If you’ve read my first post about my trip to China, you’ve probably gotten the impression that my experience was overwhelmingly positive. I had a great time, was fascinated by the country, all of that good stuff. All of that is true, but there was something that really bothered me.
It isn’t exclusive to China by any means but it was still disturbing. That thing was mysticism.
It first came up when we went to the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.
I’m not religious by any means (as I discussed in a post a few months ago). Even still, the temple was a bit of a disappointment, from a purely tourist-y perspective. You walk into this “sacred” compound where a few people are bowing with smoking incense sticks and everyone else is hawking some cheap-o image of the Buddha to sappy, naive tourists.
The vendors and their ruthless pimping of religious relics didn’t bother me. In fact, I actually respected that part of it. Yeah, it was nonsense to make the temple out to be some holy place and yeah, they were scamming people, but I appreciated the shamelessness, the entrepreneurial aggression. Selling goods is a productive and worthwhile use of a human being’s time, unlike everything else going on in the temple.
The rest of the place was just absurd.
First you walk through the temple where I presume services are performed. But there were no services going on, just people milling about in the heat, some praying, some leaving perfectly good fruit to rot in front of a gold statue.
We had to fork over an extra 10 kuai to see the actual Jade Buddha because it turned out that the 10 we paid at the entrance got us into the gift shop and not much else.
We climbed a set of musty stairs and walked into an even mustier room that was actually less gaudy than I was expecting, but still displayed a tremendous waste of wealth.
The four of us stood silently in front of the Buddha. Almost immediately, I had two thoughts:
1. I’m bored.
2. What a waste.
I realize that the “I’m bored” makes me sound a little bit like a five-year-old being dragged around to tourist spots when all she wants to do is go back to the hotel swimming pool (and trust me, I had more than a few interactions with that part of myself on the trip), but it was actually more significant than that. The “I’m bored” was a simple recognition of how utterly useless and empty religion really is.
You walk around the temple and see bottles of water, plates of fruit, little gifts left to honor Buddha. I used to make similar sacrifices to God, but now it’s just seems so pathetic and wasteful. To imagine that leaving a few pears in front of a cold, lifeless statue is going to bring you good luck or some kind of fortune…well…it is just very sad. And it’s also a terrible thing to teach other people.
Outside, a handful of the faithful were bowing to various Buddhas.
All I could think about was how many people have wasted so much of their lives in the service of something that is so false and disturbing. Again, I don’t say this unsympathetically. It wasn’t lost on me that, until a year ago, I was one of those people.
Several times during the next few days, I found myself imagining where I might be in my personal development and in my life in general had I not invested so much thought and energy in religion.
If I were to add up all the hours I spent in Mass or studying the Bible or saying the Rosary, I would be appalled by all the time I will never get back. I could have spent that time doing so many other things – reading, learning an instrument, writing short stories, studying another language, anything. So much of my life has been devoted to something so meaningless and I will never, ever get that time back.
If you apply that same thinking to all of humanity, well…it’s difficult not to feel a deep sense of loss at all of the things that might have been discovered and invented had all of those years been spent on something real and worthwhile.
The second mystic encounter occurred on my last full day in China, en route to the Great Wall.
Anderson and I were on a group tour and the first stop was the Ming Tombs. As the name suggests, this is the burial grounds for the emperors of the Ming Dynasty.
Our chatty tour guide, Justin, gave us a rundown on the tombs before entering the compound. Most of what he said was just pure fantasy that unfortunately he seemed to believe. Even more unfortunately, he’s one of millions of people who ardently believed it, too.
Justin told us that the grounds are set up according to the principles of feng shui. He also shared a few other gems, mostly about how no one goes into the tombs through the front because that’s where the dead go and once you go in, you can never come out. Oh, and if you look back at the tomb when you’re leaving, it brings you bad luck.
While he was talking, I glanced around at the other 12 or so people in our group. Some wore the standard look of polite interest; some were obviously bored. I tried to refrain from rolling my eyes while wondering, “Does anyone here actually believe in any of this?”
The rest of the tour brought out, for me, a series of emotions that ranged from perplexed to angry to bemused to despair to sadness for all the things in the world that could have been and never were because people spent their lives in the service of tyrants and evil ideas.
First, we walked through a building that basically has been turned into a museum, filled with display cases of the essential goodies that were packed away with the royals for their rich afterlife (afterlives?). Among these were a golden teapot and a silver tea set for one empress; no doubt she needed them when hosting high tea beyond the grave. Just think for a minute about all of the people who could have been fed or the tools that could have been made with that gold and silver if it hadn’t been specially designated to be buried with a corpse, sitting unused for hundreds of years.
There was also a large statue of Emperor Zhu Di, an overweight and cruel ruler who, as Justin was eager to inform us at every opportunity, kept 3,000 concubines during his lifetime. What a guy. Quite a few visitors must have been feeling particularly desperate for some luck or favor from the gods while visiting the tombs, because I noticed a large pile of money that had accumulated at Zhu Di’s feet.
I was appalled. What were these people thinking? Even if the money gets collected for the maintenance of the tombs, which I assume it does, don’t they realize how absurd it is to throw good cash at the wooden feet of a long-dead emperor? Outside, more money had been tossed onto a stone altar at the entrance to another part of the complex. More waste.
Justin led us into a small tower and pointed out the enormous mound that covers Zhu Di’s tomb, which is located 27 meters beneath the surface. Someone pointed out small plaques that were set in the crenellations of the tower and Justin kindly explained their purpose.
“The emperor insisted that every worker put his name on the part of the tomb he worked on,” he said. “So if the emperor don’t like his work, maybe that guy will be killed.”
Wow. I paused for a minute to reflect on one of the plaques. The name was faded (not that I would have been able to read it anyway), but I tried to imagine the poor soul who had built this part of the stone structure, wondering if he had escaped the tyrant’s wrath or if he had been murdered for a job poorly done on a meaningless structure.
Back on the bus, I almost couldn’t get my head around how many things were wrong with what we had just seen.
I’m not just talking about superstitious element. It’s also the fact that thousands of people were forced to devote their lives – their thoughts, their creativity, their intelligence, their resources – to construct what was essentially an elaborate coffin to hold the decaying bones of a murderous bastard. That’s it. That’s what they got to spend their time on earth doing. And if they refused to do it, well…I’m fairly certain their time on the planet was severely shortened.
How many other lives have been wasted in this way throughout the centuries, whether they were forced into this absurd and dangerous service or were brainwashed into thinking this was the highest, most honorable way to spend their days?
I thought about the people praying outside the temple and of those who worshiped violent, disgusting rulers; of the people who go to Mass on Sundays sincerely believing that there’s a being somewhere outside of time who will save them from themselves; of those who willingly throw away their lives in suicide bombings; of all the deaths and destruction in the name of one false belief or another; of all the people who believe in such things today and don’t want to hear anything that will shake that belief.
For a little while, I couldn’t help feeling a very deep, very real sense of despair. Knowing the level of innovation and creativity of which human beings are capable, it is heartbreaking to think about what the world would be like today if we could have back all of that wasted time and all of those wasted lives.
It’s like Anderson said as we stood outside the Ming Tombs, listening to Justin’s fairytale speech:
“Wouldn’t it be nice if everything people have believed throughout human history wasn’t complete bullshit?“