Sunday February 19, 2006
I’m now thoroughly revived after a week on the North Norfolk coast – I’ll post some pictures in the near future. It was wonderful to be out of the city, letting the dust settle a bit, and spending time hanging out by the sea shore in the drizzle.
With the settling of the mental dust, a few strains of thought have emerged from some of the courses I was teaching last term. And one is related to the . Not long ago I was teaching a class on the Analects of Confucius. I rather like Confucianism, and Confucius seems to me to be far from being the stuffy and formal old boy that he is often represented as. I read the Analects as putting forward a kind of humanism. There’s not much room for metaphysical speculation, but rather there’s a practical concern being with the question of how we are to go about living our lives, here in the interval between birth and death. And the over-riding desire is for a harmony – both within oneself and also a social harmony between ourselves. Anyway, what I was struck by in the class was the quote from the Analects concerning “humaneness” or ren. Here is what Confucius is reported to have said:
The Master said, “Is humaneness a thing remote? I wish to be humane, and behold! Humaneness is at hand.”
The question I asked during our class – a question upon which we could not agree – was “is it really that easy?” Is it that easy to be good, to be humane, to be gentle? We had an interesting discussion, but then we moved on to other aspects of the Analects and the question was dropped.
Certain questions have a habit of not going away, however; and the following week – during which in our whistle-stop tour of Eastern systems of thought we were tackling Laozi and Zhuangzi – the question returned. In the Zhuangzi we found the following text (translated here by Lin Yutang):
Therefore if the gentleman can refrain from disturbing the internal economy of man, and from glorifying the powers of sight and hearing, he can sit still like a corpse or spring into action like a dragon, be silent as the deep or talk with the voice of thunder, the movements of his spirit calling forth the natural mechanism of Heaven. He can remain calm and leisurely doing nothing, while all things are brought to maturity and thrive.
Again there is an echo here of the same idea: that goodness might be easy. That if we only “refrain from disturbing the internal economy of man” – a phrase that I find beautifully suggestive – then goodness will simply happen: things will be brought to maturity and they will thrive.
Of course there are huge differences between Zhuangzi and Confucius – although not perhaps as huge as are sometimes imagined – but they share the sense that harmony, humaneness, kindness and the attitude that permits things to come to maturity and to thrive might be curiously simple affairs.
I wonder if in the West we are accustomed to thinking rather differently, to seeing harmony, goodness and kindness as the result of a long struggle, a battle even. We have to struggle through the wilderness, conquer our demons, battle with the dark forces, to permit a little chink of goodness to enter into the world. Those who do not struggle, who lack these warrior virtues, fall by the wayside into decadence and moral corruption. But is this true? There is something to be said, in ethical terms, for giving up the struggle? Does virtue need to be won? Or is it easier than this? And – bearing Zhuangzi in mind – do our struggles to be good risk disturbing our internal economies, and bring about the very opposite of that which we are aiming towards?
When I think of the biography of the Buddha, I wonder if there are echoes of this. The turning point in the period before his awakening is when he gives up the struggle. He gives up on the rigours of self-starvation and he recollected a simple experience from his childhood. The Majjhima Nikaya puts it like this.
“[I realised that] with this racking practice of austerities I haven’t attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?’
“I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ “
It is the memory of this experience – something simple, something free from struggle and torment, something that was near at hand – that set Siddhartha on the path to whatever it was that we now refer to as his awakening or his enlightenment.
For me the Buddha’s awakening was not a metaphysical event but an ethical one, which is to say it was an event that was of primary importance in the way that it translated into a human ethos: a way of being in the world, a way of comporting oneself, a way of living, a way that is summed up perhaps by the eightfold path – not as a path to awakening, but as a path that is already expressive of this awakened state. And I wonder if this state might itself be seen as a kind of attentive freedom from struggle, a sort of balanced internal economy, to return to Lin Yutang’s translation of Zhuangzi, an ease of being in this very world, between birth and death.
So this is the thought I am turning over and over in my mind at the moment, one that I find curiously challenging: perhaps ethics is easy.
Which leads to the question: why does it seem so hard???
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