On the Road with Sages and Saviors

Unexpected Roots and Unexpected Life

Part of 2 of in
By Easten Law
Photos provided by Easten Law
Mar 10, 2022 | 8 min read
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When the pandemic hit, I was living in Geneva, Switzerland, a global hub of diplomacy and finance set against grand vistas of the Alps and Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), the largest freshwater lake in Europe. As COVID brought Geneva’s global institutions to a grinding halt of confusion, the beauty of region’s picture-perfect landscape was coming back to life after the winter.  Humanity and nature have been out of sync for some time now, but this contrast was especially beguiling.

As people began hunkering down indoors, the natural world outside was exploding with life. As humanity cowered and longed for human contact, a multitude of colors embraced the barren fields and branches. Death and uncertainty were in the news, but the predictable routines of life continued outside my window.  

For me, I found a simple solace in taking short runs once or twice a week around my neighborhood. I was living in la commune de le Grand Saconnex, nestled between Geneva’s international airport (emptied of travelers by pandemic restrictions) and the international quarter (where the United Nations scrambled to coordinate a reasonable response to the emerging health crisis).    

During these somewhat solemn jogs, the world’s uncertainties spun around my head. Up the street from my home is a small Swiss Reformed church, la Chapelle des Crêts. Nearby sits an old, worn down stump. I have passed it over a dozen times during the winter. This spring, I see the stump has refused to die. Surprise — there is a fleet of new shoots exploding from the edges, desperately reaching out for sun and sky. If the roots are strong enough, there are little resurrections everywhere. 

And so, amidst this raging pandemic, I wondered what my roots were made of? If I am cut down, will I begin to decompose or will my life find other ways of springing forth?

As a Christian, I like to imagine my roots are planted “by streams of water” à la Psalm 1, “which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers.” The Bible, more often than not, promises God’s grace upon those who depend on God in times of trial and tribulation. These are the promises I was raised with in my Evangelical upbringing, ones that I continue to carry and wrestle with to this day.

But as I’ve grown older, seen more of the world, and struggled with the inconsistencies of the Evangelical tradition, I have found myself drawn to the other religiosities as a means for making sense of the senseless. As a Chinese American, it was natural to begin pondering the traditions of my ancestors who sojourned for generations without the explicit presence of Christian doctrine or belief. If I look at myself as more than an individual, but as the culmination of generations, then my roots go down much deeper than I think. They are likely as grounded in Confucius and the Buddha Nature as they are with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Traditional Chinese religiosity is, as the scholars say, diffuse. It is not bound by enlightenment logic but, rather, pragmatically adopted and deployed depending on situation and context. There are seasons when it makes more sense to live by the Confucian code, but there are other times when a Daoist or Buddhist sensibility is needed. Each way of engaging the world carries its own wisdom for charting one’s path. 

The stubborn stump by the church alerts me to other similarly resilient signs of life along my run. In the park across town, I am provoked by fresh branches springing from what I had thought to be another dead trunk. The girth of this dry and twisted trunk, two or three stories tall, contrasted with the handfuls of slender branches and fresh leaves. As I beheld it, my pace slowed to a brisk walk, my eyes glued to the contrast: Death and life danced together in a single complex organism. The feeling of surprise slowly gave way to a lingering calm.

The moment conjured up images of Daoist sages like Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi mused about unruly and seemingly useless trees, stating, “Now you have this big tree, and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you… relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? …If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief?” (1) I was beckoned to stop worrying and just let life and death take their course, trusting that what is meant to survive will do so. The tree challenges my faith: Could I trust that what ought to die should die and what is meant to survive will do so as well?

About a block away from this tree sits a series of large modern buildings that house the World Health Organization (WHO). For international organizations like this one, death is the enemy and life is to be protected at all costs. The brutalist concrete soaring above the landscape communicates human domination. Stainless steel and glass exude order, clarity, and structure.  In spite of whatever these buildings were meant express when they were designed, these symbols of modern science, global health, and international cooperation now sat empty. The diplomats and doctors that once walked its halls have been exiled to Zoom meetings in their homes side by side with their children’s home school projects.

I hear Zhuangzi laughing. He is laughing at Confucius, whose response to this pandemic would no doubt be similar to the many faithful WHO employees working extra hours to figure out how politics and public health could be reconciled. The Daoists ridiculed the Confucians as ritual obsessed stick-in-the-muds whose drive to order the world would only result in more chaos.  From a Daoist perspective, the pandemic might just be humanity reaping what it has been sowing. Destruction of nature invokes our own doom.

But if Zhuangzi was trying to remind me that the natural order was sure to have its way amidst the havoc of the virus, these buildings were arguing that suffering would not be alleviated without self-sacrifice and hard work. COVID was not going to slow its spread because we all paused to meditate on some biological process and a vaccine was not going to magically grow out of a resilient tree. Confucian dedication means a sense of responsibility to the common good.  

So while Zhuangzi is laughing, Confucius is also scolding us, “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves.” (2)

From a Confucian perspective, corruption and self-interest are at the root of human malaise and so they are also the source of this pandemic’s devastating expansion. From this perspective, it is the totalitarian’s abuse of power over the masses and the populist’s pandering to humanity’s base instincts that accelerate our demise. If we want to get out of this, Confucius whispers, we will need to renew our commitment to one another.

This is the great tension at the heart of traditional Chinese religiosity: Do we let go of human society and embrace nature’s comings and goings or do we dedicate ourselves to nurturing human society to fulfill its potential? Do we walk away or lean in?

I can’t help but agree with them both, so where do I go from here?  

Sometimes, to cool down after a run, I stroll through a nearby cemetery. I consider it an essential spiritual practice to stop and walk among those who have passed on before me. There is both beauty and fear in pondering the death of all as I strain to strengthen my individual life. In a forgotten corner, I stumble upon a memorial that has been overtaken by ivy. In this case, it would seem Daoist preferences for the all-encompassing natural world have overtaken Confucian notions of filial piety. The names of those resting in the tomb underneath are lost. In the face of eternity, does our sense of individuality melt away?

Maybe. The Buddhist tradition reminds us that individuality is but an illusion, and that it is only in a deep and sublime recognition of our interconnectedness that we can find true enlightenment. “The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realized the nature of the world,” states the Buddha.” (3) It’s poetic but impractical, I surmise. For every Buddhist monk in ancient China who committed themselves to the disciplined pursuit of realizing nirvana, millions of laypersons opted instead to appeal to the more accessible Bodhisattvas for good fortune, healing, and protection. Our practices point to truths beyond the letters of doctrine. For the hundreds of thousands who have lost family and friends to COVID, promoting Buddhist principles of detachment are more likely to add insult to injury. It does not matter if nature eventually consumes us all in dust and ash. Our bonds demand intimacy and belonging and our losses require mourning and remembering. If my ancestors were buried in that tomb, I’d clear out the weeds that have consumed it. Touché! Perhaps Confucius was right after all — if we are unable to honor our ancestors correctly, one has little hope of good governance over anything at all. 

I’m exhausted. I have run farther than I expected and these voices present no resolution. As I prepare to leave the cemetery and go home, however, one more image sucks me in. I find myself lost in a sculpted relief of Christ crucified. But the cross is no longer visible. New life has managed to cover it up, and yet the Christ still weeps as he struggles to breathe. The struggle to breathe has become a potent symbol of these times, and Jesus is intimately touched by the same condition. To juxtapose such suffering with both the beauty and wrath of nature, is this not the Gospel? There can be no resurrection without death.

As much as I have fallen in love with many of China’s religious traditions and spiritual sages, the image of God I see embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth remains unique. Unlike the serene Buddha, the removed Daoist sage, or the refined Confucian gentleman, Christ suffers a messy death that is entangled in society at its most depraved. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain,” Jesus whispers, “but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). 

Like the leaves wrapping around this sculpture, new life has reframed what I once thought I understood. The wisdom of Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist beliefs and practices have reframed my understanding of the Gospel and the world, infusing my spirituality with new sensibilities. Yes, Christ was hung upon a tree, but the life that now grows from its branches flourishes beyond my understanding. Interreligious learning has not diluted Christ’s salvific work but amplified it because I see its resonance across cultural experiences of time and space in ways that I never could have imagined.

While I see the truth of each tradition’s wisdom embedded around me, they are always wrestling with each other in ways that refuse to be charactered. Instead, they keep me moving.  Just as these traditions push and pull on one another, they also push and pull me, taking me to places of deep comfort as well as profound challenge. There is no certainty in the cacophony of voices, but there is growth. (4)

And perhaps this is the only thing I can carry with me along these winding paths: The truth that despite all that has plagued us these past few years, the best thing I can do is to keep moving. To let the wisdom of ages past continue to form me in new ways rather than get stuck in a single path or story.

Fast forward to the summer. The stubborn stump in the ground across from the church has grown into a vibrant little shrub. The shoots have surrounded the giant scar with dazzling green. You’d never know there was a near-death experience underneath it. Its roots must be deep and its sources of life must be many. May we be blessed with the same spiritual resources and resilience to keep growing.

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(1) Zhuangzi, Chapter 1: Free and Easy Wandering) See "The Complete Works of Zhuangzi", translated by Burton Watson, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

(2) (Analects 2:3) See "Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries", translated by Edward Slingerland, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003.

(3) See John D Ireland’s translation of the Sutta Nipata. See also The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha's Discourses Together with Its Commentaries, translated by Bikkhu Bodhi, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017.

(4) If you’re interested in an accessible and a well curated collection of different voices from Chinese religious and philosophical traditions, I recommend Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd edition, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005.  

Easten Law

Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary.  He completed in PhD from Georgetown University with a focus on lived theology, religious pluralism, and public life in contemporary China. He enjoys long walks, arts of all kinds, and hot tea.

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