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Global Vision - Spring 2009

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Cross Cultural Experience to China: God, Mount Emei and Me

by Kari Aanstead, M.Div. Jr.

A monk with hot water quietly filled our paper cups lined with sprigs of jasmine. My cold hands tightly grasped the steaming cup with hope that the heat would bring warmth to my feet. January is the coldest month of the year in Chengdu, China, a city of nearly 11 million.  I quickly finished my tea and the monk returned with more hot water.
I sat surrounded by fellow Luther Seminary students at a Buddhist temple named Wen-Shu Yuan ("The Temple of the Buddha Wisdom") located in the northern center of Chengdu.

Dr. Peter Shen, China Consultant for ELCA Global Mission, our program leader for the Sichuan area, facilitated an interfaith dialogue between our group and the temple's monks, one of the several stops during our three week cross-cultural experience. 

To fulfill Luther Seminary's cross-cultural experience requirement, I traveled with a group of nine students across the world to China. While there, we:

  • visited cultural and religious centers,
  • encountered congregational life and ministry in China,
  • explored the traditional Chinese religions and Asian spirituality, and
  • engaged in theological dialogue and reflection with Chinese people, religious leaders and pastors.

Sea of Clouds

Perhaps one of the most striking moments for me was at the Buddhist Research Institute in Emei Shan, located in the foothills of Mount Emei. While there, we stood in a large room and gazed at a seven-foot calligraphy painting which hung on a wall. A student in our group asked what the symbols on the painting meant.

Dr. Edmond Yee, professor of Asian Studies at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in California, our program leader for Beijing and expert on Chinese culture, replied, "This is calligraphy poetry, the highest form of Chinese art. This particular poem says 'the sea of clouds.'"

He paused for a moment to clear his throat, clearly moved by the art. "It is so beautiful; I want to take it."

After we viewed the calligraphy, I tried to understand how the phrase "sea of clouds" could be so moving, but I could only picture the "sea of clouds" that accompanied me during our recent 14-hour transcontinental flight; an image that was definitely not beautiful.

Traveling to Mount Emei

The following day we were scheduled to hike to the summit of Mount Emei. To accomplish this task, we took a bus ride up 180 degree hairpin turns, hiked for 45 minutes, took a five-minute gondola ride and then hiked another 15 minutes. Finally, we had made it to the summit of this glorious mountain.

Standing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level, I looked out across the blue sky contrasted by a sea of white clouds beneath. There at the top of the mountain, I was surrounded by only sunlight and divinity.

For the first time in my life, I felt God's divine essence pour into and over me. It possessed me more profoundly and intimately than I had ever felt before. Standing at the summit of this great mountain, I now understood why Dr. Yee had been so moved by the words "sea of clouds."

Building Connections

All our interfaith dialogues with Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians during the trip weaved together for me as we descended Mount Emei.

  • Buddhism teaches non-attachment, especially to one's own identity, as a key to overcoming suffering.
  • Christianity teaches that in order to save one's life, one must first lose it.
  • Taoism teaches everything in the world is and belongs to the same source, the Tao.

I began to see the connections between the faiths, but was ultimately left with one overwhelming and humbling conclusion: God is and always will be intimately present in all things, including me and all that challenges me.

As I continue to reflect on our recent trip to China, I hold fast to this difficult claim.

You can read the China 2009 Blog
To read more about the GMI connections with China, go here