Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Letter from China: "spiritual?"

I've often skirmished with this word "spiritual;" it gets used easily and frequently. I was told, in another working life, that someone I worked with was "a spiritual man." (I thought he was devious and unreliable, just like most of us.) Bookshop shelves are sometimes labelled "mind, body, spirit." Which means you'll get astrology books next to bibles next to Dawkins. Anyway:-

There's a huge Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing called Yonghegong. It's full of people doing this stuff:

which under Chairman Mao would have got them locked up or worse. (It's also full of tourists like me, c.f. St Paul's in London.) It's great to see them doing what they want. I guess it's a spiritual observance, or is it simply a religious act, which may or may not have a deeper, "spiritual" significance?

Maybe it's an example of "this is what we do around here," by which I mean religion as a cultural habit, something that feels right and homely, not usefully to be seen as a matter of belief distinctions, more as a matter of something that works for a particular group of people.

Maybe the observances at the Temple are symbolic, by which I mean the people may not believe there is a non-material being, a BuddhaGod or spirit, to whom they pray; perhaps  they are simply expressing their wonder and admiration at what the historical Buddha did for them. 

After all, Buddhist thinkers in the Chan/Zen tradition will tell you that Buddhism is not a religion; it has no God, in the Judeo/Christian mould. So maybe these people at the Lama Temple are not worshipping, in any way comparable with Christian worship.

Or maybe they are worshipping, in the hope that a nonmaterial entity, a god, a spirit, will interecede for them and make things better.

I mean, presumably they don't think he's actually going to eat this stuff, do they? The monks take it away when it gets rotten, surely...

All very colourful, fascinating and puzzling.  

But one answer to my questions might simply be that the people with the incense sticks, and the monks, are engaged in practices which have a spiritual significance for them.

It seems to me that we use "spiritual" (in contexts where we do not relate the term to a god, a non-material power) to mean an experience that seems much more significant than our usual states of mind; something that creates in us deep meanings, connections and perceptions beyond those that we are used to. 

I am certain that such experiences happen to atheists, in-betweens, and followers of a religion. I am certain that we need such experiences, and the vehicle we ride on to get there matters much less than experiencing the destination itself.

We tend to over-value belief as a definer of spiritual practices. Does it matter what someone believes, as long as what they do provides a spiritual experience for them? And provided it doesn't hurt others.


  1. Interesting -- thought-provoking as ever. Yes, it's so often viewed as a binary thing. You're in or you're out. When an out person joins an in-crowd he/she is seen as having crossed the floor, become one of them. We all worship.

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  3. (Silly typo made me remove a comment and re-type it thus: "We all worship." What a fascinating comment, Charles. Do explicate, expound and even conjugate, if you've time...

  4. Yes I agree these cultural spiritual 'trappings' rites and rituals are fascinating and if we are cynical we can see how the Chinese Establishment now value them as a good tourist experience which also proves that they are tolerant.
    The Buddha himself made disparging comments about rites and rituals which many his followers now ignore.
    I, personally, love being a tourist around these events as well as enjoying the art work inspired by the spiritual. I find them very moving and beautiful and I believe many of the people observing them experience an enhanced uplifted mood. And that's not a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to harmful actions.

  5. I'm not sure you're being cynical, Annee - the thought crossed my mind that the Chinese government might use the flourishing Yonghegong in the middle of Beijing to say, directly or by implication, "see, we are not oppressing out Tibetan brothers and sisters; the 'splittists' are causing trouble over nothing..."

    Thanks for stopping by, and welcome.