Erenlai - Benoit Vermander (魏明德)
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Thursday, 14 January 2010 01:30

Forgiveness by ritual

It is easy to forget that the act of forgiveness is inseparable from how it is delivered and what it signifies. Forgiveness is simply not possible without any real, visible changes. Between two people, forgiveness can be expressed through subtle signals such as a smile (or shared crying), a resumption of communication displayed by a slight gestures and more confident conversation. But even at this personal level most forgiveness demanded and received is transmitted through codes and small rituals - a gift offered and accepted, a shared meal or a hug. These rituals are created spontaneously, by a couple or a group friends. The signs exchanged are of great importance: once the ritual is performed, everything can restart again; however, without at least a discreet, subtle gesture, all progress is hindered.Things are even more subtle and complicated in society. Firstly, you never quite know who is forgiving and who is being forgiven. A nation is not the same as an individual, different opinions and experiences are in operation at the same time and there is great disparity in historical interpretations. However, nations and communties suffer similarly traumatic experiences: periods of dictatorship, foreign or civil wars, natural disasters, serious economic crises etc; and when emerging from a crisis, the group feels the need to start afresh, but this is often very difficult to achieve. Your memories are shackles that you drag along, haunting flashbacks to which you constantly return. Its difficult to place and divide responsibility, and those responsable often refuse it . The victims take refuge in their grief, the culprits go unpunished or disappear, amongst many other situations that plague the collective atmosphere.

Ritual as a Road to Reconciliation

What can we do in these post-traumatic cases? Instinctively, groups and nations gradually invent their own rituals. These rituals always signify an end and a new beginning. There is nothing surprising in this; even in ordinary times we need rituals as milestones, to help us forget and start anew. New Year wishes, both in the Chinese world and the West perform this function. Wishing a happy new year, paying back the year’s debts, eating an exceptional meal together, wearing new clothes and cleaning the house, all welcome the new and bid farewell to the old. In many ways, the rituals that mark Chinese New Year can be seen as marking a reconciliation (implicit but very effective) in the household and neighborhood. Likewise, village communities often use rituals to expel demons who bring the plague or other contagious diseases. These rituals are repeated year after year, with all the "bad influences" symbolically burned. These rituals distinguish Wang Ye cult worship in southern Taiwan. By expelling the "evil spirits" the community cleanses itself. This is also the jealousy and infighting being dispersed, thus renewing the community spirit. I have been fortunate enough to observe similar phenomena in the rituals practiced to heal the sick amongst the minorities of southwestern China, where the family and neighbours all gather in a house. For many of us, diseases and conflicts are inherently linked. Fighting for the rejuvenation of the human body is also being committed to the reconciliation and purification of society.

Translation from French by Nicholas Coulson
Thursday, 31 December 2009 00:00

Taoism as a Spiritual Path

The various facets of the Taoist tradition can be understood as a series of variations around a common theme: the human body is the vehicle through which spiritual experience takes place, and its nature and organization determine the steps of the spiritual growth that women and men are called to experience, while anchoring such growth into a cosmic process. The modernity of the Taoist spiritual path lies in the consistency of its focus on the cosmic and the human body taken as a whole. Such, in short, is the thesis developed by Pierre-Henry de Bruyn in his excellent compendium on Taoist teachings throughout Chinese history. While reminding one of the argument put forward by Kristopher Schipper in “The Taoist Body”, de Bruyn’s book covers an even wider ground. The author offers inspiring summaries of the major texts and schools, showing the diversity of their methods as well as the consistency of their inspiration. Though such historical continuity does not ensure the survival of Taoism, it certainly reminds one that present-day religiosity in the Chinese world cannot be understood without referring to one of its longest and richest spiritual traditions. Even if Taoist religious expressions are to undergo major changes due to continuing social transformations, its basic lessons bear a significance that goes far beyond the cultural area where they have taken shape.

See references and book review in French



Thursday, 31 December 2009 03:08

Paris of the Orient

As Shanghai World Fair is nearing, media and publishers are narrowing their focus on the capital of Southeast China – and rightly so: Shanghai has become one of the most powerful global cities, if not the most powerful. The accumulation of capital, headquarters, communication centers and technical know-how reminds one of post-war New York. If Shanghai has not achieved yet the cultural iconic status that New York reached during the fifties and sixties, it might well do so during the next decade or so. And it is at the core of a metropolis much larger than the ones of New York or Tokyo.

In thirty lively chapters, Bernard Brizay relates the formative period of the city: he draws a vivid portrait of the first French consul of Shanghai, Charles de Montigny, arrived there in 1848, founder of the French concession; he recalls the dark sides of the rise of the metropolis, drug trafficking, prostitution, gambling parlors or military repression… He depicts the foreign communities living in Shanghai during the twenties and thirties and some of their legendary figures. More important, by giving a clear and complete synthesis of the past of the “Paris of the Orient” he provides us with the keys for understanding the cosmopolitan and eminently adaptable nature of a leading metropolis of the new world economy.

(photo: J.J. Chen)

Friday, 25 December 2009 02:26

Communication in a Time of Crisis

Communication is part of the process of the revelation of truths. A truth is not a given fact as the reaction of the public influences what the truth is. This is the relationship between observed and the observation. The nature of a truth to be communicated can be changed. It is a systemic (that is, linguistic and symbolic) exchange in which dimensions of information, education, manipulation and public debate take place.
Communication in a time of crisis can only be understood when put in the context of one of the channels through which society today is able to be in identity and in solidarity and in submission in different spheres of time – the future and the crisis. Those dimensions must be considered together as the worst mistake is to concentrate on short time spans during the time of crisis without taking into account the long, slow and meaningful process through which civic societies and public actors today are willing to find a meaningful interaction that is creative of new solidarities and consensus.

Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00

A Lost Decade?

The Lost Decade” writes Der Spiegel. “The Decade from Hell” asserts Time Magazine. The second title might sound correct from an American viewpoint - the years 2000 to 2009 have definitely been most difficult for America - but the title used by the German weekly better captures what happened at the world level: the decade that started with the proclamation of the Millennium Objectives and hopeful expectations seems to be ending up in confusion.

Indeed, precious little has been achieved when it comes to the objectives proclaimed by the world community in 2000: access to water for all, universal primary education and the struggle against widespread poverty. Instead, terrorism, wars, epidemics and natural disasters have consistently featured on our daily news. The new century has seen more conflicts and traumatism than progress towards solidarity and reconciliation.

And yet, some paradoxical progresses may have been achieved after all. Despite the year certainly not being as “spectacular” as 2008, just consider what has happened in 2009. In January, Obama had already been elected and was entering office, the Beijing Olympics were over, the start of the financial crisis was the dominant news and Sichuan and Myanmar were still mourning their dead after natural disasters of astounding scale. In many respects, 2009 has been a year of evaluation and reaction, a year when the global community has realized even more deeply the scale of the challenges it confronts and has tried to find collective answers to them. Reactions to the financial and environmental crises have been somehow coordinated, and some progress has been made towards solidarity and sustainability. At the same time, old habits do not die (yes, extravagant bankers’ bonuses are back) and we have not yet entered the age of structural reform - we are still correcting, not redesigning, our economic and international system. The achievements and failures of the Obama administration are a good example of the times we are living in - lots of good intentions, real efforts at planning and then utmost difficulties when it comes to implementation.

Still, let us show some optimism when it comes to the decade we are entering. Civil societies are much more aware than before of the role they can play when it comes to innovative behaviors, accrued exchange of information and coordinated pressure towards change. The next ten years may well be the time when a new model of governance takes shape, not from top to bottom but through systemic interactions among societies, educational or international institutions, corporations and governments. The challenges of new sources of energy, micro-credit and alternative banking, female education and peace building are some of the fields in which it has already been shown that things can change from below, and that pilot projects can have a snowball effect when planned effectively and communicated widely. Let us hope that the next ten years will not be “spectacular” ones, but rather part of a period in which in-depth changes - not always immediately visible - will testify further to the new maturity of the international society. And let us do whatever what we can do towards reaching such an end, relying on our combined strength rather than on unreachable dreams.

(Photo by Flavie Kersante)







Monday, 21 December 2009 00:00

Beyond Copenhagen

The result of the Copenhagen Summit is creating strong disappointment all around the world, and rightly so. However, one might wonder whether the hopes pinned on the event were justified in the first place. After all, there were no signs before the summit begun that nations were coming closer on the most basic issues – mode and amount of financing the efforts to be made, national targets, and verification mechanisms. Therefore, one might wonder how such incompatibilities would have been overcome just by meeting around a negotiation table. For sure, the Chiefs of State and Government were anxious to prove that they still could be the “saviors” of the world, people able to work out last-minute compromises through their negotiation skills and innate wisdom. This time, the magic just did not operate. Maybe it was because differences in substance and style were really too strong for being ignored.

The trick of forging a five nations “deal” did not truly help, and it might be better after all that the text worked out by five of the protagonists were finally not formally endorsed by the whole assembly. On the long term, the failure that Copenhagen was might be more helpful for working out a reform of world governance – and even substantial progresses on climate change – than a more ambiguous result would have been.

First, the Copenhagen failure clearly shows that an age of world governance is coming to an end. Big circuses are not the way to make real progresses any more. A more multilateral approach, regional agreements, and pilot efforts made by a country or a group of countries are the best way to go ahead. World governance must rely on the principle of “variable geometry.” When Summits like Copenhagen serve as pretexts for diluting one’s responsibility, the present style of world governance proves to be actually harmful to the causes it pretends to serve.

Second, the Copenhagen failure shows that “leaders’ are not “saviors’. Progresses in natural conservation, energy-saving measures and sustainable development will primarily come from the creativity and dedication of the private sector, civil society and national governments (when the latter are pushed in the right direction by the nation they govern). The proven inefficiency in world governance can be a boost for accrued self-organization of civil societies around the world.

Third, I do not think that the Copenhagen failure is so alarming when it comes to managing climate change. At the local and national level, the dynamic is clearly towards rapid improvement in terms of technical know-how, political will and administrative implementation. The issue does not disappear with Copenhagen. On the contrary it is appropriated anew by all parties concerned. Hopefully, the global struggle for tackling climate change is now starting on a new basis.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009 00:00

Think Globally, Act Locally

Archbishop Hung evokes the cultural diversity of Taiwan society and the role of Catholic Church in the interreligious dialogue in Taiwan.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009 04:06

Hope against all hopes

One thing that makes you desperate about the world is that problems, big and small, seem to remain around without ever being solved. Afghanistan makes Obama sleepless; the Middle East changes only for the worse; negotiations on climate change are protracted; bankers have gone back to their indecent bonuses; corruption and short-term interests are still hindering the shift towards sustainable development in most countries; Taiwan politics remains… well… Taiwan politics… and the list could go on indefinitely.

Of course, when you look more carefully at the picture you might feel a little less desperate. People easily forget the progresses already accomplished, the breakthrough having occurred in the past, and we all naturally focus on what is still going wrong. Even more important is the fact that most problems are not just fixed in one or two moves but require long-term, incremental adjustments. Nobody ever found a vaccine against cancer, but modes of treatments are indeed more sophisticated and successful than, say, fifteen years ago. Humankind had always been “muddling through”, and will presumably continue do so. “Muddling through” does not make for good movies plots (we go for decisive triumphs and crushing defeats), but constitutes the very substance of our everyday struggles.

As we enter Christmas time, we may be remembered that real progresses are often silent and discreet. They start from something that has changed within us and is communicated around, as a candle’s fire kindles other fires. Just for taking an example: for sure, negotiations on climate change are important, and we need new regulations. At the same time, if humankind is to overcome such challenge it will come from changes in consumption models, awareness of the challenges resulting in shifting behaviors, entrepreneurs’ commitment to shift to renewable, non polluting energies even if there is still some extra cost involved in such a move… These changes are actually already happening, just because concerned individuals and companies make them happen. Networks spread around knowledge and ideas, public opinion translates them into forces for change, and local leaders sometimes are able to mobilize whole communities.

Such outcome never comes automatically. It germinates within the hearts of individuals who have decided to take seriously the challenges to which they can practically respond, and who associate with like-minded people. As happens when we contemplate the Christmas manger, we are often moved by the very weakness of these individuals or local communities: the Pakistani village that transforms itself though micro-credit; Afghan women mobilizing against violence, as Irish women did a few decades ago; aboriginal communities struggling to maintain their identity and traditional setting… Paradoxically, their weakness becomes their strength, as it tells us something fundamental about human life: problems are not solved by problem-solvers; they must be tackled at their root thanks to a revolution from the heart.

(Photo by C. Phiv)
Thursday, 29 October 2009 01:38

Taiwan Colour Code

I arrived in Taiwan in 1992. Among all the things that struck me at that time, and which still speak to me in a most special way, were the richness, the strength and the variations of colours. The tropical light was shadowed by the clouds and haze, typical of the mountains and sea. To the sharp red of the temples or the intense green of the palms responded vague mixtures of grey, pale blue, pink, and orange shades on gas stations, signposts and commodity stores scattered along the roads. An oncoming tropical storm reflected off a helmet, when a motorbike stopped at a crossroad. Sunrays falling on a metal roof would suddenly strike a strident note against the misty vagueness of the hills. The language of townships and cities seemed to arise from a continuum of colours, paler or more incandescent according to the hours and to the seasons.

As years passed, the landscapes and the scenery of the island became even more intimate to me, as if embedded in my own channels of perception. I am unable to recount the stories or words of wisdom that shapes and colours instil in me, but they seem to arise in patterns and codes that work their wonders throughout my body and soul.The photographs taken from 1992 until now, of which some are shown here, are testimonies to my ceaseless attempts to capture Taiwan’s spirit in a nest of colours that displays its essence and its variations. At the same time, this set of pictures is aimed at deciphering the inner journey undertaken while living, travelling and dreaming in Taiwan. And, ultimately, the spirit of the place and the recollections of a pilgrim are mixed into one and the same colour code.

(Photo taken by B.V. in Chiayi, 2005. "The mute dialogue pursued between yellow and red always seems to suggest a treasure hidden nearby… Is not Taiwan ’Treasure Island’?")

Tuesday, 20 October 2009 00:30

Taiwan’s hidden ground of love

Within the last 17 years, I have experienced many facets of the Catholic Church in Taiwan.

I first settled within the protected grounds of Fu Jen University, where lots of priests, brothers and religious sisters were working. Later on, with much joy and gratitude, I experienced many times the hospitality of aborigine parishes, especially in Hsinchu and Hualien dioceses. I was moved by the sufferings and weaknesses of the social environment in which faith was growing, as well as by the vitality and freshness of its expressions. I delivered Sunday mass for a very small parish in downtown Taipei for eight years, where I am also familiar with the powerful parishes of Tien Educational Center and Holy Family. I met with Filipino communities in Hsinchu, with small local communities in Taichung and Kaohsiung, with students’ chaplaincies and social advocates, doctors and workers, faithful Catholic families from generations on, to young converts.

It is true, however, that my work has had more to do with cultural and intellectual apostolates, meeting society at large, publishing, writing, researching, and debating in the conditions that are those of the cultural market – and this gives me a knowledge of the Taiwanese Church which is less intimate than that of many priests. Still, this double experience – looking at the Church from within and considering it from the society where I work - gives me, I believe, a few insights that I would like to share today.

First, I have seen the Taiwanese Catholic Church grow in quality, if not in quantity. From 1992 on, I have seen more and more laypeople following formation in theology and spirituality, enriching their prayer life, and addressing social challenges. I have seen a Church more diverse in its cultural and political opinions and in the ethnic origins of its leaders. I have seen a greater sensitivity to global challenges and to other Asian churches.

Second, I have the impression that the Church is still relying too much on the clergy, that the latter is still reluctant to abandon its power, and that not enough space is given to the creativity and diversity of Christian groups. More creativity and freedom are indispensible if the church wants to grow – or even simply to live more happily.

Third, I have been struck by the role played by individuals when they dare to play the role they feel called to fulfill. For instance, when layman or religious individuals decide to work toward more interaction between Taiwanese and Filipinos believers, to care for prisoners, or to develop aboriginal liturgies, he or she is quickly able to leave a mark, and often a deep one. So, what we need first and foremost are responsible, decisive individuals, anchored in a life of prayer, with a clear conscience of their gifts. We need individuals who work with tenacity and audacity to the realization of a goal that they deem to be meaningful.

Fourth, the defects of the Church are often the ones of society at large. For instance, obsession with finances and with so-called “management” (often poorly done), along with a hierarchical structure of decision, are not shortcomings proper to the Church. Rather, they reflect how much the Church remains embedded in the values of the society she is called to evangelize. The Church is still not counter-cultural enough…

Is there an antidote to such limitations? In a word, more love - and thus more freedom. “Love, and do what you wish,” used to say Saint Augustine. I think that he meant the following: someone who deploys their power of love is able to see not only the problems of the situation they are engaged in or of the people to be dealt with, but is able to see deeper than such limitations. The individual discerns in the heart, the possibility of an awakening, sees a flame - a very feeble flame maybe, but a flame that is never extinguished – and does what he or she thinks best, guided by this feeble light of the flame in the obscurity of the present. Clever people clearly perceive defects and shortcomings around them. Loving people see beyond such shortcomings, though they might discern them and suffer because of them.

Eventually, what will make the Taiwanese Church grow and bear fruits will be to go again and again to the “school of the heart.” Let us make “apostolic planning” if we have to do so. Let us build institutions. Let us work on formation…but let these tasks all be irrigated by pure love. A love so free and so joyful that the persistent weakness of the Catholic community in Taiwan will not be for us a source of desolation and worries, but rather a call to love even more from the well of an even freer heart.

Photo by B.V. - Tafalong, 2008

Thursday, 01 October 2009 01:25

Embroidering the Earth

The performance of rituals can be seen as an embroidery, as a sacred cloth weaved by the dance, as a work that is offered to the gods, so that they may grant you the grace of survival and renewal. Today, the construction of the new house calls for a ritual. A priest-shaman of the Qiang (duangong) turns towards the altar of the household (every household has an altar in the corner of the main room of the house, facing the door. The altar and the area around it are loaded with taboos). The god of the household and the ancestors, the kitchen god, the god of the threshold are all invoked, so that they may give their blessings. The demons are driven away one after another, especially in the kitchen, a most dangerous place: in the kitchen we deal with fire, with flesh and with plants – at stake in the kitchen is personal and collective welfare…

The goat skin drum is the main ritual instrument of the duangong. It must be very carefully dried over a fire, even more so when it has already served to expel many demons, which have made it wet and depleted some of its efficiency. The Qiang say that they do not write and do not own sacred books because their first shaman had seen all his books eaten by a goat while he was asleep; the drum manufactured in the skin of the goat he killed afterwards, concentrates the efficiency of the sacred books that the Qiang do not possess…

The traditional word for shaman-priest (“duangong” is of Chinese origin) is “pi” or “bi” – a word found in many Tibeto-burmese languages for designating the performers of religious rituals. Though Qiang religion much differs from that of the Liangshan Yi people at the southern edge of the same Tibetan corridor, Qiang “duangong” and Yi “bimos” do share a common inheritance.

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Wednesday, 02 September 2009 00:00

Culture in Times of Crisis

The Taiwanese author Ping Lu’s metaphors on cultural diversity.



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