Happy New Year!
Thursday February 19 began a new year in China – the year of the sheep or the goat, depending on the inflection you use to pronounce it. Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. Those born in sheep years (1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003 and 2015) are said to be artistic, charming, sensitive, and sweet. It is known as the most creative sign in the Chinese zodiac.
In addition to it being the year of the Sheep, it is also the year 4713. China resisted the Gregorian calendar until 1912 but it was not widely used throughout the country until the Communist victory in 1949 when Mao Zedong ordered that the year should be align with the Gregorian calendar.
I first visited China and Tibet in 4703 and found an interesting paradox between the cultures. In Tibet, the whole country oozed of spirituality. The faith of the people seeped out of every pore and crevice. But in China, I found I had to ask about spirituality. I wanted to compare what I had learned of Eastern religion with what actual Easterner’s had to say.
But when I would ask people if they were a Buddhist or a Taoist – I discovered that we were talking about two very different things. I was asking them about a “belief.” If they supported the teachings of a particularly religion.
But they heard me ask, “Do you practice Buddhism or Taoism?” And one after another they answered “No. I’m not a disciple. But someday I hope to be.” I actually found myself fighting not to say something like, – no I just mean do you believe in what they teach – not do you really live like they teach! Time and time again people who knew and believed in the merits of a religion, refused to claim the name of that religion for themselves without making a serious commitment to living by it first.
Can you imagine? That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you decide to love your neighbor as yourself. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you replace the values of might and greed with justice and mercy. That would be like saying you’re not a Christian until you actually start living like Jesus did. And where would that leave the Christian church in our country today?
It seems to me this Chinese approach to religious affiliation recognizes and respects something about the group, communal experience. Faith isn’t just an individual decision, but also a way of entering into community. There is something about my claim to a religious affiliation that affects other people who make that same claim. And if I am not ready to commit to that community, I refuse to usurp their name.
The people of China didn’t adopt this attitude overnight but over thousands of years of life together. One of the first places we visited when we arrived in Beijing was Tian Tan or the Temple of Heaven. The Temple was built in 1420 (a relatively modern structure given the setting). Every year Emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties came here to pray for rain and a good harvest and to make sacrifices to Heaven. The Emperors had a unique role to play as the agent between the two worlds. The Emperor was for all practical purposes the God of the people, although officially he was considered the “son of God.”
The structure of the Temple is a good representation of all the architecture of the period. It is laid out in three main sections connected by a walkway. The focus of the first section is the Abstinence Palace, a square building set on a square piece of land. The Chinese believe that squares symbolize the earth while circles symbolize heaven. This is an earthly structure. Yellow is the color of the emperor and no one else in all of China would have been allowed to use the color yellow. All yellow roofs would indicate that the building belonged to the emperor. This building and every other building in China has a raised threshold at every door and every gateway. This was intended to keep evil spirits from entering because they would have to jump over the threshold.
From the Abstinence Palace the emperor would have walked to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Here the courtyard is square but the building is circular. And on the periphery of the square is another building. Before entering the Prayer Hall the emperor would go into this building and change his clothes – taking off his yellow garments. This was necessary because the Emperor was approaching God as his son and not his equal.
The third section is the Circular Mound Altar and the Tianxi Stone. No one was allowed to stand on this raised center stone for this was the spot closest to heaven. Not even the emperor addressing his father God as his son would ever have done such a thing as to stand on this stone.
So it was somewhat heartbreaking to see people not only standing on the stone, but also assuming mocking poses. There was a great irony in my trip. That in the course of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution holy places had become tourist attractions, yet without the revolution I would never have been able to see the sights that I saw. And I was moved that the Ming Tombs and other burial places are left unexcavated – testimony to the fact that at least for the time being respect for the dead is more important than additional tourist destinations.
Kevin was my tour guide for this trip. His real name is Yang Ger Gong. Kevin is always cheerful and he reminds you of a mother hen, leading her chicks about, always looking back to be sure no one has strayed off course and gotten lost. And he tends to loosen up a bit and tell Chinese jokes after a bit of Bourbon!
Kevin’s grandparents credit Mao Zedong and the Communist Revolution with saving their lives. He calls them Maoists. His parents, a geologist and a photographer, fled to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. When Keven was 10 years old the Chinese government allowed children in exile to return to the mainland. Kevin moved 300 miles away from his parent’s home to live with his grandparents. His parents practice no religion, but Kevin, at 24 years old, had come to embrace Taoism.
As he shared his faith, I found myself deeply resonating with his convictions. One morning I woke with the vision of Pilgrim Spirit Tours imprinted firmly in my mind. I knew I would return to China and that I would lead others who wished to experience the spirituality of the East. I began talking to Kevin in earnest about what such a pilgrimage would include and it was his suggestion to visit the 5 Famous Peaks – the holy mountains of Taoism, as well as spiritual centers for Buddhism and Confucianism.
It was exciting planning the return trip but what I had not anticipated was Kevin’s joy. As we walked out of Beijing International Airport two years later and boarded our first bus, Kevin told us that this was to be a special trip. He explained that very few people – including Chinese Taoists – ever make it to all five peaks. He had been to two of them himself. Kevin’s joy would only magnify as we journeyed together for the next two weeks.
There are the three main belief systems in China: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism is a transplant religion from India. Both Confucianism and Taoism originated in China over 2500 years ago, 500 to 600 years before the time of Jesus. Older still is a book both of them use called the I Ching.
The I Ching was written in the early part of the Chou dynasty that began in 1120BC. It is sometimes used for divination or fortune telling, but more often it is used as a philosophical text. The I Ching is based on yin and yang – the two great interactive forces that are the polarities of existence and life’s basic opposites, such as good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, summer and winter, passive and active.
The symbol for Yin Yang is called the Taijitu (Tai-G-to) and it has come to represent Taoism. The two halves complement and balance each other. Each moves into the other and exists in the deepest recesses of its partner’s domain. And in the end both find themselves at home in the circle that surrounds them, the Tao in its eternal wholeness.
So what exactly is the Tao? Huston Smith provides three definitions for the Tao. It is first of all the way of ultimate reality. It cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom. Second, although it is ultimately transcendent, the Tao is also immanent. It is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Finally, it is the way of humankind. Kevin put it this way, “The universe has a Way but nobody knows where the way is, and still everyone follows it. That is Tao.”
The Tao accomplishes great things by means of small things. Taoism seeks harmony with nature and all things through a principle called wu wei or non-action or an ever better phrase “creative quietude.” Creative quietude combines supreme activity and supreme relaxation. It flows through us when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own.
In Confucianism the Tao is understood as the moral way to which the ruler as a superior man should aspire. Its most used sacred text is called the Analects. Confucius taught social and personal morality that stressed the practice of key virtues. No matter what the specific religion or lack of religion of the Chinese people, they are also Confucian. It is so historically socially bred in the culture that you could call say its part of the DNA.
Confucianism is almost exclusively cognitive which is why it is considered a philosophy rather than a religion. It teaches that one becomes a “superior man” when he reaches moral and intellectual maturity. This non-inclusive language is intentional as women were not expected or encouraged to pursue self-cultivation in that time.
The chief virtue is Benevolence. Filiality is another virtue that involves reverencing one’s living ancestors and worshiping one’s dead ancestors. It stresses deference, obedience and faithfulness to parents. The virtue that we saw most plainly lived out as we observed traffic patterns and moved among the Chinese was the value of Propriety or “ritual correctness” or “good manners.” Almost everyone we had any contact with seemed to have a highly developed sense of politeness and civility.
Taoism, on the other hand, is clearly a religion. Taoists claim Lao Tzu as the religion’s founder. After he died, Lao Tzu’s disciples wrote down his teachings in a book called the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius. The Chinese even claim that he traveled to the academy in which Confucius taught. Today there are statues at the Academy that commemorate this meeting.
In contrast with Confucianism, Taoism teaches superiority not through self-cultivation but by tapping through inactivity into the superiority of the Tao. Taoists describe Confucianism as difficulty in the midst of ease; Taoism as ease in the midst of difficulty. The Chinese say, “Confucius roams within society, Lao Tzu wanders beyond.”
There are two kinds of temples prominent in China – those built by Chinese Buddhists and those built by Taoists. When I asked Kevin the main difference between these faiths, he offered two: That Buddhism includes many lives and the focus is on the one to come. Taoism believes only in this life and so the focus is to live in the now. Taoists kowtow at the altars three times like this. Chinese Buddhists bow in a similar way to the Tibetan Buddhists but with an important difference… The palms are significant as they take on a surrendering pasture in Tibet, and a receiving posture in China.
When we had reached the fifth peak, we had accomplished something few people – even Chinese Taoists – ever achieve in their lifetime. I made an offering of incense and kowtowed in the Temple to show my deep respect for the Tao that had led us and been our Way. Another pilgrim did the same. Then as we began winding our way down the mountain, something was amiss. Kevin – our leader – was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that this one time instead of leading us on, he had lagged behind, kneeling in prayer, offering his own thanks for this pilgrimage and to the Way that had guided him there.
Having learned so much about the different approaches to life within China, I asked Kevin what he thought the main difference was between the East and the West. He said, and I quote, “The West is more confident and selfish. The East is more public” meaning there is an emphasis on the group or the community.
I emailed Kevin after I returned home. I asked him what he wanted me to tell others about China. This is what he said: Just tell them about the China you saw. The real China.
That China is a beautiful place, calm and majestic, musical and ancient, vibrant and mysterious, shrouded in mists and striking in color. A country that dances and somehow each person knows the steps so that everything is fluid and flowing. This is what I discovered in China – a giant dance floor in which everyone moves and no one steps on any one else’s feet or pushes anyone else to the periphery of the dance floor.
On busy streets and marketplaces, on bamboo boats and farmer fields, in lush parks that draw young children and old friends, there is a richness in the dance movements that one can only make with other partners who have also learned the steps. China offers us a picture of a community of people who care enough about each other and their common ancestry to actually learn the steps.
How much more beauty unfolds in the dance when all people join it – when it includes the rich textures of diversity from the North and from the South, from the East and from the West. This is the dance you and I are invited to experience. The dance of life.