A Pan of Water


A clear-sighted psychologist, Xunzi may have been the first writer to pick out the tendency to mental fixation (蔽, ) a crucial factor in political life, and one that cannot be ignored if leadership is ever to become an art or science. Since most of us are confused and driven by obsessions we are barely conscious of, in the form of desires, aversions, fears, and anxieties, we accept as normal the consequent roiling agitation produced by our obsessions and are surprised when a calmer person points out our inner turbulence to us; and even if we were capable of noticing our own subliminal agitations, it would be difficult for many to see beyond the tumult to a state of obsessionless lucidity, which we can barely imagine. Like any good Confucian, Xunzi uses something familiar to describe something very unusual:

The mind may be compared to a pan of water. If you place the pan on a level and do not jar it, then the heavy sediment will settle to the bottom and the clear water will collect on top, so that you can see your beard and eyebrows in it and examine the lines of your face. But if a faint wind passes over the top of the water, the heavy sediment will be stirred up from the bottom and the clear water will become mingled with it, so that you can no longer get a clear reflection of even a large object. The mind is the same way. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. But if you allow petty external objects to pull it about, so that its proper form becomes altered and its inner balance is upset, then it will not be capable of making even gross distinctions.  (Tr. Hsün Tzu, Watson, 131-2)

Mind — if by “mind” we mean the conscious ratiocinative and deliberative faculty –is a mistranslation of 心 (xīn), which literally means heart. But heart is also a mistranslation, because for the last four hundred years in the West it has been taken to express the merely emotional faculties, which are often at war with the merely ratiocinative. Modern translators will sometimes fall back on the phrase heart-mind, because thoughts and feelings emerge from the same center. We might say that all emotions stem from thoughts on some level, but it is not true to say that first we have a thought that then produces the emotion. Instead, all thought has some affective coloring, and in our experience thoughts and emotions emerge simultaneously or intertwined — and it always feels as if they emerge from the center of our beings, deep inside our bosoms, and not from beneath our skullcaps. 

   Thus by heart-mind the Chinese thinker fuses together all of our mental and emotional faculties. If we are terrified of death, it affects our whole being — our thoughts, our desires, our actions. If we find someone beautiful and are moved by desire, our entire spirit and body are stirred towards one end. When we are moved by opposing things — for example, desire for sex and love of virtue — our entire life, psychological as well as physical, is tormented by the opposition. Some people might say that when we are possessed by a desire or an error, our whole self is distorted by the possession, and it is really impossible for us to recognize it, since the mind has also been corrupted. However, Xunzi is both a pessimist about human nature and an optimist about human possibilities: he insists that it is possible for us to see and correct ourselves. Through reason and cultivated skills in self-reflection, we can notice when we are confused, and can actually step outside our own fixations and watch them in action. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t even notice that there is such a thing as fixation.

   To Xunzi, a well educated person is able to discern and evaluate accurately the people and situations in front of him at any given moment. This is not possible for a human being whose heart-mind is confused. Xunzi does not mean just intellectually confused, for a person might have intellectual clarity but be deeply confused in his heart — for example, the man who has carefully studied Thucydides and all the great theorists of war but whose every impulse is dominated by insecurity about his own manhood as well as fear of death. Such a man has a turbid heart-mind and will not judge clearly in the moment. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. For most of us this will obviously need work, as well as good teachers and friends. 

   The use of the image of still water as opposed to muddied water to express states of soul has become something of a cliché in later Asian teachings, but Xunzi was the originator. I have heard other teachers talk about a “muddy pond,” but Xunzi in his literary brilliance settles upon a pan of water: so homely, so ordinary, that it passes beneath our notice — just like the agitation of our heart-mind.

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Xunzi on Intellectual Fixations


Many people are intellectually like fertilized eggs: one sperm manages to get in, and the egg seals off to all the others. Idealogues and fundamentalists tend to be like this, usually after reading one book at a susceptible phase in their lives; if they could be persuaded to read other books they might become less closed, but by then it is often too late. Xunzi includes this closed-mindedness in his notion of 蔽 (bì), “blinding obsession.” In his famous essay on “Dispelling 蔽,” he gives us a useful survey of some of the narrow idealogues of his period, incidentally reminding us just how fertile and varied ancient Chinese philosophy must have been before the culture was straitjacketed into a mere handful of views:

Among the itinerant philosophers of former times there were men who were obsessed; the followers of pernicious doctrines are an example. Mozi was obsessed by utilitarian considerations and did not understand the beauties of form. Songzi was obsessed by the need to lessen desires, for he did not understand how they could be satisfied. Shenzi was obsessed with the concept of law and did not understand the part to be played by worthy men. Shen Buhai was obsessed by the power of circumstance and did not understand the role of human intelligence. Huizi was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them. Zhuangzi was obsessed by thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did not understand the importance of man. He who thinks only of utilitarian concerns will take the Way to be wholly a matter of material profit. He who thinks only of desires will take the Way to be wholly a matter of physical satisfaction. He who thinks only of law will take the Way to be wholly a matter of policy. He who thinks only of circumstance will take the Way to be wholly a matter of expedience. He who thinks only of words will take the Way to be wholly a matter of logic. He who thinks only of Heaven will take the Way to be wholly a matter of harmonizing with natural forces. These various doctrines comprehend only one small corner of the Way, but the true Way must embody constant principles [patterns] and be capable of embracing all changes. A single corner of it will not suffice. These men with their limited understanding saw only one corner of the Way and, failing to understand that it was only a corner, they considered it sufficient and proceeded to expound it in engaging terms. Such men bring chaos to themselves and delusion to others; if they are in a superior position, they inflict their obsessions upon their inferiors; and if an inferior position, they inflict them upon their superiors. Such are the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind.  (Tr. Watson, 125-6)
Chinese thinkers do not often assert “You are wrong, I am right.” Instead, the tendency is to point out that the opponent is partially right but does not see the whole picture. This tendency is grounded on two insights about human thinking. 1) In matters of opinion or interpretation, people are very seldom simply right or wrong, and in any argument between two people the more fruitful and interesting approach is to wonder in what way each side might be right or wrong; only thus is there hope of attaining any kind of reconciliation, or of moving beyond head-butting towards new insights. 2) All intelligent people have some genuine insights, but the professional philosopher will want to take his own insights and have them make sense about the whole of everything. This may be why in the great systematic thinkers like Kant and Hegel there are insights of shattering profundity but also many passages of opaque scaffolding that strain to connect the real insights.

    In traditional Hindu philosophy, each “school” builds an entire philosophy of life on a narrow set of thoughts — one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods — and ends up with a detailed structure of argumentation in which all the other schools are proven wrong. The value of such extreme rationalizations for us is that we get to see all the arguments for a given position lucidly exposed, but the seeker in need of emotional reassurance and stability will want to latch onto one view to the exclusion of all else so that no doubts or disturbances can ever arise again. The Buddha, weary of all the squabbling, would consistently point out the dangers of attachment to merely “speculative” views that shed no light on the true causes of unhappiness. G.K. Chesterton describes arguing with an intellectual idealogue or fanatic — one who has meticulously thought through all the ins and outs of his position, and in his mind has worked out all the objections and counter-objections — as a bit like arguing with a madman:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

   This fixation, a chronic closing of the mind, is what Xunzi means by 蔽 (bì) here. It is more than just “having a theory,” although in each of us “having a theory” can subtly shade into being gruffly dismissive of other theories. We see this every day when proponents of different sides of a given issue cannot listen to one another without anger or derision. To Xunzi, a statesman and anybody else in a position of leadership cannot afford to be rigidly narrow like this, just because the whole — of which they have charge — is composed of people with different views in tension with one another. Even in a single family, when siblings fight about something serious, a parent cannot simply side with one child but must somehow bring each of them to understand where the others are coming from; partiality makes the greater harmony impossible. Moreover, as Xunzi notes, things change: a theory might work well today but not tomorrow,  in one situation but not in another. A wise person needs to be accurate in his understanding of different situations and supple in his response. It is not that one must have no theories about things, but that in responding to a complex, dynamic whole, experience shows us every day that no single theory will be the key to everything.

On Conversations, and Refusing to Teach


Why do so many of the ancient masters come down to us in the form of recorded or fictionalized conversations? I am thinking of Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mencius, Yajnavalkya, and Jesus. It is not only because in some cultures writing wasn’t a “thing ” yet; even in cultures with established literary traditions, it is possible to reject writing, as Socrates does in the Phaedrus. However, writing is only one mode of the larger activity that is refused: this is teaching or instructing. The surviving records of these masters are already formalized documents that enshrine official teachings, carrying the stamp of approval from institutions that have grown up and sometimes ossified in the footsteps of the master’s disciples. But even in these documents — even through stiff translations —  it is remarkable how distinct the voices of Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus can sound across the millennia. In reading these texts, it is striking how many of them are conversations, not lectures or treatises; and in a conversation, the interlocutors also have voices and characters that have to be taken into account, because the masters say different things to different people. 

   Mencius explicitly broaches the choice of conversation over instruction on several occasions — for example,

孟子曰:「教亦多術矣,予不屑之教誨也者,是亦教誨之而已矣。」

Mencius said, ‘There are many ways to teach. I refuse to teach or instruct, but that’s just another kind of teaching.’ (Mencius, 6.2.16)

Poring through the Book of Mencius, we find that he almost never teaches; most of the passages are memorable snippets of conversation. The same is true of Confucius: the Analects (Lun Yu, literally “edited conversations”) feels like a collection of obiter dicta, things that Confucius said that at least one person did not forget. Although subsequent tradition likes to picture these sages as sitting on a raised platform lecturing, in fact they didn’t believe in teaching as a valuable mode of transmission. Instead, the proof is in the day-to-day living, how the master speaks and conducts himself, his sensibility and humane refinement as they are expressed in his actions and words from moment to moment. The “teaching” is only one surface of a rounded, fluid way of being, which is entered into by hanging out with the master, listening, watching, questioning, playing, and emulating:

孟子曰:「君子之所以教者五:有如時雨化之者,有成德者,有達財者,有答問者,有私淑艾者。此五者,君子之所以教也。」

Mencius said, ‘There are five ways in which the superior person teaches. There are some on whom his influence descends like seasonable rain. There are some whose virtue he perfects, and some whose talents he helps to develop. There are some whose questions he answers. There are some who, inspired by him,  privately cultivate and correct themselves. The superior man teaches in these five ways.’ (7.1.40)

   The books of Confucius and Mencius do not present theories or arguments; rather, they are fragments of conversations through which we can glimpse and imagine what a better human life might be like. They give no formulas for thought or action, and no transcendent vantage point from which we can criticize life. Instead of “theory,” which stands outside and “beholds” (theaw), we are inside the flow of life circumstances in which people think, speak, and interact continuously, figuring out new situations as they appear and struggling to understand what just happened. Recollected conversation is the only fitting literary medium to render the character of someone who knows how to live well.

   I have come realize that nearly all the great doorways and turning-points in life occur in conversations: the job interview, the new friendship, the destruction of friendship, the romance, the conversion, the profound reconciliations, the discovery of “calling.” Conversation is where learning really happens. I am a deadly-serious, slow, intense reader, and books have affected me a lot — but no book has taught me as much as some conversations I have had. I learned more about literature from weekly conversations over three years with Arthur Sale, my tutor in Cambridge: he never lectured, but drew me naturally into his living relationship with books, and our conversation blossomed over tea and on walks — indeed, thirty years after his death, in my head he is still the main person I talk with when I read poetry. From my brief career as a researcher into Shakespeare’s texts, I am certain that no graduate program would have given me as much as my three-year apprenticeship with Marvin Spevack, great philologist and Shakespeare scholar, in which I spent hours each day studying the specific textual decisions of three hundred years of Shakespeare editors, and discussing these details with a professor for whom these dead editors were living colleagues. I learned osmotically from his silences, grunts, chuckles — how his fingers found words on the page, the speed and accuracy with which he worked, the way his mind made connections. Through conversation, we study three-dimensionally, and it is what the human intelligence is meant to do. The ancients knew this. Confucius and Mencius, like Christ and the Buddha, didn’t attempt the more two-dimensional mode of argument or theory, because what they were after was so much greater. 

   

   

A Way with Words

Just as Socrates loved Homer enough to know the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, Confucius had the Book of Odes burned into his bones and memorized in his marrow; indeed, the Analects are permeated by the Odes. When one of the disciples asks Confucius’ son if there was anything his father taught him that he didn’t teach the disciples, the son replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not have the wherewithal to speak.’ I retired and studied the Odes.” (16.13) 

   The Odes are the foundation for humane education, not for the sake of a merely technical skill with words (as in “grammar” and “rhetoric”) but for acclimating the young to a noble elevation and dignity, and stirring them to higher planes of character and admirable utterance, which may be absent in their ordinary lives:

The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
   “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
   “It is from Music that the consummation is received.”
(8.8)

The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

   However, studying the Odes brings something more important than moral edification; it teaches us to read words of multiple significations and teases us into developing an ability to see beyond literal denotation. In the following exchange, we see the zealous Zi Gong making a connection and discovering hidden meaning in an old poem:

Zi Gong asked: “What do you think of a poor man who doesn’t grovel or a rich man who isn’t proud?” Confucius said, “They are good, but not as good as a poor man who is satisfied and a rich man who loves propriety.” Zi Gong said, “The Book of Odes says:

Like cutting and filing,
Grinding and polishing. 

“Is this what you are talking about?” Confucius said, “Ah, now I can begin to discuss the Book of Odes with Zi Gong. I speak of various things, and he knows what is coming.” (1.15)

In what Confucius says to him, Zi Gong hears the Ode and understands that he is being advised to keep working on himself. Confucius then humorously remarks that Zi Gong is now ready to grasp the deeper senses of the Odes. The Book of Odes has also become an occasion for two people to relate to one another in discussing goodness. 

   There is a similar conversation with the refined Zixia:

Zixia asked, saying, “What is the meaning of the verse: ’The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colors?’”
   The Master said, “The business of laying on the colors follows the preparation of the plain ground.”
   “Ritual then is a secondary thing?” 
   The Master said, “It is Shang who can bring out my meaning! Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him.”
(3.8)

Here, the student brings out a profound implication that pleasantly surprises the teacher, who is surely grateful to be shown a hitherto undiscovered meaning in a long-familiar poem. 

   One of the greatest pleasures in life is to have friends who “share” with us a common body of beloved poetry; it is like owning a landscape in common, in which we can roam together freely and find beautiful things to show one another. Confucius is so happy to “know” a man’s heart through the poems he loves that he even bestows his niece on a student for loving the right poem:

Nan Rong frequently recited the verse of the “White Jade Table.” Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wed. (11.6, tr.A.C.Muller)

The verse in question expresses commitment to carefulness with words: “A flaw in a white jade tablet may be polished away; but nothing can be done for a flaw in one’s words.” (Odes, 256) Confucius is moved to find Nan Rong reciting this verse so often, perhaps even when he thinks he is alone. Both of them know that the steadfast care for words reveals a far deeper commitment: to truth, to troth, and to character that is built through saying what we mean, no more and no less, and through saying it well. A man with such a character would make a trustworthy husband for a beloved niece.

   An education founded on studying the Odes develops a sensibility for terse, suggestive language, and the intuitive sympathy essential for “getting” such language. The intuitive sympathy extends to keeping pace with our friends who also “get” the poems and who might see different sides to them. Thus, the Odes provide a place of congregation for an entire community, and an occasion to learn to read another human being’s words with penetration. If all moral action depends on a capacity for accurate sympathy, what better way to cultivate that than through imbibing the Odes at at early age?

   Although in most translations Confucius comes across as a tedious Polonius obsessed with correct usages, in his own language he is obviously somebody with a gift for resonant, poetic language. Throughout the entire Analects he takes conventional terms — such as junzi, ren, li — and re-animates them with new meaning. Take, for instance, the passage I presented in my previous essay:

 “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

In my first attempt at this, I read it too narrowly to refer only to slander and utterance intended to hurt. After a conversation with a friend who is more sensitive to Confucius’ language than I am, I realized that statements that shock like a flesh-wound encompasses a broad range of vicissitudes, including legal and financial catastrophes, betrayals and news of deaths, and medical upsets. The culminating adjective is literally “far” — a common word, but dense with possibilities. Disambiguating it, translators end up with something clear but flat, such as “perceptive” or “aloof.” But “far” says so much more: aloof, far away, transcendent, seeing far and wide, far-penetrating, far-reaching…Only a poet would have ended this Analect with a word so concrete and rich. 

   Unlike a language like Sanskrit, with its intricate grammatical structure that tends to over-specify the relations between the words of a sentence, Chinese tends to under-specify and leave abundant room for the intuitive intelligence that enjoys seeing all the possible connections. Confucius’ language draws on this tendency. With each sentence he gives us a corner and invites us to discover three more. But as we see, it is much more than a pedagogical ruse: Confucius’ way with words has its womb in the Odes. He keeps to this Way because all healthy social interaction depends on an ability to read freely and sympathetically between the lines, and on the cultivated tactful intelligence that can understand without needing to spell out. Without this, all social interactions descend into legalism, where every term has to be defined in order to be “used” more effectively in the justifications of argument. Lifelong immersion in the Odes may preserve us from this descent.

Strength of Mind


Occasionally Confucius says things that might also be found in the pages of Epictetus:

子張問明。子曰。浸潤之譖、膚受之愬、不行焉、可謂明也已矣。浸潤之譖、膚受之愬、不行焉、可謂遠也已矣。

Zi Zhang asked about intelligence. The Master said, “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

This simple, pithy assertion has at least two other “corners.”. 

   First, it is a general defense against circumambient attempts in social life to influence us against some people and for other people by spreading negative comments. Most of our social interactions is just “noise” to create allegiances by people who actually do not care to verify the truth of what is being claimed; instead, slanders are always based on what other people are expected to consider “probable.”  The wise person inoculates himself to this noise by observing the old adage, Believe 50% of what you see, and nothing of what you hear. Confucius reminds us several times in the Analects that wisdom is built on knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It is obvious why a clear grasp of what we really know might lead to more accurate decisions and more effective action, but practicing this requires disciplining our minds: we have to slow down, think carefully about what we know and don’t know, and review frequently. This is more easily said than done.

   The wise person becomes impervious to negative “noise” initially by being more cautious with regard to what is “in the air,” and later by actually being able to distinguish between knowledge and surmise. It is not by shutting down to everything dislikeable that we might hear but by staying open and cultivating shrewdness.

   Yet even this is easier to do than to maintain equanimity in the face of toxic utterances made about ourselves — utterances made by enemies, employers, colleagues, so-called friends, and even family members and loved ones. Which of us can avoid feeling hurt by such statements? Part of the pain comes from being misunderstood and misrepresented, but a large part of it is from knowledge that the people making the utterance are not primarily interested in truth but are either wishing to hurt or seeking some kind of emotional leverage. Unlike Epictetus, Confucius does not ask us to feel nothing about that — since it is natural to feel pain if one’s parents or children are actively trying to hurt us. Rather, it suffices not to act on it: we can slow down, reflect, and put a separating wall between the garbage we might hear and the good we should do. 

   This, according to Confucius, is the mark of someone who is not only intelligent but also detached, whose mind is  far above the toxic sludge. This is why the final key character 遠, yuan, has been interpreted as both far-seeing and distant, detached.