"What you have just seen is an attempt to demonstrate the first movements of a traditional Chinese exercise routine called Tai Chi. While I was teaching in China in the 1980s there was one 2-year period when I l practiced Tai Chi early every morning under the guidance of a Chinese English professor in the university.
Unlike more vigorous early morning activities of other foreign teachers who sailed by us on their jogging rounds, Tai Chi is a quiet peaceful exercise that nevertheless requires intense concentration. The slow gentle movements are not difficult but you need both energy ans self control to maintain balance for an easy flow from one movement to the next. After a time this quiet and concentration blends into a spirit of reverence for the sense of order and peace that comes.
Tai Chi is but one gift Americans have received from contact with Asia. Other gifts are the Asian children who are growing up in families of our congregation. Let us explore the interconnections between Unitarian Universalism and Chinese philosophy as we celebrate the approaching Chinese New Year together this morning.
The Way that can be experienced is not true;
The world that can be constructed is not real.
The Way manifests all that happens and may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may exist.
To experience without abstraction is to sense the world;
To experience with abstraction is to know the world.
These two experiences are indistinguishable;
Their construction differs but their effect is the same.
Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way,
Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world.
Embracing the Way, you become embraced;
Breathing gently, you become newborn;
Clearing your mind, you become clear;
Nurturing your children, you become impartial;
Opening your heart, you become accepted;
Accepting the world, you embrace the Way.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
This is harmony.
The Way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone.
When you accept this
The world will flourish,
In harmony with nature.
Nature does not possess desire;
Without desire, the heart becomes quiet;
In this manner the whole world is made tranquil.
Few Western religious traditions have been as sympathetic to Chinese philosophy as Unitarian Universalism. From the time of the Transcendentalists and the Free Religious Association of the nineteenth century to the Humanist movement of the early twentieth century, we have looked to the East for inspiration and guidance as well as the West. The human centered approach found in Chinese wisdom encourages individual development and morality. It appeals to our interest in living fully in this world and our resistance to the other worldly focus of often found in Christianity.
Boston Unitarians became associated with Chinese philosophy through trade. The troubles with England around the time of the American Revolution had merchants looking for trading partners in other parts of the world. Sailors would bring back art and books along with merchandise from trips to Asia that stimulated the Unitarian ministers. What especially grabbed their attention were the first translations of these works that started appearing in the early 1800’s.
Unitarian ministers were some of the first interpreters of Chinese thinking to America. Emerson was fascinated with Asian thought reading the books in Aunt Mary Moody’s library as a young man. He often quoted from Confucius and classic Chinese books, though he was more reserved about Chinese thought than he was about Hinduism. The ethical concern, activism, and common sense of the Chinese thinkers won his admiration.
James Freeman Clarke’s Asian scholarship published in 1871, in his popular book, Ten Great Religions introduced Confucian and Taoist thought to a wider audience. His scientific approach was comparative, looking for the strengths of each tradition rather than sifting the texts available for ways to denigrate or dispute them. He appreciatively quoted such Confucian gems as:
"A man's life depends on virtue; if a bad man lives, it is only by good fortune."
"The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance."
"If my mind is not engaged in my worship, it is as though I worshipped not."
"Formerly, in hearing men, I heard their words, and gave them credit for their conduct; now I hear their words, and observe their conduct."
"Some proceed blindly to action, without knowledge; I hear much, and select the best course."
"To rule with equity is like the North Star, which is fixed, and all the rest go round it."
You can see how such quotes would appeal to the Unitarian appreciation of the mind, a practical approach to morality, and devotion to family and duty. Clarke also introduced Taoism to his American readers, a tradition Emerson hadn’t encountered in his exploration of Chinese wisdom. If he had, I think Emerson would have delighted, as many do today, in its Transcendentalist like embrace of seeking the harmony of the natural world.
While Clarke celebrates these traditions and their contributions, he goes about proving in his final chapter they are merely precursors to Christianity which is the perfection of all the directions they point.
Samuel Johnson was the other Unitarian scholar of Asia writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. He published three books under the title, Oriental Religions and their Relation to Universal Religion studying first India, then China and finally Persia. Sadly he died before penning the last words of this book. His approach was different than Clarke’s as he didn’t see Christianity as the ultimate religion. He saw the different religions as each having a part of a larger religious message that could be assembled together to create a Universal religion. While he treated each major religious tradition equally, he still felt a synthesis would be greater than any one of them.
About the time of Johnson’s death, American Universities began to take an interest in comparative religions and started adding it to their curriculum. The end of the nineteenth century saw a strong interest in Buddhism that eclipsed the interest in other Chinese philosophic traditions.
So, what are the elements of Chinese thought that we might want to draw upon for our own inspiration, guidance and moral foundation today? The three predominant schools of thinking that have shaped Chinese Philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, all have strong connections to our interest in the mental and individualistic components of our tradition. Chinese thought has tended toward humanism rather than spiritualism, and rationalism rather than mysticism which parallels the orientation of many Unitarian Universalists.
From Confucianism, the focus on good conduct, practical wisdom and ethical social relations certainly appeals to us. At its core is the ethics of jen variously translated as love, goodness, humanity and human-heartedness. Jen is the means of human relations and the best of our human qualities. It manifests in chung or faithfulness to oneself and others, and shu or the altruism of the golden rule, “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself.”
Confucius was born in 551 BCE, into what we might consider today as a middle class family. He lost his father, a warrior, at a young age forcing him to work as a hired servant of a noble family. He showed an aptitude for study and educated himself in his spare time, opening a school at the age of 22. His intelligence and loyalty were noted and opened the door for a promotion to the office of minister of justice. Under his wise administration, his Lord’s state attained unheard of prosperity and order. Unfortunately his lord wouldn’t follow his guidance in moral virtue so he resigned his high office.
He traveled from state to state suffering many deprivations seeking a wise ruler to serve for 13 years. At last he returned to his home and lived out the remaining five years of his life encouraging others to study and practice virtue, leading by his own example. He died just two years after the Buddha died but they had no contact with each other that is known.
His call for self discipline and order have shaped Chinese thought ever since. Confucianism has a model for leadership that our political elite could benefit from considering. He thought a good ruler should cultivate moral perfection so they can set a good example.
How was one to develop one’s virtue? Confucianism abounds with advice on this and can be a good advisor to modern Unitarian Universalists. No divine intervention is required for us to be good. The means for cultivating virtue are natural and providential, nothing more. He encouraged people to revere heroes and sages of the past and learn from their example. His encouraged his students to associate with the truly great and to make friends with the most virtuous. The guidance of these friends should be taken to heart to help correct one’s faults. Like Socrates, Confucius taught education would lead unfailingly to the good. Education should be coupled with daily self examination. Interestingly, he felt developing the art of music an invaluable aid in kindling enthusiasm for the practice of virtue. He would sing odes with his students accompanied by lutes and harps. That’s the way I want to learn to be virtuous, by singing!
Being a parent, I have grown into an appreciation for Confucian ideas of filial piety. A son is bound “to love and respect his parents, contribute to their comfort, bring happiness and honor to their name by honorable success in life.” Unfortunately that kind of devotion can be carried to an extreme that is not attractive to us. After marriage sons were obligated to live under the same roof with their father and to give him a childlike obedience as long as he lived. That wouldn’t have worked with my dad nor would he have wanted it.
The tradition that is usually considered a foil to Confucianism is Taoism. Lao-tzu lived just before Confucius did so their lives may have overlapped but no credible evidence can be found that they met. Lao-tzu left us the Tao-de-ching, a group of poems that describe the way to live by following the Tao.
Rather than focusing on developing virtue and service to society, Taoism abandons perfecting the human enterprise and looks to the natural world for direction, particularly the Tao. The Tao or ‘the way’ is an unknowable guiding force or presence to which one can be attuned but one cannot analyze, describe or capture.
Alan Watts had an insightful definition of Taoism as follows:
Taoism [is] the way of man's cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world, whose principles we discover in the flow patterns of water, gas, and fire, which are subsequently memorialized or sculptured in those of stone and wood, and, later, in many forms of human art.
The river is a powerful Taoist metaphor. The river moves around obstacles but retains its nature and its goal of finding the sea. Chuang-tzu, a follower of Lao-tzu, explains following the Tao as: "adjusting oneself to the flow of events". The way can not be learned in school or transmitted directly from a teacher. Metaphor and story can direct the student but personal experience was the ultimate teacher.
Sometimes following the Tao is interpreted as a quietism that means withdrawing from the world. The poetry of Taoism often focuses on nature and not social relations. This misses the balancing of the yin and the yang that is integral to the way. Flowing with the river does not mean inaction, only harmonious and responsive action that moves away from violence and toward peace.
Taoism found a natural partner in Buddhism with Ch’an or Zen Buddhism being the confluence of the two. Buddhism helps one discover the sources of craving and aversion within the self and proscribes a method to be free of their compulsion. Centered in emptiness, the middle path of Buddhism has strong resonance with the way of balance practiced in Taoism.
In preparation for this service, I asked Peggy Slocum what the Chinese people she met thought about their rich philosophical heritage. Sadly, many were largely unaware of it. Mao’s communism worked hard to obliterate this past. All the Buddhist monasteries were eliminated and the monks forced to work. The schools taught Marxism rather than Confucianism or Taoism. Yet these traditions have survived and with the liberalization in China they are coming back.
While Confucianism and Taoism have attractive qualities, I admit I’ve glossed over quite a lot that we would not want to emulate in Chinese culture and practice like their caste system, the oppression of women, superstition, ancestor worship and divination. The spirit I offer these connections between Unitarian Universalism and Chinese philosophy is one of appreciation rather than analysis. If there is one thing westerners need to learn is how to find balance in their busy lives. I know I could learn a lot about moving harmoniously with the moment rather than rushing into the next one. Just the idea that this is a worthy goal is helpful.
What I find particularly attractive that comes from Asia is the integration of the mind and body. The path to peace, harmony, and virtue is not just in our heads. That path has a component that includes movement and body awareness. Rather than rejecting this vessel of the mind, Asian philosophy integrates it. We can learn as much from the body by studying it’s wisdom from the inside as we can from books about how to live a good life.
Neither Confucianism, Taoism nor Buddhism enslaves us to a text or a jealous God. None look beyond this world for redemption. Each has a human focus in this world not another someplace else. Unitarian Universalism, like Chinese wisdom, is human centered. Both reach beyond the individual for meaning but see individual development as central to integrating that meaning into our lives. An open minded and open hearted approach to find that harmony will draw from many sources unique to each individual. When mind, body and spirit find harmony with each other, great benefit for society, the family and the individual are the result.
That is the Unitarian Universalist way to meaning, fulfillment and peace.
I close with the Confucian wisdom of Master Meng:
The feeling of compassion is the origin of humaneness;
the feeling of shame is the origin of righteousness;
the feeling of consideration for others is the origin of good manners;
the feeling of right and wrong is the origin of wisdom.
If you love others but are not loved in return,
examine your own feeling of humaneness.
If you try to govern others and do not succeed,
turn inwards and examine your wisdom.
If you treat others with courtesy but evoke no response,
examine your inward feeling of respect.
Whenever our actions fail to produce the effect desired,
we should look for the cause in ourselves.
For when a man is inwardly correct,
the world will not be slow in paying him homage.
So as you leave this place,
let your emotions open you to compassion,
let your wisdom keep you from danger
and may inspiration from China help guide your way home.
Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.
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