Here are a few photos from my visit to Lama Temple in Beijing last week. As I stood on the sidelines with my telephoto lens I noticed a few things which gave me insight into the state of religion in China:
- Most people came to the temple to pray, not to take pictures. This is one of the most famous sites in Beijing, and although the Chinese are obsessed with taking pictures, they seemed preoccupied with their prayers, not their phones. There were at least half a dozen shrines to pray to, and this kept everyone busy going from shrine to shrine, burning their incense and making their oblations.
- Lots of young people. Teenagers came with their friends to pray, and many younger couples, but very few older people, apart from this adorable man fingering his prayer beads.
- Lots of rich people. In general people were well dressed and fashionable.
It was heartening to see that religion in China has not been snuffed out by decades of Communist oppression. Religion is experiencing dramatic growth in China. Perhaps this is why there were so many young people praying at the temple. Just two weeks ago, the Chinese government arrested the minister of China’s largest Christian church for vocally challenging government persecution of Christians. The crackdown is a sign of the growing influence of religion in society and the government’s fears of losing control.
But why all the rich people praying? This puzzled me since in other developing countries like those in Latin America, it’s the poor that fill the churches. I asked a Chinese friend about it and she dismissed these rich Buddhists as superstitious. “They are only there to pray for good luck.” However I saw real devotion on their faces, just like Western pilgrims to Jeruselem. What is the difference between superstition and faith anyway? Ultimately, perhaps the admission fee (about $8) kept most of those of modest means away. With an average salary in urban China of just $8,000 a year, that might be the answer.
Lack of Authority in Religion
I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, but unlike Christianity, it seems to lack a strong central authority. The ultimate authority in Buddhism is the authority of the individual, as one seeks to follow one’s own divine nature. Perhaps the lack of ecclesiastical authority is one of the reasons China has always had extraordinarily strong secular governments. In Europe, the church was a foil and a balance to the king. But without a church to challenge them, Chinese emperors grew so powerful that they made the kings and queens of Europe look like amateurs. Emperors of China claimed to be “Sons of Heaven,” a divine mandate of sorts, but their moral foundations were dictated by Confucian philosophy rather than religious dogma.
Today the Chinese government runs unopposed, sustained by a culture that accepts hardline government as necessary. Jackie Chan famously said:
“I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”
Jackie Chan was reviled in the West for this comment, but he does have a point. While I disagree with the authoritarianism of the Chinese government, people need some kind of authority to bow to. As Bob Dylan said, “you gotta serve somebody.” Within each one of us, there exist archetypal desires to be both servant and master.
Today, religious authorities in both the West and the East are weak. In the West, this leads to vapid individualism, and in the East, to tyranny. But Mormons are fortunate to have a benevolent authority to submit to, one that encourages them in the development of their divine individuality, but also challenges them to participate as part of a collective of Saints. We have the best of both worlds.
- Have any of you had experience with religion in the East?
- Do you agree that authority is important as a counterbalance to individuality?