Friday, April 3, 2015

Mencius and "Qi"

Last month I tried to expose readers to Mencius by showing how he introduced the concept of Kung Fu (or diligent effort aimed at self-transformation) through the historical examples of people who had cultivated the trait of fearlessness.  He did as an analogy to introduce his ideas about how someone could similarly "still the mind".

His analogy has two interesting elements that bear thinking about.

First of all, he shows that there are different ways of achieving fearlessness. So, a careful read would suggest that he is implying that there are similarly different ways in which a person can still the mind.

Secondly, he sets up a hierarchy of ways in which one can lose fear.  These range from the "juvenile delinquent" approach of Po-kung Yu, who massively retaliated at any sign of "disrespect";  through Meng Shih-she who based his fearlessness on a type of resignation that he ultimately had no control over success or failure;  to Master Tseng who based his courage on total submission to an ethical system that allowed him to rest in the knowledge that he was "doing the right thing".  The implication from the analogy is that there are similarly better and worse ways to still the mind.

Next Mencius mentions something else that is equally interesting, "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's still nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials".

I find this interesting because most people I meet who talk about qi describe in terms that are analogous to impersonal physical forces.  The common parlance is to call it a "force"---something like electricity---that flows through the body.  Yet here is Mencius suggesting that one can develop qi not through specialized physical activity, like heng-ha exercises, or, involved mental gymnastics, such as sitting and forgetting. Instead, he mentions the important point as being Meng Shih-she's Stoic acceptance of his fate.

This is probably a dividing line between Confucianism and Daoism, at least as manifested in modern sensibilities.  People like Mencius were humanists.  Their
The Eight Daoist Immortals
interests were primarily centred on the lived human experience rather than metaphysical speculation.  Moreover, they were concerned about human society instead of focusing on the Gods and exploits of realized men.

I say "as manifested in modern sensibilities" because the Laozi is, after all, a book that is profoundly interested in the affairs of ordinary people. It has been read as an explicit book of statecraft for rulers, although from the beginning it has also been seen as something with useful general advice for all people.

Mencius goes on to make some other comments.  "Meng Shih-she nurtured qi, but that's nothing like Master Tseng nurturing essentials."  Here's another case where knowing the original Chinese would be useful.  What exactly is the word that Hinton is translating as "essentials"?  And what could we think that Mencius is meaning by it?  I suspect that knowing the original word itself wouldn't offer much help, as the book is very old and words fall out of use or if still common, find their meaning changes over the centuries.  At the very least, it appears that Mencius is suggesting that a sort of Stoic acceptance of fate is inferior to an active engagement with a moral system, what he identifies as Confucian "honour".

The modern psycho-physical understanding of qi also posits other things of value:  jing and shen.  I looked up these three items through Google and found the point I was trying make very well made for me.  In the Wikipedia article, these are identified as the "three treasures" of Chinese Medicine, but it goes on to call them the "sanbao".  It goes on to acknowledge the the term "three treasures" actually comes from the Laozi, and referred---just like in Mencius---to ethical/behaviour norms instead of psycho-physical forces (ie:  benevolence, frugality, and, humility.)  Indeed, during the same Google search I found another definition that dispensed with the distinction between Chinese medicine and Daoism altogether, and instead asserted that the Daoist sanbao are qi, jing and shen.  I am not surprised, I often meet Daoist practitioners who see the spiritual path as nothing more than a collection of New Age practices aimed at becoming some sort of groovy super being.

This is why I'm making the effort to write this blog post.  It is exceptionally easy for people to see spiritual practice simply as a mechanism for pursuing some sort of mental or physical state.  When we do taijiquan, yoga, or any form of meditation it is very similar to indulging in intoxicating drugs---only usually without any sort of obviously nasty side effects.  Do too much taijiquan and you run the risk of feeling really good and having excellent physical health.  Spend too much time meditating and you become peaceful and generally get along well with everyone around you.

What's wrong with that?

Well, the problem is that people who focus just on the good vibes are like the "lotus eaters" from Homer's Odyssey.  For those of you unaware of the story, these were people who lived on a blessed land where all their physical needs were provided by the fruit of a tree, called the "lotus".  It had a mild narcotic effect, however, that rendered everyone who eat the fruit passive and totally lacking in ambition to do anything except lay about eating the fruit.  Odysseus has a couple crewmen who eat some of the fruit and he has to bodily drag them back onto the ship and chained to their benches until the effect wore off.

I would suggest that the physco-physical fixation that many modern Daoists follow in their practice makes them into modern "Lotus Easters".  As a result, they do not engage with the society around them and offer service to the humanity according to the Confucian ideal.  I would suggest that part of this results from, or has resulted in, the subtle change in the meaning of key Daoist terms---such as qi and sanbao.  That is why I would suggest that it can be useful to read the ancient texts---such as the Mencius and Laozi, in order to try to understand the subtleties of our spiritual path.  Daoism is not only not incompatible with trying to make the world a better place, there are lots of examples from Chinese history where Daoists actually worked as social activists trying to help the poor and oppressed.

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