Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wisdom of the East

Oh my gosh!  Another reference, another egghead topic.  Sorry, I don't seem to be able to help it.  I have trouble finding tv shows and movies that grip me.  You have to remember that I am old and wise and experienced.  I have been around the block, climbed mountains, hacked my way through the Bolivian forests, hunkered down in Arctic storms, and like that.  I've read a lot of books and lived through several lifetimes so it isn't that easy to find new subjects to explore.  

Having done all that, mostly in my imagination, I was taken with Prof. Grant Hardy's course Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. It was clearly a way to get into intellectual traditions and thinking that I had heard was rich and varied.  I have had no training or experience with the enormous cultures of India, China, and Japan, and the many other interesting Eastern nations such as Vietnam, Korea and Thailand.

About 53 years ago, as a freshman at college, I came across a book explaining some of the thoughts of "Lao Tzu", now more commonly written "Laozu".  I didn't know that the name meant "old master" and referred to a Chinese teacher who lived 600 years before Jesus.  I was taken with the contradictory statements I read such as "one must roll up his sleeves without baring his arms."  I wasn't fully certain what was meant but I understood that indirection, patience, non-action, waiting can be very helpful and fruitful in all sorts of ways and moments.

There is such a long, rich tradition of philosophical thought in the nations of the East and yet, our educations generally ignore the whole thing.  One of my longtime favorite authors is Jacques Barzun, born in France into a highly placed and cultured family and came to the US as a young scholar.  He once listed six authors that he admired and benefited from and the list included William James.  That comment alerted me to pay attention to the American psychologist and philosopher.  About 1900, James cautioned about too forceful and urgent an approach to life, saying that one should not pull up young plants to examine their roots to see how they are doing.  Prof. Hardy just the other day mentioned basic sayings in Chinese that stem from Confucius, Laozu and writers of that time, 200 years before Christ.  One of the sayings says don't tug on the young plants to "help" them grow; it will just kill them, not help them. 

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