Three spiritual lessons learnt in China...
- Categorized in: Voices in the East
BIG DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR THE MOST PART DIRECTED AT CHRISTIAN BELIEVERS.
If I have anything to say about spirituality, it flows out of my faith in Christ. For this reason, if you don’t consider yourself a believer, by all means read on if you wish, but you should expect for all that follows to rest on a fair amount of assumption – e.g. about the existence of God, about the reliability of the gospels, the truth of the Resurrection etc.; assumptions which I haven’t the space to justify here.
For the most part the travel notes on this website have been simply about what has happened on my journey as I have slowly made my way across Asia. I’ve also written about some of the history or culture or politics which I’ve picked up along the road. But beyond this of course there has been a spiritual aspect to the journey as well – as indeed there is a spiritual aspect to all life whatever your own particular creed or worldview.
One would have to have a very dull mind not to undergo at least some kind of spiritual transformation through doing a venture like this one, or at least learn some lessons along the way. Having now left China, it seems like a good point to share just three of the lessons I learnt as I was pedalling along. I’ve kept them brief(ish) simply to provoke thought, rather than follow each one through to every conceivable conclusion.
1) Jesus is Awake – which is Good News
The first point occurred to me when I was in the city of Zhangye in Gansu province. I had just crossed the Qi Lin Mountains from MenYuan county in Qinghai, and took half a day off to have a look around this dusty town before continuing on along the Hexi Corridor on the Silk Road.
There wasn’t all that much too see.
But I wandered into the biggest tourist attraction on offer, which was the Giant Buddha temple. This houses the largest wooden reclining Buddha, at least in China, possibly the world (but you never know with the Chinese museum plaques). The statue lies there in the gloom of the Great Hall, 34.5m long and about 8m wide at its shoulders. It represents the Buddha lying in his Nirvana position. He is on his side, his face wears a calm expression of sleep, but his eyelids are open just the merest fraction. (On his chest is a Swaztika – which is just a detail I add because one cannot help notice it, even though I don’t really mean anything by referring to it. You’d need to talk to a symbologist to explore the significance of the symbol of a cross that has been bent out of shape.)
I raised my camera to take a picture and managed to snap one in the gloom. The flash went off automatically and this roused the dozing curator from her own slumber in her little glass box, and she flapped her hand at me and said in bad English “No flash, no flash”. So I took another one without the flash, and then she waved even more furiously, “No, no. Photo, no.”
Fine, no photos. Instead, I slowly walked all the way around the Buddha and emerged once more into the sunlight.
As I crossed the threshold I was suddenly struck by the wild contrast between this figure of reference and worship, and that of my own.
Here is a representation of the Buddha, symbolic of what he is once he has reached enlightenment or Nirvana. He is sleeping, he is at rest. His eyes resemble a person in an opium-induced stupor (as does his position). He is not to be disturbed. One thing seems for certain. Once the Buddha – or indeed any person following his path – has reached the hallowed goal of Nirvana, he is not thinking about you. He is not thinking about the world he has left behind, and all its troubles. He has freed himself from its bonds. He is in fact doing nothing. More than this: he is nothing. (But that may be debatable even between Budhhists).
This is not surprising because Buddhism (from my understanding over the years, which I admit is very far from deep) seems to invite you to nothingness. It is an invitation into oblivion. Enlightenment and nirvana do not mean you suddenly see things clearly for what they are and come to a place of eternal and peaceful existence, but rather you have managed to empty yourself so completely of the ties and desires of life, that the self has disappeared. Both good and evil fall away, peace and torment are at an end, even life and death have ceased. Because you’ve finally come to a place of non-existence. And that is where the Buddha is. Being enlightened he no longer exists.
Now Buddhism has a system that an enlightened person may choose to remain in the world before he assumes his place in Nirvana – which is not so much a place, as a state of being (or non-being to be more precise). Those that stay are the Bodhisattvas. Individuals who, out of compassion for the world, have chosen to postpone their own final rest in order to instruct those in the world further behind on the path. But soon they too will pass over, and once in Nirvana, they are no help to anyone. They slumber in a sleep from which none can awaken them.
On the other hand, I don’t think in the history of the world, a picture, sculpture or drawing of Jesus has been made of him asleep. (Of course, that may be hyperbole – but I’ve certainly never seen one myself.) While the plump Buddha dozes, the iconography of the Christian faith is filled with gaunt-faced saints with blazing eyes on their way to do something, to tell their message or die in the process, for whom sleep seems almost an impossibility (at least when you look at them). What is the fire that burns in them? That drives them almost like madmen into the world? Could there be two more different representations of a man than the sleeping Buddha who may not be disturbed, and the half-starved pilgrim saint who will cease at nothing in order to disturb you?
But what of the hereafter? If the Buddha is asleep (or actually simply “is not”), then what does the person I revere have to say. In striking contrast, some words of Jesus came to mind.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
This seems to me to be the answer to a question that is put in the book of Eccelesiastes (which might easily be expressed in the mouth of any atheist or sceptic today):
“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”
It’s a legitimate question. And Jesus indeed gives his answer. He says, I am the one who can tell you about what comes after. He says he’s preparing a place and that he’ll come again and bring us to him. That means that unlike the Buddha, right now he is active, and working for our benefit, and not dozing for all eternity.
Maybe I’m on a roll here, but it lead me to the words of St. Paul (a fiery eyed and relentless saint if ever there was one), who wrote:
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
Of course, it’s a matter of faith whether you believe the words of Jesus or the words of Paul. But looking at that reclining statue, I thought that even if I had no view as to which of the Christian or the Buddhist or the atheist view of the world is true – or even if none of them were true – at least the claims of Jesus are far preferable to the others.
Is there no one to help us? Is there someone who might help us but who is asleep? Or is there someone active and awake who promises to help?
To be swallowed up as dust. To be swallowed up by nothingness. Or to be swallowed up by Life.
The dusk of death. The eternal midnight of nirvana. Or the dawn of Christ.
Only one of these seems to be Good News.
2) Whoever you are, Jesus has something to say to you
This is probably the simplest of the three lessons I will share.
Nothing on my journey especially provoked it, but it occurred to me as I was cycling along a particularly hot and straight bit of road following the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.
What is the main problem of communication between Christians and the rest of the world? Why is it that the good news of Jesus, who he is and what he’s done, seems so hard to communicate (for me at least)? Where does the disconnect lie between what I understand (and love) about Jesus, and what I can convey to others?
Perhaps there are many reasons, but one of them seems to be that my own words get in the way. My own way of talking and explaining and describing puts a stifling limitation on what might pass from Jesus himself into the heart of the other person. It would be far better for me to get out of the way, and for individuals in my life to simply hear from Jesus’ mouth directly.
By which I mean, at least here, His words in the gospels.
And I started thinking about characters in the gospels and people I’ve met through my life and began to see there was considerable overlap between backgrounds, character types, events and situations. Within a half hour or so of rumination, I couldn’t resist the conclusion that whoever you are, whatever your beliefs or your past or your present situation, there is a character in the one of the gospel who matches you very closely, and if you find this person, then the words Jesus has to say to that person may have tremendous significance and resonance with you.
Now not everything Jesus has to say in the gospels is comforting and uplifting and sympathetic. The shock I received when I first opened the gospels as an adult was caused by the voice of thunder and authority that came from Jesus, far more than his words of compassion and love, which I expected. But whoever you are, whatever he says, it is for your benefit, if you are brave or humble enough to hear the truth about yourself and respond. Many in the gospels were not, which, one could say, is why they wanted Jesus dead.
So who are you?
Are you a member of the intellectual elite – a stalwart of the ruling class and a great mind of the conceived wisdom of the day? (John 3)
Are you a confident and worldly person, who’s been trying to make relationship after relationship work, but somehow it doesn’t stick? (John 4)
Are you broken inside from something you’ve been battling for years which has made you hide in shame (either inwardly or outwardly)? (Luke 8)
Are you a clever professional who’s pretty sure you’ve got all the answers but enjoy challenging others’ worldviews? (Luke 10, Luke 20)
Are you a super-successful young man who’s got everything he wants and needs, and now wants to give something back to the world because it seems like the right thing to do? (Mark 10, Luke 18, Matthew 19)
Are you a person who’s made a lot of bad decisions, and alienated friends and family as a result? (Luke 19)
Are you someone who thinks the Christian faith ridiculous and enjoys watching Christians fail in their faith? (Luke 17)
Are you pretty sure you’re a good person, much better at least than a lot of people you read about in the papers? (Luke 7, Luke 18)
Are you being vilified by all around you for something you know you did wrong? (John 8)
Do you think what’s right and wrong is up to you and how you feel, or what is acceptable to modern society? (Luke 16)
Are you someone who doesn’t need faith, because you think it’s for the weak and you can get along fine in the world without it? (Luke 12)
Do you think pretty much you should live and let live and what a person believes doesn’t really matter? (Matthew 7)
Are you from a country or people group or belief system that is entirely alien to faith in Jesus? (Matthew 8, Mark 7)
Are you wretched and frightened and looking death in the face? (Luke 23)
Do you just want to mind your own business and get on with your life without interference from religion or people trying to control you? (John 9)
Have you got yourself deeply involved with other spiritual powers and your life has got out of control? (Luke 8)
Have you betrayed someone you love? (John 21)
Of course, I could go on and on and on.
One of the reasons that the gospels are alive is because you are already in it.
As you read, so you are read.
If Jesus repeatedly says, “those that have ears, let them hear,” then the question remains:
“Do you have ears?”
And if you have ears, are you prepared to listen?
3) God’s humility is our opportunity
This lesson did emerge out of a specific incident that happened while I was in Urumqi, waiting for my Kazakh visa to be processed.
I will preface it by saying that I am in no way recounting this small incident to reflect well on myself. Rather the opposite.
In preparation for my departure for the south-west the following day, I went out in search of some provisions. Knowing the appalling dearth of good bread and jam in China, I figured that I had a better chance of finding some in the Carrefour (French supermarket) on the main square, even if it would be over-priced.
On my way there, I had to cross a busy street via an underpass, which was relatively crowded with pedestrians. As I reached the bottom step, two little Uighur children rushed up to me, pressing against my legs, clutching a couple of ragged newspapers which they tried to thrust into my hands.
My instant reaction was not exactly heart-warming. My first thought was fear for the notes of money in my pocket as they crowded round my legs and I distrusted what they were up to, and my second was to steer them out of my way so I could pass on, thinking as I did it “Get away from me.” Perhaps that’s what most people would do. Perhaps not.
Anyway, as I walked on, the first thing that came to mind in response to my hard reaction was the verse “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mk 10:14)
Then came a few verses from the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In particular:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
[Obviously I don’t remember these verses word for word! I just recall the gist of each passage. But I’ve written them out here in full so you know what I’m talking about.]
So now reflecting on these two thoughts, I argued for a short while back and forth about going back to the children, but then gave in to the following action. I went off to the supermarket, bought my stuff, and bought a bag of lollipops for these little kids, who were probably between 4 and 6 years old, and then headed back to the underpass.
Eventually I came back and found them again, told them I didn’t need their paper but that they could share these between them (another kid had appeared with them). It took them all of 5 seconds to get out the first lollipop and shove it in their mouths saying a garbled thank you at the same time.
It is a trivial incident. And no doubt, I could be accused of rotting children’s teeth, or merely reacting out of guilt or whatever. But the fact remains that, for a little while, the kids would be quite happy.
After thinking about this little episode a bit more, it made me realise a few important things:
1) The human heart is (at least in part) wicked – my first reaction of aversion to these kids and fear for my money was my natural one.
2) The Holy Spirit uses scripture to convict the heart (at least of someone who’s listening) and prompt us into action.
3) God uses our obedience to pour out his blessing and grace on others.
4) In doing so, God has actually humbled himself by identifying himself – God Almighty –with the lowest of his human creatures on earth. We can receive or reject him as easily as we can decide whether to shove a pushy child out of our way.
5) The result is revelation of how good God is, not how good humans are, and it increases our reverence and thanksgiving to him and his glory (not our own).
One could write a book on each of these, but I’ll spare you that for now.
The only thing I would say is that number 4 blows my mind. Not only does Jesus say that God humbles himself in a way that no other religion comes close to fathoming, but in doing so he gives mere humans the opportunity to express personal care for him. “What we do to the least of these, we do to him.”
How this is possible is a mystery. If it is true, then it is one of the most startling and wonderful claims of the Christian faith. As well as one of the most serious.
I hope these reflections of mine may at least provoke some thought in you. Of course, you’re free to disagree with all or anything I say, or indeed what is written in the Bible.
But this is the way it seems to me.
Thanks for reading!
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