This past week I had the opportunity to visit the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, China, which is a Buddhist monastery. My time there was rich in thought-provoking experiences, some of which I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks.
On our first full day at the temple complex, which includes a few martial arts schools and accommodations for the thousands of tourists who come each year, we visited the temple proper. It was not a single building, but rather a series of courtyards, each with a sanctuary at the far end flanked by gates leading to the next courtyard. At the heart of each of these smaller buildings was a huge, gilded statue of a Buddha or another figure from Buddhism. It was clear that a substantial number of the visitors to the temple were merely curious tourists; but a large number of them were devoted Buddhists. In each temple the worshippers would light sticks of incense, bow, and prostrate themselves. The physicality of their worship was striking. It was not enough to stand in silent contemplation of the statues; they had to demonstrate with their whole being their spiritual state.
Humans truly are material and not just spiritual creatures—but creatures in which the material and the spiritual are inextricably intertwined. A handful of burning plants, a few shiny minerals, and some old stones was all that was really there, one might say. The worshippers were only moving certain joints. And yet, at least to me, it seemed as though the weight of reverence was pressing down on me, a tangible weight of gold and purple and scarlet—as it does in a Christian church, albeit in a different way. The echoes that the visible and audible world sends reverberating down into our souls are just as real as the motions that our wills make of their own volition.
For the material world wakes something in us that was put there at our creation. We humans were made to revere, made to be in awe of things greater than us. Even the most hardened atheist must sometimes be taken aback by the vast splendor of the stars. It is good and right to realize that we are not altogether in control of our own fate, that there are things not only more powerful than us but greater than us. However, this propensity to worship means that it is all too easy to worship things that are not the One God, creator of heaven and earth—to instead worship kings, or natural forces, or spirits. It is in us to bow down and worship, just as it is in us to stay stubbornly self-sufficient, and it is unfortunately easy to not be able to tell when we ought to do which.