Preparing to Learn: Emptying Your Cup

There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.

Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.

Tea Time: Westernization of Japanese Culture

Tea time is one of my favorite parts of our daily schedule at the temple. We all gather around a fireplace usually after cleaning the temple or eating to relax and enjoy some tea and food. It is also one of the least strict activities at the temple, the only rule is that we sit in seiza at the beginning when we greet everybody, then we can change to whatever comfortable sitting position. At Fumonken (the temple I’m staying at), it is very relaxed and everybody is telling jokes and laughing. I’ve also learned many interesting things about how Japanese culture has shifted after Japan’s push to westernization.

In Japan, many words are starting to be adopted from English. Especially among younger people, it can be seen as cooler to use the adopted English words rather than the original Japanese words. Osho-san gave us an example: “architecture” in Japanese is 建築 (kenchiku), but more people are starting to say it in Japanglish, pronouncing the English syllables in Japanese (something like arkitekchoru). Representing the words like this is called katakana, and we were talking about how this was bad because while Japanese people can read it (like letters in an alphabet), the etymology and meaning behind the original kanji characters is lost. Like in Chinese, every character has a history behind it, so in a sense, Japanese history is being lost as more and more people replace original characters with empty syllables.

Another interesting thing we talked about was how the philosophy of Japanese education has changed. From Tao, Zen, and even Japanese marital arts, 守破離 (shu ha ri, each character roughly meaning follow/obey, detach/break, leave/separate) describes the stages of learning to mastery. How it goes is that a student strictly follows the rules of their master, eventually getting to the point of mastery where they can break those rules and surpass their master. Nowadays, most people think about 破離 (ha ri), the 守 is dropped – there is no more obeying. Osho-san said that Japanese people started to focus more and more on talent (very Western) and forgo the discipline of following the rules. “If there is no more following, what are they supposed to break from?” But staying at a traditional zen temple, the important dedication to obeying rules is very clear.

fireplace-tea-time

Zen: Dealing With Pain

The first obstacle most people face when meditating is pain, well at least it is for me. But I never thought I would be able to overcome it from the sound of water droplets. The water fountain was full from the morning rain, and throughout our evening zazen we could hear water dropping from the bamboo pipe to the basin.

sam-shih-fumonken-fountain
The fountain (on the left)

Drip, drip, drip.

My knees are killing me, I’m starting to lose feeling in my feet.

Drip, drip, drip.

I need to shift my legs, I can’t stand the pain anymore.

Drip, drip, drip.

I’m listening to the water, and I realize that I’m not thinking too much about the water like I am with my pain. It’s as if the water is passing by me through time. I hear it – then when it stops, I let it go.

Drip, drip, drip.

Wait, why don’t I treat my pain like this? My pain is just like the water, I feel it, then let it go. Almost instantly (and kind of scarily), my obsession with the pain dropped. It’s like when you are sitting at a cafe and you hear other people chatting around you. You don’t dramatize the chatter, you just hear it and accept it as a part of the background. The biggest thing for me was not making such a big deal out of the pain – before I would be complaining about how long I’ve been sitting, plotting how to move my legs as silently as possible. However, I just needed to treat the pain like the drops of water I was hearing.

It was also at this time that I realized I’ve been doing meditation incorrectly all my life. I’ve grown up with Vipassana meditation, and one of the major things we learn to do while meditating was to mentally note the sensations in out bodies.

Hearing, hearing, smelling, smelling, pain, pain.

But now, I believe I’ve been thinking about noting pain incorrectly. I’ve heard teachers tell me that as you noted the pain, it would eventually go away. So then I started to think of the noting as a way to ease the pain. I would be noting “pain, pain, pain…” ultimately hoping that the pain would go away. I started to get frustrated if the pain didn’t go away, was I meditating correctly? The purpose of noting is to detach yourself from the sensations that are arising.

Think about why it is so easy to just accept the dripping of water and the chatter in a cafe: they are easy to pass by because they are not a part of you, you don’t own them. So to do the same for pain, you can not think that you own the pain. The pain is not part of yourself, and thinking about it as cafe chatter really helps. And ultimately, we’ll want to detach from our bodies and leave behind our notions of the “self” (anattā, Pali).

Zen: Fixing sleep issues

“Why do you sit zazen with your eyes open?”

“Because if your eyes are closed, you are too focused on yourself.”

“A lady once asked a zen master for help because she had trouble sleeping. He told her to spread open her arms and legs, open her eyes and mouth as wide as possible – open all holes in her body. She was then able to sleep.”

That night during zazen, I was not having trouble sleeping, but rather I had a lot of pain in my knees from sitting. The more I focused on the pain, the more intense it seemed, I felt like I was going to go crazy from the pain. So I decided to give the story a try. I couldn’t spread my legs open, but I opened my mouth, nose, eyes, and hands as wide as possible. Rather than trying to ignore the pain by focusing on something else, opening everything intensified my senses. My nose picked up the strong scent of tatami mats, I saw everything in the garden in front of me, I heard the silence in the room, and I could feel myself sitting on the zafu (cushion).

fumonken panorama
Panorama of Fumonken’s Zazen room facing the garden

But the pain in my knees did not go away, it was there with everything else. However, I did not know if the pain increased or went away – I knew there was pain and that was it. This opened me to a whole new dimension of this quote:

 

Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right here in the imperfection is perfect reality. – Shunryu Suzuki

The pain certainly did not go away, which would have been the ideal (yet unreal) solution. Opening all my senses allowed me to take in everything around me, including the pain, and for the first time I felt like I was alive, the perfect reality. I then started to understand why this would help you go to bed. Are you starting to see the connection too?

People that have trouble sleeping are probably too in their heads while they are lying in bed. Having a monkey-like mind jumping around keeps us awake. Yet spreading open your body, feeling every muscle stretch in your face, feeling your back on the firm mattress, hearing the wind blowing from outside puts you in the present reality (sounds pretty cliche, but one can really only understand by doing). This brought me back to the very first thing Oshō-san (the head monk) told me when I initially arrived:

Knowledge is action.

Then it also hit me, chopping wood is in fact the same thing as zazen. Like Chuang Tzu’s Cook Ting story (I talk about it in this post about Confucianism and Tao), when you have been chopping wood for a long time, you let go of the distinction between you and the knife. Like Cook Ting, you let go of the distinction between you, the knife, and the ox. Like in zazen, you let go of the distinction between you (self), the pain, and the environment. You accept everything simply as they are.

fumonken-screens
Evening zazen, with closed shoji (sliding screen doors)

 

First day in a Zen Temple

When I first arrived, the head monk greeted me and told me to sit down and have some tea.

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“Knowledge is action, do you understand?”

“Not really.”

“Sometimes people keep asking why we do this, why we put our chopsticks on the table at this angle, why we sit like this. But just do as I do. Bow over here, bow over here, sit in seiza like this, ok?”

“Ok.”

After, I met Sho-san, a 27 year old monk who has been staying at this temple for four years now.

Eto… follow me, I will show you your temple job.”

My temple job would be chopping firewood, burning it to heat up the bath, and cleaning the bath. He showed me how to cut and burn the wood, then gave me a tour around the temple. There was a distinct smell of tatami mats, and the temple looked like it was straight out of a stock photo, with sliding screens that opened to beautiful trees and scenery.

After the tour, we had tea time where I got to learn more about Sho-san. He was from Hiroshima and was a university student until he decided to come to Fumonken to practice Zen. He was covered in sweat from sweeping the temple grounds and had a serious yet happy expression resting on his face. He asked me a lot about America as we enjoyed the tea.

At dinner, I met two other people staying at the temple – Clara (born in France), and Eh-san (finished high school 2 years ago and came to live in the temple). There were a lot of rules when eating dinner: we had to eat three chopstick-fulls worth of rice before we could eat anything else, scoop every dish two times, use a pickle to wash our bowls, and eat three rounds of food with everybody. What surprised me was that everybody ate extremely fast, I had to rush to keep up with them. After about 10 minutes, my legs started to feel numb from sitting in seiza, but we had around 20 minutes left. I was trying to shift my weight to relieve the pain in my legs, and they laughed, saying that I would eventually get the hang of it.

During tea time after dinner, the head monk and I talked a lot about Eastern vs Western ideas.

“The West is concerned with obtaining knowledge: there is a self, and an object. (self), and (other). The West also has 理想 (ideals), that is why many go to universities to study.”

“The East is concerned with 本來 (the natural, original) . There is no dualism in the world. When you chop wood, you first think that the axe is an object outside yourself. But there is no separation, when you keep cutting wood, the axe and you are the same thing.”

(not/non-), if you keep practicing zen, you will get to the point where you accept everything as it is and do not care. But this is not the goal, there is no goal. If there is a goal, that means there is a start. But this is dualistic. It is like (in Taoism, process).”

I was trying to teach back to him to try to understand it better myself. “Let’s keep talking, the more we talk, the more I am starting to understand.”

“Yes, knowledge is action.”

Then he told me more examples and stories before we took our baths and got ready for zazen. This was definitely the most painful part of the night. We had three consecutive 30-minute sessions with about a 30 second stretch break in between each session. We do zazen with our eyes open, because if we close our eyes we become too focused with ourselves. Sitting in hankahuza (half-lotus), there was alternating pains in each leg, and that wasn’t the best feeling in the world.

The next morning, we woke up at 4 AM to sweep the outer and inner temple grounds. Then after breakfast, we had tea time where I learned about Eh-san’s history. He was 20 years old, and was failing high school because he was playing too much Puzzles and Dragons (smartphone game) and watching too much Youtube. He called himself a NEET (Not Employed Educated Training). The principal told his mother that he would not graduate, so then she set Eh-san to a temple to discipline himself. Eh-san had to give up playing games and told me about how the most important part of zen was standing/bearing the pain in zazen.

“When I first started Zazen, it was very very very painful. But you have to stand it! Stand, stand stand. Don’t mind, don’t mind, don’t mind. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. Here I am 2 years.”

He thinks his mother started to regret sending him to a temple because Eh-san decided to start living at the temple.

“I realized that I needed this to get out of the ‘hell’ I was in.”

“When I ran out of stamina in Puzzles and Dragons, I would watch Youtube, when I was done watching YouTube, I would go chat. Puzzles and Dragons, Youtube, Chatting, it was a cycle.”

Damn, this reminded me a lot of the time when I used to play a lot of League of Legends.

Well, I did not expected the monastery to be like this, it was a lot more intense than I imagined. It was only the first day, and my legs are pretty sore already. These next ten days will be long.

fumonken-temple-kyoto
Fumonken Temple

Meditation in Kyoto, why now?

If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it? – Dōgen Zenji

In this post I’ll be talking about why I am staying in a monastery this summer.

Saying that I’m going to wait until I graduate college, make money, or whatever other event is like eating unhealthily for the next 30 years of my life, hoping that I will change to a healthy diet in the future and suddenly become healthy as I age and die. But we all know how that will turn out – eating like shit will become my lifestyle and I’ll up with a clogged artery before I’m even 50.

The same goes for nurturing a focused mind. I’ve been asked why I am doing these extended meditation retreats, they say that “you’re too young.” But it is too easy to get into sucked into the vortex of striving for success and money, and I’ll end up sitting on my rocking chair whining about how I’m too old. I am also prepared that I will not come out of a retreat with some new exotic wisdom. Meditation is not a one time thing, it is something that I have to incorporate into my everyday life in order to understand its benefits. Like many Zen masters have said – practicing zazen (Zen seated meditation) is in eating, sitting, sleeping, walking. To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point; we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism. (Sunryu Suzuki) The goal is to have an impenetrable awareness, Buddha mind, in every passing moment.

Suzuki mentions that there are something like 160 or so moments in every second. But the number doesn’t really matter, what matters is that I want to be able to discern those every moments. I’m starting to understand what Suzuki meant when he said to treat every moment as your last. It is not a preparation for something else.

Furthermore, I want to take this summer to start practicing the concept of the beginner’s mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but on the expert’s mind there are few. While I have come from a pretty extensive background of Theravada Buddhism, I don’t want to have some delusion that I already know everything, because I don’t. In fact, that’s part of why I wanted to practice a different school of Buddhism. For the past couple years, I also have had really bad neck pains, so sitting zazen for a couple hours at a time will definitely be very challenging. But instead of thinking about it as something that is holding me back, I will use my pain as the basis of my practice.

Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right here in the imperfection is perfect reality. – Suzuki

These next few weeks might not be the most fun; but after all, experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Happy Anniversary

Wow, it’s already been a year.

One year ago I started this blog, thinking that I would just write for myself. Never wanted to show it to anybody. I wrote because I knew it would help me understand myself better, understand why I chose to go to Swarthmore. I kept my blog private until my friend encouraged me to make it public, and you can bet I was embarrassed as hell – what was I thinking, writing about love. Before I dreaded writing, especially in the common app days. Now?  It is my foundation.

What excites me?

The fact that exactly one year ago, I could’ve never imagine myself as a writer, that I could bear writing alone when everybody else was doing other things. Staying up after doing homework to write, even writing to procrastinate from homework. But this is just the beginning. I took my last final today, and now my freshman year of college is over. I have changed so much in one year, and writing is something I never imagined I would be doing. I am excited about what I will become in the future. Will I continue writing, stay in college, do something completely different? Who cares, what I have learned is that it doesn’t matter. If I held my preconceived idea of what I would be doing in 5 years, no way would I be writing in my free time. I would probably be forcing myself to make some programming side projects. What comes to mind are two professors from Swarthmore – Barry Schwartz and Steven Hopkins. When asked why they decided to pursue psychology or religion, they said that they didn’t really choose it. They tried it out and fell in love with those subjects.

Almost none of the big decisions I have made in my life felt like decisions. I applied for one job what was my decision? Do I take it or not take it? So I fell in love with psychology as a freshmen in college—I never in some sense decided to be a psychology major; there was no “Plan B.” I was really enthusiastic about it so I took as much psychology as I could and I was a psychology major. So it feels to me that most of the things that looking back were decisions felt at the time more like things that happened to me rather than things that I chose. – Barry Schwartz (interview)

So my answer to the question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? I don’t know, and I don’t think it really matters. I will continue putting all my effort into the things that interest me, and if those interests change, I will simply shift my efforts. I’m open to change, and I will take things as they come.

My Biggest Change

I came into college thinking that everybody had some sort of plan, and the purpose of college was to pursue those plans. College was a time to be selfish, do everything for ourselves. Define ourselves by our successes, build up a reputation, develop personality traits that will eventually become marketable business skills. Every action was chosen because it would benefit me in the future. Or as the Little Prince would say, everything was a matter of consequence. But learning for the sake of learning then became an empty phrase that I said to distinguish myself from others.

In my freshmen year of college, I have transitioned from wanting a successful life to a meaningful one. And living a meaningful life means being open and vulnerable. Now I am noticing a transition from a sense of identity defined by what I do for myself, to one defined by what I do in relation to other people. I thought that life was about building myself up to be the best, but it is others that make life fun and significant. Life’s not about optimizing. What exactly is the “best”? Nobody knows the answer to these questions, and you will torture yourself if you are committed to finding the best.

A lot of my thinking has been influenced by the Lun Yu – I feel like I have grown to understand what it really means to do something for the sake of doing it. Again, when I first started writing in this blog and my personal journal, I wrote because I knew that writing would give me benefits – understanding, writing skills, etc. But now I write because writing is fucking wonderful. 

So now as summer arrives, it’s time to keep things moving (and cut all the weight I’ve gained from my bulk :P). I have changed so much over the past year, and I’m not done yet. I’ll be headed to Kyoto, Japan and Shanxi, China to practice meditation alone in some monasteries. Planning out my summer plans reminded me of my mom’s disapproval and fear when I told her I was committing to Swarthmore. But I know that I would’ve never grown like this if I hadn’t come here. Maybe I should just continue doing the things she is scared of in order to grow. But on a more serious note, my mom is really an indicator of my comfort, and going against her will probably bite me in the ass in the future.

But when that does happen, you better believe that I’ll be writing about it here.

The Little Prince

Now that finals are starting and classes are over, I have time to sit down with a book, read, and write. My friend recommended The Little Prince, a book many say should be read at least three times – once when you are young, again when you are an adult, and finally when you are old.

One of the first themes the story hits you with is the loss of (seemingly innocent) creativity and imagination as you grow old. In college, I am seeing this pattern unfold right in front of me, even happening within myself.

I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man–he is a mushroom!

“Sorry I can’t spend time with you, I have to study!” It feels that the older I get, the faster time passes. I remember when I used to think that the 4 years of high school lasted an eternity. Now 1 year of college has gone by like a breeze. It seems that competitive schools are a pipeline into the rat race for more money and status, things that allow us to put on a face of pride. But the loss of creativity the story presents isn’t the only thing adults lose as they grow older. What’s important isn’t some ability to arbitrarily imagine that this hat looking drawing is actually a boa that has swallowed an elephant (or something crazy like seeing dead people in a blotch of spilled ink.

little-prince-hatlittle-prince-boa-elephant

The sad reality is growing up and getting preoccupied with what we think are “matters of consequence.” Regardless of whatever these matters of consequence are: going to college so that you can make more money, befriending this person so you can get professional connections, reading a book so you can get something out of it, I think the problem lies in the very consequences you see in whatever activity you are getting yourself into. This actually relates a lot to the practice of zazen meditation in Buddhism. If you sit with the intention of getting enlightened, you will in fact never get enlightened. As we grow older, we stop doing things for what they areEverything becomes a matter of consequence.


The story’s idea of taming stuck with me because of how intimately it describes love and beauty.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”
“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing.
Because she is my rose.
“Only the children know what they are looking for,” said the little prince. “They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; and if anybody takes it away from them, they cry . . .”
Taming the fox, having patience and spending time with him, is what distinguishes him from all the other foxes in the world. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

 

It is difficult to put in words a review (if you suppose) of this book because there are still many metaphors and messages I don’t understand. For instance, why the snake speaks in riddles in Chapter 17:

“You move me to pity–you are so weak on this Earth made of granite,” the snake said. “I can help you, some day, if you grow too homesick for your own planet. I can–” “Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?” “I solve them all,” said the snake. And they were both silent.

This book was originally in French, and the English translation is written beautifully. Reading this story has left me with many questions — questions I know will unfold as I grow older. The Little Prince is worth reading, it’s also fairly short and would take 1-2 hours to read, so you should go check it out! Here’s a link to a free pdf.

TTL Confucius and Lao Tzu: How to live your life

“Swarthmore is very yang – it needs more yin. People are not busy getting dumb.” – Steven Hopkins

This is the second of my series of Through the Lens (TTL), I posted my first one a while ago talking about how one could essentially create creativity called Through the Lens of Music: Engineering Creativity. In this post, I will try to understand what it means to be authentically human and how to live in harmony with the Tao through the lens of Confucius (Confucianism) and Lao Tzu (Taosim).

The idea of yin 阴 and yang 阳 is deeply rooted in many Chinese religions, especially focusing on the balance between the two. The yang is associated with the sun, a masculine / outgoing power, external displays, visible appearances. The yin, on the other hand, is associated with the moon, a feminine / inward power, weakness, flexibility, invisible, and the interior. While reading the Confucian Analects, section 26 in Book 11 confused me and started this questioning of what it meant to be authentically human.

In 11.26, Confucius is asking his disciples why somebody would be appreciative of them in order to appoint of them to lead a state:

After asking, Zilu speaks up immediately, saying that if he “were given charge of a state of a thousand chariots – even one hemmed in between powerful states, suffering from armed invasions and afflicted by famine – before three years were up [he] could infuse its people with courage and a sense of what is right.”

Zilu is dismissed disapprovingly by Confucius and is not chosen to be the leader probably because of his abrupt manner in answering him as well as the inauthentic, willful nature of his answer.

As opposed to Zengxi, who stated that he would choose to do something quite different from any of the other three disciples. Zengxi answered that “in the third month of Spring, once the Spring garments have been completed, [he] should like to assemble a company of five or six young men and six or seven boys to go bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze upon the Rain Dance Altar, and then return singing to the Master’s house.”

When Confucius ultimately picked Zengxi, I was confused. Wouldn’t a ruler or leader want to have a strong sense of authority? Why would he pick somebody that would just go to the river and sing songs? I discussed this with my professor (Steven Hopkins) and started to understand why Confucius picked Zengxi.

Confucius ultimately picks Zengxi because as opposed to Zilu, Zengxi was not trying to impose a sense of authority onto other people. Zengxi exemplified a wu wei 無爲  (non-action) harmony, as opposed to Zilu’s willfulness of his ego. Confucius could tell this by Zengix’s musical bent, timeliness of not answering abruptly, having reluctance to speak about his aspirations, and his sense of spontaneous joy in the cultivated life conveyed by his answer. The idea of wu wei, doing things effortlessly and with flow, appealed a lot to me because it resonates strongly with the music improvisation and also ultimately seemed like the way I want to live my life.

Confucius could see that Zengxi understood himself and was not putting on a face, while the answers of the other three disciples seemed vulgar (very yang, prevalent in competitive colleges like Swarthmore). Li Chong described Zengxi as the only one having transcendent aspirations, with words that were pure and remote, meaning lofty and fitting. For Confucius, true government is effected through the superior virtue gained by ritual practice, and the task of the gentleman is to focus on self-cultivation and attaining a state of joyful harmony with the Way, Tao. In the Tao Te Ching (4), a similar shedding of ego is shared.

Tao is empty…

It blunts sharp edges,

Unties knots, Softens glare,

Becomes one with the dusty world.

Lao Tzu characterizes the sharp edges as the faces we put on to build up and defend our identities. The Tao breaks down this ego-fortress, which offers a false sense of security, because when one is too focused on his ego, life becomes a “me vs. everybody else experience” which isolates him from the natural whole. The awareness of the natural whole and wu-wei harmony exemplify both the ideal Confucian values of being “authentically human” and the Taoist sense of enlightenment when living in harmony with the Tao.

With regards to education and learning, Taoism and Confucianism seem to be at odds with each other. For instance, Lao Tzu claims in the Tao Te Ching that not knowing is supreme while knowing is faulty. In the Analects, Confucius claimed that one who thinks without learning will fall into danger. However, a deeper look into their philosophies of education reveal that they share the same beliefs on self-education as a means to deepen the awareness of the self. The Taoist seeks to understand the naturalness of everything as it exists at the present.

Knowledge is dangerous in the sense that it clogs the mind and makes it prejudiced.

From the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.

Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.

Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Naming the things we observe creates a schism and rips our awareness away from the original whole. Instead of trying to know each separate piece, the Taoist tries to understand the whole, for the whole is the Tao. In Taoism, the key is not to know something, but to understand it. One goes about this through self-education. Furthermore, this kind of education is also natural; it just needs to be recognized as such and be developed to its fullest throughout one’s lifetime.

On the surface, the Analects seem different from this idea, Confucius stated:

“I once engaged in thought for an entire day without eating and an entire night without sleeping, but it did no good. It would have been better for me to have spent that time in learning.”

Confucius stresses the dangers of thinking in isolation. Rather than attempting to pointlessly reflect on one’s own, Confucius argues that  accumulated wisdom of the classics should form the very basis of one’s thinking. Thinking without the context of learning is comparable to randomly banging on a piano in ignorance to the conventions of music. A million monkeys given a million years might produce something, but it is better to start with the classics. The Xunzi gives an analogy, that climbing a hill and waving your arms does not make your arms any longer, but they can be seen from farther away. Shouting downwind does not make your voice any louder, but it can be heard more clearly. Someone who borrows a carriage and horses does not improve the power of his feet, but he can travel a thousand li. It may seem that Confucius is encouraging the pursuit of knowledge in the classics as the ultimate goal, yet it is that mastery and understanding of the classics that will allow one to fully practice the Tao and have an awareness of the self in relation to the world. Idle thinking without any guidance is a waste of time, and the Tao that arises from this type of mastery Confucius discusses parallels the Cook Ting and the Ox story from the Chuang Tzu (which s you should take your time to read, it is an amazing story).

In the story, Cook Ting seamlessly cuts an ox and states that he follows the Tao, here is a short excerpt from the whole, starting with Prince Wen Hui praising Cook Ting.

“Your method is faultless!”

“Method?” said the cook

Laying aside his cleaver,

“What I follow is Tao

Beyond all methods!”

“When I first began

To cut up an oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

“After three years

I no longer saw this mass.

I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing with the eye.  My whole being

Apprehends.

My senses are idle.  The spirit

Free to work without plan

Follows its own instinct

In order to act with wu wei (non-action) and follow the Tao, Cook Ting needed the mastery of having cut oxen for many years before. One cannot achieve this level of flow from aimlessly hacking at an ox without any training – that resembles banging on a piano without knowing the conventions of music. It is only after Ting attains mastery through years of training that he is able to step back and let the cutting happen naturally, he is then able to cut without cutting. The mastery of the classics (in the defense of a liberal arts education) is, in a deeper sense, used to understand wu wei and the nature of the present. For the Confucian, the understanding of the classics is a necessary vehicle to attaining true understanding of the Tao.

So this was my attempt at trying to make sense of and relate to a portion of what I’ve been studying in my Asian religion class. This is most intriguing class I have taken so far, and I have learned so much about myself. But the best part is that it will only get better as I read more about Eastern religions.


* I was working with Stephen Addiss’ and Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and Edward Slingerland’s translation of the Confucian Analects.

Dammit I’m Happy

I would characterize my life in phases, chunks of time when certain things be preoccupied on my mind. In the past they were about trying new things, video games, girls, career success, friends. But for the past few weeks it has been about my character.

This semester so many friends have been stressing out, figuring out how to best use their time. Adam Grant came to give a talk about Barry Schwartz leaving Swarthmore, and he quoted a line from Barry that really stuck with me:

“I’ve only had one job and one girlfriend, but dammit I’m happy”

The question of how can I become happy, how can I just be satisfied with “good enough” and not be constantly worried about achieving the best has converted from a moral, internal question into resource allocation question. How can I serve the greatest number of people? How can I make the biggest impact? These questions always lead to a lot of stress, and being genuinely satisfied with life requires lowering your expectations. Not in the sense that you just want to sit on your ass all day because you don’t have any goals for yourself. But in the sense that if you have all these expectations for yourself and other people in your life, you won’t be able to experience the pleasant surprises in life. Life is pretty damn random and trying to plan so far into the future is like throwing a fucking fortune cookie into a black hole, hoping that somehow the fortune cookie will magically come out unscathed and end back in your hands. Things change so much, and when you carve your epitaph, major, and career decision onto your tombstone when you are an 18 year old freshmen in college,  you will never be able to be present and experience the pleasant surprise of change. 

I think the people we should pay attention to are those who are passionate not just about some subject matter, some hobby, but about life. Maybe they do have hopes and expectations for the future, but if things don’t turn out the way they expected it to, they are fine with it. Or in other words, they are confident that they will be happy whatever the outcome is.

So how does this relate to character? I feel that a sustainable goal for college, and more importantly for the rest of my life, will be to develop a sense of depth in my character. I want to engage in an effort to magnify what is best in myself and also become strong in my weakest places. Overcome the bad parts of my character that have been repeating too many times in my life like selfishness and thoughtlessness. As David Brooks puts it, wise people who have lived their lives to ultimately improve their character possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. And I feel that this is a sustainable goal for happiness because I will not be phased by external pressures and expectations to succeed. The means to achieving this goal is simply to live. To experience failure, rejection, then be able to laugh about it not because you came out healed, but because you came out different. These scars will be a constant reminder to me that I was present to experience these events in my life, and they will ultimately be a part of my character. Furthermore, I think that things like career success (while important) are like good looks, they will eventually fade and what is left is the character.

I feel that these resource allocation questions, trying to decide a policy now for the rest of your life, will never lead to satisfaction because you will always be thinking about what you had to sacrifice in order to do that one thing. Feeling guilty for spending time with your friends because you prescribed that you had to attain some GPA seems like a sad way to spend your time in college.

Life is not an optimization problem. 

I think focusing on living my life as a means to deepen my sense of compassion, integrity, and character will be a way for me not only to do good, but be good. The journey along the way will be filled with bumps, but dammit I’ll be happy.