virtue


In the culminating vision of the Sage, Mencius, heart, the Heavenly Mandate, and flood-like ch’i are combined with the Tao, or the Way. One accomplishes an alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, by manifesting the heart, the faculty of goodness, resulting in flood-like ch’i or fully embodied vitality and courage. The method for living in such alignment is called the Tao, or Way. To quote from “On the Practice of the Mean,” one of the four canonized books of Chinese wisdom, “by ‘the ‘Way’ we mean that path which is in conformance with the intrinsic nature of man and things.”  By following the Tao, or Way, we achieve the moral life by living in accordance with natural principles and we become the profound person. We achieve jen, or authentic human-ness.

It is in the natural order of the universe to have manifested a compassionate heart in humankind. We are also given the faculty of cultivating ourselves. What this means is that we can advance our own evolution. By developing ourselves, we participate in the perfecting of nature. The purpose, telos, or entelechy of the universe is love, where love is the ultimate realization of compassion and harmonic relationship. We are each given a capacity for goodness through our inherent compassion and it is our task to develop this capacity optimally in order to play our part in the realization of the universe. Cultivating the compassionate heart is fulfilling the mandate of heaven. This is what it means to live according to the Tao. As the furthest extension of universal development, humankind finds its optimal harmony with the purpose of the universe when we self-cultivate toward the realization of heart.

We come to an alignment with heart through living according to the Tao. The Tao is the heart in time. The heart is the Tao in us. The heart is the faculty that can comprehend and practice living according to the Way.

When we live according to universal principle, our inner conflict ends: what we should do finds harmony with what we want to do. As Mencius put it,

“The profound person steeps himself in the Way because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. That is why a profound person wishes to find the Way in himself.”

In this sense, to develop morally is not to learn moral rules, though these provide a framework for the real learning. Instead, we want to cultivate our hearts, the capacity for knowing right from wrong within. In this way we do not obediently follow some rule imposed from without, but intrinsically do the right thing in any circumstance, as the circumstance dictates.  As Confucius put it, “The profound person, in the world, does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he will follow.”

Self-cultivation, or the process of developing our human potentials, is accomplished by living according to the Tao. It is through the realization of our human potentials that we embody the Heavenly Mandate, or universal principle. This embodiment of universal principle is our purpose, what we are meant to be, or our entelechy. The full realization of our potentials is to fulfill our human nature and is the way we come to know the universal law. The full manifestation of our human nature, which is an embodiment of universal principle, is compassion. Compassion is the purpose of the universe. To realize loving compassion is to manifest the entelechy of the universe. When we manifest the potential of the universe, we are at one with the energy of the universe.

For the Confucians, we get “close enough” to the Tao by having optimal relationships in each domain of being. We cultivate these relationships by developing our empathy through practicing the virtues of benevolence, respect, and compassion and we do this by accessing the heart.

The Confucian conception of the personal heart and its interconnection to all other hearts, the heart of the universe and the transcendent spiritual heart, is best explicated in the monumental work, “The Highest Order of Cultivation.” Here is my interpretation of the core of this text.

•    Only once one has an embodied experience of the interconnectedness of all, can one integrate all aspects of the psyche, leading to integration and wholeness; where the parts of the self exist in cooperative relation.

•    Only when we are whole can the potentials of the heart be realized. Only when we are whole can we realize our potentials for perceiving, thinking, feeling, imagining, acting and connecting.

•    Only when we have realized our potentials do we manifest virtuous moral being. Only when we have manifested virtuous moral centeredness can we put our relationships right, having harmonious relationships, meeting the needs of our partners and growing optimally.

•    Only when we can put our relationships right can we have happy, good children and flourishing families.

•    Only when we have balanced families can society be at peace and harmony.

•    Only when society is in order are we living according to the Heavenly Mandate, or the laws of the universe.

•    By cultivating ourselves, we fulfill the purpose of the universe.

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An interesting article from The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Life of Babies, tells us that research is now indicating that Mencius’s humanist vision was right. We are all born with the “taste for goodness.” Morality is not something that is learned. It is something inherent within us all, and simply needs to be cultivated.

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The next quality that is central to the Mencian conception of heart is ch’i. (For those of you who are just joining this conversation, Mencius was a great Chinese Sage who lived and wrote 2300 years ago. Central to his philosophy was the notion of “heart.” See other posts.) Ch’i is the prime energy of the universe. This can be correlated to “the sacred fire” of the Upanishads. The Indians, too, located this energetic source in the heart.

“I know . . . that sacred fire which leads to heaven. Listen. That fire which is the means of attaining the infinite worlds, and is also their foundation, is hidden in the sacred place of the heart.”

Buddhists located their equivalent, prana, a concept they borrowed from the Sanskrit, in the heart, and also saw the unity of heart, energy, and the cosmic reality.  Ch’i has also been named tejas, mana, or by Jung, libido.  It is found in Norse mythology as the mead from the world tree of Ygdrasil.

The Chinese posited two kinds of ch’i, the gross and the subtle. The body was the home of the grosser ch’i and the heart was the home of the subtle ch’i. To cultivate the heart means to cultivate our subtle ch’i. This would not only bear on our moral health, but our physical well being as well.  Mencius unified his concepts in a moral vision, where right living, as determined by heart, resulted in maximum ch’i. Health, wellbeing and courage were related to living in harmony with the dictates of heart, which emerged from its connection to universal nature.

Mencius believed that this general energetic principle of the universe was something that “ran through” humans.  When we achieve an optimal alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, we have the greatest access to this primal energy of the universe. We then possess what Mencius called flood-like ch’i, which is the ultimate energetic capacity.

Mencius himself admitted that explaining flood-like ch’i was difficult. A disciple asked, “May I ask what this flood-like ch’i is?”And he replied,

“It is difficult to explain. This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree vast and unyielding. Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way. Deprive it of these and it will starve. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness. Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one’s heart, it will starve.”

This means that our energy, mood and motivation, is dependent on our integrity, of acting from our highest moral understanding, which is in our hearts. This places us in alignment with universal forces, which gives us courage. Depression and failure can be likened to a lack of moral attunement. This does not only mean not doing the right thing toward others, but also toward the self. The condition of shame, or treating ourselves from self-hatred instead of self-love, will lead to a diminishment of ch’i.

Through the manifestation of flood-like ch’i we develop the virtue of imperturbability. This means being true to oneself even without external validation.  As Mencius stated it, “Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a lack of constant means of support.”

When we have imperturbability, our motivation for action must be on rightness, and not dependent on outcome. (more…)

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The heart, as the great Chinese Sage Mencius defines it, is the sense organ that knows the good just as the tongue knows the delicious and the eye the beautiful. The good is beautiful to the heart. Here’s what Mencius said:
” . . . all palates have the same preference in taste; all ears in sound; all eyes in beauty. Should hearts prove to be an exception by possessing nothing in common? What is it, then, that is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness. The sage is simply the man first to discover this common element in the heart. Thus reason and rightness please my heart in the same way as meat pleases my palate.”

What Mencius means is that the heart ‘knows’ what is reasonable and right, the way the eye knows what is physically beautiful. When we embody, or live out, what is reasonable and right, the heart is pleased. Through a devoted practice to being reasonable and right, we find the heart. When this inherent sense is optimally cultivated this ends in the ultimate moral development, which means becoming a Sage.

For Mencius, the heart is the seat of compassion. Mencius describes compassion as the “unbearability of suffering of any creature.” This natural reaction to the suffering of others is Mencius’s primary proof of the inherent goodness of people. The universality of this empathic faculty is captured in his statement, “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.” He uses as proof the argument that any sentient human would react with horror if they saw a child about to fall into a well. This feeling would occur spontaneously, and not for any extrinsic purpose. He suggests that this natural attribute is the most important aspect of humanness, and is what needs to be cultivated in order for one to achieve jen, or to be truly humane.

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“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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