Its tongues erupting like cannon blasts from their fanged fortresses, the seven-headed serpent dragon gaped at me through 14 lifeless eyes. My gaze shifted down the scaly necks to the table where incense burned alongside flowers and drink offerings set before the beast, which locals revere as the phya naga, king of deified serpent demons.
“Surveying its twisted figure, I remembered why I’d come to Thailand. First, I’d traveled here as part of 360° in 180, my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences at secular universities. By learning about the spiritual climate of Thailand, I hoped to better understand the challenges that Christian students here face. But beyond that, I also wanted to investigate Thailand’s spirituality because Eastern worldviews are increasingly affecting Western Christian students.
I’d experienced a little of that as a student myself, in a psychology class which promoted Buddhist-based mindfulness and Zen meditation. But I knew I wasn’t the only Western student being taught Eastern spirituality. Just try typing mindfulness, meditation, or yoga into your search engine alongside words like public education and any Western country’s name, and you’ll discover how rapidly Eastern practices are inundating Western education from preschool to post-graduate studies.
While at some levels, these practices may seem harmless or be promoted as beneficial, there’s no sidestepping the spiritual bases for even their secularized forms. The founder of one popular American meditation center, for instance, describes the “secular” mindfulness classes they offer in public schools as “stealth Buddhism,” packaging Buddhist instruction within secular vocabulary.1
Eastern Spirituality and Western Secularism: Connected at the Foundation
In some ways, Buddhism itself is secular in that it denies any personal God.2 As such, Buddhism is ultimately atheistic; it demands some concept of evolution at its foundation because all atheists must explain their origins apart from a creator God.
Not even Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, considered himself divine or requested worship. Instead, individual humans are ultimately the authority in Buddhism, much like they are in secular humanism, the mainstream worldview in Western cultures. Like Buddhism, humanism states that there is no God, and man’s word is the foundation for human thinking.
As you may have read in my previous articles or other materials from Answers in Genesis, there are only two foundations for human thinking: man’s word and God’s Word. Because God’s Word is the ultimate authority for truth, anything man says that conflicts with God’s Word is a lie. God’s Word also tells us that the father (or source) of lies is the devil,3 the serpent who originally attacked God’s Word as the foundation for human thinking in Eden.
There, Eve began to second-guess God’s Word when the serpent questioned her, “Did God really say. . . ?”4 Over the last few hundred years, Western cultures also began second-guessing God’s Word when human interpretations contradicted biblical interpretations of the same observational facts like fossils, rock layers, and changes in living things. Believing God’s Word is scientifically inaccurate, many began to ask, “Did God really say he created everything in six days? Did he really fashion a literal Adam from dust? Did he really say he destroyed the earth in a global flood?”
The Western Church, therefore, began reinterpreting Genesis 1–11 without seeming to realize that these chapters provide the doctrinal basis for the rest of God’s Word. Unfortunately, this made Genesis look like mythology, on the level of Santa Clause and tooth fairies. Mainstream culture had no reason to accept a gospel rooted in mythology, so ultimately they traded the foundation of God’s Word for man’s in all areas of human thinking—including history, philosophy, society, and morality.
Meanwhile, in the East, the evolutionary interpretations of science, which has been undermining faith in the West, fit rather painlessly into worldviews like Buddhism and Hinduism, which were already founded on man’s word. If the “gods” themselves could have emerged naturally from some primordial cataclysm, evolution and Eastern spirituality fit hand in glove. So, Eastern practices began to grow more and more popular in the West, where mysticism tickled Westerners’ itch for spirituality without requiring them to give up the idea of evolution—or to be accountable to a Creator.
Now, it’s no wonder we see Eastern practices taking Western classrooms by storm. But when I sat in those classrooms, no one told me about the spiritual baggage behind the Eastern worldviews my professors promoted. No, to see that, I had to go to Thailand.
Buddha and the Serpent
Despite Buddhism being theoretically atheistic, as I walked around Thai temples, towns, and shrines, I witnessed how Buddhists regularly pay homage to a variety of idols—even trees. Vivid sashes coloured red, green, gold, or the burnished orange of monks’ robes encircled many of the larger trees’ trunks, especially near temples. Often, a close look at the roots of these “sacred trees” revealed different objects—silver plates, cups of water, and bits of food—offered to the “tree spirits.”
Below one such tree, I first saw a certain Buddha statue, which I’d later learn is one of the most common images in Southeast Asia. Initially, I noticed the statue’s striking size, saffron robes, and the fact that it sat enthroned on serpent coils amidst various offerings, smaller idols, and naga images. But then, I realized that a hood-like element above the Buddha’s head was no hood, but the seven heads of the phya naga.
What exactly, I wondered, is the connection between the Buddha and this serpent? A little research showed me that specifically, this image depicts a story from Buddhist sutras (scriptures) in which the phya naga sheltered a meditating Buddha during a storm.5 More generally, however, serpent worship has permeated the veins of Eastern doctrines like cobra venom for thousands of years.
Even today, serpent imagery continues to factor heavily into Eastern religious symbols, stories, and practices, with some of the most important Hindu deities being associated with serpents.6 As for serpent depictions in Buddhism—well, standing by the phya naga statue, I could see that firsthand.
Unmasking the Serpent
When I first saw the phya naga, I couldn’t help but notice how closely it resembled another seven-headed serpent dragon, the enemy of God depicted in the book of Revelation:
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems (Revelation 12:3, ESV).
Revelation 20:2 (ESV) identifies the dragon as “that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan.” In Corinthians, Paul also affirms Satan as Eve’s deceiver in the Garden of Eden,7 the serpent who would one day fall vanquished before Christ. As God’s curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15 (ESV) foretold,
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.
The resemblance between this serpent and the naga doesn’t necessarily mean that those who burn incense to naga statues are intentionally worshiping Satan. However, Scripture does indicate that idolatry is ultimately demon worship,8 that whoever is not for Christ is against him,9 and that the whole world—with all its cultures—remains under the serpent’s sway.10 Yet Christ is the one who has sealed the final victory over every lie of every dragon in every culture. Without exception, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to him.11 Ultimately then, even the phaya naga’s seven heads are under his feet as well.
The Moral of the Story
My 360° in 180 mission brought me to Thailand so that I could learn about Eastern spirituality, as Eastern practices are inundating Western public schools. These practices’ popularity reflects how “secular” mysticism allows people to be “spiritual” without adjusting their beliefs in evolution or living as though accountable to their Creator. For example, Buddhist practices fit smoothly into secular lifestyles because both Buddhism and humanism are atheistic worldviews founded on man’s word rather than God’s. Any message that opposes God’s Word, however, is a lie, and the source of lies is the serpent of Genesis. So, it’s not surprising to see connections between Eastern spirituality and the worship of serpent demons, even if that degree of spiritual baggage is hidden from students learning Eastern religious practices in the West.
Ultimately, my introduction to Thailand’s spirituality gave me a deeper sense of the foundational connection between Western and Eastern cultures. I’d already begun investigating how Christian university students keep their faith in Western cultures, where the worldview foundation of man’s word is highly secularized. But how do Christian students keep their faith in a culture like Buddhist Thailand? That’s what I needed to find out next.
(Stay tuned for Part 12!)