Thursday, March 6, 2014

Graham on Confucius VI: Doing-One's-Best-For-Others

Scott Bradley

The Master said, 'Tseng-tzu, I have one thread running through my Way.' When the Master went out the disciples asked, 'What did he mean?' 'The Master's Way', said Tseng-tzu, 'is nothing but doing-one's-best-for-others (chung) and likening-to-oneself (shu)'.
(Analects 4/15)
In the previous post we considered some of the implications of "likening-to-oneself". This passage introduces the complementary idea of "doing-one's-best-for-others". Chung, Graham tells us, is formed by the graphs for "center" and "heart". It implies, then, a wholehearted concern for the welfare of others at the center of one's being.

If we were to take Confucianism to the laundry-mat and wash away its fixation with the restoration of an idealized past and its obsession with ritual and an immutable hierarchical social arrangement, all that would remain would be an amazing goodness and humanity. What is there here not to like?

Daoism found something; but its objection was not with the content of Confucian benevolence, but with its imposition as an ideal, and with the means to its realization. Daoism essentially replies, If benevolence is natural to and a fulfillment of humanity, then it will arise in being natural. We need not pursue it, and especially need not impose it on ourselves or others, for to do so would be to kill it in the womb. Only when benevolence is 'forgotten' does it have space to grow and to flourish; for this, and every other virtue, is only a virtue when spontaneously expressed. This is the essential Daoist formula: the sage does this, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is her nature to do so. The mediation of mind kills true virtue.

Graham distinguishes between these two, explaining that chung is a Confucian virtue, while shu is "a form of analogical thinking". I think we can understand this difference in saying that "doing-one's-best-for-others" is the actual behavioral outcome, the goal, while "likening-to-oneself" is the method for understanding how to do so. The Zhuangzi says the sage has no use for methods, however, and this brings us back to the idea of spontaneity.

We might ask ourselves, however, if the ideal Daoist sage and his spontaneity are not similarly ideals which, though desirable, are not our present reality and are thus an imposition. Does one then purposely try to be spontaneous? That would be other than spontaneous. Alas, I feel compelled to abandon my self-imposed orthodoxy and admit that, while ideal formulas may be helpful, the road we actually walk is a rutted and sometimes overgrown one.

Accommodation, living life in its inherent messiness, always seems to emerge for me as the most authentic way to proceed. There is ample room in my heart, therefore, for the Confucian vision as well as the Zhuangzian.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Smile (For Crying Out Loud)

Trey Smith

Yesterday, our apartment complex was assaulted -- yes, assaulted! -- by something far worse than locusts or the plague. We were assaulted by people carrying bibles!

I don't think they saw me as I was in my car getting ready to drive to the grocery store. I heard them talking strategy before marching themselves into the courtyard. One woman said to another woman and a fellow, "Remember, we are here to spread the Good News." All three nodded and, I think, said little prayers under their breaths.

What I find hysterically ironic is that not one of them wore a smile on their face. Each one looked as if she/he was off to get a proctological exam. How in the heck did any one of these three believe they could convince anyone of the so-called "Good News" when each one of them looked so dour?

Graham on Confucius V: Likening-To-Oneself

Scott Bradley

There are several instances in the Analects when Confucius or one of his disciples tells us what is "the single thread" that runs throughout his teaching. It is not often that we are given such a clear summary of a philosophy and thus it behooves us to consider the implications of this one: "Tzu-Kung asked, 'Is there a single word which one could act on all one's life?' The Master said, 'Wouldn't it be likening-to-oneself (shu)? What you do not yourself desire do not do to others.'" (15/24)

This so-called negative statement of the Golden Rule (Jesus's "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") is as equally powerful as the 'positive' rendering and, from the point of view of Daoism, perhaps even more so. Rather than "doing" anything to anyone, which for Daoism is likely to be an imposition whatever the motivation, how much better to just leave them alone. Both, in any case, are easily manipulated by the justifying mind — we might just as easily tell ourselves that we would want the criticism that we so anxiously wish to dump on someone else. For this to be truly effective it would seem to require, therefore, that we first have a deep and honest understanding of ourselves.

The difference between the rule of Confucius and Jesus is that for the former it essential and for the latter incidental. Jesus might have wanted to be a moral teacher, but having been declared a savior, his moral teachings were rendered secondary. (Which is probably why most his followers seem immune to the implications of that moral teaching.) For Confucius, on the other hand, living in social harmony was the greatest value that humanity could pursue — Heaven could take care of itself. When asked about life after death, he replied that since his interlocutor had yet to learn how best to live, what business had he worrying about death? This presupposes that death and its consequences are universally and inevitably the same. I know I harp on the issue, but the absence of a belief in the need for 'salvation' (whether of the Christian-Islamic variety or of the Buddhist/Hindu variety) completely transforms our perspective on how to go about making the most of this life. At the very least, 'spiritual' pursuit becomes optional, and no "Truth" need be imposed upon others (for their own good, of course).

This "likening-to-oneself" implies an understanding that everyone else is to his- or herself as each one of us is to our own selves. I am the center of the Universe; but then there are approximately seven billion similar centers, as well. We might be One, but we are also necessarily many. This is the working-paradigm and 'larger view' of Zhuangzi — since each is a self-contained microcosm of right/wrong, and there being no known absolute Truth of the matter, then we can enjoy ours (walking one road) while allowing others to have theirs (walking a second road). The larger view, then, is an acknowledgement of the diversity of human expression, rather than an attempt to unify all expressions under the single banner of Truth.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Here, Gone, Back

Trey Smith

For 3 months, KOSW-LP was my second home. Then I was gone for about 2 1/2 weeks. I thought this experiment was over and finished. But then a funny thing happened. The two managers (volunteers just like everyone else up there) -- who had seemed to make it their sole purpose in life to hassle me and one other volunteer -- suddenly quit. Together they had precipitated a financial crisis and, rather than deal with the fallout they had created, both walked away to leave the mess for others to have to resolve.

With these two blokes out of the way, I was welcomed back into the fold. I picked up right where I left off. In fact, I am somewhat producing the new morning show. The only drawback is that I have to arrive at the station around 6 am each morning. It is not as bad as it sounds since I no longer seem to be a night owl anymore -- having two dogs that need to be walked early will do that to a fellow!

Graham on Confucius IV: Humanism

Scott Bradley

Man is able to enlarge the Way, it is not that the Way enlarges man.
(Analects 15/29)
This celebrated quote from Confucius, taken as a starting point, has profound implications. Understanding Confucius as the 'father' of classical Chinese philosophy, as the one who got the ball rolling as it were, we begin to see many threads of his thought are perpetuated in the weave of even those philosophies which were conscious attempts to break from him. What we see here, despite his arch-conservatism and appeals to a feudal, hierarchical past, is Confucius' profound humanism. The point is the betterment of humanity, and there is no better way to achieve that end than to look to what humanity as manifest requires.

Graham offers this quote as an example of Confucius' apparent disinterest in Heaven as a meddling power. This is clearly implied, but it needs to be said that "Way" (Dao), for Confucius, had little, if any, metaphysical significance; the Way is simply the means by which humanity is able to achieve its natural fulfillment.

What is significant is that 'Heaven' does not give us commandments to obey — tell us how we ought to behave; rather, we discover what works best for humanity through a study of humanity. This is essential humanism, and the antithesis of religion. Such an orientation is hard to sustain, however, given our hunger for absolutes. Neo-Confucianism was (I think) an attempt to provide those absolute guiding principles (li) and thus a departure from the empirical and existential.

My recent critique of Jed McKenna's emphatic declaration of the Truth was largely inspired by his similar departure from the "Drift and Doubt" of an existential Dao. The central question is whether we are to engage with life as it is manifest, a process that will yield a rather messy assortment of 'truths', or are we to impose Truth upon humanity from above. (McKenna, admittedly, arrived at the Truth through existential struggle, but so too might we say of every other religious prophet; except for 'true believers', his is but another "contending voice" which has no more weight than any other.) Philosophical Daoism, for all its criticism of Confucian moralism, perhaps remains the most faithful to his most fundamental humanist point of departure.

On the personal front, this quote exhorts us to "enlarge" our own ways. Finding what works best for us individually, and honestly engaging in the process it suggests, will ultimately "enlarge" us. This is the life "examined", which, though it need not be done, makes for the exciting adventure that life can be — for those so inclined.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Graham on Confucius III: Wu Wei

Scott Bradley

In his discussion of de in Confucius, Graham points out that he "even" uses the term wu wei, "not-doing": "One who put in order by doing nothing, would that not be Shun? What is there that he did? Just assumed a respectful posture and faced south." (Analects 15:5)

Here we begin to see how these two terms complement each other. De, according to Graham, meant for Confucius "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." "Doing through not-doing" is thus the exercise of de.

Here, as elsewhere generally, we see that these things are thought to be important because of their political effectiveness. The point was made earlier, but it bears repeating: Classical Chinese philosophy always had the central political aim of the improvement of society. This is because humanity is always understood as social and communal. Even with the 'corrective' introduction of the individualism of Zhuangzi, this orientation is never lost. Indeed, if, as Confucius believed, de and wu wei are necessary requirements for good governance, then their further development by 'Laozi' and Zhuangzi are a re-iteration and deepening of that understanding.

Only for Zhuangzi, it is taken to a new level; if it is true of our communal experience that things change for the better when given the space to do so, so also in our own personal pilgrimages. Once again, we are reminded of his exhortation to "just be empty". Emptiness is never understood outside the context of fullness, however, but as the pre-condition of fullness. The point of wu wei, not-doing, is to get things done. Space is given for things to happen.

Put in the context of current political thought, de/wu wei equate to: "Be change." What is assumed in such an exhortation is that being different makes a difference. This making a difference implies much more than just 'doing one's part', but also implies bringing change to others. How? Through de.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Graham on Confucius II: De

Scott Bradley

The little word de (te), best known as part of the title of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), has presented translators with many a headache. The main problem is not so much with finding the right equivalent word, though that poses one, but with understanding what it means in the first place. Graham offers a definition for its use by Confucius which might profitably be taken as the foundation for every other subsequent usage: "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." Here is a concept, an orientation, through which the entirety of the classical Chinese philosophic enterprise can be brought into focus.

A curious thing about classical Chinese philosophy is that it is always political. Yes, even philosophical Daoism, the supposedly "quietist" philosophy of hermits and drop-outs, is profoundly political. The most celebrated 'Daoist' work, the Daodejing, is a manual for rulers on how best to rule. And even Zhuangzi, who is said to have refused political office so he could, like a free turtle, drag his tail in the mud, does so, in part, that he might more effectively "move others without exerting physical force."

On the face of it, it seems so obvious that philosophy would always be a political enterprise. That it has often attempted to be otherwise in the West (though, in the end, nothing is not political) is in itself telling. We are, after all, communal beings. Confucius understood everything in this context. Personal ethics could not be abstracted from the network of human relationships. The point was to be a better human being so as to make for a better society. Were he to run for office today, it would be under the banner of "family values".

Zhuangzi is noteworthy for his individualism; he introduced the value of one's own self-realization outside the context of societal conventions, a personal freedom from dependence upon esteem and merit. But never is this forgetful (even when forgotten) of the benefits that accrue to society generally. The freak of "discombobulated de" is identified as praiseworthy precisely because that de extends to the material benefit of many others.

A species of fish spit on each other when the pond goes dry, Zhuangzi tells us, but how much better when there is enough water for them to forget each other in the rivers and the lakes. The best thing one person can do for another, except in situations of distress, is to leave them to find their own unique expression. De tells us, however, that this apparent gap of disinterest and forgetting is in fact spanned by what Graham calls a "charisma" that assists without assisting. It is, in part, respect for personal context, the affirming gift of allowing others to be themselves.

For Zhuangzi, as for Laozi, it is the empty space that gives value to the whole, as a window makes for the usefulness of a room, or as the realization of inner emptiness (qi) allows for light to enter the heart-mind. De is a quality that, like emptiness, gives things space to be and grow.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Graham on Confucius I: Graham First

Scott Bradley

This series will be responses to A. C. Graham's Disputer's of the Tao: Philosophic Argument in Ancient China, a standard treatment of the subject often quoted by sinologists. Ancient China, in this case, refers to the "classical period" (roughly 500-200 BCE), and includes Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, Legalism, 'Sophism', Yin-Yang, and others.

First, a purely subjective take on Graham himself. Even though many scholars are in strong disagreement with many of his conclusions, all express their differences with respect and deference to his position as a pillar of Western sinology. He was considered a 'good' human being, as well as a great scholar. Both these assessments are beyond my ability to determine one way or the other, though I take them at face value.

Based on my own reading, however, I do have two criticisms to offer. The first is that he tends to take his conclusions beyond the limits of scholarship, formulating opinions that are subsequently expressed as facts upon which to form still other opinions, all under the guise of 'scholarship'. The classic example is his re-editing of the Zhuangzi, moving passages from one chapter to another, while expunging others. The exercise itself is not without merit, but the tentative and speculative character of his opinions is often forgotten in favor of later definitive statements. Throughout the work now under consideration, similar questionable interpretive overlays are frequent. One must therefore be careful to sort out the fact from opinion.

Secondly, and more quibblingly, I frequently find his sentences unnecessarily opaque. Sometimes just a comma helps, but often I am at a loss to decipher his intended meaning, no matter how simple. I find myself asking, a bit like Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "The English language, do you write it?" Perhaps it just comes down to syntactical differences between British (his) and American English; or perhaps I am just dull-witted.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.