Friday, March 20, 2015

Mencius: What is it to be a Human Being?

I've been very, very sick with the flu for the past four weeks or so.  As a result, I haven't had the energy to do any of the regular things that give my life design and purpose:  taijiquan and writing.  Even reading fell apart, as I was simply too tired to do much more than prop myself in front of the computer and watch cheesy old science fiction shows on YouTube.

As my energy has returned, I did have enough to glance through a translation of Mencius that I have been wanting to read for quite a few years. He is usually considered the second most important author in the Confucian canon, and someone that anyone who is interested in ancient Chinese thought should be interested in learning more about.  He is especially of interest because he promoted the ideal of the "mandate of heaven" and also was interested in the role of meditation in the life of scholars and officials.

I just got into the David Hinton translation.  As you can see from the Wikipedia article, Hinton is a translator and a poet, as opposed to a philosopher or Confucianist.  This tells me to be a bit careful about the translation, as it is possible to be a scholar and good translator, and still not have a clue about what you are translating if you haven't studied the actual field as well. 
David Hinton

So take what follows for what it is worth. the words on the page might actually bear no resemblance to what Mencius actually meant. But having said that, I am responding as a philosopher and someone who is trying to live a life in harmony with the Dao, instead of attempting to be a scholar who is trying to expand our collective understanding of a specific human being who lived thousands of years ago.  

The second part of the third book "Kung-Sun Ch'ou", riveted my attention.  Originally, I was interested about the references to the "qi flood" (more about that in another post), but the more I thought about the piece, the more I was struck by the form that it took and what that says about the human condition.  Mencius is asked a series of questions about specific individuals, and he responds to each by discussing the way those people practised self-cultivation through a specific practice.  It is, if you will, a meditation on the concept of kungfu (specifically as "applied great effort", not to mean just martial arts.)  

The words (pardon me, what do I call this sort of writing?  it clearly isn't an essay) start off referring to the ability to still the mind.  When asked how someone goes about doing this thing, Mencius makes an analogy with someone called Po-kung Yu, who cultivated "valour" by cultivating a state of mind where he never ever back off from a quarrel.  He 
never bowed down and never broke off a stare.  He knew that the least intimidation was as bad as being slapped in the marketplace.  An affront was the same to him whether it came from a peasant or a sovereign who commanded a nation of ten thousand war chariots, he'd run his sword through the august lord as easily as the peasant. He knew every insult had to be returned in kind. 
Mencius then goes on to refer to Meng Shih-she, who also cultivated "valour" and described the process as follows:

I consider defeat victory. To gauge an enemy before attacking, to calculate your chances of success before fighting---that is to live in fear of great armies. How can I ever be certain of victory? All I can do is live without fear.   
Mencius maintains that there was a difference between the two, not in the amount of valour that each manifested, but rather in the way they did it. He argues that Meng did it through the use of qi. "It's impossible to say which of the two had the most profound valour, but Meng Shih-she nurtured his qi".

Next Mencius goes on to another example, Master Tseng:
If you look within and find yourself less than honourable, you'll fear even a peasant as an enemy.  But if you look within and find yourself honourable, you'll face even an army of ten million men.
 Tseng's valour is based not on qi, but something else, Mencius says it is based on "nurturing essentials". (This is the place where knowing old Chinese would be nice, as I don't really know what it is that Hinton is translating as "nurturing essentials".)

As you can see, Mencius is contrasting three different people and their personal "kung fu" or strategies for developing a specific human quality, "valour".  Po-kung Yo built his "valour" (what we would call "physical courage") around a macho, aggressive "don't give me any shit" attitude.  He was like an ancient Chinese version of Peter Tosh constantly singing "Steppin' Razor" to himself.

This is different from Meng Shih-she, who put the emphasis on total indifference to outcome and instead cultivated a totally fatalistic attitude towards life.  A good example of this attitude comes from a Zen story I once heard.  When the Mongols were conquering China they occupied a Buddhist Temple.  Everyone fled except the old Zen Master, who was found quietly meditating in one of the buildings.  A Mongol officer came storming into the Hall and confronted the unruffled old man.  Surprised and annoyed at the lack of fear, he yelled out "Don't you understand that I could kill you without batting an eye!"  At that, the Master replied "And don't you understand that you could kill me without me batting an eye?"

There are problems with these two sources of valour, however.  The first one, the "steppin razor" type, leads to stupid, thuggish behavour and generally ends badly for the people who follow it.  The second also ends badly, because mere courage alone can be manipulated to bad ends by authority figures.  Brian Victoria has built a career around explaining how the cult of fearlessness in Japanese Zen ended up being co-opted into supporting the Imperial Japanese war machine.

The last version that Mencius cites as an example comes from Master Tseng.  It is based on morality.  The courage that he manifests comes from believing that he is "doing the right thing".  Another way of looking at these three "daos" of courage is to see it in terms of the ego.  The first one consists of building the ego up to the point where it overwhelms other considerations.  The second consists of cutting it down to the point where it's continued existence becomes an irrelevance.  And the third is that of putting it in the service of some higher good.

What I find interesting in the exercise are two things.  First, that it is possible to parse out these different ways of being a human being.  Second, that each man developed their own specific tactics to manifest a human quality that they felt valuable. Most people I meet in my day-to-day life take it as a given that the personal psychology they have is something that they were born with and/or had imposed upon them at an early age.  The idea that they can choose to nurture or starve a way of responding the world around them is totally alien.

Of course, this raises one of those "chicken or the egg" discussions.  Do people choose to be the sorts of people who want to become valorous?  Or are people simply born that way?  I'm not going to answer that question to my satisfaction in a blog post.  But it is a good place to end this part of the discussion.  In my next one I think I'll try to figure out what Mencius was going on about with his talk about qi.