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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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For the great Chinese phil0sopher Mencius, disciple of Confucius, the unique aspect of the human being was his heart. What did Mencius mean by heart?

As human thought had its greatest advance in the few hundred years following the 5th century BCE, this time, too, saw the revelation of the meaning of hsin in Chinese philosophy, most accurately translated as heart/mind. Previous to this time, including in the writings of Confucius himself, though the heart is named, its meanings were not explored in depth.

As our inspiring quote has it, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” When Mencius writes about the heart, and tells us about a process of self-development based on a rediscovery of original nature, he is describing his own life process. As Mencius relates his experience of actualization in his discussion of heart, he serves as an inspiration for other questers in search of their own essential being. As we understand from our exploration of hermeneutics, the purpose of reading the Mencius in depth is not some intellectual exercise of understanding, but a central method of self-cultivation. The goal of reading Mencius is not to understand the heart, but to find it. This heroic journey of self-realization which is made possible by travelling with Mencius into the symbol of the heart is what makes his writings on the subject so valuable.

Essence, Entelechy and Heart

In their search for the good of all, the Confucians looked for the ‘single thread,’ or universal law. They found these principles through an examination of nature, as exemplified in agriculture.  “The principle in the course and operation of nature . . . obeys only its immutable law . . .”

Agriculture operates from the understanding that when we cultivate plants according to the laws of the processes of nature, we can dramatically increase and control our yield. If our plant withers, it must mean we are not honoring nature’s law. This power of understanding also poses a danger, because as much as we can improve on nature, if our understanding is one-sided we can disturb nature’s ecological balance. We can create a short-term gain and create a long-term problem. The workings of nature are more subtle than simply increasing an immediate yield. We see how even today we continue to struggle with accomplishing sustainable fecundity.

Through a process of inference, the Confucians believed that in the same way that nature has hidden laws that can be discovered, humans, too, have these subtle, profound principles. This is human nature, which is embedded in nature as a whole. Through an observation of living things in nature, the Confucians recognized that each living thing grows and develops. It has an inherent pattern that exists originally in potential. When it is optimally cultivated, it realizes this potential. This was the Chinese discovery of what Aristotle would call a telos, a purpose, or that to which a thing aims.

The Chinese view is that the principles of development and realization found through agriculture are a microcosm of universal patterns.  If we can understand these universal principles, and live in harmony with them, then we, too, will grow maximally, and fulfill our potentials.

As the universe, through the example of life, is about growth and change, so too, the universe must have its telos, purpose, or developmental realization. Archeologist/theologian Teillard de Chardin recognized that there are two basic movements in the universe. One is toward a loss of differentiation. Much of the universe is moving toward entropia, a breakdown of complex, systemic organization into ‘noise.’ Rather than the universe developing, this indicates that the universe is falling apart. However, a smaller, but far more important segment of the universe continues to move toward greater differentiation and complexification. As this segment has complexified it has become alive and has increased in consciousness and freedom. It is this universal complexification axis that the Confucians intuited through coming to observe relationships and processes of growth and development. By observing this process, we can infer where the universe is heading. This motion is what the Chinese would call the Tao, or Way.
This corresponds to Aristotle’s entelechy. Human nature is a process of becoming. That is, we all have the potential to continuously grow. Individually, this process leads toward each of us becoming an absolutely unique being. When we realize ourselves in this way, we are living in harmony with our own nature, and so in harmony with universal nature. This is what nature wants from us.

Our life is meant to be an expression, a manifestation, of what one essentially is, both in its universal aspect of a fulfillment of our human nature, and in its most individual, unique and particular aspects. Both together make up our entelechy, the purpose for which we exist, and the realization of our inherent potentials that exist ab origine, nascently, in our beginning.

Observing the workings of nature, Mencius understood the Aristotelian cause of form. One cause of a thing’s individual existence is its organization. The greater the complexity of a thing, that is, the greater the harmony of its parts, the greater the thing’s health, capacity for development, and power. The laws of nature can be perceived in this growth through a harmony of parts, which is one way of defining a complex structure. This would lead to the conclusion that in order to achieve fulfillment, we need to not only have internal order, but to be in harmonic relation to a greater whole. We need to find our proper place in the cosmos. This is good both for the individual and the cosmos in its totality. As sentient beings, we get to participate in the process of optimizing our use of natural law through its understanding and so advance the natural movement of nature’s development. Our job then, is to comprehend the laws of nature and live according to these principles. In this way, we find individual fulfillment and the fulfillment of the greater universal organism.

That which is taken to its summit point of development, beginning with the simple and moving to the complex, leads to infinite realization. As Mencius said,

“Or consider the high mountains: they consist of nothing more than a multiplicity of single handfuls of stones. But when these are taken to their fullest extent of breadth or vastness, then trees and grasses grow upon them in untold profusion, all manner of birds and beasts dwell within them and hidden treasures emerge from their midst.”

As every realm is ecologically intertwined, our inherent potentials are not only designed for the good and growth of the individual, but for culture, group, society, species, world, and universe. We are inextricably interwoven in a web of relationships and relatedness. These, too, make up organism, and system. These developmental and relational laws are the Heavenly Mandate.

That which we are meant to be, our purpose or telos, is one way of defining our essential nature. Mencius asserted that what makes a person’s essence is that which makes them unique. He called this unique feature of humanity, that is, our entelechal purpose, the heart. For Mencius, the home of human nature within the individual is the heart.

We can know the heavenly mandate—universal nature—if we understand human nature. Therefore, the home of the heavenly mandate within the person is the heart. As such, Mencius’s humanism is a transcendental one. As he said, “Following our inner knowledge, we shall know our heart, thereby know our nature, and thus come to know our heaven.”

If we find our hearts we can know these universal laws of nature, and by living in accord with them, we can achieve our life’s purpose.  Our task in life, the Confucians believed, is to find what they called the Central Harmony. When we make manifest the Heavenly Mandate by living according to the principles of nature, we achieve the Central Harmony. By finding our hearts and living according to the Tao we achieve the Central Harmony. The heart is the part of us that “possesses the nature to grow” toward the realization of our true humanity.

This contribution of Mencius, of defining the heart as the place of our realization, is the core of the Chinese humanistic philosophy.   The source of fulfillment is within. Mencius tells us that a phenomenological process of self-exploration, a journey to this inner source, will lead us to rediscover the heart, and to be in harmony with essential human nature.

Furthermore, through coming to comprehend microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, this dynamic, inspiring symbol leads us to the ultimate realization of the self, humanity and the universe in its totality.

If this subject of entelechy is of interest to you, you might want to explore Dr. Art Rosengarten’s blog.

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