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Ravelling religion

CHINA | Tuesday, 9 April 2013 | Views [302]

Executive summary: Today I had hoped to get a greater understanding of the various religious expression on display here in China, unravelling the various ideas and philosophies, but unfortunately I think it still remains mostly ravelled for me, and I will have to do a bit of post-holiday reading. We looked at modern tribalism, Tibetan Buddhism, Confucianism, Sport and KungFu with a slight detour into vegetarianism. Sorry I can't contribute much to your enlightenment in any of these areas.

Today was spent in temples of various sorts.

But first, breakfast. We wandered up through the centre of Beijing, heading towards the Lama Temple. The area between the main streets is filled with back alleys, and it is like a maze. At one point we came across a hospital. The road leading into it was only wide enough for one car and the carpark was full, and a car was trying to turn in. That left a traffic jam behind it of several hundred metres. Drivers obviously understood because there was no honking of horns. Most cars had their engines turned off and were playing mobile phone games etc. Cars will push through wherever they can, but when they can't, they are mostly patient.

We came out eventually on one of the main north-south roads, and had to walk around a group of about 20 staff from one of the shops. The staff were standing in 3 or 4 rows, evenly spaced, and I thought it must be to take a promotional photo or something. But I was wrong (happens occasionally). They were out for a pep talk. The boss said "Good morning" (guessing here as it was in chinese), and the staff all replied collectively "Good morning sir". After a few exchanges, he started jumping and waving and they got active too. Finally they all went back into the shop. Then half an hour later as we were having coffee, the same thing happened at another shop. Slightly different but the same idea. At one point someone came out from the group to the front tell about how his sales were down but he had a positive attitude, and everything worked out. Hurrah for the boss. (I am making up the content, but that was what it looked like to me - modern tribalism.) Sue thinks it was all just group callisthenics. Anyway, the coffee was good.

The Lama temple is a famous spot in Beijing. All around the area they sell incense and statues etc (though there was an incense burning ban today because it was windy). The mixing up of Buddhism with other religions and gods and emperors and buddhas and gurus got me somewhat confused, but I did find it interesting. I'll have to check out what wikipedia has to say. The Lama Temple itself is several hundred years old, though it has been modified reasonably often and has been both a palace and a place of worship. One of its claims to fame is a 26m (8m is underground) high Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood, giving the place a Guiness record. Much the same architecture as we saw at the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, but this was an active worshipping site for Buddhists. Many people were coming in with their incense sticks and just leaving then at the burner because of the wind ban.

From there we went out past some beggars. One guy had been cut off at the waist and just "standing" on the pavement. I don't know how he was surviving (medically I mean - people were giving him money).

Down the road was the Confucius Temple. It didn't have the beautiful gardens or the tea ceremony like the one in Shanghai, but it did have an educational section about Confucianism. Again I was inere3sted but confused. As I read it, Confucius (put simplistically) is an humanitarian philosophy, but since his time (700BC) there has been lots added to the religion. It was recognised for its focus on learning, and all around the temple were stone pillars with the names of students who had passed the official tests over the centuries. Reminded me of the Courier Mail publishing Senior results each year. Communists rejected Confucianism early last century as a tool of the ruling class, but have embraced its "true form" in recent years, so I don't know how much of what I read in the educational area was a re-education about Confucius. I guess I'll have to go back to the source of all truth (wikipedia) about Confucianism too.

Sport is of course a major religion (though not one that I personally subscribe to), so we detoured via the "birdsnest" - the Beijing Olympic Stadium. It was an architecturally interesting place to visit, but the cold wind was biting, so it was a quick visit - but enough to say that we paid our respects. One the way out I noted that Beijing promoted itself on Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness and Virtue (sounds like a variant on some of the Confucian ideas).

Then tonight we went to the KungFu show (Thanks to Margie for recommending it). KungFu is associated with Buddhism, with the physical training being one aspect of the monks development. It reminded me of Christian asceticism, as I couldn't think of any other parallels in Christianity. Anyway the show was colourful, vibrant and energetic (exhausting) and told a story of the development of a young novice through to his becoming the abbot, emphasising that the physical control was only one aspect of his enlightenment. Great entertainment, but it also fitted in with our theme of the day of looking at religions.

It made me realise how little I understand about these different religions.

On the theme of asceticism, we didn't have dinner tonight (if you don't count the coffee and cookies before the show). Makes up for all the extra meals we had on board ship. We did have a nice lunch today though at a well known vegetarian restuarant near the Confucius Temple. It was a buffet with lots to choose from and was very tasty. Lots of simulated pork and beef and chicken, but also veges, mushrooms, fruit etc etc.

On a more practical front, We took our clothes to the chinese laundry today. They did a great job, but it was a bit of a rush getting back in time for the KungFu show, so I caught a motorbike/rickshaw. It was a bit bouncy, and I couldn't see around the driver to see where we were going (or where the bumps were), but I got back to the hotel in one piece.

Tomorrow night we catch the train to Xian.

Talk again soon.


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