This week marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year. It is a good week to consider with joy and praise the Chinese culture and calendar.
I have understandably focused my column on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but the world cannot come together in understanding unless it begins to know more about the spiritual traditions of Asia — and particularly China.
I have spent many years studying Buddhism as it emerged in India with the life of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC), called the Buddha. His teaching of the way to become free from the suffering (dukkah) of attachment to the world and the path to achieve enlightenment (nirvana) remain a spiritual high point in the religions of the world.
Most people in the West do not know that without China, Buddhism might never have survived and thrived. The Buddha wrote nothing, and most of his teachings were not written down by his disciples until Buddhism spread to China, where Buddhists of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism (as opposed to the southern Theravada tradition) translated the Buddha's teachings and helped spread them to Japan and other parts of Asia. Today Mahayana Buddhism represents a majority of Buddhists in the world. The Chinese branch of Buddhism absorbed the Chinese traditions of ancestor worship. The strong vegetarian traditions in Asia are the result of Buddhist teachings of nonviolence. Chinese Buddhism merged with teachings of Taoism and Confucianism in producing the strong cultural teachings that helped form China and its rich culture. One cannot understand modern China without an understanding of its Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist past. One of the great challenges of China's future is the way it assimilates its religious past and allows it to inform its future.
The Chinese New Year also has its own spiritual and cultural traditions, most of which are not known in the West.
The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar (like the Hebrew calendar). The problem with all lunar calendars is that 12 lunar months are about 11 days shorter than the 365 days of the solar calendar. So in a lunisolar calendar, extra days or months are periodically included so that the holidays always occur during the same time of year. For Muslims, who have a pure lunar calendar, this is not a problem, and their holy month of Ramadan floats through the solar year. Chinese New Year always begins at the end of January or early February.
Like all cultures with religious traditions, folk customs and superstitions attach themselves to New Year's celebrations. Modern Chinese folk, like modern heirs to any ancient tradition, have in many cases abandoned these customs, but they add folk texture to the lives of many Chinese this week.
Some of the intriguing superstitions and taboos of Chinese New Year include not sweeping (might sweep out good luck), not eating porridge (porridge is poor food), not eating meat for breakfast (a token of respect for vegetarian Buddhist traditions), not washing hair for the first two days of the New Year (do nothing to wash away good fortune), no needle work (so as not to injure oneself or others), and a married daughter is generally not allowed to visit the house of her parents but is supposed to visit their house on the second day of the New Year. Red is a lucky color, so red clothes are worn during the New Year. Gifts are put in red bags and given in pairs.
Chinese customs include holiday foods like: fish, dumplings, spring rolls, noodles, rice balls and orange fruit, all of which are round, long or fish-shaped. Fish are plentiful and thus represent prosperity. Many other cultures seem to have also adopted the "round is good" philosophy of holiday foods. In Judaism, for example, the New Year's challah bread is baked into a round shape.
The most ancient custom of the Chinese New Year that most non-Chinese folk are familiar with is that each year is connected to one of 12 zodiac animals: goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig (this year), rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake and horse.
So now you know. The reason for this week's column was not just my joy at wishing another great world culture my admiration and blessings for a Gong Hei Fat Choy, "Happy and Prosperous New Year," but so that all of you dear Chinese readers of my column can tell your families and friends, "Rabbi Marc Gellman just wished us a joyous and prosperous year of the pig."
Now that is interfaith love!