Dr. Hong was a testimony of friendship throughout the world. He was rewarded with injustice, but his friends never abandoned him.
by Daniela Bovolenta*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Building Friendships Around the Tai Ji Men Cause,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 31, 2021.
Francis de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva who was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, wrote that friendship is “the most dangerous form of love.” In a real friendship, we open our hearts to our friends and become totally vulnerable. But the depth of this communication also offers great rewards.
In reflecting on the International Day of Friendship, celebrated yesterday, and the Tai Ji Men case, there are three images that come to my mind.
The first is Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the leader (shifu) of Tai Ji Men becoming Honorary Vice President of the Association of World Citizens in 2000, and its executive Vice President in 2012. The Association of World Citizens was founded by a well-known American peace activist, Douglas Mattern, in 1975, and was granted consultative status at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council.
It is appropriate to mention Dr. Hong’s role in the Association of World Citizens in this event because the organization founded by Douglas Mattern played an important role in the contemporary evolution of the concept of friendship.
Until the 19th century, friendship was a relationship with people we see often, and there was no political or cultural notion of a “friendship between the world’s peoples.” This notion was born among philosophers and esoteric masters, such as Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, who wanted to promote a universal friendship going beyond the differences in religion and culture. But it quickly became an ideological slogan, used by socialist political parties and later appropriated by the Soviet Union, which made it suspicious to many.
The Association of World Citizens was one of the organizations that promoted the idea that, while the friendship between states or nations may be just a rhetorical, hardly believable formula, what was possible was the friendship between individual persons of different nations, religions, and cultures. Creating opportunities to develop these individual friendships, Mattern believed, may eventually lead, without the need of grand proclamations, to a better understanding between different countries.
This leads me to the second image, the Bell of World Peace and Love, something I have only seen in pictures and videos and hope to see one day in person. The bell has a spiritual significance in many Eastern and Western religions. Dr. Hong designed and supervised the construction of the Bell, which was first rung in Singapore in the year 2000. Today, two Bells exist and tour the world, or did it before COVID-19. Tai Ji Men invites world political, cultural, and religious leaders to ring them.
The Bell’s stand has five colors: green, red, yellow, white, and blue. They represent the harmony of the five continents, as well as the five elements according to Chinese tradition, wood, fire, water, metal, and earth. On the top of the bell there is a crystal ball, “the Dragon Fireball.” The crystal ball is sustained by two dragon-head, symbolizing justice, strength, and wisdom. On the top of the Bell are the eight trigrams of the Chinese classic I Ching, the Book of Changes.
Around the top of the Bell is inscribed the text of “Love of the World, A Declaration of Peace.” The body of the Bell displays four kinds of animals: the mythical one-horned qilin, messengers of stability and prosperity; lions playing with a ribbon ball, symbols of safety and happiness; phoenixes, a celestial symbol of peace; and dragons chasing a pearl, signifying harmony and the search for a world free of pain and fear. On the four sides of the bell, a decoration includes sixteen knobs, for a total of sixty-four knobs, representing the sixty-four laws of the nature. The Bell also displays the signatures of the world leaders who rang it.
Around the Bell, genuine friendships were born. Some saw the Bell only once, but carried the memory with them. Others became regular participants in the Bell events, and these friendships generate a movement for interreligious and intercultural dialogue that was noticed by the United Nations and other international organizations. As an Italian and a Roman Catholic, I would take this opportunity to remember Bishop Camillo Ballin, Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, who died in 2020. He rang the Bell of Peace with Dr. Hong, and is remembered as a great defender of the rights of Arab Catholics, and scholar of oriental Catholic liturgies.
There is a great contrast between the festive image of young people and celebrities gathering around the Bell and Tai Ji Men dizi protesting in the streets of Taipei against the injustice of the tax case. I cannot help thinking that some of the young people involved may be the same, smiling and performing dances and songs around the Bell and protesting in the streets, going from joy to sadness.
This is, however, what friendship is all about. These dizi whose youth, as the title of a book they published say, was stolen became friends in good times and bad times. Friends for the good times only are not real friends. Friendship cemented through hardship and suffering is real, and may change the world.