The Taoist Way of Life and Unitarian Universalism: A Lunar New Year Sermon by Rev. Sandra Fees
January 22, 2012
Li Zhuqing was trying to get home for Lunar New Year. Some of you may have read his story in the local paper this past week. Li lives in China and is a migrant worker. He lined up at the train station ticket counter for what he expected to be a few hours’ wait. He and his family were trying to return to see his parents in Hunan province. His wait turned into six days and nights. Li said, “I told myself I must reunite with my parents whom I’d left in loneliness for a year. They had cried over the phone when they knew I didn’t get the tickets and had fallen ill. They told me they didn’t want anything from me. They just wanted me to be home.”
The challenge of getting home for the holiday arises every year for China’s migrant workers. Some describe it as a “nightmare.” Part of the problem is the sheer number of people trying to get home to their villages from the city. A staggering 130 million travel during the New Year. Can you imagine this for a moment?! It’s the world’s largest seasonal migration of people. (Jeffrey Hays, October 2011) This year’s “migration” was compounded by online ticketing. Migrant workers like Li have limited, if any, Internet access to obtain tickets. Fortunately, because word of Li’s plight spread, the local media coordinated travel for Li and his family. (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=145437786)
Li’s perseverance – waiting all those days and nights outside in line for tickets - is an indication of just how important this holiday is to the Chinese. It’s like our Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year all wrapped up in one, and then some. Chinese New Year is the most important traditional festival in China. And it is an important holiday throughout Asia, where it is known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year.
Americans typically refer to it as the Chinese New Year. The reason has to do with the history of immigration in this country. The Chinese were the first Asians to come to the United States, starting in the 1860s, and first settling in San Francisco. The first parade began when Chinese immigrants marched down what is now Grant Avenue with flags, banners, lanterns, drums, and firecrackers. Today San Francisco has the oldest and largest parade outside of Asia. (www.census.gov/history/)
The holiday is important to the Chinese for the same reason people roast a turkey on Thanksgiving or set off fireworks on the Fourth of July or hold a Seder or exchange gifts at Christmas. Who doesn’t love a good celebration? But more than that humans want festivals they can count on – which are both fun and meaningful. Celebrating Chinese New Year provides that. The festival is a vibrant, dramatic, way to honor Chinese culture and religion. Who can resist the mythic creatures, an animal zodiac, fireworks, stories of the gods, and the many other colorful aspects of the holiday?
The festival also has some specific ways that it appeals to basic human needs and to us as Unitarian Universalists. And this morning I want to talk a bit about those. This is one of those sermons they sometimes call an educational sermon. I like to think they are all educational, but some are more prophetic, pastoral, or inspirational, and others are more educational, like this one.
Most obviously the Chinese New Year is important because it marks the start of a new year. Most of us like to turn the page to a new year. Even though the Chinese New Year falls in close proximity to the official start of the New Year in the United States, most of us won’t turn down another chance to get a fresh start. For the Chinese, it is a time to thoroughly clean the home, which is the center of Chinese life. Cleaning helps to remove the “inauspicious breaths” or so called evil spirits that have collected during the year.
It is a universal human hope and goal that we can make amends and begin again. There is a basic desire to set things right or even just to make minor improvements to our lives. This can mean the ability to go back to school as an adult, to find a new job that’s more fulfilling, to be nicer to our families and friends, to reconcile with people with whom we are estranged, to restore our health and well-being, to practice compassion, and to be able to remake ourselves in a variety of ways, large and small.
The festival is also important because its main focus is on family and ancestors. The entire family devotes their attention and energy to the New Year celebration. Business life comes to a near standstill. Extended families gather for large dinners, at which ancestors are honored. This is why it was so important for Li to get back home to see his parents. And the reason his story touches us so deeply is that we too have found ourselves separated from family members at the holidays. We’ve experienced the fragmentation caused by living at great distances from those we love. Many people today – in China, as well as in this country, and elsewhere – are migrating out of economic necessity. The transience carries an emotional and spiritual cost for families and for all of us. The Chinese for whom family is so very important have been dealing with this issue of migration more and more in the last decade or so. Migrant workers have been moving from villages into the cities, often leaving children and wives behind as they seek to get themselves established financially.
Family is a central part of Chinese culture and religion overall. A person’s place in the world is seen as integrated with one’s place in family. They are inseparable concepts. Family relationships are understood as a person’s “link with the infinite.” The worship of personal ancestors is a reflection of kinship with the “primordial infinite ancestors” – with heaven and earth. (Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw, 2002) And while family is central, temple visits are also part of the holiday. As midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve, Taoists will often go to the local Taoist temple and Buddhists to the Buddhist temple. At the temples, they will burn incense and offer prayers. It’s considered quite auspicious to be the first person to do so.
The growing interest Unitarian Universalists have in Eastern thought is giving the Chinese New Year a special appeal for us. The Chinese New Year is celebrated by China’s three major religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The majority of deities involved in the Chinese New Year are Taoist. Best known are the Kitchen God and the Jade Emperor. So I want to talk about Taoism specifically and the relationship we Unitarian Universalists have to its principles. First, just a little background. I warned you this was an educational sermon. The Tao is fundamental to both Confucianism and Taoism. These religions are indigenous to China. Buddhism, on the other hand, was imported from India. You may have known this at some level but never really thought about it quite that way.
The Tao te Ching is Taoism’s most sacred text. It was written in 550 BCE by Lao-Tse. The great theme of Chinese philosophy and religion is how to know the Tao, “the way of life,” and how to live it. The Tao, by the way, is spelled Tao, beginning with a “t” as in “tiger,” “a,” “o,” and sometimes Dao, beginning with a “d” as in “dragon,” “a,” “o.” It’s always pronounced Dao, with a “d.” Everything is understood to be part of a single unity. The individual is part of the whole. Chinese thought centers around this concept of unity. For the Chinese, the unity is the Tao. Taoism isn’t actually very popular outside of China. Very few Americans consider themselves Taoists. Even so, a number of Taoist practices have been adopted in the West. There’s Tai Chi exercise and Feng Shui decorating principles. Many are familiar with the yin/yang concept. Some of you may have read The Tao of Pooh. Characters from Winnie the Pooh are compared to Taoist principles.
Unitarian Universalism resonates with a number of Taoist principles. Unity, interconnectedness, and being attuned to nature’s cycle’s are among them. These values are increasingly being recognized worldwide as important for the sustainability and health of our planet.
As with Taoism, Unitarian Universalism focuses on how to live much more than on worshipping a god or gods. Each person is seen as being responsible for their own spiritual journey. Though the Unitarian Universalist religious community is dedicated to encouraging and supporting people on their individual spiritual paths, there’s no dogma or fixed beliefs. No one is going to tell you what you are expected to believe. The individual must discern truth for him or herself using the community as a testing ground for these ideas as well as for support and insight. This asks a lot of individuals. The UU spiritual path, like the Taoist one, is rigorous. While sometimes it is perceived as an easy religion, Unitarian Universalism actually requires tremendous commitment by those on the search for truth and meaning. The quest demands openness, acceptance, and honesty – all of which, as we know, are far more difficult to practice than they seem to be.
Like Taoists, Unitarian Universalists see humans as part of the natural world. One of our sources is the “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” According to Taoist teachings, “if we act in accordance with the natural order of things and don't fight with the way things really are, then we can accomplish much without toil, worry, or strain.” (Tapestry of Faith, www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/bridges/workshop8/workshopplan /leaderresources /184241.shtml)
One of our fundamental principles is the interconnectedness of all things. It’s our seventh principle, which affirms and promotes “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle of ours has been informed not only by Eastern religion, including Taoism, but also by Native American traditions, feminism, and the ecological movement. The web metaphor acknowledges the mutuality among humans and other beings. It recognizes that individual actions have consequences for the planet even the universe, and vice versa. That “inescapable network of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. called it, and which we refer to as the “web of life” is what Taoists would consider the “one-world concept.” It is being in harmony with the Tao. Being in harmony with the Tao helps everyone. It helps to create just and fair and happy families and societies.
This is the auspicious Year of the Dragon. As we enter the Year of the Dragon, let us consider how we can better incorporate the principles we share with Chinese religion into our daily lives. May it be a year of good luck, of good love, and of good living. May it be a time of greater unity in our families and communities. May it be a year blessed by our best intentions.
Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy New Year.