Liberation and cultural transformation and why Confucius was instrumental to the flow of benevolence and virtue. To the great Zen Master Dogen, beginner’s mind, and to what brings forth an unfolding of a new vision of reality.
It begins from within each of us. With compassion and mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows. We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train ourselves to be more frequently inclined towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy. To live from the center of our heart as the starting point in which we begin again.
And to as Mahatma Gandhi told us that “We should speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
While we have finished the study of the Dazhuan and I Ching, the essentials of Buddhist thought as it blended into Taoism in early China seems like the place to go next. As relayed earlier by Watts reckoning and many others, Taoism was the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen. This idea of liberation is something that we keep coming back to over and over again.
The question and underlying contradiction have always been – what are we liberating ourselves from – and when we have a sense of it – what do we do next. What are we doing to promote this transcendent flow of energy? If the eternal essence, this flow of the universe already exists within us, then our role becomes simply to continue moving it forward. It is often said we do this with love. But how do we express this and what is our medium of expression?
The greatest conributors to the flow of transcendence, to this flow of energy for me was illustrated in the West by Plato, Emerson, Tolstoy, MLK, Eckhart Tolle, and yes, I would say Alan Watts. What is this ability to connect with the universal never-ending flow of transcendental thought and philosophy? This voice historically has also been expressed through the arts. Music and painting, have always been the best way for many to express this transcendence. As best defined by the truest sense of kung fu – the essence of our own greatest gift to ourselves and others.
But Watts was unique, as all these were, in that they found a starting point and built on the idea of being liberated from convention to what amounts to the creative power of te, of virtue as discussed in my last entry. What is virtue and more importantly, how does it define us? To appreciate and understand a sense of virtue, there is no better place coming from the East, than to begin with Confucius.
Below is an entry from my manuscript My travels with Lieh Tzu:
Just who is this man known as Confucius and what of his obsession with knowledge? Can he possibly equal the things brought forth by Chuang Tzu who can see through all to its true origin?
While Confucius may help guide those responsible for maintaining the overall scheme of things in their dealings with others, can he possibly know the true underpinnings of all there is to know that lead to logical conclusions? Can thoughts and ideas expressed outside the true essence of the Tao have any real significance? Looking for differences to trap unseemly paradox and analogies that can confuse those not serious about finding and true way of virtue.
Who can be true to his own thoughts? Swaying this way and that by the Confucian suspicion of speculation without practical or moral relevance or by the comfort found in the seeming irrationality of the Tao.
The three tenants of higher consciousness, Buddhism, Confucius and Taoism always present. Ultimately pushing everything to higher ground. Moving all to places they would otherwise miss. Just as the seasoned traveler who breaks the mountain’s ridge to see the vast panorama spread before him. Every direction simply leading to destinations previously seen and known but forgotten.
Everything crystallizing over time. Can one move forward knowing the paradox found in all things that are allowed to advance in their own way? Knowing that Confucius is forever weighing benefit and harm and distinguishing between right and wrong.
Can there be a moral relevance to all things considered practical as found in the analytical comfort of knowing the results lie in the search for truth and knowledge? Can one following such a course of action be taken seriously? Who can know? Is not the ultimate to be born a Taoist, to live as a Confucian and die a Buddhist? Where can all this possibly lead? Who can possibly say? 3/5/1995
The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his philosophy:
Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering due to desires; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. Another interpretation of the painting is that, since the three men are gathered around one vat of vinegar, the “three philosophies” are one and the same. The latter is my sentiments exactly.
Alan Watts understood that in order to get to the bottom of what was to become Zen Buddhism, you must first see the adaptability of Chinese thought. For myself, there seems to be a universal connecting tissue that ties universal thought together as if a single thread. I see this especially in Tolstoy, Emerson, and Watt.
In Eastern thought, there had been an integration spanning thousands of years of defining who they were before Buddhism came from India in a big way. This maturity led to workable patterns of social convention derived from Confucianism with ideas of Taoism and particularly “leaving well enough alone”. This led to a synthesis, to what would become Chan, or Zen Buddhism whose premise was “ok, how do we find a practical application that would define a way of life for everyone following normal instincts and pre-existing patterns”.
I would add that both mystical and mythic consciousness demands that certain things – sacred things – be approached not with the distance of disinterested scrutiny but in a spirit of faith. But freedom from the self comes not through the dulling of consciousness, but through its refinement, not through dissolving the ego but through moving beyond it. Its what every great storyteller attempts to do by becoming enmeshed, or a part of, what appears as an extension of the unknown, eventually falling into a harmonious rhythm or flow that washes away extraneous thoughts and brings our senses back to life.
Verse 34 of the Tao Te Ching –from my book Thoughts on becoming a Sage / The Guidebook to Leading a virtuous Life published in China in 2006.
Knowing no borders – you learn to lead the Way
Living each moment in virtue through grace, while remaining unrestrained in every thought, action and deed.
Coming across to others as neither weak nor strong or right or wrong, so that you may respond to all things and move them in any direction.
Knowing no borders and remaining neutral. In control, but letting everything find its own course just the same. Simply doing what you do best as if you are drifting through time. With no predetermined destination you go everywhere, see everything using the Tao as your compass and oar. Continuing by grace so that you go without bringing attention to yourself, never speaking of your power or mentioning your achievements as you endeavor to remain small.
Never acting great, but doing great things. Everything eventually coming before you as you let each go by seemingly out of your control. Recalling Chuang Tzu and his refrain that the Tao has no borders. As you sit back watching as the world comes to your doorstep.
Memorial to Yellow Emperor Qufu
It seems that in practical terms that I always come back to Confucius and his hometown, Qufu. I got my Chinese name (Kongdan), from my friends in Qufu. Kong is Confucius family name. Over half of people who live in Qufu have Kong as their family name. So, the name Kongdan seemed the next step for me over the years as I kept coming back (and still do). Over the past twenty years I have made over forty trips and lived next to Confucius Mansion and Temple and taught at the school founded by his descendants adjacent to both. But the point here is the flow of divine universal thought and energy.
Stele of the Yellow Emperor – Qufu
How for over thousands of years this continuum transposed how we were to live and what we were to connect to that made us universal. That we are more than what we see as nature gets the final call. A blending from one age to the next that created the sense the shaman and sage knew well and decided this is eternal and we are a part of it all.
Deciding it must come from within ourselves. Confucius caused this blending to happen. Interestingly, his teachings weren’t appreciated for almost a hundred years after he died. It was the flow of energy others could grab onto and add to that would illustrate his genius just as he had done himself. Tradition says the Yellow Emperor (2700 BC) who created the I Ching was from Qufu. Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou, who is considered to be the “First Sage” of China, who wrote the Book of Rites five hundred years before Confucius was from Qufu. In trying to understand how it all comes together it seems like they always possessed what I would call a transcendent imperative. A certain pragmatism that all honored as varying ways of thinking leaning on the strengths of each. Like saying whatever works best to get you there will do.
It’s like possessing an underlying simplicity and structure as to how we live our lives that can obscure the richness of its implications. That’s the task of all great teachers and what they leave behind for us to grab onto that will define us as well. This is what Confucius did that Watts was trying to relay. Saying wherever we are doing it from in virtue is empowering, and can enhance our capacities to find enjoyment throughout the events of daily life. For Confucius this sense of responsibility leads one to benevolence, virtue, and grace. To appreciate Zen, you must first look to the three anchors of thought, Confucianism, Taoism, and Mayashan Buddhism, with the merging of awareness and action as the central, or essential ingredient to the experience of each. That we are at our best when we are one of many.
For a short time prior to teaching at Jining University in Qufu, I was a partner in a joint-venture shopping center with an office that overlooked the Confucius cemetery east of the city for a few years, where both over one hundred thousand of his descendants and Confucius are buried. Or I think better-said I keep returning to Qufu like a homing pigeon. Even on my fist trip to Qufu in October 1999, it was as if I was returning home where I had lived many times before as a teacher. Spending a lot of time in meditation and contemplation as to what it all could mean… and why Qufu? To return again in 2011 to teach was amazing… My time spent living and teaching in Qufu can be found in a manuscript here on my website under the tab “Books” entitled Qufu and Confucius. For almost five thousand years the city of Lu, later to be known as Qufu, has been the center of the Middle Kingdom. For the storyteller you become the scribe, the continuation of history, as if you are simply recalling or retelling what you already know and will add to this time…
When I’m here, I always seem to return to thoughts of illumination, liberation, freedom, ideas of the flow of universal transcendence, and wanting to live from a state of grace. What my own mentors would have done next, and most importantly, remembering what takes us there. It’s like a grounding of eternal presence that becomes understood and acknowledged before going forward with the next step reminding us of the innate wisdom, perhaps one might say, a kind of touchstone, we have always possessed.
This always seems to bring me back to moderation, and the benevolence and virtue of Confucius and Kongdan. What this means is that whatever the impermanence we find of our lives in this moment… we can change. Often I would take the bus to a neighboring city or village to visit the home of one of my students. As we would turn the corner or see vistas of mountains or hillside there would be a sense of dejavu – I have been here before. This feeling often occurred in Qufu.
To appreciate and understand Alan Watts, there is a need to “get under the skin” of pre-existing thought as to what made Zen Zen. As if, you must understand the journey it took over the centuries to grow and manifest into something that people could see as an instrument to follow as a compilation of thought and philosophy.
To the left is an area called “Confucius Hill” next to the Si River in Qufu where Confucius was said to have given lectures to his followers over 2500 years ago.
It’s not only that we return to the flow of universal thought, but where we allow it to take us. Like an institutional memory we each contribute to that allows us to tap into that shows the way. A willingness to proceed into the unknown as the central element in acknowledging our own path, and that no two may be the same. As with the I Ching you must return, or go back to the beginning, before the route ahead shows you the way. Over the centuries it becomes the roadmap to eternity. For me, it’s always returning to my source and Qufu. As with seemingly all things opposites occur with Qufu in northeast China and Chengdu in Sichuan to the southwest.
To the right is a 13th century temple complex located in rural Fukai in Japan, considered to be an important pilgrimage site by most Soto Zen practitioners known as Eiheiji, founded by Master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) in 1244.
When the world is experienced, as the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen writes, “with the whole of one’s body and mind” the senses are joined, the self is opened, and life displays an intrinsic and unitive richness. This from a famous passage Dogen from Genjokoan, (whose meaning is to actualize, or to appear to become one with the whole universe.)
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be illuminated by all things.
Adding that – great enlightenment is the tea and rice of daily living.
Its characteristics include joy, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. While living in South Florida a few years ago, I attended a Buddhist Sangha Community weekly meditation that used the book “The Essential Dogen” as a guide. I still have the book, and often find myself returning to it. I have found it both enlightening and inspirational. In a future entry as an introduction to Watt’s version of Zen, I hope to use this as another tool. Ultimately, we attain wisdom not be creating ideals, but by learning to see things clearly, as they are. That it is as Confucius said, “We are not here to create – we are here to relate”.
One of Dogen’s teachers was Rujing. What I especially liked was his idea that practice and realization cannot be divided as we proceed each moment in what Watt would call ‘the essential Now’. To acknowledge the starting point as what the Buddhist would call ‘beginners mind’. To what Eckhart Tolle calls “The Power of Now”. With this we focus on aligning with the destination that is always present.
What Watts calls when we have an experience, or find ourselves in a state of consciousness which leads to our liberation that often is referred to as self-knowledge, or the beginnings of self-awakening. It is with this state of mind we make the discovery of who or what I am (we are), when I am (we are) no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person we thought we were. This “self-knowledge” often leads to identifying with our own divinity. To succeed in the cultivation of mindfulness, is the highest benefit, informing all aspects of our life.
The idea of a starting point has always intrigued me. With the I Ching, it always reminds us to start with the beginning. To go within as if in prayer or meditation letting our outward actions simply mirror our innermost acknowledgment of our own divinity. What I like most about Zen Buddhism, is there are no rails keeping us from actualizing who we are meant to become. I like to think ths was Chuang Tzu’s contribution to chan that later transformed into zen.
To grow as we come to know our presence – to know ourselves. This was always the strength of Confucius teaching as it allowed the blending and structure that encouraged Taoism and Buddhism to flourish with the addition of Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen.
Frontispiece of the Chinese Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, the oldest known dated printed book in the world.
In China this was often called Chan Buddhism and in Japan… Zen Buddhism as exemplified by Dogen. Teachings would often vary due to structure and preferences of Masters seeped in culture and direction with the flow of wisdom they felt they needed to expand.
Below is an entry from the Chapter entitled Confucius that appears in the book “My Travels with Lieh Tzu” called “Maintaining sage-like Endurance”, that began as a book simply entitled “Lieh Tzu” that describes the impact of Confucius teachings on others. The book here on my website is my own version I wrote back in 1995-96 that has never been published.
What did Confucius do that made him so famous? He was a compiler of the history of China that came before him. For myself after more than twenty-five years of acquaintance, he was/is the ultimate storyteller. He is said to have updated what was known as “the Five Classics”, which included the Book of Rites made famous by Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou, from five hundred years earlier. Also, the Analects and his take on the I Ching, plus the writings of Lao Tzu, who tradition says they once met. He did not become famous for over a hundred years after his death.
Maintaining sage-like Endurance
Once asked if he was a sage, Confucius responded: “How can I claim to be a sage, I am simply a man who has studying widely and remembered much.” Asked if the Kings were sage-like, he responded: “The kings were good at employing wisdom and courage, rather they were sages is hard to say.” Asked if the Emperors were sages, Confucius responded: “They were good at employing morality, rather that made them a sage, I do not know.” Asked if the three Highnesses were like a sage, Confucius responded: “They were good at adapting themselves to their environment, but rather this made them sage-like is difficult to know.”
Knowing the above who can be a sage? Since the time governments have been established there has been no true sage. For in bringing forward a standard for all to follow, a cleverness is established and one must lead and another follow. How can this enhance the knowledge and experience needed for one to be known as a sage?
Can a sage have true wisdom and courage, keep his sense of morality and be good at adapting to his environment once a semblance of that which is known as government comes into place? How can one be manifested with the other ever‑present?
The one true sage is thought to be Lao Tzu and it is said that he does not govern yet there is no disorder. Does not speak, yet is trusted simultaneously. He is so great the people cannot give a name to him so that even he is questioned as to have truly existed. Remember what you have come to know in your new found travels. Prepare to retreat into the inner workings of the Tao and leave behind all those who strive to find their place in worldly affairs. Remain forever sage-like in your endeavors and come to know eternal peace. 3/12/1995
Confucius inspired people to act with benevolence and virtue that would accept the spiritual path of others. For well over two thousand years after Confucius, Qufu was considered to be the “Religious center of China”, because what Confucianism became was the way of acceptance of family, community, and the emperor. Every city from about 200 AD during the Han dynasty going forward, was required to have a “Temple of Confucius”, not so much in a spiritual sense, but a philosophical understanding of how the individual should live going forward. Much of the examination system in place for well over a thousand years required for moving up in society was centered of a thorough understanding of the teaching of Confucius.
If you are still with me, I hope you will see the value in “self-appraisal”. Modeling our heart and our thoughts, to match others we can look to as guides that help to design the path, we know instinctively we must take when we are ready. I especially like to follow what is called the oral tradition, words and stories from the East. As personified by the sage, or shaman, as a heritage embodied in what is transmitted in what we might call not necessarily a ‘religious’ sense, but one that involved directing others in a whole way of life. This is the fate of the storyteller. Creating cohesion that take us to the unknown in such away we must follow. The earliest shaman knew to follow his/her instincts into the unknown. What was it that took Alan Watts and so many others on their own journey to the knowledge of the ultimate reality? It’s where we shall endeavor to go here as well.