Sunday, January 10, 2010 1:13 PM By Stephen J Christophers

Having lived in two predominantly Buddhist countries China and Thailand, I find myself more and more at odds with this faith; a religion that sometimes leaves me spellbound and at other times horrified by the way it is exploited for capital gain – cash for Karma.

China’s business orientated approach to Buddhism pushes the extremes, blurring the line between business and faith. Where wealthy patrons lavish finances on their devotion to 佛 (Fo; Buddha), with offerings of paper money, cars, airplanes, boats, etc. All materialistic representations of worldly goods, offered to assist relatives in their next life; with cash being predominantly offered to deities for personal health and the well being of friends and family. Meanwhile, the sick and poor beg in endless succession at the gates of most temple complexes and fake Monks try to trick you into giving them money using elaborate scams. Commercialized Buddhism with all its rituals is packaged with an array of wheelers and dealers, entrepreneurs and governance. All reminiscent of a well tuned social economy.

Nevertheless, China has some beautiful examples of ancient Daoism, Taoism and Buddhist sites that seem to transcend the modernized faith: Dazu rock carvings and the Sichuan sitting Buddha remain as iconic reminders of the power of past faith. During the Cultural Revolution however temple complexes and religious sites were defaced or destroyed leaving most modern shrines and places of worship rarely older than a few decades.

The Thais on the other hand, see their devotion to Buddhism as an elaborate and personal affair, their temples possess great human dignity, and wealth; mystifying in comparison to the overall economic value of the surrounding communities – a testament to the greater social devotion of the community. Thai devotion seems more complex, and socially significant, than of Chinese. Although, suffering the same financial demands and economic structuring as the Chinese version. A personal spiritual connection seems more present here. Personal faith and devotion transcend the idea of “Cash for Karma” – but exist it does. Where Chinese are less involved on a daily basis, leaving worship as a festive and occasional practice, Thais revel in their daily ritual.

The Thais have turned themed temples and religious sites into an art form. Like great attractions where worshipers are enticed to be ore inspired. A great example of this can be found on Koh Samui, Thailand: The Big Buddha, a complex in all its glory, with a resemblance to Disneyland, more so than a place of worship; a complex where slot machines to your birth deity await the task of lightening your spiritual load, and wallets. This is common practice, the faithful would say, an extravagant temple is a testament to the power of Buddhists to enrich and monumentalize their love and devotion to the Buddha – after all money is only paper, and not the product of faith and devotion. Or, the reason for it - is it?

Personally, I find a contradiction in this form of worship. I see faith as a deeply personal entity, with religion a viral and corrupted sub-directory. The Muslim faith, Christianity and Buddhism all share this common flaw: the moment they became externalized for mass consumption they become the domain of those wishing to exploit them, however enlightened their beginnings they inevitably become humanized, materialized and systematized.