Tuesday, August 30

Liturgy, Symbolism and Respect in an Asian Context

In recent years, there has been a renewal of the Christian message within Asian culture, and indeed of the liturgy as a whole. However, there are still challenges with integrating the gospel into Asian culture. For example, Asians have felt that the Catholic Mass comes with a distinctly European mold, and with these trappings it can be difficult to translate into their culture. Buddhism and Islam have adapted to their different cultures - evidently it is time for Christianity to continue to do the same, and even more so than it is now. Certain cultural traditions such as funerals and marriages (and their different conceptions of each) ought to be respected and incorporated into the Christian expression in that local area. How do these various traditions interact, engage with and participate in each other in a healthy and respectful way? (Inspired by Chapter XI: Liturgy, Cultures, and Religions from The Eucharist and Human Liberation).

Honoring ancestors may also be thought of as cultural, although there is also the element of religiousness to this. The sort of clothing that is worn is also different culturally between the Western Church and the Asian Churches - those in the West tend to prefer to dress up for Mass, whereas the Asians generally prefer simplicity and therefore it may be pertinent to adapt to this cultural practice. The Eucharist is another consideration: bread and wine are not generally used in Asia as they are elsewhere. All of this being said, In what ways do we see the Christian message intermingling with the Asian context, and what can this teach us about where we've been, where we are and where we are going?

Jesus and the Buddha
Christians are called to recognize the dignity and value of the human person and hold a respect for each individual, but in some cases - particularly those in conflict with Buddhism that are now etched into the Asian memory - Christianity has not been so accepting of others. The Catholic Church (in part due to the work done at the Second Vatican Council) recognizes that other religions do contain truth and the movement of the Spirit, such as in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and others. For example, for Muslims, like many Catholics, St. Mary is held in very high regard and devotions may be directed toward her by both. Dialogue is something that needs to occur between Christians and others, as well as a respect for other religions and the ability to recognize goodness, beauty and truth in these other religious traditions. Part of this attitude toward other religions is accepting their values as well. An example of this can be seen through the Vesak, a festival of light and life. It celebrates the life of Buddha and emphasizes the virtues lived out by the Buddha. Christians may respect these values and virtues and accept these values as being virtuous indeed.

The Second Vatican Council (as well as the earlier Council of Trent) opened up the opportunity for liturgy in different areas to be changed and revised. Although there are certain distinctly Christian elements that should remain, some liturgical aspects can be adapted to the culture. Asia, however, seems to have yet to take much advantage of this. Other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have certain sacred texts that they use. Since the Church recognizes that each of these religions do have truths within them, there is a suggestion that perhaps selections from these texts can be read at Mass during the service of the Word. As an aside, one may point out that St. Paul quotes from a Cretan philosopher, a Greek poet, a Greek philosopher, St. Jude may allude to two apocryphal works, and there are works (such as the Book of Jasher) referred to in the Hebrew Bible that are not canonical Scripture. So there is a precedent for this sort of thinking, that perhaps at a Mass we may find readings from the Qur'an, the Vedic Scriptures, Buddhist Scriptures, or others.

This caused a major controversy at one point in Christian history, actually, known now as the (Chinese) Rites Controversy. The debate occurred in the 1600-1700s, In short, the controversy centered around whether or not Chinese practices such as honoring one's ancestors as well as other Confucian practices could be compatible with Catholicism, and further, various priests decided to dress in Confucian attire so as the better convey the Gospel within the Chinese culture. The Jesuits were at the forefront of this controversy, and felt that the rituals were compatible with Christianity, yet various religious orders (at the time) did not, and therefore reported this to Rome. There were bans on and off for a number of years, and finally in 1939, Pope Pius XII decreed that Christians may observe their ancestral rituals and practices as well as participate and engage in Confucian-based ceremonies and rites. This spirit of inclusion, inculturation of the Gospel and openness to a new local or cultural theology reached its climax with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and this new openness continues to be felt today.

An early Nestorian monk
Interestingly, something similar nearly happened several centuries ago as well. In the early AD 600s, shortly after the early Islamic movement began to spread, a number of Christian (Nestorian) monks from the Eastern Church left for China. When they arrived, they began writing what is now known as the "Jesus Sutras," a collection of sutras (aphorisms, often found in the Buddhist tradition), a way of presenting the Gospel to the Chinese people by using Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist terminology, concepts and ideas. These Sutras are not considered canonical within the Church today, but upon their recent discovery over the past few years, they have served as an important lesson and reminder of how early missionaries presented the Christian message through different lenses, and allowed the cultural and religious traditions to interact and express the message in new, powerful and meaningful ways for their audience.

Concerning modern Christianity and Asia, there are many great spiritual leaders and thinkers that come from Asia. There are also a number of suggestions that have been made as to how Christianity and Buddhism can teach each other - a big proponent of this was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who participated in a number of interfaith communications. We may consider venerating Buddha on the day of his birth, or tying in these figures to the liturgy. It should be noted that these figures are not regarded as a god or worshiped as such in the other religions; it may be likened to the Catholic reverence and veneration of the saints. Consider also interreligious action. The suggestion is that we as people honor the different beliefs and practices of other religions, and in order to engage in reflection on the Christian Scriptures, we also need to be willing to reflect upon their Scriptures. This inter-religious reflection can bring about great appreciation and understanding. The different religions of the world all have mystical experiences at their roots. The Buddha had several mystical experiences. Christ went out into the desert and was later transfigured. Muhammad spoke to angels. The earthly liturgy should be a reflection of the heavenly liturgy, and it indeed is intended to be so.

To be sure, these various religious traditions and philosophies are very different. Buddhism comes out of an Indian context, brought about by the first Buddha - Siddhrtha Gautama. After leaving his princely life by exposure to the suffering and pains of life, he became a beggar-monk, and a homelss acestic man. He taught that through various means, one can achieve enlightenment and leave the cycles of reincarnation and enter into Nirvana. Taoism is an ancient Chinese religion, named after "the way" (thus, the Tao; interestingly, early Christianity was also called The Way). Taosim focuses on the yin and the yang, and Confucius was an early proponent of this religion. In fact, his ethical principles found in the Analects, for example, are founded in part on Taosim. Taoism is concerned with living in harmony with the universe. Christianity came out of the Middle East (which is also partly in Asia), and although it springs out of the Judaic tradition, it also finds its foundation in Jesus of Nazareth, who we venerate as the supreme deity incarnate who lived among us during the 1st century.

This does not mean, however, that there are not also commonalities or similarities. Take Buddhism, for instance. Buddhism is seen in some circles as a contemplative religious tradition. However, this does not mean that it is without its values on the human person and justice. Since its formation followers of the Buddha have placed an emphasis on social justice borne out of compassion. An early example of this emphasis is seen in the reign of King Ashoka (304-232 BC). Ashoka started out as a violent ruler, but following his conversion to Buddhism he began to repent for his past actions, and as a result, he tried to rehabilitate prisoners and stop the slaying of animals as well as setting up hospital-like areas for both humans and animals. Further, Ashoka formed a group of messengers who could bring their concerns and desires before the king to be given fair treatment. This is something that should be familiar to the Christian audience, as Christians are called to live a life of mercy and compassion rooted in social justice.

Further, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition we read of the bodhisattva, Christ-like figures who live their lives in service of others. A bodhisattva pledges to take upon themselves the burdens and suffering of all beings, from humans to birds to plants. This allows the bodhisattva to fully experience the life of creation and as a result, he or she grows in compassion - one could compare this in a Girardian sense to the sacrificial work of Jesus as the scapegoat. As another example, the current (14th) Dalai Llama cries out for justice for the Tibetan people, as well as an end to injustices across the globe and fair treatment of all through compassionate means. Although this is only one example, it demonstrates that Buddhism also places an emphasis on the same sort of issues that we would find in Catholic Social Teaching or elsewhere in the Christian tradition.

What are we left with, then? Perhaps it is important that Christians come to learn more about Buddhists, Taoists and Confucian philosophy, and vice versa. Perhaps it is important to adapt various cultural and religious expressions of the Asian context into the modern liturgy. This integration would be crucial for the people living in each community, as it allows one's cultural and religious heritage to interact, inform and engage with another living tradition that they may or may not be attempting to take on. Finding similarities and matters of agreement and relationality is also vital for continued flourishing and fruitful potentiality. As Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in Living Buddha, Living Christ, "If we find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage, we will avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society, and we will become whole again... Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone." Amen.

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