Today I witnessed some of the finest Christian work done in the colony, work which showed that love and charity is best expressed in something practical and not too sublime. I visited a leper colony.
The Hong Kong Mission to Lepers has, in three busy years, constructed a new leprosarium on a small island lying between Lantao and Hong Kong. Many lepers have been collected here from all over Kwantung. Many are from the colony itself, while some of them are inmates of a previous establishment in China simply pushed over the border by the communists. The island has been renamed Hai Ling Chou meaning ‘the island of happy healing’. Indeed it seems to be so, for I saw European and Chinese doctors and staff working together in a common cause and showing a real compassion for their unfortunate patients. This struck me as true Christianity, so different from the platitudinous milk and water attitudes I find in middle-class England today. Most important, nobody here mentioned God, Christ or even religion, the ‘work’ took first place, a work steeped in human kindness. “By their deeds shall ye know them!”
After a choppy passage, we were glad to land at a little beach sheltered from the strong winds. Just beyond the shore and in the centre of the bay stood an elongated Chinese building, white with a red-tiled roof, set among green lawns. A moon gate led to it and on it was the character for happiness painted in gold. On the pillars, further characters told of the spirit of compassion that is invoked here.
We were met by Dr Smily and Miss Moore, the matron, a motherly Canadian woman speaking fluent Cantonese. Dr Smily is a tiny little man, over seventy years in age, I guessed, with a slightly humped back, impeccably dressed in a fresh, clean shirt, hair parted as neatly as could be and wearing a hearing aid. The chief doctor on the island, he has spent nearly the whole of his life among lepers, at first in south China, then in Peking and now in his last post in Hong Kong. I was aware at once of a remarkable man, tenacious, methodical, kindly, patient, with a sort of brilliance that stamped him as a truly great personality. He took us first to the staff house, a superbly designed Chinese building with moon doors and octagonal windows, where we were treated to a strange alcoholic beverage made on the island from fermented sugar and tea.
Dr Smily led us round. Beyond a slight rise from the landing beach, a collection of grey stone dwellings, in Chinese style, houses the patients. The main hospital – the Maxwell Medical Centre – stands among them as a brand new institution. One of the assistants showed us how a skin smear is taken from a patient – a submissive girl of twenty-nine who was getting on well. Dr Smily explained the disease to us and because our party contained several young doctors, he was evidently more forthcoming than usual. He was careful to see we did not touch any possibly contaminated material and, on entering the accommodation of the most afflicted patients, told us to touch nothing, including walls and doors. A young American, who put his hand on the railings, was ordered to the wash house to scrub his hands.
The worst cases were terrible to see, swollen faces with scarlet patches, some with sores, twisted limbs, decaying feet, fingers rotted away, toes gone. Paralysis of limb and face muscles gave some of the patients a grotesque and horrible appearance. Dr Smily, the matron and the assistants walked among them, a kind word here, a greeting there, a swift enquiry, on the spot examinations of some of the worst conditions. Dr Smily spoke to the patients with infinite gentleness and assurance. The young doctors in our party were visibly awed. So was I.
Children were playing down the hill from the hospital. A gang of little boys came running to the matron. “Oh, they’ve found a rat hole,” she said, chattering away to them as if she was one of them herself. The kids looked happy and jolly enough but all of them had the disease and it would take many months to cure.
Set in the little valley were a number of small fields where vegetables were being grown and a promising grove of papaya had been planted. There was a pigsty and a little brown bull and a cow, the gifts of my banking friends on the Peak. The teenagers’ house, at the end of the valley, was where the bigger boys lived separately from their elders and among a group of fields and trees of their own. Nearby, a pond was overflowing to create a flooded marsh where there were lotuses in full bloom, symbols of purity spotless in the mud. They seemed poignant here, where these poor sufferers received such touching care and security.
Back at the house we all had a thorough wash and a drink. I bought some towels embroidered with the Nestorian cross worked on them by the lepers. Our party departed in thoughtful mood. A friend, one of the subalterns from the regiment, remarked to me, “How wonderful to be a doctor. I wish I had known about it earlier.” I was thinking the same.
My letters home were read by my parents with close attention. They found it difficult to understand my fascination with the Chinese religious world although they were otherwise very sympathetic and interested in my explorations of an environment so new to me. They felt that my enthusiasm for Buddhism was getting a little out of hand and began expressing their worries.
Both my parents were Anglican Christians dedicated to the work of the church but they were far from being fanatical about it. Indeed my father, an engineer originally by profession, had once made it clear to me that faith sometimes coexisted with doubt. In church and doubtless hearing the faltering manner in which I was muttering the Creed, he added the words – “in so far as it can be believed” at the end of his own recitation. I was touched and reassured by this tolerance.
I was concerned not to hurt my parents but I could not gainsay my excitement at my cross-cultural discoveries. I tried to write home about this. In the course of time my parents came to accept my interest in Buddhism as being better than atheism but I feel they always wondered how they had gone wrong in failing to instil a deeper faith in me.
“I noticed with some misgiving, Mummy, your somewhat stringent criticism of my apparent disloyalty to what you call the ‘faith of my fathers’. I feel that in any man’s search for truth the very idea of disloyalty cannot enter, since to be loyal to what is seen as a partial truth is to defeat the high ideal of the search. Truth lies beyond the tales of gods and creeds and in a sphere of thinking where an impartial light, so to speak, shines. Where there is an impartial view, there can be no loyalty or disloyalty but simply faith and love for that light, whencesoever it comes. In any case, I find something stultifying in conviction. Keeping an open mind is the key to ever renewable novelty and joy.
“Actually in my conversations with Yannang we often talk about Christianity and it has been valuable to hear his perspective upon it. The Chinese throughout history never believed in a single personal god. The one philosophical movement which did introduce such an idea, together with an emphasis on the importance of individual love and freedom as opposed to the focus on family values and social harmony stressed by Confucius, failed within a century of its origin. Motse, the philosopher who introduced the idea, became almost forgotten until recently. Likewise the early Nestorian Church in China did not last for more than a century or so. Long before “Mohism” and before Christianity reached China, the Chinese had well-established systems of religion and ethics in Taoism and Confucianism.
“Yannang, in spite of his Western education, remains very true to his Chinese traditions. The central Christian idea of a personal God in the heavens is thus lost on him, as, indeed, it was to me as I came to study science in depth at university. Yet perhaps the idea of a personal God is not the most vital of Christian ideas. The self-sacrifice of Christ seems altogether more central. Christ’s compassion rather than God’s will occupies the pivotal place. Here we find some empathy with Buddhism because, to the Buddhist, compassion is the highest virtue together with prajna or insight into one’s own nature. So, when we talk of a Christian ‘love of all things’, Yannang understands this very well.
“Sometimes we have read the Bible together. Unfortunately the first book he opened by himself was the Song of Solomon and this took some explaining. Quite what the ‘scented breasts’ of the song had to do with Christianity he couldn’t make out! The first problem was indeed the continual reference to ‘God’. God, as a being directing the world from on high, is nonsense to Yannang. We explored a better meaning for the word and came up with ‘that idea which brings meaning and wonder, joy, happiness and peace into one’s life.’ Yannang concluded that God was the ‘idea of the love of Nature and compassion for man.’ Reading through the twenty-third Psalm in this light together seemed to add power and grandeur to it.
“To some, the Christian God may be viewed as a ‘personalised idea’ and to use the word with this sense may not be so illogical after all. By personalising the idea it becomes easier to draw strength from it and, in emotional stress, even to pray in such a way as to invoke power and renewed faith in it. Believing in this way allows the Biblical stories to be read through in their full grandeur even by a person who may not admit the objective reality of God.
“Even so, Yannang and I hit upon a more ultimate question upon which both Buddha and Confucius maintained a noble silence, namely ‘If God is in the mind as an idea, what then made the mind?’ The quick and thoughtless answer of course is God. But to what does this question point? Both of us felt that theology cannot answer such a question. Whereas Christian charity and good works set an exemplary standard in ethical life, theology often seems mere sophistry. Even so, there is an approach to an answer in the Bible. The word Jehovah means ‘I am that I am’, an expression resembling in a most remarkable way the Buddhist notion of ‘suchness’. The earth is, I am, we are, it is such. The universe is such as it is and both we and all manifestations of life are aspects or expressions of that ‘suchness’. Suchness is a word for the unknown basis of being whether material, biological or spiritual. In suchness is both the beginning and the ending. ‘I am Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end’. In Taoism, Lao Tse began his great work, the Tao te Ching, with ‘The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.’ Suchness remains a mystery – like God.
“I find the great difference between the Christian tradition I have known and religion in China to lie in what the adherent does. At home, we have an emphasis on petitionary prayer, worship of something beyond, out there. In China, such perspectives are replaced by meditation, yogic exercises and mysticism, set within a form of worship that returns reflexively to one’s own mind after an outward excursion. Prayer and petition in the West move outwards towards something else. This is not so in a mystical religious life, whether Western or Eastern.
“I am trying to express myself as I see things now for I cannot and will not pretend to be other than I am nor to believe other than as I do. The only difference between us may be the contrasting expression of religious feeling in two generations. I believe and hope there is no actual conflict.”