What Ancient Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About Living the Good Life Today: Lessons from Harvard’s Popular Professor, Michael Puett

It has at times been concerning for some Buddhist scholars and teachers to watch mindfulness become an integral part of self-help programs. A casual attitude toward the practice of mindfulness meditation can make it seem accessible by making it seem relaxing and effortless, which often results in missing the point entirely. Whatever the school, lineage, or particular tradition from which they come, the source texts and sages tend to agree: the purpose of meditation is not self improvement—but to realize that there may, indeed, be no such thing as a self.

Instead, we are all epiphenomenon arising from combinations of ever-shifting elements (the aggregates, or skandhas). The self is a conventionally useful illusion. This notion in the ancient Indian texts has its echo in Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s so-called “bundle theory,” but Hume's thoughts about the self have mostly remained obscure footnotes in western thought, rather than central premises in its philosophies and religions. But as thinkers in India took the self apart, so too did philosophers in ancient China, before Buddhism reached the country during the Han Dynasty.

Harvard Professor Michael Puett has been lecturing on Chinese philosophy to audiences of hundreds of students—and at 21st century temples of self-actualization like TED and the School of Life. He has co-authored a book on the subject, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, drawn from his enormously popular university courses, in which he expounds the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. The book has found a ready audience, and Puett’s “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” is the 3rd most popular class among Harvard undergraduates, behind intro to economics and computer science. What Professor Puett offers, in his distillation of ancient Chinese wisdom, is not at all to be construed as self-help.

Rather, he says, “I think of it as sort of anti-self-help. Self-help tends to be about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself for who you are. A lot of these ideas are saying precisely the opposite—no, you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.” Lest this sound like some form of violence, we must understand, Puett tells Tim Dowling at The Guardian, that in “breaking” the self, we are only doing harm to an illusion. As in the Buddhist thought that took root in China, so too in the earlier Confucianism: there is no self, just a “a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff.”

While our current circumstances may seem unique in world history, Puett shows his students how Chinese philosophers 2,500 years ago also experienced rapid societal change and upheaval, as his co-author Christine Gross-Loh writes at The Atlantic; they navigated and understood "a world where human relationships are challenging, narcissism and self-centeredness are on the rise, and there is disagreement on the best way for people to live harmoniously together." A majority of students at Harvard are driven to pursue "practical, predetermined" careers. By teaching them Confucian and Daoist philosophy, Puett tries to help them become more spontaneous and open to change.

Whatever we call it, the interacting phenomenon that give rise to the self cannot, we know, be observed in anything resembling an unchanging steady state. Yet Western culture (for several motivated reasons) has lagged far behind both intuitive and scientific observations of this fact. Puett's students have been told, “’Find your true self, especially during these four years of college,’” and “try and be sincere and authentic to who you really are” in making choices about careers, partners, passions, and consumer products. They take to his class because “they’ve spent 20 years looking for this true self and not finding it.”

In the two lectures above—a shorter one at the top from TEDx Nashville and a longer talk above for Ivy, “The Social University”—you can get a taste of Puett’s enthusiastic style. Chinese philosophy, “in its strong form,” he says above, “can truly change one’s life.” Not by making us more empowered, personally-fulfilled agents who re-create reality to better meet our narrow specs. But rather, as he tells Dowling, by training us “to become incredibly good at dealing with this capricious world.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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