Psychologists from APA Division 36, Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, attend meetings in China

Six psychologists traveled to Renmin University of China for a symposium on the social scientific study of religion.

By Kevin L. Ladd, PhD

On July 10-14, 2012, six psychologists representing APA Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) traveled to Renmin (People‘s) University of China in Beijing to meet with sociologists attending the 9th Symposium of the Social Scientific Study of Religion convened by Minzu University of China. In addition to a formal greeting from Chris Boyatzis, President of Division 36, and a variety of official statements from other attendees at the opening ceremony, I presented a formal greeting from APA CEO Norman Anderson and 2012 APA President Suzanne Bennett Johnson.

The next day, the sociologists (nearly all 90 were Chinese) and the psychologists (10 in total) divided into separate groups for sessions. A strong feature of this arrangement was that the U.S. and Chinese scholars each had approximately 60 minutes to present their work and answer subsequent questions. This intimate setting allowed a depth of engagement that is unusual in academic gatherings. Presented topics included the conceptualization of prayer; religion and spirituality in the midst of stress, trauma and pain; religion and spirituality as significant domains of human functioning; a relation between Buddhist principles and psychotherapy; a study of Chan/Zen meditation; building a spiritual social service system in China; and brain activity during Buddhist meditation. As these topics reveal, there was no specific theme that guided the exchanges. Instead, presenters offered summaries of their previous work along with suggestions or concerns about how that work might translate into other cultural settings. This was a good strategy to expose the various research teams to some of the depth and breadth of topics under consideration in the two countries.

One point that emerged in the talk of LIU Jitong centered on his role in working with a Chinese ministry to expand the national network of social workers/counselors. He indicated that within the next few years, part of his task was to develop programs for these professionals that would include spiritual sensitivity training. This is a significant modification to the typical Chinese training and will be intriguing to watch as it emerges.

(From left to right): WEI Dedong, JoAnn C. Tsang, William L. Hathaway, Amy Wachholtz, Daniel N. McIntosh, ZHU Caifang, and Kevin L Ladd at Renmin University of China (Back row): WEI Dedong, ZHU Caifang, JoAnn C. Tsang, Amy Wachholtz, YAO Ping, LIU Jitong (Front row): Daniel N. McIntosh, Kevin L Ladd, HO David Y.F., William L. Hathaway

Across the presentations and external discussions, it became clear that Freudian and Transpersonal psychological positions were well represented in the Chinese training. If this is true beyond the small sample of faculty and students with whom we interacted, then it represents a theoretical divergence since these orientations are embraced by a minority of U.S. psychologists.

The Chinese hosts graciously arranged for our delegation to visit three important sites. The first site was the Yong He Gong Lamasery, one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The Abbott (referred to as Abbott HU) is a Tibetan who has been in Beijing for many years. WEI Dedong has taught courses here for quite some time and is clearly a close friend of the Abbott. We had a roughly 15 minute, translated conversation with the Abbott in his private meeting room. There were multiple points of contact that could have been easily expanded upon had time been available.

The second site was a Catholic Church (founded in the early 1600s) popularly known as the nantang, literally meaning "the south church." The priest's name is ZHEN Xuebin and nun's family is YIN. She is of Manchu ethnic minority but adopts a Chinese name of Han nationality as most of the ethnic minority people do.

The third site we visited was a Taoist monastery known as Baiyun Guan, literally meaning "white cloud monastery." A Taoist scholar or scholar-practitioner (Dr. YIN) spoke with us for roughly 30 minutes on the history of the monastery and its current position within the society. WEI Dedong has taught courses in this location as well.

In each of these locations, the delegation benefited greatly from ample time for discussion with the various leaders about the state of mental health care and the ways in which Division 36 might be able to support the current work.

Among other outcomes of the conference, WEI Dedong and ZHU Caifang are coordinating translation of the papers by the U.S. scholars into Mandarin for subsequent publication through Renmin University Press. This particular venture suggests great promise for additional interaction between Division 36, APA generally and these Chinese universities. We hope this brief report encourages you to work through your Division as well to become more involved in international interactions with China and elsewhere.