This weekend I decided to strike out on my own and adventure through London without a plan. I started at the Covent Garden tube stop and began walking in whatever direction looked interesting. About an hour in I managed to stumble upon what I realized was Chinatown, an area I had wanted to explore but hadn’t had the chance. As I started looking around I realized that this could be an interesting blog post, especially since we haven’t learned very much about Chinese religions. I began my search for signs of religion in this area teeming with culture. The first things that caught my attention, as far as religions go, were a few Buddha statues in a shop selling souvenirs and trinkets. I also saw a Buddha statue on an altar sort of thing in a restaurant. The last semblance of religion I saw was some incense being sold in a shop. I decided to go home and do some research to determine the significance of these objects.
There are two major religions in China and those are Buddhism and Taoism. Very briefly put, Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gotama), who claimed that life is suffering and the way to end that suffering and become enlightened is through becoming fully aware of our thoughts and actions and acting morally. Put in the simplest and briefest terms possible. Taoism is both a philosophy and a religion encouraging a way of living (“the way”) that incorporates a variety of principals regarding diet, exercise, breathing, and meditation. It is based on the teachings of Lao–Tze. Tao is a force that represents everything natural.
As far as the religious symbols I spotted in Chinatown, only one incorporates both religions: incense. Incense is believed to purify one’s surroundings and bring forth any friendly spiritual forces. In both Buddhist and Taoist temples, incense is hung from the ceilings and placed in front of statues of deities. The fragrance is also considered to be symbolic of ethics and morality, however, if one is not acting morally in life the offering of incense means nothing.
The next two symbols only represent Buddhism. The Buddha statue itself is not worshipped but is used as a reminder of the path to Enlightenment and therefore highly respected. One of the most interesting things I found in my research was the reason for different poses used in the statues. These poses are known as mudras. There are five more popular poses: Abhaya mudra (meaning peaceful intentions and peacemaking), Bhumisparsha mudra (enlightenment of Buddha), Dhyana mudra (wisdom), Dharmachakra mudra (wheel of Dharma), and Varada mudra. Each is represented by different hand gestures and body poses, like all five fingers of the right hand reaching to touch the ground for the Bhumisparsha mudra. It’s fascinating how much symbolism is often so quickly overlooked.
The last thing I saw on my adventure was the Buddhist altar. The purpose of the altar is to call holy beings down to the Earth to encourage compassion and wisdom to the people in the presence of the altar. The altar is also used for daily practices like lighting incense or presenting flowers to encourage purification of the mind.
I thought it was so cool to see another representation of religious diversity in London. Buddhism and Taoism are definitely not majority religions of London, but they were well represented in this nook of SOHO. As a last thought, I also thought it was really interesting to compare Chinatown restaurants with restaurants in Brick Lane. One overwhelming difference (among many) was the amount of meat and skinned animals hanging in the windows of every restaurant. This is something I don’t think you would ever see in Brick Lane because of the vegetarian practices of most of the religions there. Obviously these are both places strongly influenced by the cultures and religions that reside there.