While traveling and lecturing in China recently, the group and I visited all of the tourist sites in Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Lhasa, Guilin, and Shanghai. While in Beijing, we went to the Temple of Heaven, a huge temple complex covering 660-acres! In the midst of this colossal compound is the Circular Altar. You approach this round evaluated area by a dozen steps. At the top of the stairs, you will find an area approximately 30-yards in diameter. In the very center of this altar area is another much smaller circle approximately a yard across and three inches high. It was from this very spot that Chinese emperors would stand to communicate to heaven. Since China considered itself the Middle Kingdom or the center of the world, this was an appropriate place to talk to heaven.
Today, Chinese and foreign tourists take turns standing at the
center of the world making loud pronouncements to the heavens with
seemingly no effect upon the gods. Then my turn came to stand there
and make my load pronouncement. Overcome by the moment and
excitement of talking to the heavens, I couldn't think of anything
profound to say. Therefore, I merely shouted, "Go Fighting
Saints!" (The Fighting Saints are the anachronistic mascot of the
University of St. Francis.)
This experience at the center of the world would be used to explain some of the Chinese attitudes toward the rest of the world and to the West in particular. To make my lecture point, I would draw comparisons to other nations including our own. America doesn't have a central, physical spot where its national hubris can say, "Here we are in the center of the world." However, in word and deed, we illustrate this same naïvety and arrogance. We view ourselves as the self-appointed leader of the world. The rest of the world should revolve around us-even if they don't want to do so. Our self-congratulatory notion is called Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny is the pronouncement that God selected America to lead and direct the world to truth and understanding. Hardly any American is immune to this culture illusion. When some, who aren't God chosen people, question or outright reject our self-appointed leadership, we can't believe their stupidity and lack of insight. Our cultural arrogance isn't any more a reflection of reality than that of Delphi or Beijing.
How would I drive home the point about Chinese and American self-importance? Then it hit me like a voice from heaven. I came up with a new koan. Koans are the Zen Buddhist questions that are to use to cause enlightenment. (We all know the koan about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise if no one is around to hear it.)
My koan is "What is worse than hearing the truth about yourself or your country? Not hearing it." I'm pretty certain that the Chinese don't really believe that the world revolves around them, but we are still suffering from our national hubris. We need to reject Manifest Destiny here in America. The world doesn't view us as the creditable leader of humankind. Few see America as the vast repository divine wisdom that we see ourselves. We need to hear their voices. Truth isn't always found in the thoughts of the majority. However, it should cause us pause to realize that most of the world rejects our deeply held notion of God's blessing us as his chosen spokesperson to the world.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 8/14/05.