Tuesday June 22, 2010

Thought for the Day: The wise person controls his ear and eye by means of his mind; the petty person controls his mind by means of his ear and eye. (From the Shuo Yuan, a compilation of sundries from the 1st century BCE.)

When I read this thought to Janet she asked me if it came from a Chinese source. I unhelpfully replied, “Where else?” since most of my thoughts come from Chinese sources. Then she asked how I account for my obsession with China. Good question. How does one account for an obsession, any obsession? It seems to me that the word’s meaning includes the notion that an obsession cannot be accounted for, that it lies beyond rationality. Perhaps I should ask my fellow team members to account for it, since for all but one of us this is a repeat visit to China. Some have returned several times, I think, even to Xi’an in the winter, and while that might not the symptom of an obsession, it certainly does suggest a fascination with and a strong interest in this place.

Perhaps one reason China has a strong appeal to those of us who return time and again is that it is so different from the US and its (by and large) Eurocentric culture. For instance, Chinese culture has for thousands of years loved and revered mountains—high, rugged, sometimes almost inaccessible mountains. Mountains of strange and haunting beauty. Mountains which emperors ascend to validate their reigns. Mountains to which sages retire to seek wisdom. That’s not true of Western culture. For almost all of recorded Western history mountains have been feared, not revered, avoided, not sought out. Only with the invention of the cult of the sublime in the late 18th century did people go to the Alps rather than flee from them. Before that mountains were the home of the gods (Olympus), not places for mortals to visit, with rare exceptions such as Moses and Sinai. There’s an early, impressive Chinese work titled The Classic of Mountains and Oceans which dates from at least the 2nd century BCE and describes over 550 mountains. There is no Western analogue that I know of. Hence these attitudes toward mountains constitute an interesting cultural difference. Why have the Chinese been so interested in (obsessed with?) mountains? Part of the reason probably lies in the Chinese tradition of geomancy, which we know as feng shui. This tradition argues that there are powerful forces moving through channels underground, and these channels often form junctions near or under mountains. (Those who are inclined to scoff at this theory might consider the locations of most earthquakes—near mountains.) Hence mountains, besides being beauty spots, and indeed many of them are deeply beautiful, are centers of powerful forces to which the Chinese tradition has paid attention for thousands of years.

There’s an eccentric echo in today’s USA of this interest in mountains and feng shui. My sense is that in the USA today feng shui is seen as a sort of interior decoration. Here’s a typical example: “Practitioners believe that by arranging our furnishings and decor in a way that aligns with nature, we draw harmony and good health into our lives..” But in the Chinese tradition feng shui is a much more serious matter which involves paying close attention to those flows of energy in the earth, to compass orientation, to proximity to water, etc. That this is serious stuff indeed is suggested by the story that Norman Foster consulted feng shui masters while designing the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong. In traditional Chinese culture feng shui masters were consulted in siting temples, houses, and graves, arguably the three most important buildings in traditional Chinese culture. And today, as we have seen, feng shui masters are consulted regarding bank buildings 180 meters high in 47 stories. That’s a long way from putting the sofa next to the TV.

But I digress. I was trying to understand my obsession with China. If, as I suggested above, an obsession lies beyond rational explication, then that is surely a case of the ear and eye leading the mind, what my thought for the day says is the sign of a petty person. Given my regard for traditional Chinese culture I’m loath to suggest the thought is misguided. But it may be. After all, how rational is volunteering? We’ve all run into folks who think we’re nuts for paying to volunteer. “You mean you teach for three weeks and pay to do it? Huh?” But there may be a way out of this dilemma in the fact that the Chinese word translated as “mind” in the thought can also be translated as “heart.” (Isn’t it interesting that Chinese puts into one organ [the mind/heart] what we so definitely put into two [the mind and the heart]?) One’s heart ought to be tugged around by one’s eyes and ears. Specifically, in the case of volunteering, don’t we teach these students for the looks on their faces and the sounds of their voices? Don’t our hearts tell us volunteering is a good idea? As Betty put it yesterday in explaining to students why she does volunteer work, “It feels good,” and as she said it she put her hand on her heart. That’s why we do this—the heart controls the ear and eye, and we’re better for it.

– Michael

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