Mystical And Mysterious Religions Of Asia
Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. —C.S. Lewis
Southeast Asia exudes a mystical spirituality unlike anything I’ve seen or experienced. I exaggerate not when I say that every single day yields some new spiritual practice to research, an icon to look up, a likeness of a god or goddess to examine, a wayside shrine to investigate, a new religion to analyze, a funeral practice to understand, or a superstition to comprehend.
As a first-time visitor to the Far East, I expected the practice of Buddhism, of course. But the superabundance of ritualistic worship in such a wide array of spiritual traditions including various blendings of Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Taoism, pantheism, animism, polytheism and superstition wreaks havoc on my brain.
Pagodas and gods, temples and altars, incense burning and wayside shrines, good luck charms over doorways and spirit houses on lawns—they all point to what C.S. Lewis describes as the “story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
And this intrigues me. Because from what we’ve observed here and based on the answers to the questions we’ve asked, it seems that rituals performed—such as bowing, almsgiving, clapping, ringing bells, offering fruit & flowers, burning incense, throwing jiaobei, wearing the color red—reflect the believer’s hope of receiving something tangible (and in many cases something very specific) from his or her god.
For example, in the Taoist temple we visited in Taiwan, people throw jiaobei blocks in the air expecting to receive answers to important life questions. In many Japanese shrines we saw pilgrims jingling a bell believing they’d gain the attention of the gods.
At a corner in the center of Bangkok, Thailand, we witnessed hundreds of worshipers purchase and then offer flower garlands and wooden elephants to a golden statue of Phra Phrom—the four-faced Thai representation of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. Why? They hoped to acquire some good fortune: maybe a new baby, a promotion at work, or a winning lottery ticket.
People often practice religious procedures under the presumption that if they perform rituals often enough and in precisely the correct manner, then they’ll be “blessed” with some “good fortune” that will (finally?) make them happy… or at least help them avoid bad fortune that will make them unhappy.
As a pilgrim traveling far from her homeland, I see with greater clarity how easy it is to make religious practice into an “if… then” experience. As in, “if I show proper reverence and if I make a big enough offering and if I ring the bells or clap my hands or wear the right color, and if I do enough 'acceptable' things, then blessing and good fortune, happiness and protection, favor and grace, advantage and approval will follow.”
Such “if…then” religious ritual seems far-removed from my own spiritual beliefs as one who follows the teachings of Jesus, but Christian churches are by no means immune from this “if…then” convention. For example, at a Christian church we visited in Tokyo, believers were taught that if they tithed regularly then God would bring them into great financial prosperity. Thus, I’m reminded that it’s human nature to succumb to the if…then ritual when we aren’t mindful of its snare.
On this travel pilgrimage to lands dissimilar and disparate from my own, observing diverse religious practices brings clarity to another major difference between my faith and, say, an existence pursuing the sage wisdom of the Buddha or worshiping one of the 330 million Hindu gods.
What is that difference? Relationship.
Strikingly absent from every element of religious homage I have observed in Southeast Asia is the semblance of true relationship between deity and devotee. I beheld one-sided (as in from from disciple to deity, not vice versa) reverence, appreciation, expectation, and even fear—but I witnessed no mutual relational love between divine being and believer.
My faith teaches that God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall enter into eternal life with God. (John 3:16) Additionally, we know God loved us first, and therefore, we, too, love. (1 John 4:19) From this very act of sacrificial love, the God of the Bible sets Himself apart as separate from and vastly different than all other gods.
Allow me to illustrate. During our visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia, a family down the street from our Khmer house lost a loved one. To ease the deceased person’s passage into the afterlife, family members posted a loudspeaker outside their home to (loudly!) play music and broadcast chanting throughout the neighborhood all day long.
The sound jolted us from our beds at 5am for three straight mornings! Why? They believed they needed to frighten away evil spirits who might be lurking about to hinder the deceased person’s reincarnation into the next life. In other words, fear motivated them into another “if…then” sequence: for if they played loud music long enough, and if the monks chanted the appropriate words at just the right time, then their loved one could make smooth and safe passage into the afterlife.
Therefore, unlike many of the lovely worshipers we observed—the aforementioned Cambodian Buddhists, for example—I have surety that nothing can stand in the way of my entrance into eternity with God, because I am a beloved member of His family. My relationship with God is all I need: He loves me and I love Him. Everything I do for Him, I do because I love Him—whether it be singing or praying or serving others or studying scripture, etc. However, nothing I do... no manner of “if…then” behavior can make Him love me more, or less.
So thank you, Southeast Asia. Your mystically mysterious religious practices remind me that the God of the universe prefers relationship over ritual and love over liturgy, and I’m grateful that observing your faith lends clarity to my own.
* Cover Photo: Autumn walks into Wat Bang Kung, a Buddhist temple hidden within the roots of a banyan tree. Inside, there is a Buddha completely covered by hundreds of thousands of gold-leaf squares, placed there by devotees who appear to first circle the Buddha, then lick and stick gold-leaf pieces to the statue.