JYAN Blog

Alyxie Harrick on Holistic Thinking to Breed Understanding

"Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly. A butterfly fluttering happily around—was he revealing what he himself meant to be? He knew nothing of Zhou. All at once awakening, there suddenly he was—Zhou. But he didn't know if he was Zhou having dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must surely be some distinction?"
This is the “way” of the Dao (romanized as Tao), one philosophy that governs Chinese religious values, which is better described as Chinese spirituality. When I first arrived in Shanghai, I saw neither churches nor temples lining the traffic-ridden streets, did not see my host family partake in any weekly rituals, and didn'’t even hear the topic of religion arise in any conversations. I naturally wondered, does this society have a religion? 

Chinese religion has no leadership, no headquarters, no founder, and no denominations. But just because you do not seen mangers displayed during the holidays or engage in heated religious discussions does not mean that the Chinese are not spiritual. Rather than a unified system of beliefs and practices, Chinese religion is a complex interaction of philosophical traditions. The three most influential are Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. 

Surrounding Buddhism is the idea that nothing is permanent; there is no self or soul. Human existence instead is a combination of five impermanent stages, making the idea of impermanence less frightening than it is in the West (take our views of death, for instance). Contrasting the Western view of a static, linear world, the Chinese believe that the world is composed of cyclical ups and downs: “in the midst of that brief moment of happiness never forget that ‘even the best party must have an end.’” In times of good fortune, they begin to prepare for bad ones—no wonder the Chinese are known for working hard but never spending a dime! 

The cycles in Buddhism compliment the yin and yang belief of Daoism. Daoism focuses on non-action and non-intention to return to the state of purity in which we are born. Through this non-action, one can establish a harmonious and orderly world. Spiritual harmony taught in Daoism complements the Confucian emphasis on duty. Confucianism draws away from the self and focuses on one'’s relationship with others, teaching people to be satisfied with their social position, which helps minimize conflict resulting from disrespect and disagreement. You can see the contrast to the Western emphasis on analyzing the person in isolation from his environment; isolating pain from the rest of the body; distinguishing my human rights from yours. 

The holistic thinking that guides these “religions” also guides Chinese society. In my "Cultural Currencies" class, we often examine the differences between Chinese and American culture. Reflecting on where our cultural beliefs come from helps make sense of our differences. For instance, the Chinese focus on communal and family relationships rather than individual achievements; describing objects in relation to other objects is more common than classifying them based on descriptive differences. In the West, the story of Genesis is ingrained in our society; whether or not you are religious, you are at least vaguely familiar with the story. The story of Adam and Eve demonstrates how Westerners are taught to focus on abstract attributes of object, person, place, and separate them from other objects (you are man, I am woman; these trees are good, this tree is bad). The West focuses on individuality while the East focuses on connectivity or holism. In a survey asking Easterners and Westerns what two are best related out of the cow, dog, and grass, the majority of Westerners chose the cow and dog because they can both be “categorized” as animals, while Easterners said cow and grass, giving greater attention to how the objects are related: cows eat grass. 

The Chinese perception of the world as a complex, constantly changing and interrelated place starkly contrasts the Western view of the world as a simple, fundamentally unchanging collection of discrete objects that is easy to understand if we use scientific laws and logic. You can see these differences in law, medicine, human rights, and religion. 

At first glance, the Chinese law system seems absurd to Westerners. Problems are most easily resolved through the community. Rather than distinguishing between “right” and “wrong,” they seek the Daoist “middle way,” avoiding hostility and debate in search of compromise. My "Cultural Currencies" professor shared a personal story from when her neighbor’'s dog ran into her apartment and ruined her carpet. Outraged, she began arguing with her neighbor and requesting he pay for the damage. The other neighbors soon came out to add their input, which were actually a group of women specifically organized to resolve community issues like these (as opposed to taking it to the People’s Court). In the West, there would be a clear winner and loser in this situation, resulting in my teacher either having to pay for a new carpet herself or the neighbor bearing the cost (that is, if we assume the two involved parties didn'’t mind the neighbors “muddling in their personal affairs,” an idea quite foreign to the Chinese). In China, however, this group decided the neighbor would give my professor about half the cost of the carpet. As a Westerner, you may see this as an unfair solution where both parties are “losers,” but in China both are “winners.” In a society that avoids conflict, Judge Judy would never cut it. 

Eastern medicine also takes a holistic approach to curing pain and diseases. Herbal remedies target connected areas of the body that will indirectly cure the problem area—take reflexology for example. By targeting various trigger points in your feet, you can cure neck and back pains. This non-interventionist approach contrasts the Western approach to tackle the problem where you see it; surgery rather than herbal remedies are the standard solution. Although the Chinese have seen the introduction of Western methods within their culture, most still believe that altering one part of the body through surgery is crazy because of the abundance of negative repercussions it has on other parts of the body. After all, everything is connected. 

The United Nations often scrutinizes China for its violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, urging China to alter its ways. But this issue is more complicated than creating more effective laws when it extends deep into their culture of holistic thinking. In the West, all individuals are separate and given certain rights. In the East, the individual is part of a whole and consequently gets a “share” of the total rights. 

With lackadaisical human rights policies, I would assume religious persecution would be a problem. Yet in a society that seeks holism and harmony, they take a “both/and” approach rather than and “either/or” approach. Western history is plagued with religious wars provoked by beliefs that either one religion or the other is supreme. China, however, is a nation of tolerance and interpenetration of religious ideas that goes hand-in-hand with the three schools of thought or spiritual philosophies that guide the nation. 

In a society that avoids debate, conflict, and categorization, it’'s no wonder that you often cannot distinguish between these three philosophies. You will rarely find one of these “religions” practiced in isolation of another, nor do people make it a point to ask you what you practice. Coming from a society that often finds itself in debates over the separation of church and state, I find this harmony refreshing. Perhaps the Chinese can be a leading example for religious tolerance. When you believe everything and everyone is connected and place a high value on relationships with others, preserving those relationships facilitates resolving conflict.

 
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