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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Con­fu­cius’ Life & Thought Through Two Ani­mat­ed Videos

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

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

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