“Discover a diverse modern metropolis steeped in unique blends of Eastern and Western traditions – only Hong Kong!” So claims the website of the Hong Kong Tourist Board.
My recent visit to Hong Kong introduced me to a very modern metropolis with a more developed infrastructure than any major city in the United States. Buses, subways, and trains were uniformly clean and comfortable. Streets were free of litter and grime. Roads were free from potholes and cracks. Signs were easy to read in both Chinese and English. Shopping far exceeded the variety of goods available in the Americas. Perhaps most striking to me was the absence of homeless people. Although wealthy neighborhoods and less well-off areas could be identified, absent were people pushing shopping carts or pan-handling at the corner. While I was told that there were homeless people, I also learned about the extensive system of government subsidized housing that provides basic security to families.
Hong Kong is not a socialist (and definitely not a communist) place, despite the perception of many in the United States. It is a city-state known for free-market capitalism with much less corporate regulation than in the United States. Yet unlike the United States, there is an understanding that human capital is essential to the growth of the economy. Because of this value for people, there is a priority placed on education as well as on the provision for the basic necessities of life.
The bustle of the city reminded me of New York and London, only Hong Kong is more crowded. Residents work for both multinational corporations and local industry. Much like in the U.S. and Canada, I passed studios offering classes in yoga and other centering exercise practices. In the midst of what appeared to me to be such a Western city, seemingly absent of Eastern spiritual practice, I began to ask, “What became of Buddhism?”
With a smile I was told, “Christians go to church, but many of us practice at home.” I wondered if that was something I was told that just sounded good, much like the American who stops going to church and says, “I don’t find God in a building but in nature” and then heads to the golf course each Sunday morning. In Hong Kong, I looked more closely and attempted to understand the role of spirituality in the culture. I could see how it was a Western city, but where were the signs for Eastern culture, spirituality, and religion. One day, on a driving tour of some of the neighborhoods on Hong Kong Island, I began to notice the flags outside of the temple-shrines. Walking, I hadn’t paid as much attention to these buildings. From the road, the flags seemed more visible to me and indicated that there, in the middle of a busy street, was a place to pause, to burn incense, and to pray.
In my first days in Hong Kong, I looked at the way of life and thought that something substantive had been lost of the culture and spirituality of the East for the sake of Western-style development. After closer inspection, I realized that the spiritual foundation of the East was still present. Throughout this modern city, temples and shrines allow passers-by to pause for a moment and to be mindful. These temples reflect a practical reality: few of us can lead the life of a monk. Yet all of us are challenged to live in a way that is grounded and mindful of the depths of our souls. In the midst of steel and glass sky-scrapers of Hong Kong, small temples dot the landscape as reminders that there is something more to life than development and modern living. When I eventually visited Repulse Bay and walked the beach, it did not surprise me that people paused in the midst of their sea front fun to burn incense at the temple before continuing their leisure.
My time in Hong Kong was more engaging than I expected. Among the great lessons for me was to see the practice of religion and spirituality interwoven with modern culture. In the West, church is often viewed as a refuge to escape to, a place of refreshment in the midst of the stresses of life. In Hong Kong, a tapestry is woven from the steel and glass of modern life and the treads of traditional spiritual practice. What a beautiful tapestry it is.
Perhaps you can take a moment and comment: are there ways in which your spiritual practice is woven into the fabric of your life?
© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.