Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Asian Version of the Dharma Money Issue

I was recently asked by a Christian person whether or not there was a similarity between asking for indulgences that the Catholic Church of yore used to have and, in Asia, the practice of offering money in Buddhist temples followed by a chant/offering of incense.  The Christian used to think it was similar.

I was at a loss for words temporarily (other than to say, well, you'd have to deeply understand karma and interdependence), mostly because the topic at hand wasn't the topic of this blog post; it was a tangent to a more important topic.  I wasn't exactly satisfied with my answer...of course a better answer came to me later:

  • When one offers money at a temple, like everything else at a temple, one just does it, and does it wholeheartedly.  In effect, the act of offering at a temple is the offering of one's own life itself at that moment.  In that sense, it's more like the Christian communion in reverse than the other way around.

  • Typically, though people often come to the temple indeed for some reason such as a sick relative, what they say isn't an "I'd like to get something" prayer of course; it's an invocation of the form "Homage to X."  It's declarative.

  • I was however not off-base with the words karma and interdependence.  Most Buddhist chants when they aren't declarative, are in the 2nd person, but the identity of the 2nd person is not of course, separate from the chanter.  In Buddhism, of course, there is the principle of no-self.  So who is invoking what to whom, or who could possibly be trying to get something from whom?

  • Of course, there is the money for services thing, but that's not wholly unreasonable, I'd point out. Temples have to operate on budgets too.

There, that's better.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Huguosi (護国寺), "Protect the Nation Temple" - Emerging Buddhism?

On my recent trip to China I stopped off in Wenzhou.  I had a chance to visit 護国寺.  Evidently there used to be a 護国寺 in Beijing, but it was destroyed in the 1950s. So originally 護国寺 was about protecting the nation in imperial times. You can read into the name of the temple now all kinds of cynical things about the government, but about my visit there, well, it's clear the people going there don't seem particularly cynical about it.  Like many temples this one seems brand spanking new; in fact construction is still going on there.  It's evidently a Pure Land temple - no 禅堂 to be seen, but typically the schools of Buddhism tend to mix.

In the main hall (2nd picture down) there was a chanting service going on with lots of lay people being led in chanting by a monk, on a Saturday mid-afternoon.

I saw a bunch of blue collar guys - in their 20s- entering the temple smoking cigarettes, and having a regular Chinese bro early fall afternoon, laughing loudly.  A few minutes later  a monk was showing these guys how to offer incense, which they reverently did.

Say what you will about China and religion, but on this day, 護国寺 was bringing people calmness and tranquility and peace, and yes, compassion.   You might say China is trying to co-opt Buddhism, but I might point out it seems to be the other way around as well.  Wenzhou tends to have a high population of Christians (yeah, there's brand spanking new Christian churches there too) but it's clear that there's a resurgence of Buddhism amongst people here.

So just to let you know, there's more forms of emerging Buddhism than you can shake a stick at, which of course you can't.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Quick Review: Journey to the West

It really is a shame we don't get enough foreign movies in the US.  On my recent trip over to Asia, I did get a chance to see - in the air - the movie "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons."  If you get a chance to see this, you should. This is the most explicitly Buddhist film I've seen in a long time, but being as it's produced by Stephen Chow,  it is very fictional and very funny (among other things.)  It is very loosely based on  "Journey to the West," which is a classic of Chinese literature. 

It purports to tell the story of how Xuanzang came to go to the West to get the sutras, and is sort of a prequel, I'd guess to the other Journey to the West. So imagine a Buddhist themed movie in the style of Kung Fu Hustle.  In this movie, Xuanzang is a hapless demon hunter who attempts to tame demons by singing to them from the children's book "300 Nursery Rhymes."  He believes that within the demons there is good, and they will respond to compassion with compassion.

Needless to say the demons don't actually see it that way, being that there's demons, and Xuanzang has competition from other demon hunters with less lofty ideals, but in the end, Xuanzang umm...gets enlightened.  No, seriously.

What is really odd in this movie, and I'd say ultimately what makes this movie great -  is the rather extremes of things that take place in the movie.  One minute a  child is eaten by a demon, and a few minutes later there is extreme slapstick.  However, the message of compassion in the movie is clear. It is clear that the violence that does exist in the movie is a motivator for Xuanzang's compassion as well as constancy in his practice.  This really is a Buddhist-themed movie, and that's what's interesting to me as well.  What other religion could have such a movie  about one of its iconic figures that generates laughter?  OK, there's probably some Bollywood movie somewhere that does something similar, or, I suppose if it was to your taste, some of the relatively humorous parts of Bagger Vance. But Bagger Vance has nothing at all on this movie.

Stephen Chow is one of the greatest artists working in cinema today; it's a real pity that this and movies like it don't get wider distribution in the United States.