The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

Harvard’s most popular professor explains how thinkers from Confucius to Xunzi can transform our daily lives

For the first time an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how these ancient ideas can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard?

It’s because the course challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish. This is why Professor Michael Puett says to his students, “The encounter with these ideas will change your life.” As one of them told his collaborator, author Christine Gross-Loh, “You can open yourself up to possibilities you never imagined were even possible.”

These astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.

In other words, The Path upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Above all, unlike most books on the subject, its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place—just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.

Sometimes voices from the past can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about the future. –

Michael Puett is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University and has lectured widely at the world’s leading universities. His course in Chinese Philosophy has been so successful that his classes have been moved to the largest, 1000-seat lecture hall available at Harvard.

Christine Gross-Loh is a freelance journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. She has a PhD from Harvard University in East Asian history.

In this extract, Michael and Christine explain how the book of Zhuangzi encourages us to shift our perspectives. And, in this Year of the Monkey, it starts with an appropriately simian-heavy parable…

To wear yourself out to unify everything without understanding that they are the same—this is called “three in the morning.” What do I mean by that? A monkey trainer was handing out nuts, saying, “You get three in the morning, and four at night.” The monkeys were enraged. So he said, “All right, then, you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were thrilled. There was no difference between name and substance, but their happiness and anger were put into play. He simply shifted with them. This is how the sage harmonizes by using “right” and “wrong”—yet rests on Heaven’s wheel. This is called proceeding on two paths.

By now you probably understand how our conscious mind trips us up by clinging to arbitrary, distracting, and useless categories, as shown in the monkey example. There is no overall difference between “three in the morning and four at night” or its opposite, except in how we perceive them.

A radical shift in perspective allows us to view the world in the way that the Zhuangzi advocates. This is why it so often turns conventional wisdom on its head: in one story, a grievously disabled man lives his whole life begging for food. He is seen as pathetic, and yet he lives a long time, whereas other young men around him are conscripted into war. So who is the lucky one here?

Our conscious minds tend to focus on what “should be”— on what appears to be right. We think we know what is beautiful, what is large, what is virtuous, what is useful. Yet do we really understand how arbitrary the words and values we depend on actually are?

If a human sleeps in a damp place, his back aches and he becomes stiff. But is this true of a fish? If he resides in a tree, he is fearful and terrified. But is this true of a monkey? Which of these three, then, knows the correct place to live? Humans eat animals, deer eat grass, centipedes enjoy sweets, and hawks like mice. Which of these four knows what food is supposed to taste like? Monkeys mate with monkeys, deer with deer, and fish with fish. People say that Maoqiang and Lady Li are beautiful, but if a fish were to see them it would dart to the abyss, if birds saw them they would fly to the skies, if deer saw them they would gallop away. Which of these four knows what beauty is?

The problem is not simply that we have perspectives. So, after all, do the fish and the birds and the deer. The problem comes when we assume that our perspectives are universal, and we close off our minds. We create rigid distinctions and overly stable categories and values.

But what about categories that do seem clear, and values that seem unshakable and universal? Isn’t killing always wrong? How about robbing a bank? Imagine a robber who trains himself to pick locks flawlessly, break into a bank soundlessly, steal money, and escape without detection. If Zhuangzi is denying clear moral categories, then on what basis then could he ever say this is wrong? After all, isn’t the robber a perfect example of trained spontaneity?

What Zhuangzi would say, though, is that rigid distinctions lead to such situations in the first place. If you really were training yourself to flow with ‘the Way’, you wouldn’t be a robber. You wouldn’t kill anyone. A robber thinks in terms of distinctions from the start: he thinks in terms of my stuff, their stuff, I want this, I’ll take that. Someone who kills another is interrupting the flow of the transformation of things by prematurely ending life. For Zhuangzi, the argument against stealing, or killing, wouldn’t stem from the fact that they are immoral acts, but that they arise from making rigid distinctions.

Zhuangzi’s examples span the entire spectrum from prosaic to grand, but they are all about embracing life. You can embrace life by opening up yourself to see the task of ironing a shirt not as a tiresome chore but as an exercise in cultivating trained spontaneity; a head cold not as inconvenient but as a chance to cozy up in bed reading novels; a canceled wedding engagement not as heartbreak but as an opportunity for a new future. The Zhuangzi talks of those who have opened up their perspective fully. By embracing life, they have achieved true resonance with the Way. Metaphorically speaking, they are what Zhuangzi calls “true people.” They can “enter water without getting wet and fire without getting burned.”

Imagine what it would be like for little things and big things alike to cease to disturb us, instead becoming part of the excitement of life; things we find exciting and embrace. Imagine seeing things from all perspectives, and thus being able to understand that everything that happens is part of the process of flux and transformation. To return to Zhuangzi’s metaphor, with this change in perspective, we would become true people: able to walk through water without getting wet, through fire without getting burned.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: