On Sensitivity to Poetry: Musings Provoked by Sanskrit Poetics

Once upon a time I had an ecstatic relationship with poetry. It started with Keats, expanded into Donne, Milton, Marvell, and Shakespeare, and then Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot. I was 15, and the ecstasy lasted until I was about 25. Keats’ great odes set me on fire. He was the first poet I read in his entirety, and he taught me the value of reading whole poets: not only is it the best way to learn to hear them as their voice is discovered and developed, but you also get to see them write bad poems, take wrong directions, make experiments that only half work, until out of the mist of abortions and deformities the most beautiful, perfect flowers of poetry show themselves. From then on I tended to read Collected Poems from beginning to end. Even if you can only do this for one or two poets, you will find it inspiring and instructive to see genius growing and under cultivation; in contrast, if you only ever encounter the peaks of poetry, you will have a misleading sense of what genius is and how it manifests, since you will not see the labor of decades by which most poets reach their summits — and it may cripple your own creativity, because you won’t see that most poets wandered along a path and that they weren’t simply born on the peaks.

Thus for about ten years I didn’t read but lived in poetry. Keats’ odes just went into me without resistance; they were easy to memorize, and throughout the day lines and phrases would play in my head, to be savored and murmured to myself because they seemed to hint at worlds just beneath the surface of my daily experience: “…magic casements, opening on the foam / Of  perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” In my university days at Cambridge, reading and writing almost nonstop, I got to do this full time with all the major English poets. My state of mind in those years — unknown to me because I was in it, as water is unknown to a fish, until it is removed — was rapture, a constant high created by powerful words. It involved being minutely attentive to every word in a poem, every sound, and every possible semantic shading and ambiguity. Of course this attentiveness was also fuelled by an academic culture that emphasized close reading, but the analytical discipline of reading was vitalized by the emotional receptivity of youth and a natural sensitivity. I loved these poems; they gave my life its sweetness, and opened up for me my own heart. I am the kind of highly introverted person who doesn’t really think in words but in images and music, so the impact of the great poets was immense: they allowed me to give names to the motions and events of my own soul, and thus revealed me to myself. But what exactly was this rapture that enveloped me like a cloud as I went through my day?

The ancient Indian classic of poetics, the Dhvanyaloka (“Light/manifestation/world of Suggestion,” written about the same time as Beowulf), called it rasa: literally, taste, relish, savor. Barely any of the philosophical writers on poetry in the West concerned themselves with the distinctive ecstasy that all lovers of poetry know; notions such as the “sublime” are attempts to express it, but end up being bound to particular subject matter or particular genres but not poetry as such. These writers often spend many pages on rhetorical schemas, tropes, and formal patterns of expression — as if it is the skilled manipulation of these and not a special kind of emotional perception that makes a poem a poem. The  Dhvanyaloka is entirely focused on understanding what the “soul of poetry” is, and in finding it to reside in the distinctive rapture of a sensitive lover of poetry it then tries to work through theoretical arguments to articulate what exactly this feeling might be. Like most Sanskrit philosophical classics, it can no longer be separated from its major commentaries, and the text itself as we have it is embedded in a dense mesh of scholastic argumentation between different schools of thought. One strand of debate throughout the text runs between the Vedic ritualists on the one hand, who have strict views on the literalism of the Vedas and therefore definite criteria for deciding why a passage may be considered figurative or not; and on the other hand philosophers like the great Abhinavagupta (10th century) who held poetic suggestion to be a special form of non-literal use of language. Indeed, for the Dhvanyaloka suggestion or dhvani is the distinctive characteristic of poetry, whereby the words of a great poem seem to have infinite richness, indeterminate levels of meaning, density of reverberation. The literalist is tone-deaf to dhvani and tends not to “get” poetry; or, when experiencing poetic narrative or drama, is only interested in character and plot. The genuine reader of poetry loves dhvani, is attentive and attuned to it, and through dhvani attains the higher joy of poetry, rasa.

Now rasa is not a passion (bhava), which is the type of emotion experienced in ordinary life. In the recitation of a poem in which the speaker is a woman whose husband has just died, the woman’s grief is the passion, but what the bard feels is not her grief — otherwise he would be unable to speak — but a different kind of feeling, a transcendent emotion that is not a passion but that expresses itself through passion and perceives or tastes the passion. This poem expresses not just grief but the rasa of grief, which needs the passion as a foundation — but which is itself an entirely different kind of feeling. In art we experience feelings that we don’t experience in our normal lives; this is why musicians, when they are deeply moved by their music, have facial expressions that no one ever has when not playing music. The reader or audience with no receptivity to dhvani will never understand this, and will always describe the effect of art with the flat terms of ordinary emotions such as “sad” or “angry.” A rasa is a different quality of feeling. The Dhvanyaloka goes some way towards solving one big problem in Western poetics: in watching a tragedy, how do we get pleasure from experiencing something painful? Are we bad if we do? This is not a problem if the pleasure and the pain of poetry are no longer ordinary emotions; the pleasure is rasa, which is very different from the kinds of pleasure we experience in being massaged or told good news.

The pleasure of rasa may actually feel like the highest spiritual states: it is  …an enjoyment which is different from the apprehensions derived from memory or direct experience and which takes the form of melting, expansion, and radiance. This enjoyment is like the bliss that comes from realizing [one’s identity] with the highest Brahman, for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one’s own self… (Bhattanayaka, one of the commentators in The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana, tr. Ingalls, Masson, Patwardhan, 1990,  p.222) For Abhinavagupta, “melting, expansion, and radiance” are good, but still a narrowing down of the multifariousness of rasic feeling; yet he agrees that it comes about rather from the cessation of that obscuration [of the true nature of the self] which is caused by the thick darkness of ignorance. (225) This is why in the state of poetic rapture we feel as if the veils have been torn from our innermost heart and we have found ourselves.

To get here we need a high degree of sensitivity and cultivation. Of Sensitive Readers: (sahrdāyānam): The word sahrdaya (lit., “having their hearts with it) denotes persons who are capable of identifying with the subject matter, as the mirror of their hearts has been constantly polished by the constant study and practice of poetry, and who respond to it sympathetically in their own hearts…”The body is pervaded by it as dry wood by fire”. (Abhinavagupta70) This is not a democratic vision of poetry; it is aristocratic, coming from a world in which people were expected and allowed to have different capacities and powers. But to one who has sensitivity, the blaze is unstoppable, and the ecstatic mood that comes from a meeting of a receptive soul with the greatest poetry can make a hard life seem worthwhile — and conversely, losing the capacity for rasa can make life seem an oppressive, deadening rote.

I intimated at the beginning of this essay that I once had a relationship to poetry that I no longer have. All things change; nothing is static. Still, how can the capacity for rasa — filled and irradiated as it was by the passion of youth and first love — ever be lost, and if we find later in life that we no longer feel poetic rapture so easily, what does that mean? Am I now only part of what I once was, or have I found a different but nonetheless rich relationship to poetry?

How Can We Eat for Pleasure? “The Parable of the Son’s Flesh.”


Hidden away in the vast collection of the Buddha’s teachings called the “Connected Discourses” (Samyutta Nikaya) we discover what is perhaps the bleakest and most powerful of his parables, “The Son’s Flesh” (12.63; I quote the main part in full at the end of this essay). It is one of those teachings that can act like a bucket of icy water on a drunk man. In it, a family of three — mother, father, son — are crossing a desert. They have run out of food and water, yet still have a stretch of desert to cross before reaching an oasis. Are they all going to die, or is there only hope of two of them making it if they eat the third? If so, who will be killed and eaten? After some deliberation, they decide to eat the child, possibly because it is already in a more weakened state than the others; or because the family unit is stronger if both parents survive. They kill him, and by rationing out the dried and roasted meat over the ensuing week they manage to reach the oasis. The crucial part of the parable is not the killing and eating, but the parents’ feelings about it. Will they enjoy the taste of the meat, or take an iota of pleasure in it? No, the Buddha’s disciples instantly reply, with each mouthful they will beat their breasts and weep for their child, crying “Child, where are you? Where are you?” The only reason they are eating it is to get across the desert.

The lesson is about more than the horrors of cannibalism or of carnivorous life. It is given in the context of a series of teachings about the “nutrients,” which include biological nutrition, but also sense-impressions, “volitional thought,” and consciousness. The “nutrients” are all those things we have to take in, consume, digest, in order to continue existing; they are the sweeping, roaring river that feeds the life of our being. In this essay I’m going to focus on bodily food, but as we will see, this notion encompasses not only what we put in our mouths but everything that gives material support to our continued existence and yet is largely invisible to us.

The food we hold at the end of our fork is not just a lump of edible matter but the whole world of activity that went into its production. There was a cook. There were farmers, usually migrant workers working in inhuman conditions, who do the back-breaking labor of preparing the soil, planting, daily tending, harvesting, gathering, carrying, sorting, and more; often these are children. There are the animals, human beings, native plant species that were driven or burnt off the land so that it could be made to feed a whole population — and the land itself deteriorates under the pressure. There are the food-plant workers who package the food, the transportation workers who get it to our shop, the retail workers who arrange, store, and sell it to us. The list of sentient beings involved is dizzying to contemplate, and if we are honest we can also admit that we pay as little as possible for this food, shopping where we get the best deal. Because of this it is very difficult for all those people responsible for our food to rise above their often brutal and dehumanizing working lives — lives that we ourselves would never choose to have. We are not to blame for this; we need to be economical in our expenditures, not just for ourselves but for the sakes of those who depend on us. In this process there are also all those machines, tools, vehicles, which are produced and have equally complicated conditions: they too are worlds. And all the people involved — including the ones who don’t physically labor but who deal with organization and money, and who make the prices “competitive” so that we can afford it, and all those people who invest in food-producing companies so that they stay financially strong — all of these people need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, in other webs of activity: worlds behind worlds behind worlds. And there is the fuel for running and making those machines, for processing the raw agricultural produce, for treating and delivering the fabric for the workers’ clothes…and the people and machines, the wars and political coercion, the defense and security apparatus, for guaranteeing that fuel.  If we went out and looked, we would see tremendous suffering in these worlds of production, but an intelligent and imaginative person is capable of inferring from such things as low prices, and where this food comes from, that the production of food is not pretty. This is especially true of meat production, of course — which is one reason why slaughter-houses do not have big glass windows. And this is also why the ads and posters for our foodstuffs always show clichéd agrarian idylls and never the actual conditions of food production — because if they did, most people wouldn’t want to eat.

All this constitutes our forkful. It is not mere matter, mere chemical constituents, that we are putting in our mouths — but worlds of activity by millions, maybe billions, of beings. When we contemplate this, how is it possible for a thoughtful being to “enjoy” the mouthful? I love my dogs and cats, yet a pig or cow is at least as sensitive and intelligent as my dog Jake, who picks me up when I am down — and if I were to kill and eat Jake simply because I liked the taste, would that not be an act of dehumanizing barbarism? — dehumanizing of me, that is. Even more so if I were to repress what I know or infer of the production chain behind my forkful, and mindlessly “enjoy” it as if none of that suffering exists. This is what the Buddha is saying with the Parable of the Son’s Flesh. It is not that we shouldn’t enjoy our food; it is that if we consider it and are aware of what it actually is, how can we? This is not squeamishness, or a puritannical pushing away of pleasure, but a humane activity of intelligence that faces squarely the conditions of our existence and does not blink. If you can do that and still enjoy your food, go for it. If you can’t enjoy your food any more, at least not as much, you will still eat — but you may be more careful, more respectful, less wasteful, less cavalier: less inebriated.

Of course, the Parable of the Son’s Flesh concerns much more than food. The sources of energy that feed our world would be another kind of “nutrient.” In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell vividly described the realities of coal production: how miners would work at a coal face three to four feet high, digging on their knees, each man expecting to produce at a rate of two tons an hour, for over seven hours; how the coal faces could lie as far as five miles from the elevator, to be reached by an arduous trek down low tunnels, a trek comparable in exertion to climbing a small mountain to get to work, and for which the men were not paid; the deafening noise of the machines, the clouds of coal dust, the acrid smell — and above all, how ignorant the above-ground civilization was of this vast subterranean industry that maintained every aspect of its being. The very desk I am writing on may well be perched high above a labyrinth of tunnels down which thousands of human beings less fortunate than I have trudged and sweated, and yet I have been wholly unaware of this. “You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower,” Orwell remarks. “But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves.” Mutatis mutandis, everything he says can apply to our relation to our primary sources of fuel today.  We have an interest in keeping its production invisible, or pretending that it is invisible, because only thus can we consider ourselves “above it” and devoted to higher things. The Parable of the Son’s Flesh is a stern reminder of the realities of our consumption, but regular reflection on this austere teaching can detach us at least a little from “healthy callousness” and reconnect us with our fundamental humaneness and dignity.

 It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.   

The Son’s Flesh (excerpt, SN 12.63)

“There are, O monks, four nutriments[7] for the sustenance of beings born, and for the support of beings seeking birth.[8] What are the four?
“Edible food, coarse and fine;[9] secondly, sense-impression;[10] thirdly, volitional thought;[11] fourthly, consciousness.[12]
“How, O monks, should the nutriment edible food be considered? Suppose a couple, husband and wife, have set out on a journey through the desert, carrying only limited provisions. They have with them their only son, dearly beloved by them. Now, while these two traveled through the desert, their limited stock of provisions ran out and came to an end, but there was still a stretch of desert not yet crossed. Then the two thought: ‘Our small stock of provisions has run out, it has come to an end; and there is still a stretch of desert that is not yet crossed. Should we not kill our only son, so dearly beloved, prepare dried and roasted meat, and eating our son’s flesh, we may cross in that way the remaining part of the desert, lest all three of us perish?’
“And these two, husband and wife, killed their only son, so dearly beloved by them, prepared dried and roasted meat, and, eating their son’s flesh, crossed in that way the remaining part of the desert. And while eating their son’s flesh, they were beating their breast and crying: ‘Where are you, our only and beloved son? Where are you, our only and beloved son?’
“What do you think, O monks? Will they eat the food for the pleasure of it, for enjoyment, for comeliness’ sake, for (the body’s) embellishment?”[13]
“Certainly not, O Lord.”
“Will they not rather eat the food merely for the sake of crossing the desert?”
“So it is, O Lord.”

The Buddha’s Most Useful Parable

A practitioner of martial arts or any strenuous physical activity learns very early on to make clear determinations about feelings. You get thumped in the chest or slammed to the ground. If you’re a novice, your reaction to this will be panic, dismay, demoralization: rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, need to surrender. After this has happened a number of times, the reaction is: I got struck but did it hurt? No — it was only impact but not pain. I can go on. Later, you get hit in the face, or ski into a tree, or fall from a ten feet while climbing, or get slammed to the ground and pinned by a large hairy male. A beginner might fall to pieces in reaction to any of these, but a veteran would pause and investigate: this hurts, but is it actually injury or only pain and shock? If it is not injury, I can go on… The difference between a novice and a veteran is that the former doesn’t know the possible meanings of impact or pain, so every mishap seems dangerous — while the veteran can distinguish calmly between harmless and injurious, and respond rather than react. Without awareness and intelligence, one can only react. Such simple (but not easy!) discrimination can be taken to more interesting levels. You are assaulted by a drunk on the streets: Did he punch hard enough to hurt, or was it only mild impact? Did anything happen worthy of counter-action, or nothing? Your partner yells at you: at first you are taken aback, but did it actually hurt, or was it only emotional impact? — and if it did hurt, did it do any damage, or was it only pain? If only pain, it will subside soon, and you can move on. We do not have to react to everything as an injury.

One of the great benefits of the Buddha’s analysis of experience is that we become aware that there are two kinds of feeling, one primary and one secondary. The primary one will be something like impact, pleasure, pain, but in our ordinary experience it will seem inseparable from an additional layer of feeling that magnifies it. You taste a marvelous new wine, and immediately feel that a civilized life is impossible without it. You dance with someone really attractive who seems to like you, and for days afterwards your days and nights are plagued with lascivious fantasies because surely something more is meant to happen. Or someone shoves you, so you react with indignation and rage, and shove back. You slip on ice and crash to the ground; immediately you are trembling with shock and dismay, your body hurts, and from then on you never want to venture outside in the cold again. You want to be a writer, but after several days working on a short story you finally dare to show it to a respected friend, who laughs at it — so, mortally wounded, you never write another word for twenty years and dedicate all your spare time to reading novels or watching TV.

In all of these cases there is a first feeling that is simple, but it comes packaged in a more complex feeling that gives the first feeling more significance than it really has. The Buddha illuminates this beautifully in the Parable of the Arrow:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the Normal Joe sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the Normal Joe sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.                  

“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the Normal Joe does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling. As he does not discern the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling, then any ignorance-obsession with regard to that feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain obsesses him.  

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it as though joined with it. Sensing a feeling of neither-pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called a Normal Joe joined with birth, aging, & death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering & stress.

“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.”  (Sallatha Sutta, adapted from Thanissaro translation)

The first arrow is the simple primary feeling, but then we shoot an extra arrow at ourselves, or even an entire assortment of arrows. With experience, and the habit of paying attention to what we are really feeling, we start to see that even though most of our feelings present themselves to us as “natural” and inevitable, they are usually compounds of more than one arrow, and the only one we have to manage is the first. The secondary feelings are not intrinsic to the experience. We may get upset at being punched in the head, but when we realize that in boxing class we actually rather enjoyed being punched in the head, and that boxers truly don’t mind such assaults, we see that upset and rage are not intrinsic to being punched. Similarly, we may feel arousal and desire on being seated next to a physically attractive person — but when we think about how many objectively pretty people we have become indifferent to because of their shallow conversation or spiteful behavior, we see that there is nothing intrinsically erotic about anybody’s appearance. Even with the death of loved ones, we know that some cultures and individuals celebrate the passing into a better life, or rejoice in the satisfying completion of a life, or find relief in deliverance from chronic pain and indignity: even sorrow is thus not intrinsic to death.

The Parable of the Arrow can save us from unnecessary emotional fuss and also obfuscation. There is genuine feeling, and extraneous feeling. When we are able to discriminate between the two, we can respond rather than react. Rather than becoming lost in a mixed cloud of emotions that all press upon us as urgent and essential, we can feel more clearly what is primary and not be bullied by adventitious compulsions.

Once in the ocean off Penang I was stung by a Portuguese Man-O’-War. The tentacle wrapped around my right arm, and it felt like a massive electric shock. As I pulled away, knowing what had happened, I carefully detached the virulent thread and watched my arm swelling and turning black. The initial shock subsided quickly as I realized that I was unlikely to die or lose the use of my arm. Instead, it was extremely interesting to observe the change in the sensation over the weeks: it was novel, and gave me a new appreciation for my arm. There were two things I had always been curious about in the natural world: what it would feel like to be shocked by an electric eel or stung by a big deadly jellyfish. Now I had met one of them. It was painful, yes, but something wonderful and nothing to complain about; besides, the black spiral line around my arm entertained my friends for months afterwards.

Clinging for Dear Life (2): Love

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The most exciting thing about the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is the discovery that there is no such thing as a small or insignificant experience. If you are attentive to what goes on when you do something as simple as taste, you will find yourself holding the key to all other experiences.

Feeling, then craving, then clinging: we’ve seen when observing ourselves taste ice cream that feeling is unavoidable as long as we have the sense organ to feel with and the sense object to feel, but that clinging and craving — the desire for more, and the compulsion to secure the pleasant feeling — present themselves as an immediate component of feeling but are really not intrinsic to it. We cannot help liking the sweetness of good chocolate ice cream, but when we gobble up the whole bowl and rush to the store to buy more we are acting automatically and unthinkingly, assuming that this is a natural chain of events that necessarily spills out of the first taste — and we are frustrated, disappointed, sometimes angry, when the chain is interrupted. But we know we can easily train ourselves not to need more than the first taste, and therefore we know that craving and clinging are in fact not intrinsic to feeling: we can feel, notice, enjoy, and move on. We do not have to be locked into the initial feeling, in the hope of repeating it. We’ve seen how in the case of pleasures our clinging leads to the creation of a world that is built upon the guaranteed satisfaction of our pleasures; and in the case of our displeasure, our clinging structures our world such that unpleasantness can be avoided. The pleasure can be relatively simple: good food, good drink, nice clothes, nice car, cheap gas, cheap utilities. The displeasures can also be simple: pain, illness, death. We spend most of our physical and mental energy working to secure the pleasures and ward off the displeasures. There are more subtle versions of these too: music, the arts, the cultivated pleasures; and there are also ideas we dislike, things we would rather not think about, regarding which we work hard to secure our ignorance — for example, what happens with our waste, who grows our food, how exactly our peace and safety are maintained. The clinging pervades and orders our lives, and as long as we are unconscious of it we cannot really be free.

The unthinking drift from feeling to clinging is easy to notice in a sense experience such as taste, partly because in such experiences nothing big is at stake and we have nothing we feel we need to hide from ourselves. But what if we meet people in much the same way as we meet taste pleasures? It is difficult to achieve awareness of how we relate to other people because so much of our way of relating is bound up with who we think we are or who we fear we might be. We would in fact rather not look at ourselves too closely. When we meet someone we find delightful, and enjoy the first encounter because of similarity of interests, attractive appearance, the pleasure of finding someone else interested in us, a compatible tempo in speech and thought, it is easy to slip into a belief that there was a deep pre-existing bond, something significant underlying the encounter that gives it its “destined” feel. We go home wondering if this person is “the one,” and for days after might even fantasize about future encounters or a future life with this new person. This move from feeling — that first delight — to craving and then clinging, in which we actively take steps to secure the delight, feels perfectly natural, and is much more intense than any mere sense pleasure. We easily become obsessed, because we feel that everything is invested. The initial attraction may lead quickly to the desire for sexual intimacy; our entire gender identities are suddenly at stake, our “manhood” or “womanhood,” and being rebuffed can hurt us deeply. Yet most often, when acted upon, the desire for intimacy is disillusioning, and pursuit can bring on complications that have more pain than pleasure. When that happens, we may realize that in the first marvellous encounter we were already getting everything we could want from this person: the encounter was perfect, there was nothing lacking. The need to have more was not at all intrinsic to the situation, and whenever we insist that we must have more we are in fact pushing the encounter beyond the bounds of delight into more troubled territory. We see this in clinging that is not only sexual but romantic.

The Buddha points out that one of the non-sensory objects of clinging is our idea of self — for example, that we have a permanent self underneath the changing being we actually experience from day to day, that this self has a nature and something like a destiny, that its reality is confirmed by other selves with whom it is meant to be, with whom it has a profound and meaningful bond. Romantic clinging is one of the most powerful expressions of clinging to an idea of self, and it is so powerful that a romantic person clings to the clinging itself, becoming angry when it is questioned. The idea that the person we just met and to whom we are irresistibly attracted has a deep unbreakable bond with us is a form of clinging because in our minds we have already managed to render permanent the delight of the first encounter; there, in our minds, it is much more than a meeting in the moment. When we act on the attachment, and seek not only more dates but something like marriage, the mental clinging is given legal and physical form.

Just as we attempt to make a wonderful ice-cream constantly available to us because we like the first taste so much, here we want to make sure that the good romantic feeling of the first encounters never goes away: the golden days become the ideal for the whole relationship, and we strive to relive them whenever we can and are always reminding ourselves of them. This is what Valentine’s Day and anniversaries are for: ritualized repetition. Couples who have been married for a few years and suddenly notice that the old romantic feeling is no longer there — neither in their partner nor themselves — can find themselves in despair or panic, as if the whole relationship has now lost its meaning. They never really thought about what it meant to know that everything changes, that nothing stays the same, especially thoughts and feelings. Since all attachments are essentially a desire for repetition, a hope that something will stay the same, therefore all attachments are doomed to disappointment, because nothing can be repeated. If our relationship is founded on a hope of repeating the golden days forever, even if only internally, by holding them up as a standard to measure all subsequent days, we will surely be miserable and unfulfilled — because in everything, “then is then and now is now.”

Does that mean that a commitment like marriage is sheer folly, because no one can possibly know they will stay constant? Perhaps. If it is not folly, it will have to be built on something other than a desire to repeat or maintain; it must be built rather on a knowledge that every moment is new, and that the partners will be new each day, and that the commitment is to navigate together through the new and unexpected — which will include physical and mental illness, and the derangements of suffering. Marriage then becomes a frightening adventure — undertaken with that magical someone who has a true love of adventure with all its dangers, who understands that the golden days of romance were only a beginning to be moved beyond, and that what follows will bring difficulties and joys that will always be surprising. Perhaps only very few people can do that, but those who can will surely have welcoming good humor and generosity towards their unpredictable partners.

Feasting On Films


A confession: I am a film-lover who hardly sees any films for most of the year. This is because the ones I do see are so satisfying that for ten months in the year I feel “full,” nourished, and hardly ever find myself wanting to see anything more. However, for two months in the year, from mid-June to mid-August, I watch about twenty of the very greatest films intensely, each one several times, and have the joyful experience of discussing them with a small group of attentive, passionate movie-watchers. We do this in the Summer Film Institute of St.John’s College, Santa Fe, where for the past two years we have studied Murnau, Dreyer, de Sica, Rossellini, Welles, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and others, with a view to refining and deepening our relationship to films as texts. The discussions tend to leave us raw and profoundly moved, since all the films we study in this program have the power to unsettle us and shake us and make us re-examine everything we think we know — just as the greatest books do, but with astonishing resources of expression unique to cinema.

I’m very excited about this year’s offerings, most of which we will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to view on the big screen. In the summer of 2016 we’ll have two four-week segments devoted to a brace of Japanese directors and the great storytellers and visionaries of Germany and France — most of whom we never get to watch these days. Have you ever seen a curriculum like this?

http://www.sjc.edu/programs-and-events/santa-fe/summer-film-institute/

 

 Session 1: Vamps, Voyeurs, and Visionaries

In our tutorial we’ll be immersing ourselves in detailed study of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai  (1956) and Ikiru (1952). The former needs no introduction: one of the most viscerally exciting films of all time, Shakespearean in its breadth and visual subtlety. Ikiru is a morally elevating, life-affirming film that mixes genres and tones in daring ways, and stars the great Takashi Shimura. “Art is not direct,” says a character in the film, and we will be exploring Kurosawa’s indirections.

Even more than Kurosawa, I am looking forward hugely to our seminar list, which — shockingly — has no film later than 1932!

Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920) is a film of angles, diagonals, distortions, in which the camera films our inner world, a mindscape. Visually beautiful, terrifying, it is the first true horror film, and the first great example of German Expressionism.

Then there is  Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922): the first “million-dollar movie,” with its vast set, originally over 6 hours but severely cut, a giant in fragments. It is a film about murder, seduction, extortion –” like a Henry James novel as dreamt by a pornographer.” (Keith Phipps) Acted with great subtlety, filmed with acute penetration into social and psychological detail, it is an ambitious masterpiece by a genius of the cinema.


Equally megalomaniacal in conception and scale is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), predecessor to films like Bladerunner in its phantasmagoric dystopian vision. “Metropolis was rich in subterranean content that, like contraband, had crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned.” (Siegried Kracauer)  We follow this with Lang’s M (1931): the first serial killer film, the first police procedural, a nightmare vision of a putrefying society — haunting, powerful, never forgotten once seen.


Then we get two films by Josef von Sternberg, his masterpiece Docks of New York (1928) and the more famous Blue Angel (1929), which features Emil Jannings and introduced Marlene Dietrich to the world.  “His [von Sternberg’s] characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love.” (Andrew Sarris) Von Sternberg is a storyteller in light, tellling both an inner and an outer story. His “universe is a realm of textures, shadows, and surfaces, which merge and separate in an erotic dance.” (Dave Kehr)


In Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) we encounter a vamp with even greater magnetism than Dietrich: Louise Brooks — who sported “one of the ten haircuts that changed the world” and “is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece.’ A master of psycho-sexual tensions and conflict, Pabst was a great director of actors. This film too is about civilizations and souls in putrefaction — but what a glowing putrefaction it is!
Our four weeks with German directors ends with the great Ernst Lubitsch, whose Trouble in Paradise (1932) is a suave, sophisticated, witty, scintillating comedy about theft and sexual triangles. A Lubitsch film tends to be distinguished by brilliant script, fluid camera, and great direction of actors, but there is also the Lubitsch Touch, which always involves “a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film’s gayest moments.” (Andrew Sarris)


Session 2: There’s Love and There’s Love




We decided on studying a Japanese director in tutorial because some relief from and contrast with northern Europeans might be fruitful — but we also love the Japanese. Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) is a quiet, mysterious ghost story, a haunting fable. Mizoguchi is the greatest visual stylist of Japanese cinema; each moment of his surviving films boasts elegant, luminous camera work and images of unforgettable beauty.  “In Mizoguchi’s cinema, everything is beautiful: the landscapes are breathtaking; the faces are photogenically eloquent; the camera movements are fluid and complex; the black and white (more precisely, black and silver) cinematography is subtle and dense of texture; the compositions are so precise it’s as if space itself were being cut along a dotted line… One of the greatest practitioners of pure mise-en-scene the cinema has ever known and the master of the heroically sustained long take.” (Gilbert Adair) But he is no bloodless aesthete; his films can break you. Sansho the Bailiff (1954) is one of those films that pierces the heart: “I have seen ‘Sansho’ only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”(Anthony Lane)

And then look at what’s on the menu for seminar…

René Clair’s Le Million (1931) is dazzling musical comedy that hasn’t aged a bit, remaining as daring and ebullient as it was 85 years ago. “The Clair style, most brilliantly exemplified in Le Million, is a synthesis, a perfect fusion of sound, dialogue, camera placement and editing. The mood may be ironic, sad or happy, but music and song are never far away.” Gilbert Adair. This film was a huge influence on Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and American musicals, but even if it had influenced nobody it would still be a shining, timeless gem.
Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), the greatest film by a genius who made less than 200 minutes of film in his lifetime, is one of the most poetic works of cinema, simultaneously down-to-earth and enchanted: a moving vision of love as both lyrical and ordinary. Vigo is something like a fusion of Buñuel and Renoir.


And we study three very different films by Renoir, who is to my mind the greatest director, but one whose work is not often seen these days. A Day in the Country (1936),based on a Maupassant story, is lyrical and cynical at the same time, with its famous deep focus photography. Grand Illusion (1937), one of the best known films of all time, is an exploration of class and human sympathy, and of the disappearance of an old order. It features a beautiful, noble performance by the great director Erich von Stroheim.

The River 
(1951), a great film set in India, is a delicate exploration of love, difficult to summarize because it works through a series of perceptions and insights that unfold as the relationships develop. It is our only color film of the season!


How could we spend a summer in France and not study Carné’s Children of Paradise (1946)? Set in 1828 and shot in Paris surreptitiously during the Nazi occupation, with an extraordinary screenplay by Prévert, this is possibly the greatest French film. It has been neglected for many years. Attacked by New Wave directors like Truffaut for its seemingly old-fashioned staginess (even though performance is one of its themes!), it continues to turn up on Greatest Films lists because it gets better with age — not the film’s age but your age, because with loving and failing we become better qualified to understand such a vast film. On rewatching it later in life, Truffaut said, “I’ve made 23 movies and I’d give them all up to have directed ‘Children of Paradise.’” It is a unique, inimitable masterpiece.
We conclude the summer with Max Ophuls, who was worked in French, German, and English.  Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), based on a great novella by Stefan Zweig, and Earrings of Madame de… (1953), both feature Ophuls’ distinctive visual style, with swirling, swooping, yet precise camerawork, and brilliant actors — and both are deeply emotional works with a complex, tragic vision of love. Earrings stars the great Italian director  Vittorio de Sica, who was also a wonderful actor and handsome leading man. Ophuls was one of the first directors to be singled out as an “auteur” because of the power and consistency of his body of work.

I am expecting this to be an immensely satisfying film summer. If I had seen a list like this during my movie-going heyday, I would have reacted with disbelief. But it is happening!

http://www.sjc.edu/programs-and-events/santa-fe/summer-film-institute/

The Confucian Art of Living Well (3): Caring for the Dead

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Until my own mother died, I always found our modern way of dying a little bizarre: we are one of the two civilizations that routinely mummify their dead, except that for us it is more about looking good; the funeral itself has become an expensive production with rigid protocols attached to it, and the show itself is staged by somebody called a “funeral director” rather than a mere “undertaker,” whose job used to be just to take the dead person under. Why are we doing it like this, why should this be the way to mark a death? The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi, a near contemporary of Confucius, mocked the Confucians for what he considered an obsession with rituals, and wondered why we needed such complex and expensive funerals: the money would be better spent on something useful, like helping the poor. We might even infer from Mozi’s arguments against funerals that ritual itself is wasteful; indeed, from the point of view of practical utility, we would be better off if we pared down all the major rituals to the bare minimum. This niggardly attitude to the ceremonial aspect of civilized life has stuck like a thorn to the underside of all Confucian social thinking from Mozi through Mao to all those contemporary Chinese businessmen who see life only from the perspective of engineer or investor. It is an attitude that both Confucians and Daoists had to reckon with, because somehow the idiotic notion that “utility” can be an end in itself strikes a chord with many people, then as now, both East and West. One focus of the Confucian counter to Mozi was to defend the importance of funerals, and this defense took two forms.

The first was expressed by Mencius, who argues that social and ethical practices have their roots in human nature. Significant rituals exist because they satisfy a need of the human heart.

Imagine people long ago who didn’t bury their parents. When their parents die, they toss them into gullies. Then one day they pass by and see them there: bodies eaten away by foxes and sucked dry by flies. They break into a sweat and can’t bear to look. That sweat on their faces isn’t a show for their neighbors: it’s a reflection of their deepest feelings. So when they go home and return with baskets and shovels to bury their parents, it’s because burying parents truly is the right thing, the Way for all worthy children and Humane people. (Mencius, 5.5, trans. Hinton)

For Mencius the essence of virtue is Ren, or Humaneness, and this is a natural seed in the human organism that seeks expression and development, much as an acorn seeks water and sunlight because it needs to grow into an oak. Funerals are thus a natural efflorescence of the heart, and it makes no more sense to describe them as useful or useless than to describe a tree as useful or useless. The same would apply to music, art, all the so-called higher manifestations of culture that do not necessarily serve practical ends and that Mozi also despised.

While Mencius amplifies the “heart” aspect of Confucius, Xunzi — the other major student of Confucius, although writing a couple of centuries after him — picked out “ritual” as the central thread of the Master’s thinking. Xunzi does not agree with Mencius about the natural goodness of human beings; indeed, history, the daily newspaper, and our own lives give sufficient evidence of innate stupidity and destructive selfishness. For Xunzi, ritual becomes a means to shape flawed human nature into something that permits harmonious social living as well as greater emotional satisfaction. He often uses the image of a craftsman working with wood — for instance, in bending it with steam, where the wood is not destroyed or violated, but reshaped into something we want. The resultant object may not even look like the original. The roaring crowd at a football match is not aware that the game is a sublimated version of war. The elder statesman writing his much anticipated memoirs is not immediately aware that his project is sublimated desperation in the face of death.

The word translated “Ritual” is Li, which can also be translated “propriety” or “ceremony.” It’s important to understand that by “Ritual” the Confucian thinker doesn’t just mean “ceremonies” or “rites,” but the broader and more pervasive unstated codes that pervade every social interaction. For example, conversation tends to follow sets of fairly intricate rules that may be hard to master for someone from a different culture: when to speak, how much to speak, when to stop, how to know that the interlocutor has stopped, how to ask questions or make challenges, where are the lines that one must not cross, how to address the interlocutor, how to say no….Some people have no sense for such things, and some people — the ones who can challenge without offending, or who can interrupt without seeming to — have astonishing finesse. These implicit rules of engagement have a kind of governing function in any social interaction, and are effective in governing because we are unaware of them. If we try to spell them out to someone who cannot “get” such subtleties, we will realize that they cannot be reduced to formulas and therefore are not really “rules” but principles that have to be played out and explored in particular situations. Whenever a Confucian describes someone as “having Ritual,” what is meant is that the person spoken of has an instinctive grasp of such principles and a knack for how they play out in real circumstances, not just in theory. But Ritual is not only a social fact; it also occurs in solitude, as when we have to observe definite steps before we can fall asleep at night, or before we can leave the house, or meet a stranger.

As Mencius keeps saying, Ritual is a natural extension of our heart’s desires: we want to take care of our loved ones after they die. Xunzi agrees with this: Rites are a means of satisfaction. (Hsun Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. Watson, 89) The failure to follow Ritual results in a frustrating chaos of haphazard action in which no one is satisfied:  …if a man concentrates upon fulfilling ritual principles, then he my satisfy both his human desires and the demands of ritual; but if he concentrates only upon fulfilling his desires, then he will end by satisfying neither. (91)  Xunzi describes Ritual as “guideposts” — signs of the path in a terrain where the path is hard to see. Our moods may have many shades of disturbance or agitation, which we may not even be conscious of, but our bedtime ritual gives us the path to falling asleep. In the tougher transitions of life, where most of us might have no clue how we will feel as we move from one status to another, as in the change from single to married or childless to parent, the ritual “guideposts” are distillations of the experience of generations, helping us to move through the bewilderment, to function in the midst of a situation that we don’t yet know how to understand. Funeral rituals are the best example of this — for here we have well developed codes of behavior that help us to live while in a state of intense grief and utter perplexity.

Xunzi’s chapter on Ritual is an exquisite, and sensitive, meditation on how Ritual confronts the defining fact of our lives — mortality. The rites of the dead can be performed only once for each individual, and never again. They are the last occasion upon which the subject may fully express respect for his ruler, the son express respect for his parents. (97) Because the funeral is the last chance to do this, To fail to treat the living with sincere generosity and reverent formality is the way of a rustic; to fail to bury the dead with sincere generosity and reverent formality is the way of a miser. (97) The formality he speaks of is not just an attitude, but a dramatic structure that expresses an emotional structure. Every funeral follows a deep emotional logic. All rites begin in simplicity, are brought to fulfillment in elegant form, and end in joy. When rites are performed in the highest manner, then both the emotions and the forms embodying them are fully realized; in the next best manner, the emotional content and the forms prevail by turns; in the poorest manner, everything reverts to emotion and finds unity in that alone. (94)  Xunzi is aware that the emotional logic of the highest rituals may not make straightforward logical sense, but one who knows the windings of the heart will know what is appropriate and will not be deceived by superficial ceremoniousness. The meaning of ritual is deep indeed. He who tries to enter it with the kind of perception that distinguishes hard and white, same and different, will drown there…if the gentleman is well versed in ritual, then he cannot be fooled by deceit and artifice. (94-5)

When, arriving several hours after my mother had died, I saw her lifeless form, I was shocked and sorrowed by the obvious suffering her body had undergone, and the relief that had settled in her face: the body had collapsed into peace. She had been in unimaginable pain for weeks, uncomplaining, yet aware of the assault on her dignity — and this assault was present and forceful in the smell of the room. The body had to be seen to immediately: beloved relatives would come in a few days, and in my filial devotion, instantly aware of what she wanted and what was right, I knew she could not be seen like this. In one single moment my scorn of embalming and beautification had evaporated: for her last social appearance, she would look like herself, a graceful and lovely lady. This would be seen to with promptness and skill. Xunzi knows that were it not so, affection for her would have diminished, for no one can stand to be around a rotting corpse: this is not shallowness in human nature, just an emotional fact that we must respect. It is the way with the dead that, if they are not adorned, they become ugly, and if they become ugly, then one will feel no grief for them. Similarly, if they are kept too close by, one becomes contemptuous of their presence; when one becomes contemptuous of them, one begins to loathe them, and if one begins to loathe them, one will grow careless of them and cease to treat them with reverence. (100) My father and I would behold her dead body with inquisitive wonder, amazed that her chest seemed to be gently rising and falling: we knew the body was cold, but was she still breathing or not? This feeling persisted through much of the day: …he cannot bring himself to order the articles needed for the laying in the coffin or the dressing of the corpse. Weeping and trembling, he still cannot stop hoping that the dead will somehow come back to life; he has not yet ceased to treat the dead [person] as living. (99)

Over the weeks to come, each day was punctuated by “ritual” conversations, over the phone or at the front door,  with friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and family. The nature of these conversations would vary in intimacy according to the respective distance of each category of person, but every time there would be the same basic pattern of informing, condoling, and weeping: it was a humane pattern, but nonetheless a pattern, giving structure to the emotions and enabling articulate caring to occur. Before I actually witnessed this, I would have seen it as a brutal exposure of the bereaved person to social obligation — but now I understood that the repetition of the ritual exchange is crucial both for the internalization of the reality of loss, in the individual and the community, and also for the assurance of communal support. It enables closure and transition.

We had no idea how to go about choosing an undertaker or funeral format, and by luck ended up with Henry Goodwin and Son, who sent us a funeral director the same day. Mark Ryder visited us at home, sat on the couch with briefcase on his lap and papers spread on the carpet before him as he took us through his list of questions about my mother, our family, and our wishes. He helped us sort through the alternatives, always with  gentle tact towards our emotional confusion. Over the next week, I grew to appreciate just how much, how many people and how many details, this man had to coordinate — and that for such an occasion he had to coordinate it perfectly, and he did. The utter professionalism was admirable. One might argue that of course he did, because he was being paid well for his services. But what we saw was a fusion of professionalism and genuine compassion for his clients: he was considerate every step of the way, anticipating emotional needs and flexible with odd requests. While writing the obituary for publication, he would supply words and phrases every time we couldn’t think of what to say, and those words were usually the stock terms seen in most obituaries: there was nothing individual, nothing surprising. Before this, I might have snorted at the platitudes that could not possibly do justice to my particular mother — but now I saw that the platitudes were also truthful, kind words that helped to smooth the feelings and soften the edges. Here again Ritual was a series of guideposts, leading us through the dark — and our funeral director was the master in charge of Ritual. He was something of an artist, a sculptor, a composer, of emotions:

The beginnings of these two emotions [joy and sorrow] are present in man from the first. If he can trim or stretch them, broaden or narrow them, add to or take from them, express them completely and properly, fully and beautifully, seeing to it that root and branch, beginning and end are in their proper place, so that he may serve as a model to ten thousand generations, then he has achieved true ritual. But only a gentleman of thorough moral training and practice is capable of understanding how to do this. (102)

He was most impressive when he led the hearse on foot up our street, his long slow strides taking us to the main road: perfect timing, perfect rhythm, lending dignity to both deceased and bereaved on their last day together. Every single person involved in the event contributed to its perfection, and acted as exemplars for the rest of us: If bankers, doctors, lawyers, electricians, teachers would all act with this fusion of professionalism and empathy, the world would be all right.

The coffin we chose for the cremation was of wicker, attentively and precisely woven by somebody who clearly cared for getting these things done right. The detailed weave of the coffin, right down to the handles that could not fail, carrying not only my mother but all of us over this threshold, was an apt image for the way this whole Ritual united form and meaning.

When form and meaning are emphasized and emotional content and practical use slighted, rites are in their most florid state. When form and meaning are slighted and emphasis placed upon emotion and practical use, rites are in their leanest state. When form and meaning, and emotion and practical use, are treated as the inside and outside or the front and back of a single reality and are both looked after, then rites have reached the middle state. Therefore the gentleman understands how to make rites florid and how to make them lean, but he chooses to abide in the middle state, and no matter whether he walks or runs, hurries or hastens, he never abandons it. It is his constant world and dwelling…Rites are strictest in their ordering of birth and death. Birth is the beginning of man, death his end. When both beginning and end are good, man’s way is complete. (96)

 

 

 

 

The Confucian Art of Living Well (2): Caring for the Essence

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In the Book of Mencius, there is an especially rich and beautiful story:

When Master Zeng was caring for his father, he always served wine and meat. When he cleared the table, he always asked who the food should be given to. And when his father asked if there were leftovers, he always said there were. His father died, and eventually Master Zeng was cared for by his son, Zeng Yuan. Zeng Yuan also served wine and meat, but when he cleared the table he never asked who the food should be given to. And when his father asked if there were leftovers, he always said there were none so that he could serve the food again. This is called caring for mouth and body alone. But Master Zeng’s way is called caring for the essence. (Hinton, p.135)

The story has a terseness characteristic of Mencius: he gives you one corner and you have to find the other three. Now it is possible to read the paragraphs and anecdotes in Confucius and Mencius as simply a succession of sayings, and the historical figures who occur in them are props in a moral fable. But the more we read these authors, the more we notice that there are about a dozen students, friends, and interlocutors who pop up frequently throughout the books and who all have different personalities, tendencies and intellectual abilities — and the sage takes these differences into account when he speaks to them, just as Socrates and the Buddha do. Watching Confucius and Mencius address different kinds of people is itself a lesson in upaya or what we might call “practical people-skills.”Thus, while the books can be read fruitfully as a string of sayings or a collection of sutras, the sayings themselves make more sense if we read Confucius and Mencius in the same way we would read a modern novel written in a fragmentary, non-linear style in which multiple characters weave in and out; and where what people say, as well as how they say it, depend on who they are speaking to. When we read the books paying attention to the multiple voices in it, and the individual preoccupations they reflect, we find that they are no longer an assemblage of pronouncements from one authority, but a resonating, polyphonic experience. The Analects of Confucius read in light of the perfect student Yan Hui is not the same book as the Analects read with the headstrong and passionate Zi Lu in mind.

The story of the three generations of Zengs acquires depth and density when we look at who these people are in the Confucian world; indeed, we cannot really understand what “caring for the essence” means if we fail to inquire what it might mean to them.

The main figure in this story, Master Zeng, appears many times in the Analects as one of the most perceptive students of Confucius — not necessarily the best loved or the closest emotionally, but possibly the most respected. The quality of his mind is shown in Analects 4.15, where Confucius remarks cryptically that his entire teaching consists of a single thread, and then he leaves. His perplexed disciples discuss it among themselves, but it is Master Zeng who illuminates their darkness: “It is nothing more than zhongshu” — or “dutifulness (zhong) tempered by understanding (shu).” (Slingerland translation) To a reader of Confucius this might be somewhat startling, because one might expect Ren (Goodness/Humaneness), De (Virtue/Integrity/Excellence), or Li (Ritual/Ceremony/Propriety) – concepts that occur many times in the Analects (whereas zhongshu only occurs once), and that would therefore seem obvious candidates for the “single thread.” If Zhong and Shu are not two threads (A and B) but one, Zhongshu 忠恕, a compound virtue the elements of which are fused together, how are we to understand this as the one thing Confucius has to teach?

Both characters have the Heart radical underneath, so we are dealing with an internal quality, a disposition, rather than mere actions. Zhong is the Center, the arrow hitting the mark, the spear piercing the shield, and it has been explained as “dutifulness” as well as something like “exhausting one’s emotions.” The idea is more like “going to the limit, being wholly present in whatever task one is undertaking, going to the utmost in a given role” – dutifulness as complete fulfillment of a role. It can’t be the narrower dutifulness of diligently satisfying one’s obligations as if by rote, because with a human being’s most important roles these obligations are not laid out at the outset as clear formulae. Rather, it must involve the presence of mind and heart to be able to engage with all the multifarious, particular situations and decisions that arise with respect to roles. For instance, a mother cannot at the outset imagine what is in store for her with her child, but each moment of motherhood can bring new discoveries and deepen maternal engagement in such a way as to be incomprehensible to a non-mother or to a new mother. Similarly, a teacher has not learned everything about teaching in his teacher-training program, but rather, the dedicated effort from day to day, over decades, inside and outside the classroom, will continually show him new things about what it means to be a teacher – but he will never be able to explain this fully to a non-teacher. To the extent that each human being is a kind of mother or a kind of teacher, or has a path that is in some way analogous to these paths, we can go some way towards imagining what it must be like for these people – but essentially we might be on our own, because paths always lead through particulars.

Heroically dedicated, a zhong person can have the flaw of becoming too absorbed in the task or the role. Zhong itself can be blind and narrow-minded, especially with regard to ends, unless complemented by the ability to empathize with other people, to take the perspectives of others, and implicitly to hold others as at least as good as oneself. Considerateness comes from respect, and respect from a genuine understanding that other people are equal to oneself or better; it cannot be just a posture of deference. Hence, Shu: As-Heart, Similarity-Heart –- the part of you that can step outside your own self-interest and identify with others. The Heart-part of both notions suggests spontaneity and natural tendency; we can do zhongshu naturally. Shu itself contains not only emotional sympathy, but intelligence regarding other people and oneself: only because I know what I don’t want, do I know what you don’t want. It has imagination, a reaching out of oneself, which may be lacking in zhong, which might require a narrower kind of imagination with regard to the demands of the role.

To see that both cannot be separated is easy if we consider, for example, how a good conversation functions. We understand our roles as equal interlocutors, and because of this no one gets to dominate; we also know how much or how little to say, and we involve ourselves in the ritual of asking questions, for example. Yet this cannot happen by formula; we need to have actual empathic understanding of other people in order to be able to respond to their comments accurately and to do things such as gauge where the conversation might be headed and what to steer away from. When things are going well, both notions are inseparable. Shu without zhong lacks the energy, the active and vigorous participation in making something happen that is bigger than the individual people; shu is about the individual people, the ability to use likeness to enter into difference.

Thus the commitment to duty, zhong, pursued with heart, takes us out of our imagined selves, even sets us against those selves in so far as we are often called upon to do things that we don’t like to do. Duty is not about being comfortable; indeed, the passional life may be more comfortable, because it is usually going with one’s grain. It is clear moreover that the practice of shu will often take one away from comfort, since nothing is more challenging than viewing the other person through her own eyes, than truly seeing other people as equal to oneself. Together, zhongshu pushes us further than we could have conceived, and this “thread” constituted by human commitment will open up the universe for us in hitherto inconceivable ways. As Confucius says elsewhere, “it is not the Dao that makes human beings great but human beings that make the Dao great.”

This is the insight that underlies Master Zeng’s serving of his father. When we think about what it takes to look after the sick and dying,  zhongshu makes more sense: there is the devoted dutifulness in doing everything right for the infirm old person — not just the preparing and serving of the food, the clearing away of the dishes, but also the cleaning of someone who can no longer clean himself, the washing of bedclothes, the constant attendance in case of emergency or other needs. Taking care of someone who is terminally ill and in pain involves tremendous patience and dedication: they might not eat the food you painstakingly cook, they may be constantly complaining or ill-tempered, and with parent-child relationships all the old issues may reappear in more intense form. This takes zhong. But shu has to come in, as considerateness: you put a glass of water by the bedside, but can they reach it? Will they be warm enough when they fall asleep? It is the shu aspect of our intelligence that recognizes that no one likes to be dependent and helpless, and that a person unable to take care of themselves is utterly reliant on other people to maintain their sense of self-respect. This is why, after all is done, Master Zeng tells his father that there are leftovers, which can be given to the needy; he understands that his father needs to know that he is still in a position to help others. Dignity is more important than mere survival, and it is the “essence” that Master Zeng cares for.

The story becomes yet more poignant when we notice that his father also appears elsewhere in Confucius, in perhaps the most lyrically appealing passage in the Analects. Confucius asks his main disciples what each one of them would do if he were made prime minister, and each one in turn gives the kind of stereotypical statement that a young man would make as part of his dream to save the world: strengthen the state, feed the poor and homeless, reform the judicial system, and so on. Confucius then turns to Zeng Dian, who has been quietly playing the zither in the background:

Last of all, the Master asked Zeng Xi, “Dian, what are your wishes?” Dian, pausing as he was playing on his lute, while it was yet twanging, laid the instrument aside, and said, “My wishes are different from the cherished purposes of these three gentlemen.” Said the Master, “What harm is there in that? Do you also, as well as they, speak out your wishes.” Dian then said, “In this, the last month of spring, with the dress of the season all complete, along with five or six young men who have assumed the cap, and six or seven boys, I would wash in the Yi, enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and return home singing.” The Master heaved a sigh and said, “I give my approval to Dian.” (Analects, 11.26)

Zeng Dian was known for his lack of pretension and his honesty. Here we see him too as relaxed in his own skin, a man capable of enjoying the gifts of life and of treating ritual as one with the turns of nature. This is the old man who is sick in bed and being cared for by his son Master Zeng. It is quite possible that the elder Zeng would ask his son if there were leftovers while knowing the actual tightened state of the Zeng family economy, but nonetheless would give his child the opportunity to render an answer that nurtures dignity: thus both father and son are, as it were, gracing each other with respect. We recall, too, that in fact the students of Confucius were usually poor and living in precarious circumstances.

It is all the sadder then that Master Zeng’s own son, Zeng Yuan, when asked the same of his own father, would reply that there was nothing left over to give — thus rubbing his father’s nose in his own poverty. Clearly the virtues have not been transmitted osmotically from father to so; indeed, Mencius is always aware that the relation of father and son is perilous. Even the sage emperors Yao and Shun did not end up with sons who were worthy of them. It is also possible that Zeng Yuan’s behavior was not only lacking in loving shu towards his father but might even have been spiteful: “See where all your virtue gets you.” In another classic text it is said that when Master Zeng died his body was washed in the kitchen — a grievous violation of propriety that would have caused him to spin in his grave. What could have happened between the generations to cause this miserable decline? Mencius in his wisdom gives us three generations. There is wondrous beauty of character in the relationship between father and grandfather, but the relationship of son to father is a cautionary tale: this is what it looks like to feed only body and mouth. A human being is more than that.

“To feed people without showing them love — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without showing them reverence — that is to keep them like pets.” (Mencius, tr. Hinton, 13.37)