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. As Gandhi told us that “We should speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
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 contributors 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 than to look to those who chose a path that led to a positive, what we might call, Zen outcome.
I recently used the depiction of “following the yellow brick road” as depicted in the movie classic The Wizard of Oz in my writing and how Elton John transformed the idea to say “Beyond the yellow brick road” in his music. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the American-English phrase yellow brick road as denoting a course of action or series of events viewed as a path to a particular (especially positive or desired) outcome or goal.
We are reminded that transformation and change are the keys to our growth and longevity understanding that the person that we are today is not who we will be tomorrow. Many people could stand out as models to follow through actions that led to their success. As a sports fan, I miss baseball. Specifically, Cardinal baseball. One of my favorite players was always Ozzie Smith the shortstop known as the “Wizard of Oz”. I was fortunate to get to see Ozzie play many times in Saint Louis before he retired in 1996. In his Hall of Fame speech in 2002 he was honored as probably the greatest shortstop of all time. he said… “Ozzie Smith is not a uniquely talented person, in fact, he’s no different than any man, woman, boy or girl in this audience today. Ozzie Smith was a boy who decided to look within. A boy who discovered absolutely nothing is good enough if it could be made better. A boy who discovered an old-fashioned formula that would take him beyond the rainbow, beyond even his wildest dream. A boy who discovered a formula that was, and is still today, a mind to dream, a heart to believe and the courage to persevere.” As close a statement reflecting a Zen attitude that could be made. I miss baseball very much, as I am sure many watching do as well. Ozzie used to have a restaurant in St Louis we visited as well.
Another person whose artwork I deeply appreciate is Claude Monet who was the founder of French Impressionist painting. His paintings for me were very Zen-like as they illustrated the philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature. The term impressionism is derived from the title of his painting Impressive, Sunrise. I first gained my own appreciation for Monet in a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1980 forty years ago. It is this “expressing one’s perceptions before nature” that rings true and is timeless. It is easy to find yourself and get lost in his impressionist paintings at the same time. His paintings have a lack of structure that allows you to go there on your own. Very Zen… That college class you took in Art Appreciation takes on a whole new meaning once you incorporate for yourself how what you are seeing relates to you personally.
As if we are here to find our niche as the universe would have it and spend our time going there. I would often tell my students in China that most people don’t have a clue as to who they are until the age of thirty… then with attachments already made (family and job that does not assist in taking hem there) they feel stuck. We are to use our life’s events for growth and change and go into the unknown fearless understanding of cause and effect.
A famous depiction of the three philosophies show 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 and reflect the convergence of Zen in Eastern thought and philosophy.
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”. Ultimately, asking – is it all that important to see yourself as the rest of the world does?
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. It’s 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.
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. How for over thousands of years this continuum transposed how we were to live and what we were to connect to that make us universal. That we are more than what we see – as nature gets the final call. It’s like all you need is a great Monet print on your wall at home as you sit and go there. A blending from one age to the next and deciding this is eternal and we (I) am a part of it all. A great aide in meditation by the way.
In trying to understand how it all comes together it seems each of us possess what I would call a transcendent imperative… once we know we take the next step to freedom. A certain pragmatism that honors varying ways of thinking leaning on the strengths of each of us. 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.
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.
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.
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 this 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.
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. 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.
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.
Finally, Watts reminds us that we are eternal. That our lives are like a Monet painting with our own canvas making impressions as if we are present, but not really here.