Friday, October 29, 2004

CHRISTIANITY AND CHINESE GRASS ROOT RELIGIONS

CHRISTIANITY AND CHINESE GRASS ROOT RELIGIONS

By Rev. Ong Fook


In this section, I will talk about Chinese grass root religions. Some of you may have come from the background of traditional Chinese culture, Buddhism or Taoism before you became a Christian. Personally, I have a great burden for Chinese culture, especially the area of grass root religions. Although I am not much of an expert, there is a great burden in me in the work of the gospel, particularly the ministry of evangelism through teachings about Chinese grass root religions. Therefore, I hope that with these teachings in my lifetime and with God's grace and wisdom, Chinese superstition will be broken. The long history of the Chinese has left us with almost totally uncompromising beliefs and culture, especially the worldview of spirits. Today, having this opportunity to discuss this subject with all of you, I would like to, first of all, mention briefly about myself so that you will be better acquainted with me.

My father and I came from Mainland China. At the age of 17, my father learned about "Mao San" and became its practitioner until the age of 77. He passed away on the 7th day of the 7th month at the age of 77. This means that altogether, he had practiced "Mao San" for 60 years. Hence, I was brought up in such a traditional surrounding, full of mystical beliefs and anti-Christianity. Moreover, being proud of the prestigious culture of the Chinese and having a father who had spiritual powers, I thought I should not have much difficulty leading a well-supported life. My entire mentality was subjected to various mystical beliefs concerning spirits to the extent that my life was stored with many religious concepts and characterised by religious yearnings and a religious outlook. I also experienced living in a poor family and thus the longing for comfort, peace and support in the midst of poverty were inevitable. Since I was young, I had seen many people coming to my house to worship and to receive benefits through my father's spiritual powers. These people asked for protection and advice about matters concerning evil spirits, palm reading, “Feng Shui” and Chinese occasions such as marriages, funerals, and moving into new homes. Many of these events required reference to a book called "Tong Shen", which I will explain later if time permits.

My brothers and sisters, I will not be talking from the academic point of view about what I have learned. Rather, I will be sharing with you the mission of the gospel to win souls for Christ through an expository study of the misleading beliefs in Chinese culture. By no means is this an easy task. We will not be able to fully understand today's topic in such a short time. My thesis on this topic is 45 pages long. Today, I wish to extract several points as introduction so that we will have an overall idea and knowledge about the reasons why Chinese myths have been deeply rooted in our lives. I suppose one of the greatest obstacles at present in effectively evangelising the Chinese community is the challenge of the spiritual mentality brought about by Chinese grass root religions. We need to spend time to study, evaluate and criticize such things from the truth of the Scriptures. Today, we will talk about the first part of the subject matter. I am afraid that the second part will not be completely studied and therefore I ask for your forgiveness. Through this elementary introduction, I hope that we will have a general idea of the topic and that with God's empowerment, wisdom and conviction, the obstacles can be overcome so that people will know the Lord Jesus through our sharing. Over the past ten years, I have been preaching on this subject with the strategy of destroying the myths first and then rebuilding the foundations of truth. This work is never easy because what we have to face is not just the cultural barriers but also the spiritual forces behind every culture, which we call spiritual warfare.


Chinese Beliefs

Coming back to today's topic, we are actually dealing with spiritual powers that can neither be seen with our natural eyes nor overcome by physical strength. May the grace of God help us. Throughout my research, I believe that the Chinese mentality of superstition started in 4 major areas.

Firstly, Chinese history is full of bloodshed and tears. Suffering is an inescapable fact of the Chinese consciousness. Against this backdrop of suffering and sorrow, the Chinese hope to find peace and comfort and some forms of spiritual support. The history of the Chinese has all these in abundance as proof. But where is the peace that man is searching for? There is a Chinese saying that goes like this: "One never worships but hold on to the feet of Buddha only in times of need". In other words, people will only go to the temple to worship when they face crisis in their lives and hope to get some forms of support, which will enable them to continue their journey in life courageously.

Secondly, it is the matter relating to the existence of evil spirits. Almost in every Chinese home, there are altars to worship all kinds of gods; for instance, the sky god outside the house and the earth god and altar of ancestral worship inside the house. These gods are placed in a hierarchy. At the entrance to the house, there is an octagonal mirror used to fend off evil spirits. In addition, wearing chains of beads and chanting materials shows that people are seeking for some forms of protection and peace. But whenever evil spirits are mentioned, there is fear in most Chinese because the powers of these spirits are thought to extend far beyond the ability of man to oppose them. The implication is that a greater power to deal with these spirits is needed and for that reason, people resolve to worship many different gods. In this context, the inter-relation between different gods and ghosts becomes an unavoidable element in controlling the lives of people from birth until death.

Thirdly, talking about spirits will naturally lead us to the concept of death. Hence, the idea of man turning to ghost after death arises. In Chinese tradition, the shadow of death has always haunted the minds of people. Fear grips the Chinese whenever death is mentioned. Why do people have to die? Why is life full of crisis and disasters? Why is it that life can be snatched away so suddenly? Where does man end up after death? Is it true that man actually become ghost? Many complicated questions, ideas and beliefs continue to persist in the Chinese mentality and culture. Therefore, whenever Chinese talk about evil spirits, death will inevitably come into the picture. Death seems very frightening and behind it, there lies unseen spiritual powers that man could never resist. It also appears that death is not the end of life since there is an eternal dimension to the latter. Moreover, there exists a philosophy of cause and effect. All of these reveal to man that he will be transported to another world after death although he has no inkling as to the nature of such a world.

Chinese commonly believe that a good man goes to heaven but an evil man ends up in hell. As a result, heaven and hell have become two popular nouns in the Chinese vocabulary and remained crafted upon their hearts. The question is whether man really become ghost after death? Will he actually end up in hell? Will he reap what he sows? Without doubt, time will witness the conclusion of life and bring man to the place where he does not want to go. What is this place really? Evidently, all these ideas about death have influenced the lives of Chinese deeply. There is an end to life and it will disclose to man the consequences that he has to suffer for his misdeeds and error of ways. Man reaps what he sows. Good deeds shall be rewarded with goodness and evil deeds repaid with evil. If one were to commit evil acts in his life, surely judgement would be awaiting him. It may not be possible for us today to examine in detail the complexities of such thoughts and beliefs. Nevertheless, the overall picture reveals to us that people need religion. This accounts for the multifarious religious beliefs and phenomenon inherent in the Chinese culture. At the same time, we are made conscious of the fact that human life is not only confined to earthly existence but also includes life in another realm.


Buddhism and Chinese Religions

Before we proceed to a more detailed study of Chinese grass root religions, I would like to talk about Buddhism. There are 6 major levels in the Buddhist spiritual hierarchy.

The highest level is Buddha. It is never easy to become a Buddha. One does not become a Buddha by merely repeating some chants. Yet, there is nothing so special about Buddha as it only refers to someone who has been enlightened to see beyond the suffering of this world and to comprehend that the meaning of his existence and belongings in this life is nothing but emptiness, which means no reality. Therefore, man has to metaphysically progress beyond the limitations of this life to arrive at this stage. And the highest stage that one can ever attain in Buddhism is nirvana. Yet, nirvana, being the "end" desired by all Buddhists, is but only emptiness and meaninglessness. Why then does man desire such a place? Subsequently, the teaching about the "heaven in the west" surfaced in Buddhism and became another "important place" that man would desire to go. Actually, Buddhists are more afraid of going to a place called "the 6 paths of reincarnation" after they die. This concept influenced the Chinese deeply. It has to do with the "3 lives", which comprises the past, present and future. The past affects the present as the present affects the future. In view of this, man should live moderately. The idea of "we reap what we sow" is deeply rooted in Chinese thought.

After Buddha, the next highest level is Pu Sa. Pu Sa is neither a god nor a ghost. Strictly speaking, Pu Sa is a kind-hearted person who helps others to benefit. A Taiwanese monk regarded Mother Theresa as a Pu Sa of Christianity. Almost every Chinese home has an idol of Pu Sa. What are the advantages of worshipping a Pu Sa? Besides giving us comfort, Pu Sa protects us from evil and gives us peace and prosperity.

The third level is Lo Han. In Chinese culture, there are concepts of "18 Lo Han", "500 Lo Han" and so on but we will not go into all these today.

Lo Han is followed by the spiritual realm of gods (“Shen”). Buddhism originally did not include the teaching of gods. This was the result of the influence of the Chinese when Buddhism was introduced into China. Buddhism could not cast away the idea of gods from the Chinese mind and gave in eventually. What do all these gods mean? They are, like all ghosts in Buddhism, only the product of man's creation.

After the realm of gods, comes the realm of "little gods" (“Xian”). Buddhism originally did not have the concept of Xian. Originated during the Han Dynasty, Xian is the state that man desires to reach as a result of his good deeds and character.

The lowest level in the spiritual hierarchy is the realm of ghosts. Buddhism believes that witches who can communicate with spirits are actually dealing with the "beings" in this realm. It is also believed that ghosts exist in all human inhabitants.

Brothers and sisters, it should be obvious that the content of spiritual concepts in Chinese culture is rich. Many have also committed ethical crimes in the name of religion. These people exploited religion as a means of gaining wealth. There are many factors contributing to the present spiritual view of the Chinese. Man worships nature hoping to obtain various benefits and helps. When Confucius was asked by his students about the nature of gods and ghosts, his reply was that one is wiser not to talk about it lest one blindly worships. Yet at the end of this century, we witness the phenomenon where people blindly worship all kinds of religious myths across the globe. Why is the wind of religious fanaticism blowing with such intensity? Man is searching for peace because there is such emptiness in his heart due to the drastic decline of morality and natural disasters. With the spiritual support that is generated by religious acts, man is hoping to find the harbour of shelter for his life. It is my hope that all of us will continue to meditate on the fact that the existence of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese grass root religions in South East Asia today is the outcome of people searching for the meaning of life and seeking inner peace in the midst of ongoing suffering, misfortunes and disasters.

There are many records about gods and ghosts in Buddhism, amongst which the books entitled "Kuan Ting Jing", "Di Zhang Pu Sa Huen Yen Jing" and "A Han Jing" cover almost all necessary concepts about spirits in Buddhism. Though these concepts have flourished in the Chinese culture, the idea that man becomes ghost after death did not originate from the Chinese. This idea gain increasing popularity only after Buddhism came into China during the Han Dynasty.

The synthesis between Buddhism and Taoism has even greater influence on the Chinese. Buddhism, originated in India, was a way to deliver people from their suffering and pains. Most of the ideas in Buddhism were borrowed from a religion called Brahma. The concept of reincarnation was no exception. Brahma, being the highest religion in India at that time, had a set of sacred writings called the Veda, which had already existed 4000 years ago. This scripture is also called the book of knowledge and it contains the teaching of 3-path reincarnation; the first being the path of heaven, the second the path of man and the third the path of earth. These teachings soon became part of the teachings about various kinds of birth.

Let me move on to the 6-path reincarnation. The period between the time when we are born and the time when we die is called the present life. The suffering that we bear in this present life are caused by what we did in the previous life, which is called the past life. Likewise, whatever we do in this present life will determine the fate of the future life. When we die, we will be taken to an intermediate world between the present life and the future life, which will last for 49 days. The Chinese believe that 3 days after death, the soul of the deceased will return home. During this period, a ceremony will be performed by monks to bring the soul of a deceased person to heaven, lest it must go through the 6-path reincarnation wheel, which includes the path of heaven, the path of man, the path of hungry ghosts, the path of hell and the path of animals.

Another legacy that has remained in Chinese culture is the fear of spirits. The Chinese always think that spirits have powers that are far greater than theirs. They neither want to overcome these powers of darkness nor do they want to make use of them. This is a stronghold in their mentality. But where do all these evil spirits come from?

The influence of Buddhism in Chinese culture resulted in the idea of man becoming ghost after death. In the long passage of Chinese history, this idea was extended to that of man returning to where he belongs. The idea of ghosts leaves the Chinese with much fear and uncertainty. Although a person may have died, his spirit still exists on earth at his grave and altar although he is already living in another world, which is the path of ghosts.

Let us look at the worship offered to the deceased by the Chinese. This is not just an act of reverence to the deceased who has become a ghost but also a form of acknowledgement of the existence of an invisible world of spirits, which has influence over the lives of people. Fear is thus generated in the hearts of people. In order to overcome it, they hope that other spiritual forces can help them deal with it so that they will have peace. This practice of worship is thought to be the spiritual support that is needed. Moreover, it has become the assurance of the continuity of life.

How many kinds of ghosts are there in Chinese culture? There are 36 kinds as mentioned in Buddhism. However, generally speaking, there are 5 categories in traditional Chinese beliefs. The first one are the good ghosts.....
The fourth category is the innocent ghosts, which come from those who committed suicide or died unwillingly and without sin. These ghosts frighten people by all kinds of disturbances. It is believed that they look for people as their substitute so that they can be freed and have the chance to be reborn. Another group of ghosts are those who have died in plane crashes, at war or in the ocean, such as those in the Titanic where their corpses could not be found.

How do the Chinese overcome this kind of fear? Firstly, according to traditional Chinese beliefs, altars of worshipping gods are built and placed at home to obtain protection on the basis that gods and ghosts are mutually antagonistic in nature. Secondly, by consulting and using some forms or sources of spiritual powers, a person will be able to fend off or escape from these powers of darkness as well as attack and chase these evil spirits away. One of the classical books that has a wide coverage of these things is the "San Hai Jing". Another similar book is the "Zu Chi".

The next question is how do the Chinese fight evil spirits? They have a spiritual reference book entitled "Tong Shen", which is sometimes regarded as the encyclopaedia of traditional Chinese religion. This book is used as reference on many occasions such as marriage, funeral, insomnia and choosing of suitable dates. Without this book, the Chinese would not know how to deal with the spiritual realm. Furthermore, the solution to spiritual problems has to do with the most ancient Chinese calligraphy called "Fu". Before I became a Christian, I wrote more than 1000 pieces of "Fu". We can observe that there are still many "Fu" inherited from generations after generations in many Chinese homes today. Basically, people want to resist and also destroy the powers of darkness over their lives.


The Challenge Facing Christians

Today, how are Christians going to break this stronghold of traditional Chinese beliefs? Christians need the power of God to deal with this issue. From the Old and New Testament in the Bible, we know that the existence of evil spirits is real. In the Old Testament, although not many events of such nature were recorded, they are nevertheless mentioned quite clearly in Job, Zechariah 3, Deuteronomy 18: 9-14. The practice of communicating with evil spirits not only existed in Canaan but also throughout the history of the Hebrew. In the New Testament, when Jesus started his ministry, more and more incidents dealing with evil spirits took place such as healing the sick and driving out demons. The same authority to confront evil spirits was also given by Jesus to his disciples.

Brothers and sisters, we need to work hard in order to understand spiritual mystery. The third and fourth waves of the charismatic movement appear to overemphasize the spiritual realm to the extent that all happenings have to do with evil spirits. Driving out demons is not a gift but an authority given to all children of God and not just pastors. Every born again believer can receive the power to do God's mighty work. While charismatic churches are overemphasizing the powers of healing and driving out demons, conservative churches are generally not interested in it. This too is a crisis. The charismatic movement has introduced to us many ways of driving out demons. For instance, one can place on his body a handkerchief, which has been prayed for by a pastor in order that healing can flow. This kind of phenomenon, I think, is closely related to the mentality of Chinese religions. It is sad to note that Christians themselves have unconsciously borrowed wrong ideas from traditional Chinese culture and introduced them into Christianity.

Finally, what are evil spirits afraid of? There are 4 areas that I would like to highlight here. Paul and Peter mentioned in their letters about how churches should prepare themselves in dealing with the powers of darkness.

Firstly, the Devil is most afraid of us going back to God in repentance, acknowledging our sins before Him and asking for His forgiveness with the knowledge that He is holy and faithful. We must be certain about this fact.

Secondly, we must depend on the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 12:10-12 states that:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”

From my experience, I have discovered that evil spirits can never stand against the power unleashed by the blood of the Lamb.

Thirdly, we must hold on to the sword of the Spirit. Ephesians 6 says that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. Unless God in us, carrying crosses or Bibles will be of no use, even if the Bible we are holding is the largest. God's word will manifest divine power only in the hands of His children.

Fourthly, we must always draw near to God. James 4: 7,8 exhorts us to:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will draw near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Indeed, those who draw near to God will have the power to resist evil.

There were charismatic leaders who came to me for deliverance because their pastors could not help them. Many times I realize that these people are under confusion. In 1997, when I was preaching in Singapore, a sister from a very large charismatic church came to me for help to deliver her from unceasing demonic oppression. I discovered that a pastor had previously prayed for her that she would be filled with the spirit of holy laughter. As I was casting out the demon within her, the so-called spirit of holy laughter stubbornly prevented her from being set free.

Brothers and sisters, today we cannot blindly believe all kinds of spirits but we must test them according to Scripture. We can draw encouragement from 1 John 4:4 and 5:14:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. [1 John 4:4]

This is the confidence that we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. [1 John 5:14]

This is a great authority given to us by God. Today, we must not fear the enemy since we are the children of God. Let us not run away from the enemy but face them with courage so that we can influence our society and churches that have gone astray. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the sword of the Spirit, the victory is surely ours! Let us pray.



Response

By Rev. Ong Rui Zhen


The question that we have to consider is how do we as Christians deal with those who believe in Chinese traditional religion? When I encounter this group of non-believers, I would usually rely on two portions of Scripture. I wish to take this opportunity to share them with you.

The first Scriptural reference is Deuteronomy 18. Verse 13 emphasizes that, “We must be blameless before the Lord our God.” Very often in sharing the gospel to others, we are accused of despising their religion. Therefore, we need to explain to them that in our relationship with God, like the relationship between husband and wife, no interference of any third party should be allowed. We should only worship the Creator alone. This God, like any mother who will tell her children that she is their only mother, is not possessive in nature. Rather, it is stating the truth of the matter. Our relationship with God must be absolute in order that we may enjoy his protection. That is how God manifest his love to man. Worshipping any foreign god would only cause us disaster and bring us great loss.

Secondly, we should explain to these non-believers that we are not to worship other gods because God has raised up for us a prophet like Moses (verse 15). In other words, we need a prophet to guide us and change the destiny of our lives. This prophet is none other than Jesus Himself according to the four gospels and the book of Acts. That is why we are to share Jesus to them.

Another reason why non-believers ought to understand that they should not worship other gods is because the prophecies and proclamations of false prophets are not fulfilled and do not come to pass (verse 22). False prophets do not speak the truth. However, their predictions are sometimes accurate because they communicate with evil spirits. Yet, evil spirits are not omniscient – only God who is Almighty is. Before I became a Christian, I used to consult evil spirits who were able to give me accurate information about my requests and things that had happened to me. But I eventually discovered that they got my sex wrong!

The second Scriptural reference is taken from Acts 17. There are several things that we can learn from Paul. Firstly, Paul’s soul was deeply vexed when he saw the idol-filled city of Athens, yet he was not furious. His attitude towards the non-believers was in stark contrast to that of the Old Testament prophets who were provoked by the unbelief of the Israelites despite having experienced the goodness of the Lord. Paul did not condemn the Gentiles. Instead, he was motivated by love.

Paul also looked for opportunities to reach out to the Gentiles. He preached in the synagogues and shared the gospel to those he had occasion to meet daily in the market places. As Paul went around the city, he noticed an altar with the inscription “To an unknown God”. Instead of condemning the people, Paul respected their religious zeal and further proposed to them that the unknown God they were searching for was actually the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Subsequently, Paul also pointed out their misconceptions by explaining that the true God was not made and served by human hands but instead, he himself was the giver of life and lacked nothing.

Paul in his message elucidated that although God overlooked such ignorance, he was now commanding all people everywhere to repent. Paul also concluded that Jesus was the answer to man’s search for truth and salvation. Clearly, Paul’s approach to evangelism is highly applicable in our world today. Instead of imitating the Old Testament prophets who condemned the Israelites for their unbelief, we should follow the example of Paul when we engage non-believers concerning their religious beliefs.











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