Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Culture of Life

Working to make a culture of life is an important mission for all, and as Christians we hear a great deal of how this can be accomplished. The columnist writing in the Culture of Life column in the Peace Weekly discusses how this can be accomplished when seen from an Asian perspective.

In her columns, she criticizes the narrow type of education offered to our students, which prepares them primarily to succeed in the marketplace. It's self-interest at the expense of others, she says, and shows a lack of courage to educate the whole person, being content to fashion the limited human beings we are now sending into the world. What is needed, she says, is "more doors and empty spaces," more access to one another. In her last column she considers our copy-cat type of life, the way we're conscious of what others possess, wanting more possessions for ourselves, and becoming enslaved by our possessions in the process.

One of the reasons for suicides in our society, she says, is not the loss of something one feels is necessary to live, but feeling the pain of that loss. "One can put up with an empty stomach but not with the pain in the belly", as a Korean saying puts it. The tendency to become despondent, she says, results from our dependence on possessions for making our life worthwhile.

In the above Korean proverb, the pain mentioned is of two kinds. The first comes from a desire to live, while the second comes from a desire for possessions. Which is made clear by the Korean saying: "When my cousin buys a piece of property, my belly hurts." This kind of hurt follows when we are not able to satisfy our desire for possessions, and is psychological in result.  Pain from an empty stomach is remedied by the first good meal, but the second hurt is only relieved by emptying oneself.

She mentions hearing an interview with a woman refugee from the North that clearly refers to what the columnist is saying. In the North, the woman said she was hungry and had to use all her energy to stay alive. In the South, she had plenty to eat but did not want to live here. No matter how rich, you eat only a limited number of times a day. The difference in how the rich and the poor satisfy their desires for existence, she says, is not obvious but is usually indicated by the possessions they have.

She mentions a politician who spent an extravagant amount of money for the care of the skin and was criticized by the media for it. For a certain segment of society, the appearance of the skin is a barometer of their place in society. Possessions and appearance are able to attract the gaze of others; life and death issues hold little interest for the vast majority.
In the 12th chapter of the Tao Te Ching,  we are told not to esteem the eyes over the belly. The word 'belly' is called by Lao Tzu the seat of life. In order to promote life, we have to fill the belly. If we only use the eyes, ears and tastes to gain the attention of others, we become slaves to the demands of our senses. As Lao Tzu says:  
                   The five colors make the eyes blind; 
                   The five notes make the ears deaf;
                   The five tastes injure the palate;
                   Riding and hunting make the mind go wild with excitement;
                   Goods hard to come by serve to hinder progress.
                   Hence, the sage is for the belly
                   Not for the eye.
                   Therefore the sage discards the one
                   and takes the other.
She finishes the column with the words of Confucius: one can study to express what one has in the heart or one can study to please others and to succeed in life. The one who picks the latter will always be looking for affirmation of the other and will have no peace. Those who want to grasp honors and material goods will have people swarming around them like bees, but when they lose what they have, people will leave them like the ebbing tide. To realize the self by acquiring possessions is a futile effort. When we begin to educate the whole person and give expression to our true nature, we will have set firmly in place the foundation for a culture of life.