Spiritual guides or charlatans?

Updated: 2015-12-14 08:06

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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The need for religious advice has spawned an army of self-proclaimed saints who roam coastal cities for patrons and grant titles as if they were actors in a palace drama.

If you have fame and fortune, what more do you need? It turns out that many are in need of a personal religious counselor.

Zhang Tielin, a movie star from the 1980s who regained his celebrity status from the 1998 runaway television hit Princess Pearl, was recently given "Living Buddha" status in Hong Kong.

The one who granted him this status has since been found to be someone from Fujian province, named Wu Darong, whose claims of being a Living Buddha have been refuted by the Tibetan Buddhist monastery he said had granted him the title.

This piece of news did not surprise anyone.

Spiritual guides or charlatans?

As the joke goes, there are as many as 300,000 Rinpoches residing in Beijing's Chaoyang district alone and most of them do not speak Tibetan or Tibetan-accented Chinese.

Rather, their accent gives them away as hailing from Northeastern China, or the Tieling area to be specific.

That area has also produced a disproportionate number of comedians.

So, the running gag portrays them as jobless comedians who fail to get into a sitcom or sketch comedy.

The figure 300,000 may be an exaggeration, but having lived in this district for more than a decade, I surmise the stragglers must add up to several thousands, more than the 1,700 Living Buddhas (as of 2007) officially sanctioned in the nation.

Then again, the Tibetan term Rinpoche covers more than the reincarnated. It could refer to the respected, the notable and the learned.

As for the learned, a recent article says that most Rinpoches in the Chinese capital have not browsed a single Buddhist volume and when asked about Buddha's teachings they invariably say that it is beyond the questioner's comprehension.

Whether someone demands respect is, of course, subjective.

A typical Rinpoche reminds me of Moliere's theatrical creation Tartuffe, whose religious devotion earned him the "respect" of Orgon and his family. Orgon not only gave him shelter but also signed over his property and offered him his daughter's hand in marriage.

I realize it is vulgar of me to say this. But for someone intent on saving his soul, a house and a daughter could mean less than the religious guidance of an authority figure.

Just as Tartuffe sparked protest from the French religious establishment of the time, talk (or ridicule) of all those fake Rinpoches carries a whiff of disrespect.

The code of political correctness stipulates that we respect others' choices of religion, and, by extension, the religious chaperons in their lives.

The funny thing is, all those Rinpoches active in the Han area, whose only connection with Tibetan Buddhism is probably their crimson robes, act as consorts, assistants or au pairs and have the potential to be ticking bombs in families, or a dependant in the least harmful scenario.

The trend is said to have started with showbiz luminaries, whose entourage would include agents, a phalanx of personal assistants, an English-language coach, a fitness coach and now a personal religious leader, who customizes your spiritual enlightenment.

Mind you, while a televangelist speaks to thousands at a venue and perhaps millions via television, a Rinpoche serves just one person. No wonder some female stars ended up carrying their babies.

But illiterate as I am about religious niceties, I'm not sure what sort of Rinpoche is supposed to be celibate a la a Roman Catholic priest. Honestly, I believe a Chinese update of the Moliere play could have more twists.

I have met a couple of such people in the past decade. I was once asked to translate by a friend's friend a little pamphlet written by a "great man". It started with the origin of man - neither the Darwin version nor the Christian version, but a fusion of both, and many more.

You could have fit in the mythologies of the whole world because it was vague and very "accommodating". Then it went on to address world peace. I thought, wow, here is some ordinary Chinese concerned about such big issues and I was a little moved.

Page after page, the rhetoric grew more grand and grandiloquent. In the end the author was putting himself in the league of Jesus Christ and founders of all the mainstream religions in the world.

I requested a meeting with him and found that his purpose was a photo opportunity with the secretary-general of the United Nations. So I suggested, why settle for so little? You could have a photo with Jesus himself. There are many who play him in Hollywood movies.

After the religious route was denied him, I heard that he opted for the more pragmatic "Master of Chinese culture" stature, exchanging the monk's robe for a flowing white beard and grayish robe. That would require the ability to recite lines from Confucius but less acting chops than for faking a Tibetan accent and maybe surviving on a vegetarian diet.

While the most ambitious gravitate toward the likes of Faye Wong and Jack Ma, celebrity entertainers and business titans, most Rinpoches settle for a middle-class patron and her three-bedroom apartment.

And since Chaoyang has the highest concentration of "successful people", it has become a magnet for the failed actors - to the extent that a "Chaoyang Rinpoche" could be any suspicious Buddhist evangelist far away from a Tibetan monastery.

The reasons for the rise of the Rinpoches are actually quite positive: First, a growing segment of Chinese society is affluent enough to patronize religious personnel or organizations. Second, they have started to cater to their spiritual needs.

It is better than the blind pursuit of all things material. But besides these honorable attributes, there could be vanity.

Religion is a private matter. If you flaunt it as if it were a designer bag, then there'll be those who come to fleece you by playing the role you want them to but providing nothing but esoteric puffery and verbal placebo.

If you want someone who can do it in verse, I suggest Tartuffe.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

Spiritual guides or charlatans?

(China Daily 12/14/2015 page20)