Why are we raising the topic of reforming the mind and spirit? Let us first start with a story:
One day, the World Honored One was meditating in a peaceful forest when he heard the laughter of a young man and woman from afar. Soon after, the young woman ran into the forest, not knowing that the World Honored One was meditating there. A while later, the young man followed in quick pursuit and upon seeing the World Honored One, asked him hastily, “Was there a young woman who went by this way just now? She stole my wallet.”
The World Honored One replied calmly, “What is more important, to find a woman who has run away or to find oneself?” The young man was taken aback by this unexpected question. The World Honored One asked him again,
“What is more important, to find a woman who has run away or to find oneself?” The young man pondered the question and suddenly attained a great awakening.
All Greatly Virtuous Ones, what has the young man awakened to? He has awakened to the fact that people lose themselves in the pursuit of objects, blindly chasing after money, material things, and fame. Why have we lost ourselves?
The process of growing up is in fact the process of losing ourselves. What does this sentence mean? Our original mind has been covered over unceasingly by the six sense objects from the time we were born, resulting in the superficial mind-consciousness that we have now—the distinction-making mind. The everlasting, unchanging true mind that is without any discriminations has been covered over. As we grow to maturity, we have deepened our understanding of external objects and phenomena; every person uses his or her experiences, habits, and definitions to view and deal with issues. When we see beautiful things we give rise to liking, and we dislike things we are averse to. In agreeable situations we are happy, and when we feel oppressed by disagreeable situations, we become angry, pessimistic, or depressed.
We mistake the false for the true, the impermanent for the everlasting, and the illusory for the real. We falsely take every object and experience to have actual existence. Our minds constantly seek to exploit external conditions, and we spin around in the midst of our greed, anger, and delusion.
The twenty-first century is called the information and technology explosion age. Scientific advances have increased man’s reliance on material objects, but people’s minds have become more and more spiritually hollow, obscured, and deluded. The greatest challenge that mankind faces in this new century is how to quell the obsession with materialism that technology has fostered. Only by changing our attitude by reforming our mind and spirit, rediscovering our lost self, awakening ourselves, and awakening others can we forge ahead towards a fulfilling life.
Awakening Oneself to Moral Virtue
Confucianism is founded upon moral virtue. Confucius said, “Set your will on the Way, firmly adhere to virtue, accord with benevolence, and amuse oneself with the polite arts.”(Shu Er Chapter) The core virtue of Confucian thought is benevolence. Confucius devoted his life to practicing benevolence. Confucius’ life was one of actualizing benevolence. Benevolence is the source from which virtue springs forth; benevolence represents true living. There are two great aspects of the benevolence advocated by Confucius, which are as follows:
1) Awareness – this refers neither to physical touch nor emotional feelings but rather to what Mencius called “the mind of compassion” or “the unwillingness to stand by while others suffer.”
What constitutes benevolence from Confucius’ standpoint? He explains that one must first determine whether or not one’s mind is at ease. One day, Zai Wo, a disciple of Confucius, said that the three-year period for mourning over one’s deceased parents was too long; could it be shortened to one year?
Confucius asked him, “A year after your parent’s death, is your mind at ease when you eat rice and wear brocade?”
Zai Wo replied, “Yes.”
Confucius said that he was not being benevolent. If Zai Wo’s being at ease meant that he was not benevolent, then wouldn’t the mind which is not at ease then be an expression of benevolence?
This is the awakening of one’s conscience; it shows clearly how the self can be awakened to moral virtue. One who has awakened oneself will not be apathetic or insensitive. The Chinese saying: “To be apathetic is to be without benevolence” points to the fact that the specific nature of benevolence is to be aware, not apathetic. A person may have a keen sense of profit in terms of money and material objects, but he can still be apathetic and not benevolent despite his vast capabilities, knowledge, and intelligence. This is because “awareness” refers to the moral virtue of the mind and spirit. Benevolence is a principle; it is the Way and it is also a state of mind. The question of whether or not the mind is at ease is used by Confucius to delineate benevolence in order to awaken people to the moral virtue of the mind and spirit. Hence, benevolence is not just a principle or the Way, it is also a state of mind.
2) Invigoration – this is to practice invigoration unceasingly. The I-Ching says, “Heaven practices invigoration, the noble man seeks to improve himself unceasingly.” The noble man, seeing that heaven and earth constantly revitalize themselves, awakens to the truth that one should follow the example of Heaven and ceaselessly improve oneself. We should, through the practice of awareness, “invigorate” our lives. That is to say, we should model ourselves after Heaven and bring forth our creativity and vitality.
The meaning of the word “invigoration” clearly does not refer to physical bodybuilding, but instead expresses the ability to always be creative.
Zi Gong once asked Confucius, “Master, are you a sage?”
Confucius replied, “I am not a sage. I am merely never weary of learning or teaching.”
Zi Gong then said, “Not growing weary of learning is wisdom and not getting tired of teaching is benevolence. Being both wise and benevolent, Master, you are definitely a sage.”
In The Book of Mencius, Gong Sun Chou Chapter (Volume 1), it says that not getting weary of learning and teaching is the embodiment of “to practice invigoration unceasingly.”
In Confucius’ conception of benevolence, a person should “restrain oneself to accord with propriety” and “learn from those below in order to reach what is above.” The guiding principle for behavior in “restraining oneself to accord with propriety” is to “see nothing improper, listen to nothing improper, speak and do nothing improper.”
“Learning from those below” is what Confucius refers to as “learning and constantly putting into practice.” Although this kind of learning and the learning of specialized knowledge both begin with the accumulation of experience, there are intrinsic differences between the two. Pursuing specialized knowledge is for the purpose of becoming a specialist in a given field, without any particular stress on the cultivation of virtue. “Learning from those below in order to reach what is above” certainly requires one to learn from actual experiences from daily life, but ultimately one’s goal is to attain the virtue of Heaven. In other words, the function of learning is to apply the knowledge gained to one’s life, to transform it into virtue in one’s life.
The material for “learning from below” is extremely vast and extensive, but throughout the process of learning, there is not the motive to become a specialist in a certain area. What is constantly in one’s mind is how to transform knowledge and experience into an inner virtuous nature. To put it simply, it is how to transform knowledge into virtue. This transformation is not easy to achieve, for it must be realized by an awakening of the innermost mind. In ancient times, people explained “learning” as “awareness.” Such an explanation has great significance. Awareness is equivalent to the opening up of or the awakening to the nature of virtue. It definitely is not a baseless awakening but one that begins with the attainment of knowledge and experience.
In Confucius’ opinion, by learning from below one could reach what is above. That is to say, one need only diligently practice benevolence, and one will be able to unite with the way of Heaven; one’s life will merge with that of Heaven. Hence, Confucius once sighed and said, “Only Heaven understands me.” When Confucius was fifty, his life became more refined because of his unceasing practice of benevolence, and his thoughts were loftier and more subtle than before. Hence he said, “At fifty, I understood the inner calling from Heaven.”
Mencius inherited Confucius’ legacy and expounded upon the mind and nature of virtue. He maintained that every person has “four initial states of mind.” He said: “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of benevolence. The sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness. The willingness to concede to others is the beginning of propriety. The ability to distinguish right from wrong is the beginning of knowledge.” These four beginning states of mind, which constitute the mind of moral virtue,are derived from Confucius’ philosophy of benevolence. Confucius hoped that all people would be benevolent—that they would practice benevolence.
Mencius talks about expanding the four initial states of mind in order to understand the mind and nature, and nourish a vast, flowing energy. These all require skills. The
Great Learning discusses radiating bright virtue, exhaustively examining the the principle of things and affairs, extending one’s knowledge, being sincere, making the mind upright, and cultivating oneself. These are all skills for actualizing moral virtue. The
Doctrine of the Mean relates the practice of being cautious even in solitude and of achieving harmony and equanimity, and also discusses how to achieve harmony and equanimity through tempering the emotions of happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy. These are also skills. The
Doctrine of the Mean also elucidates the five paths and the three virtue, all of which involve the virtue of sincerity. Sincerity is just a basic skill to be attained. As the saying goes, “The sincere person is naturally sincere; to be insincere is to not exist.” Thus, sincerity is a crucial issue and is where the skill lies.
Some people in recent times do not like to talk about moral virtue. The very mention of moral virtue is as distasteful and discomforting as Monkey King (Sun Wukong) hearing mention of the band-tightening spell.
These people think morality constrains people, so they abhor it and deliberately misinterpret the Confucian school of thought. In fact, moral virtue does not constrain people; it liberates them and makes them wholesome. By awakening to moral virtue, people become more magnanimous—they are freed from their bad habits and desires. They can expunge and eradicate the impure, irrational, and illogical aspects of their lives, and open up to the source of life, values, and ideals.
To be continued