Tibetan Man with Ghost Money, 2006:
Photo taken July 2006 near the Tibetan border. On our several-day bus ride into the wild open country of western China, we got a great opportunity to observe some interesting customs. The man in this photo is holding a stack of brightly colored “ghost money”.
As we approached a 16,500 foot pass in the mountains, it seemed as if the entire bus was buzzing. My friends and I were unable to pinpoint the source, but slowly we began to realize, as the volume level rose seemingly in sync with the altitude, that most of the passengers were chanting. I remember the noise being quite cacophonous near the top, and quietly letting a few prayers of my own to the One True God.
At the moment we gained the summit of the road, a long, low, wall of grey stone with a hundred white parapets came into view. In the center, there was a several-story red building layered with shimmering golden roofs. About 30 or so ruddy-looking horses were tied to squatty blank canvas tents, and what I presumed were their riders were wandering about, mingling with other pilgrims who were exiting a few four-wheel-drive vehicles. I only had a moment to take in this sight, as my eyes were drawn back to the interior of the bus with the alarm of all the chanting turning to outright shouting and gleeful tongue-rolling shouts “Aaayyiiiii yiyiyiyiyiyiiii!!!” The bus patrons had taken to their feet and were tossing handfuls of the colored paper out the window.
After asking a lot of questions of the man in this photo with my friend translating, I began to understand that the paper was “Ghost Money” or “Joss Paper”, which printed and sold in a plethora of styles and denominations. It has no monetary value, but rather is used as currency for the spirit world of which millions who follow the more animistic versions of Buddhism and ancestor worship believe. I believe the man told us that the temple we had passed contained an immense solid gold statue of Buddha. Many, many people in this region believe that spirits inhabit a plethora of things, included sacred sites like the temple on the pass, and in hopes of warding off the evil ones or getting those of their ancestors to bring good fortune, purchase the “ghost money” and throw it into the wind or (more frequently) burn it as offerings.
I felt humbled and yet privileged to know of a God above all others who doesn’t need sacrifice (Psalm 50:7-15) because Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 10:11-14). I am deeply interested in and fondly love experiencing the numerous traditions and beliefs of this rich and ancient culture, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is something (or Someone) behind man’s yearning for the transcendent. I believe in a God who created all and loves all, and wants to redeem all back to a relationship with Him.
Every time I look back at this photo, and the old man’s grainy, hairy face, his hands clutching his best hope in the world, I wish I had taken the time to share with him the good news that he may never have the opportunity to hear. My only hope is that the Gospel seed that my friends and I planted deep in the mountains would bear much fruit, and that the labors of my friends serving overseas and those of my native-born brothers and sisters who risk their lives to spread this Truth would see first-hand the results.