Idolatry, Magic, Soul and God

Kenneth Leong
9 min readNov 28, 2023

Chinese philosopher, Li Zekou, made an astounding statement about the roots of Chinese culture. He said that shamanism lies at the core of Chinese culture. That is not too surprising to me. After all, if you have visited Hong Kong or Taiwan, you will know that these traditional Chinese societies are rampant with superstition and magical thinking. That is one of the reasons why China never had a transcendent form of religion. The Chinese people go to religion primarily for utilitarian purposes.

In the current issue of our Buddhist magazine, I published an article on the superstitious elements of Chinese Buddhism. One unique feature of the Chinese religion is its syncretic nature. It is common to find Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist statues all housed under one roof in a temple. The Chinese devotees do not find it necessary to erect walls between the different religions. Why? It is because the vast majority of the Chinese people go to temples to ask for the fulfillment of personal wishes. It really does not matter that much which deity or bodhisattva could grant their wishes. What matters is whether their prayers are answered.

Many people think that Buddhism teaches the existence of deities, spirits and the soul. They are quite sure that the Buddha taught that there is an afterlife. That is why many Chinese families hire monks to chant and perform various rituals to benefit their deceased family members. The popular belief is that these activities can help the deceased soul arrive at a better abode. In reality, the belief in the afterlife and reincarnation is a remnant of Brahmanism. Buddha taught a doctrine of no self and no soul. But after Buddha died, these ancient notions made their way back to Buddhism.

In his chapter on Anatta, Walpola Rahula, author of “What the Buddha Taught,” made this statement:

Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self, or Ātman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human