Is the mystical tradition of the Far East dead or dying? Marcus T. Anthony comments on the state of spirituality in China today.

by Marcus T. Anthony


As a small child in Australia in the early 70s I recall being transfixed by the TV series Kung Fu. The stories featured a Chinese immigrant to the American Wild West. Each episode  typically played upon the quiet, introverted power of Caine, a Kung Fu master, juxtaposed with the loud, violent, and barbarous chaos of the American frontier. There was never any doubt as to which culture was the superior. We saw regular flashbacks to Caine’s strict training as a monk in a Shaolin monastery. Until such time as he had passed almost inhuman tests of self-discipline, he was not permitted to leave.


The irony was, of course, that Caine was played by a Caucasian American with Cherokee ancestry, David Caradine. Bruce Lee was actually rejected for the part, apparently because of his poor English. Disgruntled voices in the Far East suspected other reasons.


David Caradine was found dead recently in a Bangkok hotel, and the way he lived and died were in stark contrast to the character he played in Kung Fu. He was a loud and egotistical fellow, enjoyed coffee and cigarettes, and was arrested on more than one occasion for drink-driving. He was found hanged in the hotel closet, possibly the result of suicide, or even an act of auto-eroticism gone wrong. Either way, it was a tragic and undignified way to go. The legend of Caine was well and truly dead.


Yet I sense that something even more tragic has befallen the Far East. The death of its very heart, the mystical traditions. I have long suspected this, but at precisely the time of Caradine’s passing, another event in Hong Kong confirmed for me that the mystic East of my childhood imagination is gone. But let me backtrack for a moment.


It was the philosophy of the Orient - the mystical poetics of Lao Zi, the compassion of the Buddha, the politics of Gandhi - which inspired me as a young man to embark on a lifetime of exploration of the mystical inner worlds of Eastern lore. While other young people went to parties or focused on career, I explored mystical knowledge. I studied with Buddhist teachers, meditated, and explored both luminescent and murky inner worlds. Feeling strongly that this knowledge was important, I later enrolled in a doctoral programme. While in the age of prestige and credentialism many choose to study what the market dictates, I chose to study the interface of Eastern and Western ways of knowing in a relatively unknown discipline: Futures Studies. I became fascinated with the possibility that the so-called left-brained education of modern knowledge economies could be balanced with inner wisdom of the sages. By the time all that was done I had come to live and work in China.


I had no real expectations of what I would find here, and I was not naïve enough to think that I would find monks on the street twirling batons and flying through the air. I was extremely impressed (and still am) by the rapid economic development of all of China. There were huge skyscrapers, shining new cars, impressive transport systems and infrastructure. Yet something within me felt disappointed. Very recently, that disappointment rose once again.


Not much more than a week ago I attended Hong Kong’s first consciousness conference, held at the PolyU. It featured several different conferences and workshops being run simultaneously, and the themes were broad: mainstream scientific, social, artificial intelligence, media, alternative/traditional approaches and more. What was most notable, however, was the demographics of the presenters and attendees. Most were Westerners, with a sizable number of Indians. Yet I estimate that the number of Chinese and East Asians represented no more than ten per cent of the total. Apart from organisers, I did not meet a single Hong Konger over the entire week.


How is it possible that a major international conference about the nature of mind and consciousness has elicited such a feeble response from the land that was once known as a cente of contemplative practice?


One does not need to have the intuitive powers of an Taoist monk to work it out. East Asian culture has all but exterminated inner worlds. From Hong Kong, to Seoul, to Tokyo, to Shanghai, the focus of life has become money, amusement and technology. Nobody goes inward anymore. Our attention darts between fast food, Facebook and financial statements, but never comes to rest. Our education systems cram students with endless facts and figures in order to pass tests, but place no value on contemplation, reflexivity, or wisdom. We alienate ourselves from nature, and are shocked to find educators talking about “biophobia”. Some children have become frightened of grass and trees. We can add one more terror to the list – fear of silence and the inner worlds it brings to attention. How can we possibly know ourselves if we do not stop and breathe? Almost every meditative tradition teaches that it is only in stillness that we can know who we truly are.


An irony it is, that the best part of four decades after I marveled at the land of Kung Fu and mysticism, that I find myself here in the home of Bruce Lee and within the nation which spawned the Shaolin monks of yore, only to find its heart has stopped beating. Yes, the economy is still strong, and yes few would want to return to the “sick man” days of a humiliated and impoverished China. Yet somehow in the transition something important, no, something essential, has been lost. Maybe it is not dead, but it is surely sucking in its last breath. Is there anybody left here who cares?


Marcus Anthony (PhD.) is a Futurist who lives and works in Hong Kong. He is an elected member of the World Futures Studies Federation and the author of Integrated Intelligence. You can comment on this article on his blog/web site He can be contacted at mindfutures (AT)