While I've been asked many questions by taxi driver, random hikers I met while climbing a mountain a couple months ago, and friends of all stripes (bikers, classmates, teachers, tutors, bakery salespeople, etc), the one that seems to follow within short order (after what my views are on Obama or Edward Snowden perhaps) is whether I'm a Christian or not. Now, one may think it strange that such a question would be quite common here, but to highlight one such case on the aforementioned night hike, I actually was asked if I was Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, both words of which I had translate with my trusty iPhone!
While I can't recall their reaction to my answer that I was simply a Christian, it likely wasn't their first time they'd met one. But meeting a follower of Christ compared against knowing about Him is quite a gap, as far again is knowing about Him and knowing Him. I imagine that the influx of tourism and expats living in China and relative ease of international travel taken into account with the rise of globalization, international media access, and Western influence here, it's not hard for a Chinese to meet a foreigner who doesn't share their same belief in Buddha. This isn't to say that every Chinese is Buddhist, of course, but if there's one predominant school of belief here, it's hands down Buddhism.
In a country where it's rare that I can walk down a street or enter an apartment building where there a link or tie (or outright statue/idol) to Buddhism can be sighted, it can also be common that locals think I've come to their town or park or temple to give adoration (and money) and burn incense to Buddha. Perhaps some of you recall a picture I posted just a couple months ago with me, a local Muslim salesman of dried fruit and nuts, and two Nepal tradesman. The latter were here for a trade show and they remarked at how well off the Chinese people were here, financially speaking.
Now, just yesterday I had an interaction with a young man that shed light on how a certain sector--namely Buddhist lamas (high priests, in other words)--comes by their money. Lee, who was working the desk at the hostel I stayed at 2 nights ago, is a college student. He actually is from the same city I live in now, but we met 600 miles south of there in a tourist town set at 8000'. His family had opened a hostel there and he was working there while on winter break. What started out as a reluctant acceptance to take the first cup of tea he offered (as I'd just finished running and was quite warm and my request for cold water went unheard) turned into a great opportunity to present to him the Truth about the free Way to true Life. I sat across from him as he masterfully prepared a local tea, sterilizing the 2 oz. glass bowls we sipped from and serving up batch after batch of the slightly bitter drink. His English was quite good as he's been in school in Malaysia for a couple years, and all his classes are in English.
The point in our conversation that dovetailed with the observation of the Nepalese tradesmen that came here to attend an exhibit was when Lee shared with me the interaction that he and his family have had with Buddhist lamas through the years. I asked him at which points or under what circumstances do they call for the lama. When a family members dies or gets sick and perhaps when one opens a new business were the cases that he said a lama was likely to be called upon. Karma, in my understanding, is never a certain or sure thing in the minds of these followers. Neither is the type of being/creature that a deceased one will become upon reincarnation nor how the spirit of the deceased will interact with the surviving family members whether good or bad. Thus, the best thing going, they believe, is to call up the lama and have him pray for them, announce a blessing and invoke Buddha/the gods to protect them and give them good health when circumstances arise where it's imperative that 'good' outweigh the 'bad.'
"Is this service--the visit and blessing from the lama--free," I asked Lee?
"Oh no, we have to pay him. It's very expensive," he lamented.
He went on to tell me of a time that his Dad and Aunt had called the local lama over because his grandfather had fallen ill and was, so it sounded, on his death bed. Being that I'm in China where querying a friend on the exact price paid for a good or service is commonplace and quite appropriate, I jumped at the chance.
"How much did they pay him that day?" I inquired, bracing myself for his response. In the back of my mind, I reran the scenes that I see daily in my neighborhood--that of Buddhist lamas and monks cruising around in Land Cruisers, Toyota or other import SUV's that can easily run a cool 100-grand USD.
"20,000 RMB. And that was just in that one day. If the lama visits someone who is wealthy, he will ask them to pay maybe 100,000!" Lee quipped.
That's roughly $3300 and $16,500! It's not hard to see, then, why devout parents give up their first-born to the local temple in hopes that he may be able to both 'serve' the community and support them in their late age. I suppose if one lama played his contacts well and was well connected, he could conceivably be a millionaire...that's pure speculation in such an extrapolation, but it's certainly not farfetched. I can't even imagine what a lama is actually thinking as he asks for--demands?--this amount of cash, but perhaps a new SUV is one thought that enters his mind. Though, I should point out that there are varying ranks and positions of power such that the number of lamas that could command such a fee may not be very many, but nevertheless the system is of this heartbreaking (and bank-draining) sort.
Now whether that $3300 offered to the lama that day did any good in the lives of Lee and his family, he did not conclusively say. But with such a price tag, he did say that he doesn't trust the lamas as they are liars, but that he only trusts the spirits/gods. However, inviting them over in such a case is something he still said he would do out of cultural tradition and honor.
This whole scenario and the cycle that Lee laid out before me reminds me of a true story I once heard about of two neighboring tribes. A valley divided them, but they were similar in lifestyle, culture, traditions and the like. But when one tribe turned to follow the Good Shepherd of their souls, they learned they didn't have to fear the spirits who they previously served through animal and grain sacrifices. Thus, as they embraced new found freedom and grace, they were able to store grain and multiply their flocks instead of burning them upon an altar. Meanwhile, across the valley the other tribe wondered in amazement how this tribe now had wealth and joy. The tribe who changed their ways and also we in the West don't have to look too far to tell the tribe who was still burning their animals that if they stopped this practice that'd certainly be a good starting point to accumulate wealth. Thus, I took the opportunity to tell Lee that there is one who wants to not only give new life to him, but said that all can come freely, even those without money!
(part 2 coming soon highlights this story...)