Thursday, 08 January 2015 17:18

A Curious Puzzle: Americans’ Chilly to Lukewarm Perceptions of Buddhists

When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.

The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.

It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).

If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.

It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".

Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.

How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.

Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Saturday, 12 July 2014 00:00

Renewal of Buddhism in Mainland China and its Interaction with the Government

Since the reform and opening up policy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Buddhism in mainland China is experiencing a dramatic revival. Out of the five major religions in China, it is in fact the one which has taken the most advantage of the conditions created by the government. Millions of tourists, Chinese or foreign, who take trips in China each year can attest to the fact that a large majority of the most popular sites are Buddhist shrines, constructed, or rebuilt within thirty-odd years. Almost entirely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni rises from its ashes today with a surprising vitality, which shows his willingness to take his place in contemporary Chinese society and, as in the past - even more perhaps than in the past - to play a leading role in the modernization of the country.


According to official statistics, there are now more than13,000 buddhist temples in China, and about 200,000 monks and nuns. There are more than 3,000 temples and monasteries for Tibetan-language Buddhism, that is to say, lamaism, with 7 million faithful belonging to various ethnic groups, mainly Tibetans and Mongols, and about 120,000 monks and nuns. Pali-language Buddhism, mainly practised among various ethicities in south and south-west Yunnan, has around 1.5 million practitioners, with 8,000 monks and nuns in more than 1,000 temples and monasteries. The temples and monasteries of the Han nationality, which constitutes the main body of the Chinese nation, number around 9,000, with more than 70,000 monks and nuns.


Another sign of vitality is that several buddhist studies institutes have been also set up or reopened, with a view to training an elite class of monks and nuns with a deep spiritual life combined with a high level of education. This has resulted in many monks and nuns having a good knowledge of their religion and of modern sciences and they have already started to contribute to the propagation of Buddhism and to its dynamic integration in the socialist Chinese society of the 21st century. The first one was the China Buddhist Institute, reopened in Beijing, at the Fayuan Si (法源寺) in 1980.

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All these achievements, and many others, have been possible only with the help and under the control of the government. The majority of temples, monasteries, and institutes which have been restored or rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution have received a substantial amount of financial support from state organisms, and the various activities which take place in them are subjected to the approval of the authorities, just like the other religions in the country. The extraordinary revival of Buddhism observed presently in China shows that the government is itself directly interested in the progress of a religion which, in the past, has played a decisive role in chinese history and civilization.

To better understand this interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese government, it may be useful to look back on the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China. It appears clear from the outset that the religion that came from India could take root and grow in the Middle Kingdom only with the support of civil authorities. This is clearly recognized by Master Dao An (道 安) (312-385) , a renowned translator and interpreter of Buddhist Scriptures of the Eastern Jin dynasty, which laid down the principle that "without the support of the leaders of the country, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground." This principle, which somehow summarizes the history of the establishment of Buddhism in China, is also a kind of axiom that defines the line adopted over the centuries by the Sangha. The fate of the temples, their prosperity or decline depends on good relations with the state. What we read in the Annals of the Guoqing temple (國清寺) (Zhejiang) can be said of the vast majority of temples: "Over the centuries, the Guoqing Temple flourished and widely spread the Dharma thanks to the magnanimity of princes and emperors; wars and the contempt of the powerful led to Buddhism's decline. The Buddhsit tradition has continued uninterrupted - from profliferation to decadence and from decadence to profliferation - such is the characteristic of the history of the age-old development of the Guoqing Si". Zanning (贊寧) (919-1001), a Buddhist Master and author of Biographies of eminent monks of the Song Dynasty said one day: "Buddha entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers." He was probably referring to two sutras now considered apocryphal, but which had throughout the history of China a decisive influence on the attitude of the princes towards Buddhism: the Humane King Sutra1 and the Golden Light Sutra2. In "entrusting the Dharma to kings and ministers," Buddha not only entrusted to them the protection of religion, but by this very fact gave them an authority allowing them to exercise direct control over the Sangha. The history of the temples shows that they are the ones who allowed the construction of monasteries, and often provided at least part of the funding; they also gave the temples their official names by the gift of an inscription together with an official seal, thereby giving it right to exist; they, also, were the who appointed the priors (fangzhang) of the main temples and give them the title of "national master" or "imperial master."


In short, the existence and activities of monasteries depended on their goodwill. They also often depended on their generosity, for princes and emperors like to be magnanimous and to give lavish donations: liturgical instruments, paintings, calligraphy, poems, precious objects, Tripitaka and so on, which make and enrich the cultural patrimony of the temples.

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Naturally, the rulers of China's history were not all in favor of Buddhism, as evidenced by the great persecutions of the religion at various times, especially in the time of Emperor Wuzong (武宗) (841-845) of the Tang dynasty. But we can mention here, by way of illustration, the names of some of them who exerted the most positive influence on the development of Buddhism:

  • Liang Wudi (梁武帝) (502-549) He was the most fervent and the most liberal of the sovereigns of the Southern Dynasties, who were all favourable to Buddhism. A great supporter of the Sangha, he was nicknamed " the Bodhisattva Emperor"; leading his subjects to observe the Precepts, he entered himself on several occasions in a monastery, and built numerous temples, including the Kaishan Si (開山寺, now Linggu Si 靈谷寺), in Nanjing, to honour the memory of his favourite adviser, the Monk Bao Zhi (寶志).
  • Wu Zetian (武則天) (684-704) considered herself as the mother of Buddha, and the incarnation of Maitreya. Having formerly spent three years in a convent of Bikkhunis, she showed a special fondness for Wutaishan, where she built several temples and pagodas, donating to the mountain's collection of books, statues and valuables.
  • Kubilay Khan (1214–1294) From Kubilay (Shizong世宗), the founder, to Shundi (順帝), the last of the dynasty, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were all fervent supporters of Buddhism, on which they lavished presents and favors. The number of temples increased, and the monastic population grew in a spectacular way. The most famous Lama was Basiba (八思巴), whom Kubilay named an imperial Master and his Prime Minister; he gave him the imperial seal and appointed him Great Pontiff of the Central Plain, enjoying authority over all Buddhists in the Empire. Basiba created the written language which bears his name; it entered common usage in 1269, and was the official language throughout the whole Yuan dynasty.
  • Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) (1368-1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty had been a monk during his youth, and showed a great interest in Buddhism, both in terms of his personal convictions and for political motives. He helped it develop and organize, drawing up strict rules for admission to the Sangha and for monastic discipline.
  • Kangxi (康熙) (1662-1722) considered himself as the incarnation of the Wuliangshou Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life, i.e. Amithaba). He visited the sacred mountain of Wutaishan five times; among other significant gestures, he conferred on the Great Lama of the Pusa Ding lamasery the seal of Governor, and ordered all the Authorities of Shanxi, including the Governor of the province and the General commandant of Datong, to pay him tribute. He had the great halls of the temple covered with glazed yellow tiles, a colour normally reserved for the buildings of the imperial family.
  • Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–96) considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. He visited Wutaishan six times, each time leaving laudatory signs of his passage, in the form of poems and calligraphy. At the death of Yong Zheng, he transformed the former Palace of the latter, the Yong He Gong, into a lamasery with imperial colours, conferring to Tibetan Buddhism one of the most prominent and most envied position in the heart of the Capital.
  • Cixi 慈喜 (1835-1908) also considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. She liked to be called "Laofoye" (老佛爷), meaning the old Buddha.

These examples and many others in the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China, show that when he "entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers," the Buddha Sakyamuni actually secured the establishment and development of the religion in the Middle Kingdom.

The support of the princes demanded that Buddhists of the country made a commitment to promote national prosperity, security and stability. This responsibility was assumed largely by those of the members of the Sangha to whom was conferred the honorary title of "national master" 國師 or "imperial master" 帝師. Advisors to the sovereigns, they controlled the organization of monastic communities on the ground, and with their prestige and influence, contributed to the legitimacy of the central power. This was the case, for example, of Fo Tudeng (佛圖澄) (232-348), senior adviser to Emperor Shile (石勒) of the Zhao, thanks to whom Buddhism became the official religion of the kingdom3; of the national Master Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什) (343-413?) whose unmatched quality of translations' ensured Buddhism a leading position); of Xuanzang (玄奘) (ca 600-664), who, without having the official title of national master, enjoyed the exceptional favor of the emperor, and made Buddhism in China a privileged religion; of the national master Amoghavajra, also known as Bukong (不 空) (705-774), who was one of the most powerful monks politically in the history of China, whose great religious authority consolidated the power of the leaders and promoted the prosperity of the country; of the national Master Chengguan (澄觀) (738-838), the fourth patriarch of Huayanzong, the School of the Flower Garland, who was the spiritual master of seven successive emperors; of Basiba 八思巴 (1235-1280), national then imperial master under Kubilay Khan, who worked efficiently for the political rallying of Tibetans; of Yishan Yining (一山一寧) (1247-1317), who was made responsible for restoring Sino-Japanese relations that had been broken off after the attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan, in 1274 and 1281; and of many others. Besides the influence of these "national " or "imperial" masters, the inculturation of Buddhism on Chinese soil, and its uneven but continuous development for two millennia, were obviously also due to many other monks and lay Buddhists whose moral authority and writings were equally, if not more, critical, and whose action developed also in the framework of bilateral relations with the authorities.

This interaction of Buddhism with the civil and political power has been a constant phenomenon in the history of China. It explains both the success of the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni in the Middle Kingdom, and the interest, as a whole, that princes and emperors granted it. During the celebration of the two thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism in China in 1998, Ven. Jing Hui (凈慧), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association, could declare without fear of being contradicted: "Buddhism was introduced to China two thousand years ago. During these two thousand years, Buddhism has always played an obvious role of purification of the heart, it has raised the moral level, ensured the peace and the stability of the country, favoured national unity, protected the environment, assisted the poor and the needy. It has exerted a very deep influence on the politics, the economy, the culture and the popular customs of our country..."

The spectacular revival accomplished by Buddhism since the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, shows notable similarities with the past in the process of the interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the country's leaders. Different as it is from the feudal dynasties, the socialist system of the People's Republic of China exerts on Buddhism, like on all religions in the country, a similar function of support and control, while the Buddhist communities, for their part, are invited to help with promoting national stability, unity and prosperity. The axiom formulated by Master Dao An in the 4th century is still true today, implicitely, the relations of Buddhism with the government: "without the support of the country's leaders, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground."

The government's support and control effect change today through the Buddhist Association of China, whose objectives are clearly defined in the statutes: "The aims of B.A.C. are to assist the government to implement the policy on freedom of religious affairs , to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Buddhist circles, to propagate Buddhist teachings, to develop Buddhism under its traditions, to unite Buddhists nationwide, to work for the happiness of people as well as the prosperity of the country, to make contributions for the unity of the motherland as well as world peace." With the exception of Tibet, these objectives seem to meet no opposition in the country, and have actually favored the extraordinary revival made by Buddhism in the limited space of about thirty years. Thus can we make a connection between the role formerly entrusted by the rulers to their "national " or "imperial masters" and the institutional role assigned today by the government of the People's Republic of China to the Buddhist Association of China. The high-ranking officials in this association, exercise a moral and political authority that make them resemble the "national masters" of the past, and enjoy, both in China and abroad, a reputation that greatly favors the interests of Buddhism on the national and international levels, as well as the growing influence of traditional Chinese culture in the world.

In an important speech at the UNESCO on March 27, Xi Jinping (習近平), the President of the People's Republic of China, stressed the need to promote exchanges and mutual sharing of knowledge among civilizations. This speech, the first of a Chinese head of state before this organization of the United Nations, puts focus clearly as never before on the value and meaning of traditional Chinese civilization, to the extent of being called the manifesto of the renaissance of Chinese civilization:


"Having gone through over 5,000 years of vicissitudes, the Chinese civilization has always kept to its original roots. Unique in representing China spiritually, it contains some most profound pursuits of the Chinese nation and provides it with abundant nourishment for existence and development. Though born on the soil of China, it has come to its present form through constant exchanges and mutual learning with other civilizations..."


Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, thus making a deep impact on religious belief, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of the Chinese people.

It goes without saying that, for the president of the People's Republic of China, this interaction of Buddhism with the Chinese people means also interaction with the leaders of the nation. On behalf of the whole country, Xi Jinping points clearly to a certain direction:

"the Chinese civilization, together with the rich and colorful civilizations created by the people of other countries, will provide mankind with the right cultural guidance and strong motivation".

Thus, among all the world's civilizations, the thousand years old Chinese civilization appears to be a rich and potentially most effective partner. A civilization that encompasses traditional religions and philosophies, especially Buddhism, which has become over the centuries an essential component of Chinese culture. While showing, as we have just seen, the direction to be taken, the president of the People's Republic of China also expresses the hope placed by the Chinese people and their leaders in the Buddhist religion to promote the international role of China on the cultural level. The interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese authorities will from now, more than anywhere else, manifest itself in the traditional civilization "going out" beyond the frontiers in order to exert, within the alliance of civilizations of mankind, an influence commensurate to its thousand years old history.

Echoing the keynote speech of Xi Jinping at UNESCO, Buddhist circles are now committing themselves in turn to promote Chinese culture internationally. Ven. Xue Cheng (學誠), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, and one of the most prominent personalities of the Sangha, likes to emphasize the fact that Buddhism is, of the three religious components of China, the one which has had and will have the greatest influence. After being propagated in East and South East Asia. Buddhism has now extended its reach to Europe and the USA, and acts as a powerful vehicle for the revival of Chinese culture.

"If we hope to see Chinese culture, including Buddhist culture advance in the world", said Ven. Xue Cheng, "if we hope to see the civilization of China make an even greater contribution to the civilizations of mankind, we must above all 'go out' , go into all regions of the world, learn languages and understand the cultures of different countries, and in a process of continual self-improvement, allow the Chinese culture to bring happiness to men, and Buddhist culture, by the spiritual quality of compassion, bring freshness in the world."

This is also the conviction of Ven. Yong Xin (永信), abbot of Shaolin Temple (少林寺) and renowned vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China. The Shaolin Temple, by touring martial arts in the world, not only makes known the essence of traditional culture, but still more spreads this culture outside of China, helping China's culture "go out" into the world, expand its influence, and strengthen exchanges with other countries. Thjis is the crucial role that Shaolin Temple wants to play under the dynamic leadership of its abbot.

In "going out" of China, Chinese Buddhist culture will help expand the influence of Chinese civilization in the world, while the international rise of China, which is on the way to becoming a major economic and political power, will promote the extension of Buddhism in many countries. The interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the Chinese authorities, which has proven itself for two thousand years, takes on now a new dimension, at the global level.

Christian Cochini s.j.
Hongkong, June 19, 2014

 

For the original French please click here


1 仁王經, Ren wang jing. Its full name is the Prajnaparamita Sutra for Humane Kings Who Protect their Country. In some Chinese temples, this sutra is used today during prayers on behalf of the government and the country.
2 金光明經, Jinguang ming jing. It is a very important Mahayana sutra, and one of the most popular Mahayana sutras of all times.
3 The successor of Shile, emperor Shihu, promulgated an edict making Fo Tudeng a « national treasure » and granted him many privileges.


Friday, 13 August 2010 16:03

Is Asia Pacific? Interreligious conflicts, dialogue and inventiveness in today’s Asia

There is no need to underline the dizzying diversity of Asia’s religious landscape. I do not intend here to attempt even a preliminary sketch of the patchwork of faiths and traditions that extend from Pakistan to Japan… I just would like to point out some general trends that have emerged in the last two or three decades, trends that have been partly reshaping the setting of Asia’s religions. Also, I would like to reflect on the challenges that these trends are creating. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest a few possible answers that Christianity could articulate in response to current developments, provided that Christians wish indeed to become “peacemakers” as the Sermon on the Mount calls them to be. Such responses may also inspire the ones brought forward by other religions. In any case, interreligious dialogue in Asia has become an endeavor that no religion can escape from, not only for spiritual reasons but also in order to achieve the following goals: (a) progressing towards national and ethnic reconciliation (b) ensuring religious freedom and other civil rights (c) tackling global challenges (dialogue of civilizations, ecology, struggle against consumerism, development of a global ethic.)

Revivalism and Identity Crisis

Revivalism has become a predominant religious trend. The clearest example is provided by the new vitality found by Islam in Asia, as is also the case in other parts of the world. Such fact is of utmost importance: Indonesia is the most populated Muslim nation in the world; Bangladesh and Pakistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities, and Malaysia has also a Muslim majority, though not as pronounced; India has a strong Muslim minority; and Muslim populations are located on conflict-prone frontier regions in the Philippines, Thailand and China.

The point here is that such “vitality” - experienced with different feelings according to the standpoint of the observer - encompasses an array of very different phenomena that have to be carefully distinguished:

- A kind of revivalist atmosphere stressing both Islamic and ethnic pride on a background of post-colonial sensitivity and widespread religious education, affecting the consciousness of Muslim populations all around Asia.

- Marginal violent movements carrying attacks, movements often fostered by international networks.

- Pervasive political strategies trying to impose and enforce Islamic laws and Islamic state apparatus; such strategies threaten the fabric of the secular state (which was a feature of post-colonial Asia) or lead some states that from the start were not altogether secular to become openly theocratic.

- At the same time, it is important to note that, since 2001. Muslin communities often suffer from accrued hostility and prejudices, especially in countries where they are a minority - and these prejudices can reinforce violence and deviant behaviors. Some of these communities also suffer from disadvantageous social background and economic conditions.

A few additional remarks are in order:

- Among these trends, the third one might be the most preoccupying one. In history, such strategies have led to the annihilation/assimilation of populations living in Muslin societies and professing other faiths. Strategies vary according to the size of the proportion of the Muslim population and the overall political situation. A distinction is to be made between Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia on the one hand, and the other countries of the region where Muslims are a vocal minority, sometimes with complaints rooted into national history. At the same time, further comparison between Bangladesh and Pakistan for instance might help us to assess better the role of cultural or international factors in religious attitudes: Bangladesh prides itself of a spirit of tolerance and accommodation seemingly lacking in Pakistan. This opposition of style between two Moslem countries leads back to an array of cultural and political factors deeply anchored into the collective memory of the two protagonists.

- In countries with Muslim majority, Christians of tribal origin generally constitute the most vulnerable population when it comes to forced conversion and discrimination. At the same time, Christians who are social leaders because of their wealth, occupation or educational level are often at the frontline of ongoing confrontations (this is patent in Pakistan).

- Of course, besides the Islamic revival, other sources of concern exist, which strongly influence interreligious conflicts and cooperation on the continent as a whole: authoritarian States manipulative of religions or even of interreligious dialogue; revivalist political/religious currents and organizations that might go with the assertion of a “national’ religion (in a Buddhist context, the phenomenon can be observed in Sri-Lanka); materialism and consumerism as they are cutting off the very roots of interreligious dynamics and dialogue.

- With the exception of Vietnam maybe, one notes everywhere a strong growth of Protestantism, most of the time under a fundamentalist and proselytizing garb, which often exacerbates tensions already existing. Proselytism also characterizes new religions, which are in the rise in many countries. As a consequence of this increase of religious communalism, a country like China is much less “syncretistic” than in the past and, witnesses a new assertiveness of believers who are conscious of clear-cut confessional divisions.


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In a Buddhist temple in Bangkok (July 2010)

What is to be done?

1) In a context marked by potential or actual confrontations, but also by encounters and fluctuating frontiers, believers should not renounce the ideal of living and praying side by side as a privileged form of dialogue. Sometimes, and in different circles, there have been hesitations and reservations on a form of interreligious dialogue rooted into the fact of praying side by side. Still, one can reasonably think that God takes more pleasure in seeing people praying together than killing each other… Prayer often manifests itself as a kind of “revolutionary force”, and religious leaders are well advised to let and encourage people find their own way of associating their prayers in times and places of conflicts, natural disasters, or just for building up brotherly neighborhoods. Actually, what might be the most dangerous feature of violence is the fact that it exercises a kind of fascination that leads all people involved to a hardening of their own identity, fostering a chain of violent reactions - violent in spirit even when not in deeds. In this light, and even if such posture looks “idealistic”, the importance of a spiritual, even “mystical” approach towards interreligious understanding cannot be overlooked.

2) At the same time, it is impossible not to tackle directly the political dimension of interreligious encounters (understood as dialogue and tensions): ethnic or national revivalist movements and religious revivals are associated phenomena; ethnic, partisan and religious lines are often blurred. In the Catholic Church, a document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, has established the principle of religious freedom, associating it with a reflection on the mission, nature and duties of the state. At the same time, the text was strongly influenced by the American constitutionalism tradition. Asian religious leaders now need to clarify their stance about the secular state (which most of them tend to belittle or flatly reject.) Asian religions should debate of their political principles and, hopefully, agree on a few pressing tasks: (a) definition of the secular state, (b) pushing towards further regional union, encompassing a bill of rights emphasizing the spiritual roots of Asia (both their diversity and their strength), (c) working for equality among sexes (which might constitute the most important check against radical Islam on the long run)… Also going along this “political imperative”, arises the exigency to be always truthful about history. Interreligious and inter-ethnic encounters are made possible or are blocked by narratives that are shared or are conflicting. When they happen in a context where conflicting narratives are honestly recognized and retold, such encounters operate as a healing of memories.

3) Asia is a region marked by an irreducible linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. Traditionally seen by Christianity as a practical and theological challenge, such diversity is actually a treasure that needs to be assessed, appreciated and interpreted. Peace-building is thus to be seen as an ongoing endeavor inseparable from the development of interreligious dialogue: both tasks are anchored into an interpretative process through which cultures, creeds and world-views are perpetually reshaped. On the long run, the “translation” of traditional languages and narratives that the in-depth meeting with the Other makes possible nurtures a creative reinterpretation of one’s spirituality and faith.

4) Value education and other actions conducive to a culture of dialogue must target in priority women and the youth, as these two sectors are the ones who are susceptible to foster in the future a less rigid and more compassionate social culture. Value education starts from existential requirements such as the importance of honesty, mutual respect and joy. Interreligious cooperation is actually anchored into the nurturing of basic values that, ideally, could and should be taught in the schools of a pluralistic secular state.

A “musical” metaphor might help us to ascertain what is at stake in such encounters: we all have different musical tastes, different “ears”, and yet we are called to do music together. What then will come out of our musical disagreements? At the end of the day, we cannot bet for sure on the kind of music that God likes and composes. Maybe He does not compose in the C scale or in B moll, maybe He composes a kind of serial or computer-generated music that goes through disharmonies and rhythmic breaks – music that we do not immediately appreciate. Creative music generally challenges our listening habits - and we can assume that God indeed is a creative composer.


Monday, 30 September 2013 15:41

The Temple and The Mosque

Abdullah is from Yemen but grew up in Saudi Arabia.  He came to Taiwan to travel and to discover a new culture and way of life.  Here he shares his experience of Taiwanese religion and spirituality and compares it with his religion, Islam, on a walk around Longshan Temple.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013 16:34

In Search of Lost Faith

Photography by Liz Hingley

Few would deny that the modern world is facing a spiritual crisis today. This observation was met with consensus in the beginning of the 20th century and continues on today.

As late as the Renaissance, Western civilization was dominated by Christianity. As scientific knowledge and methodology evolved, they started to chip away at the foundations of the Western theological worldview, starting with the findings of scientists such as Galileo Galilei and reaching an apex with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in 1859. Nowadays, most people do not buy in to the idea that our lives are governed by a certain deity (or deities). Neither do they believe that our world was created by some supernatural force. Science has apparently won the battle over religion, and many of us would pride ourselves as enlightened, intelligent modern human beings, free from the superstitious beliefs that dimmed the minds of our ancestors.

However, the proliferation of New Age theosophy and the increasingly complex discourse on astrology proves otherwise; thanks to the evolution of the technological industry, you can now receive complex astrolabes that can not only tell you your traditional astrological sign but also your moon sign and your ascending sign, and so on ad nauseum, which each have their own meanings and are supposed to influence you in different arenas of your life. What's more, the attraction of astrology is immune to scientific scrutiny and it’s not unusual to find PhD science graduates indulging in the guilty pleasures of astrology and feng shui. Clearly, the Promethean wisdom of science is not sufficient to quench our thirst for other-worldly meaning.

Max Weber, in his 1918 lecture "Science as Vocation" quotes Tolstoy’s concise explanation of why science cannot satisfy our spiritual appetite: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answers to our questions, the only questions of import to us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?"" Of course, as one who took up science as a vocation, Weber is not one to agree too quickly with the statement that "science is meaningless," but he does agree that the presupposition of a complete, wholesome theological metanarrative projects a stable theological subject, while the lack of such creates an alienated, self-centered individual, unsure of what to make out of the world or what to make out of himself. Weber further concludes that "natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so."

Noting this sense of spiritual lack and the impotency of science, many people in the contemporary world have returned to their churches and their temples, in order to find spiritual peace. It is easy to imagine, however, that this is by no means an easier route. What has been undone by science cannot be remedied so easily. A couple of months ago, eRenlai presented a focus entitled "My God?" that explored the discovery, loss and rediscovery of faith. Interviewees included followers of Buddhism, Catholicism and Christianity. A Buddhist interviewee mentioned how difficult it was to completely commit to her faith, as in the modern world people are often jaded and guarded against religion. Even after several years of Buddhist practice, her Master doubts whether she has even reached the minimum requirement of becoming a true Buddhist.

The problem of committing to religious beliefs that are unscientific does not only exist in Buddhism. In order to avoid awkward encounters with scientific knowledge, such as the theory of evolution, the majority of Christian teachings nowadays mostly take a symbolist approach to the Scriptures. Those who embrace the fundamentalist approach and deny every scientific statement that opposes the propositions of the Bible are extremely scarce and are often viewed as misfits in contemporary society. However, though the symbolist approach is accepted in modern society, it is not a satisfying method, in that the authority to interpret sacred texts is then granted to humans and it gives the whole process a political spin. Who gets to decide the specific meaning of each text, and does that make the interpretation infallible? How do we know whether such an interoperation is not simply a guise for manipulation by vested interests? It is these doubts that constitute the core canon of literature on religious doubt such as A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man or The Way of All Flesh. It is thus easy to see how difficult it is to maintain a steadfast religious conviction in modern society, despite the fact that science itself offers nothing better.

So what do we do now? For those who wish to remain religious, Max Weber suggests an "intellectual sacrifice," similar to a fideistic leap of faith, though this is no easy task, as demonstrated by the example of our Buddhist interviewee. For the non-believer, he has to search for the answer himself, to determine who is his God and who is his devil. Science works only insofar as it becomes a tool for the modern man to clarify his ideas. Either path he chooses, concludes Weber, the most important thing is to maintain his integrity. If one is faced with doubts about one's beliefs, one should have the courage to face these doubts head on, and not simply rush to the nearest exit.


Monday, 01 July 2013 13:06

Goodbye, my dear sister

 

I have been thinking for a long time how to start this article. What tone of voice can I use to remember you, my dearest sister?

I’ll start from the day when you resolutely decided to leave us.

It was the summer of 2009, I am a little bit fuzzy on the exact date. September 18th? September 20th? It seems like something that happened very long ago. A few days before, I had come back from the disaster area of the Morakot Typhoon. At that time, my only thoughts were of getting home, I wasn’t aware that it was all an omen of you leaving.


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:34

Gender and Weddings in Taiwan

Red candles, ceremonial cannons, fresh flowers, everybody coming together to celebrate, but with all the throwing of fans (the bride throws a fan on the ground to represent that she's leaving her youthful temper behind her), the bride's mother throwing water at the bride's departing car (spilled water can't be retrieved, which signifies that the daughter should not go back to her old house just like the water can't be unpoured) and walking over broken tiles (which represents overcoming the past and expelling evil deities), the bride can't help but be a little overwhelmed. "Rites" are a kind of standard or a restriction, if a wedding is supposed to be for both the bride and the groom, then why are all the restrictions during the marriage rite imposed on the woman?

Translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart



Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:26

Keening: Taiwan's Professional Mourners

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photos courtesy of Liu Junnan and Wang Zhengxiang

When did keening become so forced?

A Mei: 'There was always someone there saying: Now you should cry... You can't cry now...My brother and I often got mixed up, "Do we have to cry now? Or not cry?".
                                                                                                                 -Seven Days in Heaven (2010)

The film, Seven Days in Heaven (Fuhou Qiri) from the short story of the same name, describes the experiences of A Mei, the female protagonist who has been working in the city for many years, on her return to her rural hometown for her father's funeral. There was a montage in the film with a lively Spanish dance track playing in the background, in which the 'keening' during the funeral preparation process is satirized – at one point A Mei hasn't finished eating, and later hasn't finished brushing her teeth, but hears the call "the girl should come and cry", and she has to don her mourning clothes and sprint to the altar to cry – in a very memorable scene. This scene must have made a lot of Taiwanese watching laugh (at least that is what happened with my friends and I), not just because of the comi-tragic sorry figure she cut, but also because we've all had similar – even if not quite as dramatic – experiences and sentiments.

Funerals, always touch on death and separation. Being grief-stricken or crying, is a natural emotional and physiological reaction; however, having to cry or 'keen' under the strictures of a pre-formulated ritual, is hard to think of as 'natural'.

How old is traditional? How new is modern?

In Taiwanese funerals the time to cry is appointed and when that time comes you have to cry, even if you have to fake it, and it's a loud keening wail – this is an element of Taiwanese funeral culture which is often criticized as a corrupt practice. When watching Seven Days in Heaven, A Mei's embarrassment, and the laughter of the audience, reflects the distance that people nowadays feel towards funeral rites.

For the past 20 or so years, a trend towards modernization in funerals has gathered momentum; the customs surrounding the funeral rites, often seen as esoteric were rebranded under the new moniker 'the study of life and death' (a field of study in the Chinese speaking world: shengsixue), advocated in the context of Metaphysics. A milestone in this trend has been the regulatory impact of the 'Mortuary Service Administration Act' promulgated by the Taiwanese government at the end of 2002, an act that states its purpose as essentially advocating conforming funeral customs to reflect the demands of a modern society.

If one compares the funeral model listed under the Citizen Ceremonies' Model ratified by the government in 1970 and similar models offered by funeral businesses today, one discovers that there's not much difference – clearly we haven't completely gotten rid of the old, and welcomed in a new way of doing things, but rather we've adapted and reinterpreted some of the finer details. So, before we rush to accept the traditional/modern dichotomy, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is this tradition that we are talking about? How old is it really? And what about the meaning of it should be reformed?

The shift from secular to religious funerals

To continue the example of keening, let's do a bit of historical research.

Normally people from Han culture think of funeral rites as pertaining to three separate traditions, the Confucian school, Buddhism and Daoism, at the same time, different characteristics sprang up in different localities. The fact that a funeral rite is called a rite () implies that it not only a religious activity; comparing the Confucian, the Buddhist and the Daoist traditions, the relationship between rites () and the Confucianism is much older and much deeper.

Very early on, China already had the concepts of ghosts, deities and ancestor worship, however, from the time of Confucius and Mencius, the rites, although they took their origin in belief and sacrificial rituals, developed by Confucian intellectuals from the rites of Zhou has always been secular, the main thrust of which was concerned with governing the behaviour of man. Confucianism tends to a belief that improving one's own sense of morality can give order to society, and allow one to accept one's place in life; they didn't feel the need search for consolation in imagining ghosts or deities. Therefore, the funeral rites and customs Confucianism advocated didn't include religious mysticism, but rather they reflected the 'normal' social order and social contract.

Pursuing harmony and rationality in this world, cannot ease the primal terror that people feel when faced with death, and this pursuit is unable to answer people's questions or speak to their imaginings of the afterlife. The narrative of life and death in Confucian thinking, advocating the ideas of putting the service of man before the service of spirits and that of keeping a respectful distance from ghosts and deities, is not enough to satisfy these questions; so, as Buddhism, which had come from elsewhere, and the home-grown Daoism came to fruition in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, the system of rites surrounding funerals associated with Confucianism became intertwined with those of Buddhism and Daoism; with the changes in the way people think about the world, the secular Confucian orthodoxy has gradually become less dominant, under attack as it was from modern ways of thinking; supernatural religious belief was able to come to the fore in funeral rituals, revealing even more clearly the shift towards thinking from a religious perspective.

哭喪04Restraining Grief, a Thousand Year Old Ritual

However, in the midst of this trend, keening is considered an example of a more 'classic' ritual.

As the Chinese equivalent to "I'm sorry for your loss", which translates roughly as "Restrain your grief, so that you can adapt to the loss", which people today still use regularly, can attest to, the main tenet by which the Confucian system of rites deals with crying or keening during the mourning period emphasizes mediating grief by controlling one's physiological reactions. The passage 'Questions about Mourning Rites'in the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) is an early record that, even in the case of mourning for parents, the mourning period shouldn't last more than three years, the purpose of this is in the hope that people will gradually be able to exercise emotional restraint, and return to their customary life in society. This current of thought continued until after the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, when Confucian scholars gradually compiled Family Rites wherein the role of crying as a stage in funeral rites was laid down more clearly in writing, this included instructions like the following: on the death of a relative or a friend, you cry loudly (the person is dead so you can cry); throughout the period when one is offering sacrifices for the dead, one can cry if one feels sad (there's no appointed time for crying, when grief comes one may cry); but once the body has been interred, during the 'Enshrining the Spirit' ritual, one can only cry in the morning and in the evening (crying at dawn and at dusk); after a year of mourning, one should stop crying – this is where the idea of appointing the times when one could and could not cry came from in part.

As well as this, keening in this context, isn't simply 'crying', but rather it involves singing a keening song (dirge). From the perspective of the Han people, the folk keening dirges can be sung in several different ways, some are freestyle with no limitations on content, others, however, have words, but most are sung by women, such as wives and daughters on the death of an elder; during the funeral rites of the Zhuang, the Yi and the Jingpo peoples, all minority ethnic groups from the South West of China, one can always find rituals which fuse dance and keening dirges to express and relieve grief.

Can grief-stricken keening be carried out by proxy?

We can say for sure that keening is a part of a funeral culture with a long history, and it had a rich significance, and not a negative one, so is it right to label keening as a aberrant practice?

In the film Seven Days in Heaven, as well as the 'genuinely' filial daughter, A Mei, who feels bewildered by the keening ritual in the process of the funeral, there is also another classic role associated with crying: the 'fake' filial daughter A Qin, who keens professionally. In the film, A Qin is a larger than life career keener who can turn her tears on and off at the drop of a hat; the idea behind this character comes from the Chinese expression for a professional keener 'Xiaonvbaiqin'(孝女白琴 literally: filial daughter Baiqin), which formed a part of Taiwanese funeral processions (zhentou 陣頭) ten or twenty years ago. Somehow, compared to the relatives of the dead not knowing how to cry, spending money to hiring a perfect stranger who is in this profession to keep up appearances for them by 'performing' grief, seems a lot harder to reconcile with the practice of 'rites', but in Taiwan, this phenomenon has really taken off.

In fact, as well as "Filial Daughter Baiqin", another element of the parade tradition (zhentou 陣頭) with which Taiwanese readers will be familiar is the part called "Five sons cry at a tomb" (Wuzikumu 五子哭墓), these all play a part in "orthodox" Taiwanese funeral customs: the latter takes its origin in a Hoklo folktale; the former, on the other hand, is derived from the character 'Filial Daughter Baiqiong' in the 1970s' Taiwanese popular classic puppet theatre The Great Confucian Knight-Errant of Yunzhou (雲州大儒俠) – so these are all relatively "new traditions", so to speak. That's not to say that these more performative examples of keening don't have an element of filial piety or that they don't count as an expression of grief; however if one really goes back through historical records it becomes clear that these performances were actually invented by Taiwanese funeral homes – another relatively "new tradition" which only really started to become popular from the 1960s onwards.

 Because of its close connection with the rise of local funeral home companies, most of the professionals performing as"Filial Daughter Baiqin" normally work for relatively small organizations, often with staff shortages, and they're often responsible for weddings and other celebrations in addition to funerals - working in a variety of different roles, not just in the funeral sector, like performing as show girls on dance floats at weddings - a common sight at local weddings, celebrations and sometimes even funerals. For that very reason, the "Filial daughter Baiqin" profession is one of the most denigrated within Taiwan's contemporary funeral cultural industry, indirectly reinforcing people's negative impressions of this keening custom at funerals.

Overcoming the diametric opposition between "traditional" and "modern"

From another perspective, however, no matter if it's the services performed by the undertaker, the"Five sons crying at the tomb" (Wuzikumu) or "Filial daughter Baiqin", given that the structure of society has changed over time, the way funerals are held has adapted accordingly, making up for something that is now missing from our society (the popularization of funeral homes reflects the weakening of the bonds between people living in the same area and within families, as well as the scarcity of people familiar with rites; the rise of this kind of performative keening by professionals is not unlinked to the shrinking of families and the decline in the number of children), that reflects the psychology and demands of a bygone era. The custom does not take its origins in temples and it does not have a long history, but compared to the esoteric mysticism of the religious conception of rites, it is perhaps closer to the true essence of rites as they relate to the life of the ordinary man.

With the tide of modernization concerning funeral and burial customs, people have advocated freeing ourselves from the corrupt practices of traditional funeral customs and rites: they should be more solemn, there should be no loud mournful keening; they should be simplified and adapted to the times, there shouldn't be such extravagant decorations; one should follow religious practice, and not indulge in petty superstitions... however, these imagined "traditions" cannot be so easily homogenized, and one cannot break away from them simply by constructing modernity in opposition to them. Using the example of keening, we can even go far as to say that 'modernity' surfaces in order to resolve that which seems to be a contradiction or an aberration in any given society – here it would be the aberration would be the idea of a stranger being paid to mourn for one's relatives, but often in problematizing this aberration we flippantly iron out the creases in history, and simply thrust upon it the term 'tradition'. In this way we often remain ignorant to how the same practice, in this case keening, in a different time and place can change in the way it is carried out (i.e. from family members to professional keeners); and how this kind of aberration is a product of historic shifts within a society, and shouldn't simply be banished as a corrupt traditional practice.

Ghosts and deities remain outside of the grasp of human perception, and so judgement of whether something is good or bad is simply a product of our way of thinking and we shouldn't ignore the historical realities that lie behind apparent aberrations.

 

 

 


Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:23

(Dis)belief in Taiwan

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the experience of people from different cultures of faith or lack of faith in Taiwan is explored.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:19

(I believe therefore) I'm moral

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we look at what role faith and religion has in the formation of our morality whether directly or indirectly, and whether or not morality goes beyond a utilitarian social contract.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:14

The form of (In)divinity

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video we explore the different images people have of god, and how this changes with time and with the progression of our journey through life.

Published in
Focus: My God?

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 14:09

Divine In(ter)action

This series of videos explores the diversity of personal beliefs that lie under the way we declare our beliefs (or lack of beliefs). In this video the way different people conceive of the way in which any god might interact with the world and with humans is explored as well as the different ways that people try and communicate with their god.

Published in
Focus: My God?

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