limited personal experience. This post is about my perspective of religion and Buddhism in Asia and the lay population. (“Lay people” are ordinary people like you and me. Members of congregations and everyday people. They are not church leaders, monks or ministers.)

I’ve been involved in religion most of my life. And it has always been one of my favorite study subjects. From catechism studies in the Lutheran church as a child, to being an acolyte in the Order of St. John, to Confirmation studies, to Pacific Lutheran University, to working on staff for various churches over 20 years, to running several online theology discussion forums. This last summer for “fun” I read (for the third time) “Here I Stand” about Martin Luther. I often write church music and as a musician have studied organ hymn improvisation and contemporary Christian music. So, that’s my background.

I’m the one who in the morning may say “religion is silly”, and the same afternoon during a moving service will be welling up with tears because I am so moved. It’s part of my personal culture and part of  “my path”.

One thing that has always bothered me about religion in general is the host of superficial superstitions that seem to accompany it. In each phase of my religion experiences I have also become victim and perpetrator to various erroneous beliefs. I think it is part of group psychology. Any time you create a group, you create an “us” and a “them”. You draw a circle and there are those within the circle, and those without. The group’s identity is to preserve the identity of those within the group. And there begins the drafting of a list of items that make those “within” the group a more viable resource than those “without” the group. Sometimes a group’s collective will is to enlarge the group, sometimes it is to keep it small. It is survival; and an observation perhaps more about the danger of groups than it is of religion itself.

Cultures have traditions that start as something that makes sense. Over the centuries the original focus of the tradition can become blurred. It morphs into something unrecognizable. Each group also has it’s own traditions that evolve over time. One tradition based on another and based on another, until you reach a point of absurdity. That can be the danger of theology. Two thousand years of small logical steps to reach a point that really has no practical purpose than to satisfy the superstition of the believer.

There’s a time when groups agree the process has gone too far; where things just don’t make sense anymore. And in the Christian church that might be when the group agrees it’s time to go back and focus on the bible, “back to the basics”. And viola – a new denomination is born. And over time, the process is repeated. I think many people would agree that one of the main directives of Jesus was to undo the old laws and focus on a new, less cluttered path. Perhaps I’m not wording that right. But the old Jewish law had become very complicated over time with it’s layers of rules and regulations. I’m not boastful enough to call that “bad”, just pointing out it was another point where layers of beliefs had become complicated and someone stepped in to start over.

And then what happened in some Christian denominations? The same process. Two thousand years of theology and rules stacked upon each other. And things became complicated again.

All that I have written in this post so far is the “back story” to this post. The purpose of this post is to actually talk about my, albeit limited, experience with Buddhism and normal everyday people in Asia.

Even as a child,  Buddhism had always been this mystical journey. It’s something that smart people study. Something that introspective souls search out for the deep meaning of existence. Over the last 30 years I’ve read books here and there about it. I had a Buddhist room mate for a couple years. Even ran a Buddhist discussion forum and recorded the “Slow Gongyo”. (The Gongyo is a chant memorized and recited by students of Buddhism. The “Slow Gongyo” is a recording in successive speeds so students can learn the pronunciation phonetically.) I usually have a copy of the latest book by the Dalhai Lama. Just because it’s interesting. A small view into that unknown world.

I’ve been told that in China under Mao Tse Tung that religion was outlawed. As a result the population resorted to worship in private. Over time many superstitions crept into their religion. There were no congregations to keep everyone together in their beliefs. Just millions of people worshiping in private, slowly morphing their beliefs as they went along. I can’t verify this is true. But it is what I was told by a resident of China who has also studied in the West.

An example of some of the beliefs I encountered in religion circles in the US were: Jesus finds me parking spaces. God eases traffic congestion and makes an open lane for me. I prayed for money and got a check the next week. My computer was broken, I prayed and now it works. People sending money for holy water. People buying statues of the Virgin Mary to hang on their rear view mirror for safety. People convinced they can have out of body experiences and study in the astral plane. Throwing the Ouji board into the fire and hearing it scream because it was Satan. People being denied medical attention because it goes against God’s law. The list goes on and on….and there’s are not even extreme examples. I’m sure most of you have experienced some of these yourself, or maybe even believe them.

So back to Buddhism. I was excited to come to China and to learn about Buddhism. Granted, I have not “studied” it after a year living here. And I have a close friend who DID study with a Buddhist master years ago, learned the art of meditation and swears it has changed his life. And I admit, he is perhaps the most calm and centered person I have ever met.

But with the lay population and Buddhism it is a different experience. From what I have seen, it is just as entrenched n superstition and frivolity as the Christian counterparts in the US.

Some examples:

  • Residents in Macau burn incense in front of the door entrance to their home. I am told this is for the “door guardian spirits” to keep the home safe. I thought about getting one but was told it was bad luck if there was ever a day I forgot to burn the incense. Rather than suffer the wrath of my neighbors who would notice my forgetfulness, I declined to install a shrine by my door.
  • Every business in Macau has a little gold cat with a waving arm. It’s for good luck and prosperity; to bring customers in. Ok, so I don’t know if that one is Buddhist or not. And I DO have a little gold cat with a waving arm in my apartment, just because I think it’s fun.
  • I’m playing a checker game in Thailand and before each game my opponent folds hands and bows to the Buddha statue behind us for good luck. But not just good luck, they are very serious that Buddha will grant them skills to win the game.
  • I have a decision to make. Not a big one. As I walk down the street I pass a large Buddha statue and my friend says “Ask Buddha.” So I stop, fold hands and bow and ask Buddha. I tell them “I don’t hear anything.” They say “You must listen. You aren’t listening.” Sound familiar? To someone not brought up in this culture it felt like being at a traveling carnival and asking the wooden fortune teller a question for a quarter.
  • I had a very bad fire in my apartment due to faulty wiring. The full fire department arrived with hoses. I was ok and didn’t lose anything, but some fairly major damage to the apartment. The owner was not concerned about my safety. Their concern was that the fire was bad luck and that the fire had now altered the “feng shui” of the apartment. Safety and cosmetics were no issue, it was the feng shui. Ok, so maybe feng shui isn’t Buddhism either, I just wanted to tell my fire stoy again…
  • A friend is very proud of their lucky gold Buddha pendant. They got it in exchange for a donation to the Monks. Sound familiar? They must have it with them at all times.
  • In Thailand I was a sort of Buddhist “revival” in Bangkok. It had the look and feel of a tent revival in the US. Around the room were trees and people hung pieces of paper to the branches with money attached. I’m assuming the paper had things written on them that they wanted.

In China the unlucky number is 4. So you can get very good rent prices on the fourth floor. No one cares about the 13th floor.

So what’s the point of all this that I write? I guess just this: Our own superstitions make sense to us because it is engrained in us as part of our culture. But when you look at the superstitions of other cultures they seem very silly and frivolous; because it doesn’t carry any inherent meaning to the outside observer.

And to the average population the combination of superstitions and religion is perhaps similiar in it’s degree of mix across cultures and various religions.

This observation gives me a different perspective when I look back at my own beliefs. Part of the paradigm shift of living in another country. You can call it the “gift of wisdom that world traveller’s attain” or you may call it the “curse of the Expat”.

So will I ever find myself at the top of a mountain studying with a Buddhist Zen master? Yeah, probably someday. It still sounds kind of cool.

And will I still cry sometimes during church services back in the states? Probably. I am what I am.

2 thoughts on “Asian Buddhism and the Lay Population

  1. i think you’ve got some key points, but you maybe misunderstand Buddhism. you said that residents in Macau burn incense in front of the door entrance to their home is toasium(道教). the real Buddlist told us must face to the truth(which can be proved eg.science ) not just religion (like who’s words, which ‘book’ saids).

  2. My post is about my limited experience with the expression of Eastern religion by the lay population in Thailand and Macau. You are correct, the “real religion” is not these things, just as similiar expressions of Christianity in the West could be seen as not being the “real” thing. I guess my overall perspective is how things are very different when expressed by the general population, than they are from “official” teachings. Or more specifically, how personal views of superstition and luck creep into personal expressions of religion and faith.

    That’s the onlly comparison I really draw between East/West.

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