February 4, 2010

The Feeling of Fear in Chinese Society

By Fr Jonah Mourtos

"The people who are in darkness and under the shadow of death."

By living in Taiwan during the founding of the Orthodox Church there, my love for the Chinese people has deepened. I had this feeling as a university student, and by the grace of God, I am able to remain here and officiate the Divine Liturgy. As a result, the grace and the love of God are perceptible in Taiwan.

Having had discussions with various people from Taiwan, whom I met at various times, I realized their unhappiness. This became even more obvious after a remark made by a friend, after he saw wedding photos in some shop windows. I have to explain here that a Chinese wedding takes place in a restaurant; they just eat together, no singing or dancing. The bride changes dresses several times to show that she is rich. The significance of these details will come into play later.

Within the wedding ceremony, there is no concept of mystery. They bow to their ancestors. However, they do take artistic photos before or after the wedding, dressed as brides and bridegrooms, with the most famous sights of the city or countryside as the background.

"But they don't smile!", said my friend, surprised. "There is so much fear deep inside them." Indeed, I have looked at so many wedding photos and they are all the same. This was my first experience with fear in Taiwan.

Little by little, fear started intruding more visibly into my heart, from several hidden places that had been broken and hurt before and had not yet quite healed. I am Chinese now, you see. I love these people so much, I love this place. It feels so familiar that some people continually tell me that I am a reincarnated Chinese. I just smile kindly and explain to them that there are other reasons, too, which can make someone feel this way, apart from being reincarnated. Fear indeed established itself in my heart when I visited the exhibition of Tibetan Buddhism at the Museum of Religions. There my polite friend, the museum's guide, explained about the exhib its: "You see these drums? They are made of the skulls of little children and the membrane is made of their skin. These trumpets are made of human bones, and this lama's uniform is made entirely of human skin and bones, from dead people, of course." I felt something cold and bad. Even afterwards, at the exit, where small commemoratives were sold, something stopped me from buying one. I asked, "What is this little comb made of?" -" Of human bones, of course", the lady said, "everything is made of dead people." -" O. K.", I said, "never mind, I'll buy something another time."

I remembered the verses of T. S. Elliot: But our lot crawls between dry ribs to keep our metaphysics warm (Whispers of Immortality). Then, as if a veil was drawn from in front of my eyes, many things inside me started becoming clear.

Fear governs Chinese society and, generally speaking, Eastern societies. Fear is everywhere. First of all, there is the fear of ghosts. Ghosts are everywhere, and many people have told me that they have seen them. In a hotel, for example, it's very likely to hear someone shouting "ghost!". Everybody will believe it, they will panic, they will burn paper money and will beg the ghost not to hurt them. The phrase "please, don't do any harm to me..... please accept these......" is very typical. At first, I didn't believe them, but now, I am not so sure anymore. I remember the biographies of the martyrs and especially the biographies of the saints of the desert and how the monastery of the Great Lavra was built, on Mount Athos, by St. Athanasios, and so on. Yes, this is a country where evil dominates. Yet, thanks to the people who help the Orthodox mission, the Divine Liturgy takes place here and the grace of God comes to this place.

What are these ghosts? People who died violently, people whose relatives didn't offer them the proper sacrifices. Those who were buried on the wrong date or whose grave is wrongly oriented or upsetting to several devils -out of the many- of the Chinese pantheon. It is obvious how unbearable the domination of nature on the human fate is here. The so- called feng shui (geomancy)- that is the proper combination of the properties of a building, its orientation, illumination, the position of the door or the window, etc.- must be in harmony with the powers which regulate the universe, such as the yin and the yang. Thus, nature dominates the human fate inexorably and it can destroy people's lives without any reason and without any sense.

Going more deeply, to the family, we see the real drama. You must offer the proper sacrifices to the ancestors, about every two weeks. Every family has a special table for this reason at home. If you don't offer your sacrifices in the right way, the soul of the father or the mother will become a hungry ghost and will give you a hard time. It seemed unbelievable to me, a classical Greek thinker. We can’t imagine that the souls of our dead people will try to harm us, even if we don't remember them, or commemorate them correctly. On the contrary, when we are in trouble, we call out to them; we empty our pain to them. Afterwards, I thought that it could be a subconscious reaction of the children towards their ancestors, because of their attitude.

In the Chinese family, there is no private life, you see. "Family" is above everything and everyone, and parents control their children’s life, "padre padrone." They decide what you are going to study and whom you will marry. If they don't like him/ her they turn them down and expect you to marry someone else. Polygamy not only used to be the rule in the past here, but it still is common and wives get to know each other. And, of course, to kiss or stroke children is forbidden. After all this, the parents, hungry ghosts that suck out their children's lives in this world, are projected to be - subconsciously, since nobody dares to do so consciously - ghosts in the other life, too.

Fear is also expressed through the admiration of power. Although I did not want to believe this at the beginning, I accepted it when I visited a temple which is devoted to the founders of modern Chinese democracy, Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. Their statues were on the altar and people offered sacrifices to them because they had power. Of course, they were definitely important men, but they were not gods. As I was told, in China, many people worship Mao as God, despite the efforts of the government to prevent this. They even pray to dogs and devote temples to them. They worship anything with power, because power counts here.

Gradually, I am trying to uncover the dark and cold story of Chinese fear. Behind all these, the fear of death is hidden. Even when you die you need money and thus they put a lot of money in the pockets of dead people. When you are alive, you must make preparations for your funeral. It has to be a good one and take place at the right time because otherwise, you will become a ghost and torture all those people that you used to torture anyway, during your life on Earth. (The dead person can be kept at home, in the coffin, for 3- 4 months.) Also, you must find and even adopt a boy if you don't have a son, because only male children have the right to bury you. Thus, buying and selling children is very common. If you are an unmarried woman and you die, then a wedding, involving your ghost, takes place. They throw money into the street and the first male person who picks it up is obliged to marry the ghost in a proper wedding ceremony.

In my opinion, the most dramatic element of this fear is the lack of love. It is unbelievable that in such a civilization the expression of love is so rare. It is considered to be very bad, even rude, to say "I love you", even to the person you are going to marry! In fact these words are never said. I attended a university where I learned Chinese. When we learned the word "love", we were also told that Chinese people don't use it. In Japan this word was imported from China, in the 5th century, as it did not exist before then. Why is it that we hear the phrase in songs, soap operas, and TV commercials? Maybe it is because Chinese people don't dare express their emotions. There is neither dancing nor singing. Psychology should have a lot to say about this prohibition and the compulsory behavior of not expressing yourself in China. What about karaoke? It's strange, a kind of prescribed way of sing ing in a limited context, in a closed room. People almost never just sing out spontaneously. Imagine the reaction of the poor taxi driver when our Orthodox Reader Olga and I are in the car and start to sing!

In Taiwan, especially, there is a deep fear of the future. They are afraid that Communist China will attack and destroy everything. This is why they try, by any means, to find a second passport to flee abroad. Very often, this nightmare does not allow you to think longterm about the future of family and/ or business. Marriage here is understood more as a fulfillment of a requirement, as obedience to parents, a financial agreement or a means of survival. It is much less a communion of love between two people, at least as love defined by Christianity. Here, the persons are really closed to themselves; they suffocate from fear of death and insecurity and, eventually, they close themselves off from this life in a grave.

How can you love, then? Persons who are afraid and think only of themselves are literally dead Individualism is death and death leads to fear. As a result, the person lives in the dark, creating vicious circle of death. As St. John the Evangelist says: "The perfect love dismisses fear.... because he who is afraid does not become perfect in love". Yes, there is no love in Chinese society. To be precise, it has never existed, in the Chinese way of thinking. Only Mo Tse, a philosopher who lived around 479- 381 B. C., spoke about universal love, which is different from Christian love. It has a clearly utilitarian character, and is necessary for peace in society and among states. However, this idea has never been accepted. It was also opposed by Confucianism and, generally speaking, was rejected by Chinese society.

When the Chinese people talk about "love", they don't mean what we mean. They have in mind a relationship of profit. They don't even love their god or gods. The way they pray has been a earthshaking experience for me: "Oh, my god, give me money and I will give you a percentage! Help me to win in the lottery and I will give you a part of the money or I will send a woman to dance for you" or something similar. Last year, they brought to Taiwan a small piece of a Buddha's finger for worship, from China. Thousands of people passed by to genuflect. However, I saw a newspaper article in which the head monk who accompanied it said: "Please, don't ask Buddha to help you win in the lottery, ask for peace, etc." People here don't love any god, they can't even think of such a thing. (I am talking about the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people, who believe in a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor- worship and superstitions.) These people use their god( s) because it seems to them that they can take advantage of the power the gods have. They invoke god, promising several things, in order to flee from the fear of fate.

This lack of love is tragic. Of course, they try to control fate, through fengshui, that is, geomancy or earth predictions, the power of crystals, etc. Perhaps the fact that they don't have a relationship of love with their god(s) can explain why the demons and gods in their temples have such ugly and repulsive countenances. Another is their deep guilt that cannot be expressed and cured since they ignore confession. Thus their fear is deepened and they try to buy redemption by donations to the temples. It is the fear of punishment and hell and the threatening faces of the demons in the temples that keep people in fear. The more spiritual people ask only for peace and harmony, because they know what living in fear means. They don't know anything about love. They don't ask to love god. They cannot even imagine it. Besides, according to Confucius and Buddha, seeking god has no meaning. It is not right to wish to find out who god is and, eventually, you will never find out, because searching is wrong. People should care about the present, about today and how they can live better and they should not be interested in something they can't understand. Thus, to love someone you don't know does not have any meaning.

Moreover, this fear becomes deeper because of the hidden psychological consequences of reincarnation, which is the theory that dominates the Far East. I pay for sins that I don't remember and that I committed in another life. I live in a cycle of reincarnations; this law governs my life ruthlessly, because I can't change it. I have to pay. There is no forgiveness and remission. This circle of terror can never be broken. I have my body, but I can't love it. As a Chinese person, I cannot love it since it doesn't have any value. Only the soul has value, yet it is imprisoned in the body.

The influence of reincarnation is one of the most important reasons for the lack of love in Asian people. That is, when a human heart loves, it says to the other person, "I love you forever". But, how can you imagine loving anyone forever, when you know that soon you will be reincarnated into a woman, a man or an animal, and then how many men, women and animals will you love? What is the quality of your relationship, then? Behind all this, the absence of the "person" becomes obvious. This concept does not exist in Chinese society and, generally speaking, in the Eastern societies. Nevertheless, this is the revelation of our God, of the Holy Trinity. It is the revelation of the "person", because only if I am a person can I truly love. For the Eastern people, god is not love; god is anything that has power and that I can take advantage of. Even in Buddhism, which is considered to be the most spiritual expression of the East and which talks about love, there are the so called bodhisattva – those who refuse to become buddhas before they save the world. The notion of love is emotional and not deeply ontological/ existential, because the person -the hypostatic principle/ element, according to Fr. Sofronios- doesn't exist. You must save yourself, this is what matters only, by being absorbed by nirvana (by eliminating yourself in nirvana). The person does not exist, it is just an entirety of continuously changing characteristics. Since there is no person, there is no love.

Feeling love is different than being love. Our God is love, because He is a communion of three persons. He is the Father, not because He loves us, but only because He has a Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Buddha did not know anything else other than the human way of life -people in contrast with each other- and he created his theory. However, there is another way of being, the Trinitarian way, the way of being in communion. This is our deepest contribution and missionary method to the Chinese people. Chinese people talk about unity and think of Christianity as a fragmentation, but they live under the heavy shadow of the law of nature and particularly under dualism, the yin and yang theory and energy theories, which don't have any sensible sup port/ basis. The only unity is the communion of persons, which is shown by Trinitarian theology. Because for the Chinese people, the truth is not a person; it has become a mixture of strange, contradictory theories.

The theology of divine light is the only salvation of the Chinese and, generally speaking, Eastern way of thinking, which is really stuck in nature, especially in Japan. It is not harmony, which is the reason that everything is beautiful in nature, but the presence of God, the presence of the divine light. This light changed the clothes of Jesus Christ to light, too, on Mount Tabor, as well as the bush on Mount Sinai. The divine light is the only salvation from the Far Eastern fear of hell, of the horrible hell of the 18 stages (bad teachers are sent to the last stage), because for us, the divine light is the fire of hell.

We have a lot to give to the people of East, even this late in time. When I am asked why I came here, when some Protestant friends of mine ask me why I don't do missionary work (that is to knock on doors, holding the Holy Scriptures, and saying to people "if you don't believe in God, you will go to hell"), I answer that I don't want to convert/ proselytize people, but to give the meaning of love and freedom to them. Only Orthodox theology can offer this. Only in the Divine Liturgy can someone become love and spread it to the others afterwards. Thanks to "St. Kosmas", the Divine Liturgy takes place in Taiwan, in our little church devoted to the Holy Trinity. This is the most important thing in a mission and is why I share my conclusions and my humble thoughts with you. I need your prayers. I live among so many temptations and battles, because of my own mistakes and sins, and in such loneliness.