Friday, February 03, 2006

The god of fortune?

I go back to work on Monday so as I normally have Saturdays and Sundays off today is the last day of my Chinese New Year Holiday. My wife and I were sick over Christmas and had a generally miserable time coughing and sneezing and stayed wrapped up on the couch watching TV. However, this past week has been everything that Christmas wasn't.

We had a couple of marines from the USS Tarawa come over for dinner on New Year's Eve and taking them around to shop in Causeway Bay was fun. We fed them lunch at a BBQ buffet and dinner at our home. Man, could those boys eat! If they are half as good with an M16 as they are with a knife and fork then they are probably the best soldiers in the history of the Marine Corps. (Dan and Rusty, if you are reading this good luck and God speed!)

We also paid to go on a couple of local tours which took us to places in Hong Kong that we seldom go and that also allowed us to watch the Chinese New Year fireworks from a ferry in the harbor. If anybody reading this ever has the opportunity to see the fireworks in Hong Kong you should. They do them as good anywhere on Earth. Great sight.

I shall return to work on Monday, rested and refreshed after a good break.

The Chinese lunar year revolves around the Chinese zodiac signs which are part of Chinese culture. I've always found Chinese Buddhism to be somewhat strange. Buddhism as practiced in Chana mixes tradition and religion and Confucian teachings into a big hodgepodge of practices that are, according to my stunningly attractive Chinese wife of nearly 20 years, somewhat confusing even to the practitioners. When it comes to Chinese Buddhism I'm not sure just exactly what is a dearly held dogma like the resurrection and what is simply an ornament that has been grafted in like the Easter Bunny. That I cannot distinguish these two kinds of things in Chinese Buddhism makes it all the more confusing to me.

Even though I'm a Christian I can kind of see why someone would be attracted to say Hinduism or Islam. But the Chinese "Good Land Buddhism" is just strange. There are hundreds, if not thousands of gods though there appear to be only five or six major ones. However, it isn't the number of gods as it is that much of what the Chinese Buddhists call religion seems to me to be completely different from almost what every other religion teaches.

Christians are told to be "In the world but not of the world." Islam exhorts it followers to have a rather severe, almost ascetic stance towards the material world. Hinduism doesn't believe that the world really exist. In Chinese Buddhism, they have a god that people pray to receive wealth from. James said "Money is the root of much evil" but in China they say, the lack of money is the sum of all evil.

The God of Fortune, whose name is Zambala, is one of the most frequently seen symbols on the streets and in the temples during Chinese New Year. One of the local tours we were on visited a temple in Repulse Bay. The tour guide gave the people on the bus instructions on how to stroke the statue of the God of Fortune so that their prayers for wealth would be granted. I didn't ask her why, if she is such an expert at this, she was still having to earn money leading tours. Maybe she just likes her work.

Zambala isn't really a major god in the traditional Chinese religion. However, at Chinese New Year, he is everywhere. It appears to me that he actually has quite a following. While he is there in Hinduism I don't think he has quite the same following in India that he has in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC.

In some respects, he resembles a Chinese Santa and you can see guys dressed up as the God of Fortune passing out coupons for buffets or Chinese New Year sales events on the streets throughout Asia. But in another respect, he is not like Merry Old St. Nick either. I can tolerate seeing Santa because, at least in part, I know he isn't real. Zambala is if not "God", then at least "a god." People here also think he is a real god, not a lazy baby sitters' way to bribe children into going to bed on time. I cannot help but think that if a Dallas area Kroger ( A grocery Store chain) tried to have a guy dressed as Jesus giving out samples of Christmas cookies in the deli, most Christians would be upset.

If a restaurant dressed someone up as the prophet Mohammed to hawk a post Ramadan buffet, he'd be lynched in any nation with even a smattering of Muslims.

Would any Jew have a Kosher meat company named Jehovah Deli?

Yet the traditional Chinese gods are routinely depicted as doing these kinds of things.

I guess this is the essential difference between Chinese traditional religions and other religions. They have both a profound devotion too and abject disrespect for their gods. My wife says this is because they are not sure they are really there and that they do the worship and adoration just In case there might be some benefit. The gods of China guard your front door to keep evil demons out of your house; they have little god boxes they live in outside the door. They guard the kitchen cabinet to keep ghost from stealing your food. They give you wealth, health, mercy, longevity, success in school, work or love; there is a specific Chinese god for everything. They can be placated or worshipped by a few offerings of fruit, burning a few joss sticks or donating a bit of spare change to the monks begging on the corner.

I guess this is a better way to practice religion than by believing the easiest way to paradise is to call a jihad and try to kill all the infidels but that is another post for another time.

Buddhist Chinese gods are, in many ways, exactly the gods that I would like to have if I could choose any gods I wanted. They cover every aspect of my life. They are only there when you summon them. They don't intrude. They are seldom angry but easy to placate. They don't require much of me but offer a lot in return.

That is precisely why I don't believe in them.

Traditional Chinese gods are exactly the type of gods that critics of Christianity complain that Christianity is. Gods that are only for those too weak, too poor, too uneducated or too powerless to rely upon themselves.

Paradoxically, they are also gods for those who rely upon their own effort but wish for a fire insurance policy to keep them out of a hell they can't quite not believe in. They are, I believe, gods that have been created to salve our insecurities.

Interestingly, you don't even really have to worship them. Because the Chinese Buddhists believe in reincarnation it is only necessary to do a little more good than evil and then you are reincarnated into a better life the next time around. Thus, over many lifetimes you gain enlightenment and achieve salvation, nirvana, paradise or whatever it is that you think you'll get.

Look at the different picture that Jesus paints of our condition.

We are according to Jesus, desperately wicked because we "are all like sheep who have gone astray." We are like foolish brides who do not wait for their groom but waste their oil. We are self-centered. We are white-washed tombs, Fields ready to harvest. He claimed that we are justified by his death. That we must believe only in him.

Jesus did not say the sort of things that would make us comfortable regardless of the culture or century that we live in. He makes us uncomfortable. He doesn't allow us to kick our sins into a future incarnation. We pay for them at the close of this life.

It appears to me, and I am here using too many other Christian thinkers to cite, that one of the things that gives Christianity credence is, paradoxically, the fact that it is, in so many ways, completely unbelievable. If I were going to invent a religion, I'd invent the Chinese one.

Here is another rub. Both of these religions cannot possibly be right. Jesus cannot be "The way the truth and the life" and simply be part of the process.

It would appear to me then that if I were a person practicing traditional Chinese religion, I'd be very much inclined towards becoming a Christian. Because if, after all, it only really matters that you do more good than evil then I could hedge my bets because I'd have my bases covered both ways. But, if I only practice traditional Chinese religion and I find out that Jesus really was "The way, the truth and the life", then I'm in more trouble than I could possibly imagine.

I think it is long past time that the Chinese who practice their traditional religions began to seriously look at what they believe. I also think they may find the true God of Fortune in Jesus who tells them to "Not lay up treasure on Earth but instead to lay up treasure in Heaven."

It is my hope, my prayer and my desire that this year is not merely the year 4703 the year of the dog but the first year of an eternity of blessings for millions; indeed 1.2 billion Chinese

Hung Hei Fat Choi

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Not Normally This Evangelistic Blogger

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