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.

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Integrity: Why I cared so much about prestige

I’m back home for winter break, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with members of my family. Being raised in an Asian family, the topic  brought up the most in family dinners is college. Which college my relatives got into, which college I’m attending now, etc. And I know many people who go to a relatively small school can relate – when people ask me where I go to school, I already expect that the person asking will have never heard of Swarthmore. Even before the semester started, when my peers were talking about matriculating into extremely reputable institutions, I was uncomfortable – I would even say shameful, when I would tell people where I was going. Why was that? Sure Swarthmore is a reputable school in the academic world, but my family here doesn’t know anything about it. Many people my age in California haven’t heard of my school before. So why was this?

I wanted to have a name brand school under my belt so that I could show it off, or as one of my friend put it: “I wanted to cower behind a Harvard label so that every time someone asked me where I went to college, I could pretend that I was really smart and successful.” I truly believed that my self worth was defined by what college I attended, and what everybody else thought about it. I had judged people based on what colleges they attend, and being on that other side of the judgment now has taught me a lot about what I valued. Throughout high school, I had some insecurities about what I was capable of, how “intelligent” I was compared to other people. And I thought that if I ended up attending a brand name school, I would be able to patch up those insecurities and (falsely) reassure myself. But that’s just the easy way out, it doesn’t tackle the real problems at the core. One of the most difficult experiences I’ve been facing so far in college is finding out what I value, and more importantly, holding a sense of integrity with myself. I don’t want to be somebody who isn’t comfortable with himself, and going down this path, staying true to myself, would require much more thought and hard work.

I was talking with my friend the other day about how we judge people first by their college. And then after this segment of life, we judge them by their employer. Judging somebody that works for a prestigious company (Goldman Sachs, Google, etc.) differently than somebody who works somewhere else. It truly is sad how the majority of people judge like this, but there isn’t much (or anything) I can do about changing how other people think. If I want to uphold some sort of integrity with my life, might as well figure it out now right?

Most people associate things like intelligence, social capacities, whatever else based on an institution. But I don’t think that it should be this way, rather, it should be with qualities. For example, with my insecurity of intelligence, instead of complaining about how I won’t have some brand name label to cover up my intelligence, why not just actually study and learn. Fix the root problem here. This is what I’ve started to realize: The most important things are qualities, like discipline, passion for learning, hard work, generosity, compassion. I shouldn’t be associating myself with institutions, but with qualities. But wait, don’t people already do that? I do know people for their friendliness, passions, etc. But you only really get to know these sides of people when you talk to them and really get to know them. So my solution is to make those qualities about yourself extremely salient. To wear a badge of compassion like you would a logo of your alma mater. To be proud and confident enough about your passion for learning that that is the first thing people think about when they hear your name. That’s the way I would want to live, because those qualities are things that I have to built up by myself. I have to deal with them everyday, and it would be amazing if all of those qualities were true. Sure I can say I am hardworking, I can say whatever the hell I want. But if I’m at home watching tv shows, wasting time, I am not being integrous to myself. I wouldn’t have to always be acting on my “A game” because that’s who I really am.

Sure this is a much harder path, but I chose this path exactly because it was hard, because it’s the only way I’ll be true to myself.

first collection
Swarthmore Class of 2019’s first collection

Moral Courage

samshih_excellent_sheep

I’ve just finished reading Excellent Sheep about 2/3rds the way into my trip to Taiwan. Ever since starting my goal to read more, I feel Excellent Sheep is one of the first books that I’ve really connected with. I know many people have bashed Deresiewicz for hating on the elite institutions (the Ivy Leagues), and it does seem at times that he is resoundingly biased against them. Regarding this point, I feel like the book would’ve been more complete if he went more deeply into accounts of people who actually went through the liberal arts education reformation he fantasizes about. Deresiewicz himself was a part of the elite institutions he claims to be so bad, so Deresiewicz is talking about the liberal arts education from the other side of the fence. He might be celebrating the liberal arts education because he has experienced all the negatives he discusses about an elite education. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? Ok, but that’s beside my point. What hit me like a train was Deresiewicz’s undertone of what he believes a true education should be.

– The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully. I was talking with a couple of seniors during a visit to Bryn Mawr. One of them said, “The question I leave Bryn Mawr with is how to put my feminist ideals into practice as I go forward.” I liked “ideals,” but I loved the first part. A real education sends you into a world bearing questions, not resumes.

– The purpose of college is to make you a more interesting person – a nice formulation, as long as we stipulate that the person to whom it is most important to be interesting is yourself. What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.

Ahh, this sounds familiar huh. It embodies the main reason I started this blog (it’s in the title!) – to become more interesting. He literally just told me how to become more interesting! LOL. I actually laughed after reading this, it’s like he just gave me the answer to my most important question. But the sad (or maybe the fun) part is that the answer isn’t that simple. I want to find out how this is true for myself, if even true at all. Deresiewicz talks about the humanities as a gluing experience that relates everything we learn with our realities. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?”, but of a proposition in the humanities, we ask, “Is it true for me?” What I do know is that I’ll only be satisfied if I find out how to become interesting in my own terms.

Another topic Deresiewicz talks about is moral imagination and moral courage, which I feel should go hand in hand. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternatives for how to live. I’m not really quite sure (yet?) why he labels this as a moral imagination –– moral feels like such a heavy prefix to that phrase. His whole idea on moral imagination hits me so close to the feels because it’s essentially what I see myself doing right now. Kind of going yolo, into a new life. Not necessarily ditching the hardcore tech life behind, but more like embracing a a new type of liberal artsy life. What’s next is part B – moral courage – or putting what you imagine into action. I’m still thinking about this part of the equation, the courage to commit 100% to this imagination. Working in tech has been really fun, but maybe committing 100% to pursuing a true education won’t throw away that tech life, it might even make it stronger. So right now the challenge I have for myself is to commit 100% to something, and choosing Swat has brought me so much closer to this imagined path. I feel that the last part is seeing for myself the value of studying the humanities. I’ve read so much about it already, the feeling of life it can instill, the benefits of thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, instead of seeing things as separate parts see[ing] them as a whole. 

On that topic of moral courage though, it will probably get lonely, and that would suck. I know everybody says it doesn’t matter what other people think, what matters most is what you think. But it’s so much better to celebrate with other people. Not going to a popular and prestigious college, choosing a track of study for myself that others (parents, teachers, friends) might think is a waste of time, I know it will kinda start to suck. What I felt was kind of contradictory was when Deresiewicz quotes Aristotle that “man is by nature a social animal,” yet he continues on talking about how moral courage can lead to loneliness. Pursuing this new life I have imagined is fulfilling for myself, and I would be proud of myself. But I would also be happier to celebrate with others. Maybe I’m overthinking, maybe I’ll meet much more “morally courageous” (this term makes it sound really exclusive :/) people in college that I’ll be able to be happy with. Is it worth it to chase my moral imagination if I’m going to end up lonely? How can I find (if I will even want) a balance when I commit to a new life? Maybe what I’m lacking is that moral courage to fully commit. Maybe this dilemma is the growing pain of trying to pursue something I don’t know the answer to.