The randomness of fate spares none of us. All we can endeavour is not to make life more complicated than it is. The world is fragmented so are its inhabitants. As we carry on doing the things that we do in the hope that we have a good life, we experience happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, anger, disappointments and anxiety. When we are confronted with conflicts and quandaries, we believe that we have to be true to ourselves when we make our decisions. To me, life is about continuing education and finding some kind of balance and synergy with the universe and there is no perfect recipe.
In their book entitled The Path, Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross- Loh discuss the work of ancient Chinese philosophers and explain the wisdom imparted from the mid-first millennium B.C. thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi who make us rethink how we think and what we have come to believe.
The authors begin the book with chapters entitled the Age of Complacency and the Age of Philosophy and follow by discussing various Chinese philosophers under different headings : relationships, influence, vitality , spontaneity and humanity. Under the Age of Complacency, the authors explain that the title of the book comes from a concept the Chinese philosophers referred to often as the Dao, or the way. ‘The Way is not a harmonious “ideal” we must struggle to follow. Rather the Way is the path that we forge continually through our choices, actions, and relationships. We create the Way anew every moment of our lives.‘
On Relationships, the authors discuss Confucius and As-if Rituals. Confucius (551 to 479BC) taught that we can cultivate goodness through rituals and that we should concentrate on what we can do in the here and now to bring out the best in those around us. The authors explain that for Confucius, ancestor worship could better relationship between the deceased and the living that had been imperfect and fraught thus the as-if ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it. The ritual also changed the feelings of the living toward one another as family members gathered to perform the ritual.
The authors write,‘Of course , the ritual always ends. Family members walk out of the ritual space, and the moment they do, they are in the messy world again.Over time the fragile peace falls apart once more. Siblings squabble, cousins rebel, the father and son are still at odds with each other. That is why families returned to the ritual repeatedly. The fragile peace might crumble once they left the temple, but gradually, by doing the rituals again and again and re-creating these healthier connections, the improved relationships among the family members would begin to manifest more in daily life.’
The authors explain that “break” with reality is the key for allowing the participant to begin to work on their relationships. The authors make analogy to the as-if rituals that existed in European society where up to three centuries ago, social relations were still defined entirely by hereditary hierarchy. However as markets began to develop in the cities, rituals develop between buyers and sellers as if they were equal hence the “please” and “thank you” exchange in market places where the participants could experience a semblance of equality.
The authors write, ‘If we were always “true” to ourselves and behaved accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviours, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform.’‘Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behaviour, and they don’t alter their behavior unless they start with the small.’
‘Yet it is only once we conduct our lives with goodness that we gain a sense of when to employ rituals and how to alter them. This may sound circular, and it is. This very circularity is part of the profundity of his thought. There is no ethical or moral framework that transcends context and the complexity of human life. All we have is the messy world within which to work and better ourselves. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. Our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday. Only in the everyday can we begin to create truly great worlds.’
Just as the world is fragmented, we are too.We could think of ourselves as complex arrays of emotions , dispositions, desires, and traits that often pull us in different and contradictory ways. A Confucian approach is for us to make a conscious effort to break away from our usual emotional behaviour if we want to become better individuals and have better relationships.
On Decisions, the authors talk about Mencius ‘who would argue that the very things we believe to be true when we plan out our lives are also the things that, ironically, limit us. How we live and make decisions comes down to whether we believe we live in a world that is coherent and stable or one that is – as Mencius taught –unpredictable and capricious.‘
‘Mencius believed, the world is fragmented, in perpetual disorder, and in need of constant work.’And it is only when we understand that nothing is stable that we can make decisions and live our lives in the most expansive way.’
Mencius disagreed with his contemporary, Mozi on the belief that Heaven was a moral deity who laid out clear guidelines of right and wrong and humans would be rewarded if they did if not, they would be punished. “ Mencius found Mozi’s ideas would not result in a world of social harmony and universal caring. Instead , they would result in a near Pavlovian world where people had been conditioned to what they had to in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment. It would be a world , in fact ,in which people had been trained to think of their actions purely in terms of self- interest :What do I do to get what I want ? ‘
Mencius believed that the world is not coherent but capricious nonetheless we all have the potential to be good . To Mencius, ‘what set good people apart from others was that they had not lost touch with their emotional side, instead, they held on to and assiduously cultivated their emotional responses. And that was how they knew the right thing to do –the right decision to make – in any situation.’
‘It’s a very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am I?” and “How should I plan out my life?” Instead, we work constantly to alter things at a small, daily level and if we’re successful, we can build tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then , we continue to work. Our work – of bettering oneself and others to produce a better world – is never over.’
“In Mencius’ world, ming prevails. Ming has been translated variously as Heaven’s commands, fate, or destiny. But for Mencius, it was a term for the contingency of life : the events, good and bad, that happen outside our control. Ming explains that windfalls ( such as a job opening) and tragedies (such as a death) happen no matter what we have planned or intended.”
‘Good decisions are made when mind and heart are integrated.‘ Mencius spoke of the heart-mind to guide us . We must learn to work with whatever befalls us. ‘As Mencius tells us, “ One who really understands his ming does not stand beneath a falling wall. One who dies after fulfilling his way has corrected his destiny.”’
On Influence, the authors refer to the recipe for influence found in Chinese philosophical texts such as the Laozi, also known as the Dao de jing. It derives from appreciating the power of seeing weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated. Rather than think that power comes from strength prevailing over strength, we can understand that true power comes from understanding the connections between disparate things, situations, and people. Laozi in Chinese simply means “old master”. We don’t know when Laozi lived and there is debate over whether Laozi was the name of a real person.
The Way is about seeing the world as interconnected. The more we see that world as interconnected, the closer we come to the Way.
The Laozi ‘is not telling us that we should strive to be accepting and tranquil. It teaches a very different notion: that the Way is something we can actively generate ourselves, in the here and now. We each have the potential to become effective and influential in transforming the worlds in which we live. We can re-create the Way.
For Laozi, the Way is the original, ineffable, undifferentiated state that precedes everything. It is :a thing inchoate and complete, born before Heaven and earth. It is that from which everything in the cosmos emerges and to which everything in the cosmos returns.
And it exists on many levels. On an earthly level, the Way is akin to the ground.‘
The authors write,
‘ On a more cosmic level, the Way is akin to what modern physicists would say existed before the Big Bang, before the stars and galaxies emerged and the cosmos became differentiated. It was after the Big Bang that the cosmos became a series of differentiated elements governed by law of space, time , and causality.‘
In the chapter on Vitality : The Inward Training and Being like a Spirit, the authors write about how we can learn to refine our senses in order to see things clearly.‘
Music, poetry, art , and literature are composed of discrete elements such as words, notes, sounds, rhythms, and colours. The more we immerse ourselves in them, the more we understand how discrete things resonate with one another, just as qi resonates with qi. They represent how qi relates constantly to all of the other forms of qi around it – for better or for worse.’
In the chapter on spontaneity, the authors write about Zhuangzi and the famous story of the butterfly. ‘What if you were not merely a human being but were actually a butterfly dreaming you are a human being? What if we could transcend our humanity and know what it means to see the world from all perspectives, we could experience life more fully and spontaneously.’ According to the authors, for Zhuangzi, the Way was about embracing absolutely everything in its constant flux and transformation. ‘Zhuangzi referred to the terms yin and yang, or darkness and light, softness and hardness, weakness and strength. The Way , he argued , is a process of constant interactions between these two elements that seem to stand in opposition but actually complement each other.’
‘Grass grows, when it dies, it decomposes, and its qi is channeled into other things. Worms and bugs in the grass are eaten by birds, which in turns are eaten by larger birds or animals. These larger beasts, too, die over time, decay, become part of the earth, and transform into soil, grass, and other elements. Everything slowly becomes everything else in a cycle of endless change and transformation.’
But don’t be mistaken, spontaneity for Zhuangzi isn’t about doing whatever we want whenever we want. The authors explain,‘True spontaneity requires us to alter how we think and act in the world, to open ourselves up to endless flux and transformation all the time.’
Zhuangzi urge us to open ourselves up to the world, to the Muses in turn ‘to a river of creativity’. Zhuangzi’s trained spontaneity means thinking differently and shifting our perspectives and ‘freeing ourselves of a conscious mind that is by definition restricted to a single self‘ as’ our mind often gets in our way, causing us to battle against rather than flow with the Way.’
On Humanity : the authors write about Xunzi who famously likened human nature to a crooked piece of wood, one that had to be straightened forcibly from the outside. Xunzi who lived about two hundred fifty years after Confucius synthesized the works of all the thinkers who came before him as he would likely remind us ,’each of our personas is constructed. Even when we think we’re being natural and “real,” being like that is a choice, and thus it is a kind of artifice too.’
The authors write,‘Xunzi wanted us to harness the mind to improve upon our natural selves and our natural world and become the best human beings we can be.’
In ‘The Path’, Professor Michael and Dr Loh show how the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosophers can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about ourselves and about our future. In its foreword, the authors said, ‘none of these ideas are about ‘embracing yourself’ , ‘finding yourself,” or following a set of instructions to reach a clear goal In fact, they are the very antithesis of that sort of thinking .’
In a nutshell, the book tells us that the Chinese thinkers would be skeptical of the existence of a true self as they understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves and we form our personalities through everything we do and our interaction with things and others. We must be aware of our complexity and learn how to work with it through self- cultivation. The Path reminds us that we can achieve emotional stability and become better people by cultivating balance and alignment in our everyday ordinary living. In its last chapter entitled ‘ the Age of Possibility’, the authors write :
‘The process of building a better world never ends because our attempts to build better relationships are never finished. But as we learn how to better our relationships, we will learn how to alter situations and thereby create infinite numbers of new worlds. We will open ourselves up to the possibilities in these philosophical ideas that point the way to a good life.’
‘ If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. If we begin there, then everything is up to us.’
It is apparent that all these philosophers could not have agreed on one unified vision of the Way but they probably agreed that in the process of creating the path by offering differing views about the Way, our world and us have the potential to transform.
The Path is a commendable read.