I’d like to thank one of my readers, kamatakki, for turning me onto this guy, S. N. Balagangadhara, putting patterns in place that solve problems I’ve had a long while but basically ignored. He’s rather irascible and sometimes wrong (Balagangadhara I mean, not kamatakki ^_^), but that doesn’t matter, because his most important points are evidential — and anyone can check him. This will not be a long post; follow up as desired.
I’ve always been worried about this week’s question, although never enough to actually do anything about it. Once, in China, I was talking to a local about the temples in Beijing and she said that one in particular was not Buddhist, but Taoist. But then she looked at me in a way that I could not parse. It seemed to be a glance of uncertainty, but what could that mean? She was not quite sure of what she was saying. But even more strangely, it seemed she wanted confirmation from me. How could that be? I was the stranger, she was the local, wouldn’t she know to which religion a particular temple belonged?
An easy assumption to make, but since then I’ve learned what is now quite common knowledge in academia although almost completely unknown outside it: much of what Westerners have been calling ‘religion’ in non-Abrahamic contexts really is their own invention. The Western model of “religions” based on texts and doctrines doesn’t travel.
To attempt to understand religion in China as several systems of doctrine is to read Western experience into a quite different set of circumstances.
— Thompson, Chinese Religion (1995)
The post-Christian Western idea is that doctrines drive everything, so at the base of spiritual traditions must be some belief system holding a relationship of equivalence to their creed — you don’t believe Christianity, so what do you believe? But this is false; it might not matter what you believe. And in China it most often doesn’t.
Thus the hesitation of my Chinese acquaintance was perfectly natural. I think she referred to the Dongyue temple, which is indeed “Taoist”, in the sense of having been built by followers of the Celestial Masters tradition of Daojiao (“Way-Teaching”, a term only extant from the 5th c. CE), but its presiding deity, Dongyue, “Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak”, has been thoroughly integrated into Confucian and Buddhist traditions too. Like earlier examples I gave, this deity has been quite a few things to quite a few people over time.
My Chinese interlocutor knew that calling a temple ‘Taoist’ labelled it with a creed which we Westerners expect, somewhat equivalent to the imported exclusivist Communism under which she lives. The supposedly underlying explicatory doctrine did not matter to her the way it did to Christian scholars. The deity concerned is associated with Taoism in this case (as often), but the temple in Beijing does not represent a model which is followed throughout China in association with Dongyue, or with Taoism. It doesn’t follow what we might call the ‘spiritual franchise model’ of Christian churches. You don’t have to ‘be a Taoist’ to enter.(As for the incredible menagerie of other deities in that temple, check it out. You will love this!)
So the left-brain categorisings of reflexive Western understanding are not used by Chinese people — unless they are Chinese scholars aping Westernism of course, but as the economics continue to seesaw, the power to set agendas will slip away East.
There is no exact word corresponding to English ‘religion’, in China. Our modern assumptions see religion everywhere but initial European observations were quite different. The outflowings of this fact are ridden to exciting destinations by Balagangadhara, who is Indian, but whose ideas link with China (and pagan Europe.) One simply has to observe that:
A standard Chinese response to being queried on “religion” in China is to say that the Chinese do not have one.
— Paper, The Spirits are Drunk (1995)
(Paper’s book is recommended to spiritual explorers wanting academic info on Chinese religion, since he has transpersonal experience and knows how that fits in to his subject — most scholars are still flat-footed on this, including Balagangadhara.)
The Chinese then, even once some word has been found to translate the concept of “religion”, do not recognise it. And interestingly, early Christian encounters often also say, “the Chinese have no religion”, on the record, which may be checked. This is Balagangadhara’s evidential point since the same thing happened in India — the first European arrivals there were clear that no religion was to be found, and in fact it was much the same story with the rest of the world as they encountered it.
Balagangadhara (“Balu” to friends and admirers) simply suggests: if the locals thought they had no religion, and the visitors too, why disagree with them? They were right.
And I think that’s a very good way to look at it. By the time more imperialising assumptions that “everyone has religion since it is a natural instinct” have been unpicked, not so much remains in the Western concept that is mirrored in the non-Western ones. Traditions all over the world do a whole lot of different things, often connected, but those things may in toto certainly be neither equivalent to, nor felt similarly to, what Abrahamic religion does. So it may not be appropriate to call them all “religions”, a Western word which since Christianity bludgeoned Roman pagan religio into submission really has meant ‘something like scripture-based doctrinal Abrahamism’.
So much clicks, then. We as Westerners used to make a distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ ritual in China, for example — conveniently ignoring the fact that the Chinese never made such a distinction. which is valid only for our culture. Chinese rites are more accurately seen as ‘agnostic’ (Paper p. 27), with the emphasis on the actions themselves, not on any object they have in view. The interesting Michael Saso, a Westerner ordained as a priest in a Taoist sect, agrees (1990) that “Chinese religion is not a belief system.”
Other implications… “Interfaith dialogue” for one is probably an Abrahamic model — having participated once I can testify to the falseness of the equivalences it assumes between traditions, although I had no clue why at the time; but if most “religions”, to the extent they even exist as such, can’t really be called ‘faiths’, much is explained. The famous “Belief-O-Matic” quiz over at Beliefnet which claims to be able to stream you into the correct religion on account of “what you believe” is operating on false and falsified assumptions too. The name hints at the link between those false assumptions and the mechanised universe it is still heresy to believe we don’t live in.
Many neopagans have likewise known for a long while that they were after “orthopraxy not orthodoxy”, and I hope many will be proud to say that what they do is neither equivalent to nor necessarily competition for Abrahamism. The initial category equivalence between ‘pagan beliefs’ and ‘Christian beliefs’ was drawn by Christians and was a major plank of the either/or conversion process.
Often, left to themselves, non-Christians would historically be happy to include Christ alongside other deities in a multiplicity. One saw this desire in India as Balu points out — in China too — and one sees the actual living result in the Greece of a century ago according to Lawson, whose book is absolutely invaluable although often overlooked. If pagan traditions were belief systems/worldview-faiths this natural instinct to include Jesus of Nazareth alongside other gods could not arise.
I also mention again my previous review of Versluis’ wonderful and unique book on the nature of inquisitions, with its concept of ‘ideocracy’, rule by correct ideas, acting as driver of a belief-based absolutism and happy to torture those who dare to think differently. Reading him alongside Balu, it becomes far clearer why inquisitions flourished under a “religious” system (and why totalitarianisms are indeed well seen as religions in Balu’s sense and could take over the inquisitions). It’s simply that ideocratic systems claim to own and describe the world for our and its good. One may extrapolate reasons why over-dogmatic dualistic absolutisms are at the root of a lot of the mental difficulties of the modern de-religioning West, which mental health professionals have to deal with. It all fits.
(One may often hear a person speaking of ‘religion’ who is unable to make these distinctions; under questioning they may not only have trouble defining their subject, but also realise they had not even realised they had trouble.)
Meanwhile I will interpret a writer like Patanjali much as Glenn did — psychologically and philosophically. That is my real interest, not “religion”, hence this may well be my last post on the subject of “religion” itself, which I’m sure will please many. :) I may read a little further on the question of “heresy” to see if it bears out the above (there is something similar in Confucian traditions I’m told), but I honestly think that’s a minor point best understood in light of the psychological necessity of individuation.My life as predicted has been speeding up and I also have a lot of new transpersonal insights to digest, so some posts upcoming may be shorter in the sense of fewer words, but actually will cover more ideas more tersely. As ever thanks for reading, and I appreciate your thoughts if you want to share them, whether here on the ‘Box or in private.