Most world religions and philosophies make the cardinal error of supposing that what they see as the meaning of life should — by virtue of its importance — apply to everyone, irrespective of age, circumstance or position. So proud are they of their insight into existence, they can’t help but accord it universal and dogmatic application.
Hinduism is a great deal more supple and imaginative. It too has a sense of how a good life should be lived, but crucially, it never assumes that the rules should apply across the board. It cuts up populations into segments — and differentiates right conduct according to four life stages collectively called ‘ashramas.’
The first of these ashrama is termed ‘brahmacharya’ and covers the period of life when one is a child and a student. Here — however serious life might be overall — one is allowed to play, to be tender and to give free reign to the imagination. But one must also learn and obey. Then, more arduously, comes the stage when one becomes a ‘grihasta’ or householder: this is the time for maximal involvement in practical matters. There might be little time for prayer or contemplation; it’s the moment for building up capital, for buying a house, developing a profession and having a family of one’s own. The stage might last twenty years or more. But eventually, practical obligations recede, children grow up and leave home and it is time to become a ‘vanaprastha’ or ‘forest walker’: someone who can increasingly surrender practical tasks and reorient themselves to the spiritual realm by going for walks — ideally (and poetically) in mango forests. Then lastly, when we are truly done with business and when family life has ceased to make all but the most minor calls on us, we are allowed to enter the stage of ‘sannyasa’, where we renounce worldly goods, don a simple robe and wander the world in search of ultimate sources of enlightenment, charity and spiritual friendship.
We may not agree with every detail of the way Hinduism carves up a life, but we can admire the imaginative way in which it seeks to align its teachings with the particular demands of society, the body and the family across time. It would — knows Hinduism — be as absurd to entice an 18 year old to do yoga for six hours a day while contemplating the absolute as it would be to spend all one’s time in business meetings as a 70 year old. There is a time for ‘moksa’ — the striving to liberate oneself from the cycle of eternal life — and there is a time for ‘artha’ — when we must head to the office and sound serious during company presentations; both are, in their respective contexts, equally legitimate and equally important.
We are reminded that there is no simplistic unitary goal to life. We shouldn’t ask ourselves what the right way to live is per se; it all depends on where on the journey we happen to be.
They’ve been growing rice in the central Japan for 3,000 years; it has always been a complicated business and remains so to this day. Seeds will only germinate properly if they’ve been sitting for many months in a sunlit pool of water at least five centimetres deep but the stalks can only be harvested when the water has been drained and have been able to dry out for a few weeks.
This makes for an unholy degree of complication; it means that rice generally has to be grown in terraces facing the sun, with water flowing down the hillside through a well-managed network of sluices and dikes. There has to be an upper terrace that functions as a reservoir or holding pond — and an extremely detailed agreement between all the farmers as to when their particular terrace will be ready to receive or be drained of water.
The whole community needs a firm grasp of hydrodynamics, a law-biding nature and a highly punctual and discipled outlook.
When trying to understand the particularities of the Japanese character, sociologists in the 20th century focused in on what has come to be known as ‘the rice theory’ — which states that a nation whose diet has for centuries depended on rice will develop many of the qualities that are necessary for its successful cultivation. They proposed that the Japanese are the way they are — thorough, collaborative, precise, traditional, focused on the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ — principally because of the virtues a majority of them had to exercise to bring in the harvest; the rice terraces of places like Maruyama Senmaida moulded the national character. Conversely, the same sociologists have proposed that the characteristics of many Western nations — individualistic, impatient, self-reliant and innovative — have been the consequence of their cultivation of a very different plant: wheat.
However fanciful the two theories might sound, they point us to the idea that, far more than we’re normally prepared to recognise, our jobs don’t just occupy our energies, they shape our personalities. Teaching children all day will give us one sort of temperament, designing advertising campaigns another. Politicians might speak one way over the dinner table, psychotherapists another.
This can open up an avenue for compassion. The regrettable awfulness of many people won’t necessarily always be their fault; it may be a function of the work they have found themselves doing. If people in television are often disloyal, paranoid, unreliable and insincere, this may have far more to do with the vagaries of their industry than of anything fixed in their natures. If we gave them a rice field to cultivate in a picturesque village south of Osaka, some water sluices to manage and some neighbours to depend on, they might in time grow exceptionally calm, collaborative and forbearing.
Similarly, at a state level, the atmosphere of many modern nations — their ruthlessness, immaturity, aggression and exhibitionism — may ultimately be a function of the way most of their citizens have to earn their living rather than of any drastic deterioration in human nature. Japan’s rice theory asks us to explain — and then perhaps one day reform — our characters by looking in an unfamiliar and often painful place: at who our jobs ask us to be every day.
The Western intellectual tradition suggests that in order to be happy, what we need to do most of all is to go out and subdue the world; secure resources, found businesses, run governments, gain fame and conquer nations.
By contrast, the Eastern tradition has for a long while told us something very different. In both its Buddhist and Hindu strands, it has insisted that contentment requires us to learn to conquer not the world but the instrument through which we view this world, namely our minds.
It won’t matter, says the East, how lustrous and perfect our achievements end up being — how much money we accumulate, how many friends we acquire, how feted our name is — so long as our minds remain open to being troubled at any point by our emotional faculties. All the benefits of a palace with seven reflecting pools and gardens planted with almond and cherry trees will be wiped out by a depression. Chronic anxiety will spoil the ownership of the fastest jet. A fortune is of no use at all so long as one is nagged by paranoia. An unhappy relationship at once destroys any advantages of an esteemed name.
Given this vulnerability of external goods to the vagaries of the mental realm, the Eastern tradition advises us to stop spending our time trying to rearrange the material building blocks of existence only then to fall foul of psychological ills — and to focus instead on learning how to control and manage the inherently unruly and hugely complicated instrument through which the external world reaches consciousness. Rather than striving to build empires, we need to spend many years examining how we think and dream; we have to reflect on our families, the economic systems we were brought up under, the impact of our sexual urges and the biological and cosmological order of nature of which we are an infinitesimal part. We have to learn how to breathe in such a way as to allow maximal oxygen to reach our frontal context and to hold our bodies so that our organs are not crushed and our blood flow subtly impeded. We need to be able to sleep a regular number of hours and remove all distractions and excitements that might disturb our streams of thought.
This is by no means an easy set of priorities; it is indeed as much hard work as managing a law firm. But, the yogis and sages advise that it delivers us a far more secure hold on the actual ingredients of contentment than the bank account of a newly installed CEO with a yacht off Barbuda.
Some of the reason why this continues to feel unreal is that we simply can’t imagine that success, great wealth and a palace wouldn’t in the end do the trick. And that in turn is because too few people who have been blessed with such accoutrements have ever given us an honest account of what it felt like to have them. Intellectual history, with its dire incantations against a worldly life, has been written by a set of suspiciously poor and envious-sounding people.
It is therefore highly fortuitous and extremely reassuring that Buddhism should have been founded by a disgruntled former playboy, Siddhartha Gautama, who once had a palace and a trust fund, fame and servants, but gave them up to sit under a bodhi tree and could therefore tell us, with the benefit of lived experience, what material goods can really do – and not do – for us. And without false modesty, he insisted that they won’t be enough. The food may be tasty and the rooms elegant but such advantages cannot serve their purpose so long as one’s mind is haunted and unsteady, as it invariably will be without a long emotional education and regular spiritual practice.
We should take the East’s warnings seriously. However hard we strive, it is logical that we can only be as happy as our minds are at peace. And given how vulnerable we are to mental disturbances, and how short our lives are, we should on balance almost certainly spend a little more time on our psyches and a little less time on our plans for a second home and a New York office.
The West has produced too many unhappy playboys, and the East too many genuinely peaceful sages, for us not to shift our attention away from conquering the world towards taming our minds.
Even if we are not religious and have no interest at all in becoming a Hindu, Hinduism offers us at least four fascinating ideas…
1. Look Forward to Death
Hinduism is hugely radical in suggesting that there is nothing especially noble or interesting about being alive.
Once we look at matters dispassionately, a lot of what we have to go through is misery and suffering: we need — with great effort — to grow up, to assume responsibilities, to master a profession, to have a family, to take our place in societies full of backbiting and hypocrisy, to watch those we love get ill and eventually to succumb to old age ourselves. To think highly of ‘life’ is, through a Hindu lens, a fundamental intellectual error.
As Hinduism sees it, our real purpose is to be done with life forever; that is the true summit of existence. Hinduism reverses the Western equation: the sinful and blinkered are forced to live forever, the righteous and awakened are privileged enough to be able to die. If we are not careful, if we do not show sufficient mercy and imagination toward others, we may well — Hinduism suggests — be subjected to the ultimate punishment: we will have to carry on into eternity.
The symbol of this ghastly on-goingness is the eight-spoked wheel of ‘samsara’, the most commonly depicted item in the religion, which evokes the pitiless and unceasing nature of life — to which we are committed unless we take a disciplined series of averting actions which together comprise the central components of Hindu ethics.
Hinduism does not suggest that we will carry on forever in our own bodies. According to the process of ‘samsara’, we are reborn into a succession of different outward envelopes, as each example is eroded away and disintegrated by time. Because samsara is at work across the whole animal kingdom, we might find that our enduring soul (‘atman’) transmigrates at our death into the body of a woodlouse, a pelican or a house spider (though we might also be reborn as a paediatric nurse or the president). What determines the quality of the migration is the degree of ‘karma’ or virtue that we have accrued in our lives. Among the many reasons why we might have to be kind to others is an awareness that unkindness might wind us up having to suffer a cycle or two of life as a cockroach or a naked mole rat.
The suspicion that life is constantly painful and anxious is one that we largely have to bear in a very lonely way in the philosophies of the West; in those of the East, pessimism is ennobled and takes centre stage. We are permitted to feel weary and amply dissatisfied; we have, without quite knowing it, been alive since the start of creation — and it is untenably exhausting and frustrating. The trick, and the true prize, will be to be good and wise enough to learn to die once and for all.
2. Rejoin Cosmic Totality
For Hindus, the way to step off the treadmill of eternal existence is to realise that, despite many appearances to the contrary, however paradoxical or absurd the idea might sound, we and the universe are in truth one.
From the earliest age, we tend to assume the very opposite. It seems self-evident that we are one kind of thing and the tree over there, the relative over here, the clouds in the sky, the monkey on the parapet and the river wending its way to the sea belong to quite different categories. Yet Hinduism insists that our belief in difference belongs ultimately to a realm of ‘maya’ or illusion. If we look more deeply into the nature of things, through the help of teaching and spiritual exercises, we stand to discover the remarkable unity of all elements. Unlike what appearances imply, everything we can see and experience around us belong to the same life force: the leaves unfurling on the tree, the child learning to read, the earthworm digging its tunnels, the lava bubbling from the earth, all belong to a single unitary power which only egoistic prejudice has hitherto prevented us from acknowledging as one.
Most of our pain, Hinduism argues, arises from an overeager attachment to the difference between ourselves and the rest of the world. We pay inordinate attention to who has slightly more money or respect than we do, we are constantly humiliated by people and events that don’t seem to honour our sense of uniqueness.
But in a process known as ‘moksha’ or liberation, we can throw off the veil of illusion that works to separate us from the universe and can start to identify with cosmic totality. It no longer matters exactly where we end and others begin; everything belongs to the same whole that we have mistakenly and unnecessarily carved up into parts. There is a little less reason to grasp, to be puffed up, to be proud or to become embittered. We can survey the course of our lives and of our societies with calm indifference. We can cease to identify happiness with the working out of our will upon the world — and take in with compassion and serenity whatever destiny throws our way. We enjoy ‘paripurna-brahmanubhava’, the experience of oneness with ‘brahman’, the principle of all things.
Once we have let go of our own ego like this, we may have a few more years left to live, but we can be sure that — eventually — we will not need to keep returning. Constant rebirth is the fate of those who cleave too tightly to their own selves. By contrast, those who have learnt to surrender can at their demise merge with the universe and will never need to suffer the indignities of individual life again.
3. Don’t Forget Money
We might expect that a religion devoted to spiritual enlightenment would have scant concern for money and possessions. But Hinduism surprises and challenges us by suggesting that — despite everything — what it calls ‘artha’ or a concern for material prosperity has a place within a wise life.
Hinduism is not directing us towards crass materialism. It doesn’t want to exhaust us with overly rich foods or attention-seeking displays of wealth. But it is aware — with a touching practicality — that many good and elevated things require a degree of financial support in order to go well. One won’t be able to undertake spiritual exercises unless one is able to take a considerable amount of time off from practical duties every day. Meditation on nothingness can be substantially assisted by having a servant or two to take care of the laundry and the housekeeping.
Hindus traditionally direct their hopes for material comfort to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. One of the most popular of all Hindu deities, she is typically represented holding two lotus flowers that speak of spiritual liberation as well as material good fortune. She is usually accompanied by at least one elephant, a symbol of power and strength, and a swan, an animal that is at home both in the air and in the water, and thereby speaks of an ability to combine competence in the material and spiritual realms.
Lakshmi understands, and would never condemn, one’s appetite for a better house or a more high paying job. Her role isn’t to make us feel guilty about wanting more wealth, it is to remind us that the true point of money is — in the end — to enable us to forget about money.
4. Don’t Turn Against Sex
We have come to expect very little by way of encouragement or sympathy in relation to sex from religions. At best, a blind eye, at worst, a constant hounding and reminder of the evils of the flesh.
But Hinduism surprises us; it made the remarkable step of placing sexual fulfilment — ‘kama’ — among the four ‘puruṣārthas’, or aims of human life, alongside ‘dharma’ (morality), ‘artha’ (prosperity) and ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation).
Hinduism’s respect for sex was rooted in a particular understanding of what lies behind our erotic feelings. These do not stem — as has so often been alleged — from a base animal impulse; they are a means by which we can sense the unity of the universe (‘brahman’).
Normally, we live beneath a veil of illusion which persuades us of the separateness of all things, bodies included, but our sexual desires push us to break down the barriers between ourselves and others. We might colloquially say that we are turned on, but through a Hindu lens, at the core of our excitement is the sense that we are breaking down the illusion of separateness and taking a small but important step towards oneness with what we can, without exaggeration, following the religion, term the universe.
One of nature’s odder creatures is the firefly, a soft bodied beetle that emits a warm yellow glow from its lower abdomen, typically at twilight, in order to attract mates or prey. Though relatively rare in Europe and North America, the firefly is a common sight in Japan, where it is known as the hotaru. Hotarus are at their most plentiful in June and July, and can be seen in groups around rivers and lakes. The glittering light of the hotaru is deemed to be so enchanting, the Japanese hold firefly festivals – or hotaru matsuri – to watch their dance.
Fireflies at Ochanomizu. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915)
Something even odder has happened to the firefly in Japan: it has become philosophical. Zen Buddhist poets and philosophers (the two terms are largely interchangeable in Japan) have over the centuries noted the affinity between the firefly and a central concept in Zen: the brevity of life. Zen does not think of our transience as tragic, rather it is by accommodating ourselves gracefully to our own evanescence that we can reach enlightenment and harmony with nature’s necessities.
For Zen, the firefly is the perfect symbol of transience positively interpreted: its season is very brief, it lights up only in high summer, and its light appears always to flicker. Fireflies are both fragile – and astonishingly beautiful when seen in large numbers in a pine forest or a meadow at night. They are a metaphor for our own poignant lives.
The move of locating important philosophical themes in the natural world is one that Zen makes again and again, for example, in relation to bamboo (evocative of resilience), water (a symbol of patient strength, capable of wearing down stone) and cherry blossom (an emblem of modest rapture). Zen repeatedly hangs its ideology onto things that could seem at first very minor, because it wants to make use of what is most ordinarily in our sight to keep us tethered to its grand bathetic truths.
The great seventeenth century poet Matsuo Basho, pushes aside our day to day vanity and egoistic ambitions in the hope that we might become, via his focus on a small short-lived creature, appropriately attentive to our own finitude.
A blade of grass, to fly off –
For Zen Buddhism, the firefly is the ideal carrier – on its slender wings – of reminders of the need for dignified resignation in the face of the mightiness and mystery of the natural order. Koyabashi Issa, an 18th century Buddhist priest as well as haiku master, wrote 230 poems on fireflies. In one of the most celebrated of these, he captures a moment where time is momentarily stilled, so that its passage can more viscerally be felt:
The fireflies are sparkling
And even the mouth of a frog
Hangs wide open
It’s a tiny moment of satori or enlightenment; the frog is as wonderstruck as the poet at the piercing light of the brave doomed fireflies – much as we should fairly be amazed, frightened, grateful and ultimately joyous to have been allocated a few brief moments in which to behold and try to make sense of our own existence in an always largely unfathomable 13.8 billion year old universe.
Eastern Philosophy has always had a very similar goal to Western philosophy: that of making us wiser, less agitated, more thoughtful and readier to appreciate our lives. However, the way it has gone about this has been intriguingly different. In the East, Philosophy has taught its lessons via tea drinking ceremonies, walks in bamboo forests, contemplations of rivers and ritualised flower arranging sessions. Here are a few ideas to offer us the distinctive wisdom of a continent and enrich our notions of what philosophy might really be.
ONE: Life is suffering
The first and central ‘noble truth’ of the Buddha is that life is unavoidably about suffering. The Buddha continually seeks to adjust our expectations so we will know what to expect: sex will disappoint us, youth will disappear, money won’t spare us pain. For the Buddha, the wise person should take care to grow completely at home with the ordinary shambles of existence. They should understand that they are living on a dunghill. When baseness and malice rear their heads, as they will, it should be against a backdrop of fully vanquished hope, so there will be no sense of having been unfairly let down and one’s credulity betrayed. That said, the Buddha was often surprisingly cheerful and generally sported an inviting, warm smile. This was because anything nice, sweet or amusing that came his way was immediately experienced as a bonus; a deeply gratifying addition to his original bleak premises. By keeping the dark backdrop of life always in mind, he sharpened his appreciation of whatever stood out against it. He teaches us the art of cheerful despair.
TWO: Mettā (pali): Benevolence
Mettā is a word which, in the Indian language of Pali, means benevolence, kindness or tenderness. It is one of the most important ideas in Buddhism. Buddhism recommends a daily ritual meditation to foster this attitude (what is known as mettā bhāvanā). The meditation begins with a call to think very carefully every morning of a particular individual with whom one tends to get irritated or to whom one feels aggressive or cold and – in place of one’s normal hostile impulses – to rehearse kindly messages like ‘I hope you will find peace’ or ‘I wish you to be free from suffering’. This practice can be extended outwards ultimately to include pretty much everyone on earth. The background assumption is that our feelings towards people are not fixed and unalterable, but are open to deliberate change and improvement, with the right goad. Compassion is a learnable skill – and we need to direct it as much towards those we love as those we are tempted to dismiss and detest.
Guanyin is a saintly female figure in East Asian Buddhism strongly associated with mercy, compassion and kindness. She occupies a similar role within Buddhism as the Virgin Mary within Catholicism. There are shrines and temples to her all over China; one, in the province of Hainan, has a 108 metre statue of her (it’s the fourth largest statue anywhere in the world). Guanyin’s popularity speaks of the extent to which the needs of childhood endure within us. She is, in the noblest sense, ‘mummy’. Across China, adults allow themselves to be weak in her presence. Her gaze has a habit of making people cry – for the moment one breaks down isn’t so much when things are hard as when one finally encounters kindness and a chance to admit to sorrows one has been harbouring in silence for too long. Guanyin doesn’t judge. She understands that you are tired, that you have been betrayed, that things aren’t easy, that you are fed up: she has a measure of the difficulties involved in trying to lead a remotely adequate adult life.
FOUR: Wu Wei (Chinese): Not making an Effort
Wu Wei is a (Chinese) term at the heart of the philosophy of Daoism. It is first described in the Tao Te Ching, written by the sage Lao Tzu in the 6th century BC. Wu Wei means ‘not making an effort’, going with the flow, but it doesn’t in any way imply laziness or sloth. It suggests rather an intentional surrender of the will based on a wise recognition of the need, at points, to accede to, rather than protest against, the demands of reality. As Lao Tzu puts it, to be wise is to have learnt how one must sometimes ‘surrender to the whole universe’. Reason allows us to calculate when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events but, for Lao Tzu, we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in an unprotesting acceptance of what is truly necessary that we find the distinctive serenity and freedom characteristic of a Daoist.
FIVE: Bamboo as Wisdom
East Asia has been called the Bamboo Civilization, not merely because bamboo has been widely used in daily life, but also because its symbolic qualities have been described and celebrated for hundreds of years in the philosophy of Daoism. Bamboo is, surprisingly, classified as a grass rather than a tree, yet it is tall and strong enough to create groves and forests. Unlike a tree trunk, the stems of bamboo are hollow, but its inner emptiness is a source of its vigour. It bends in storms, sometimes almost to the ground, but then springs back resiliently. We should, says Lao Tzu, ‘become as bamboo is.’ The greatest painter of bamboo was the Daoist poet, artist and philosopher Zheng Xie of the Qing Dynasty. Zheng Xie is said to have painted eight hundred pictures of bamboo forests and saw in them a perfect model of how a wise person might behave. Beside one pen and ink drawing of bamboo, he wrote in elegant script: ‘Hold fast to the mountain, take root in a broken-up bluff, grow stronger after tribulations, and withstand the buffeting wind from all directions’. It was a message addressed to bamboo but meant, of course, for all of us.
Since the 16th century, Zen Buddhist philosophy in Japan has been alive to the particular beauty and wisdom of things which have been repaired. Kintsugi is a compound of two ideas: ‘Kin’ meaning, in Japanese, ‘golden’ and ‘tsugi’ meaning ‘joinery’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should never just be tossed away, they should be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that breaks have a rich merit all of their own. It’s a profoundly poignant idea because we are all in some way broken creatures. It’s not shameful to need repair; a mended bowl is a symbol of hope that we too can be put together again and still be loved despite our evident flaws.
Wu wei means – in Chinese – non-doing or ‘doing nothing’. It sounds like a pleasant invitation to relax or worse, fall into laziness or apathy. Yet this concept is key to the noblest kind of action according to the philosophy of Daoism – and is at the heart of what it means to follow Dao or The Way. According to the central text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing: ‘The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone’. This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t mean not acting, it means ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency. Something of the meaning of wu wei is captured when we talk of being ‘in the zone’ – at one with what we are doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow.
Wu wei is closely connected to the Daoist reverence for the natural world, for it means striving to make our behaviour as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes, and to ensure that we are swimming with rather than against currents. We are to be like the bamboo that bends in the wind or the plant that adjusts itself to the shape of a tree. Wu wei involves letting go of ideals that we may otherwise try to force too violently onto things; it invites us instead to respond to the true demands of situations, which tend only to be noticed when we put our own ego-driven plans aside. What can follow is a loss of self-consciousness, a new unity between the self and its environment, which releases an energy that is normally held back by an overly aggressive, wilful style of thinking.
But none of this means we won’t be able to change or affect things if we strive for wu wei. The Dao De Jing points out that we should be like water, which is ‘submissive and weak’ and ‘yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong’. Through gentle persistence and a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked round and gradually eroded.
The idea of achieving the greatest effects by a wise strategic passivity has been central to Chinese notions of politics, diplomacy and business. In the manuals on wisdom produced by Daoists, we are repeatedly told that rather than impose a plan or model on a situation, we should let others act frantically, and then lightly adjust ourselves as we see the direction that matters have evolved in.
In China’s Tang dynasty, many poets likened wu wei to the best aspects of being drunk. It wasn’t alcoholism they were promoting, but the decline in rigidity and anxiety that sometimes comes with being a little drunk, and which can help us to accomplish certain tasks. One poet compared someone inspired by wu wei to a drunk man who falls uninjured from a moving cart – such is their spiritual momentum that they are unaffected by accidents and misfortunes that might break those of a more controlled and controlling mindset.
Theories of painting from the Tang period onwards made wu wei central to artistic practice. Rather than laboriously attempting to reproduce nature faithfully, the artist should find nature within themselves and surrender to its calls. The painter’s task is not to imitate the external surface of things, but to present the qi or ‘spirit’ of things like mountains, trees, birds and rivers by feeling some of this spirit in themselves – and then letting it flow out through the brush onto silk or paper.
It followed that Daoist thinkers revered not just the finished work of art, but the act of painting itself – and considered artist’s studios as places of applied philosophy. The Tang dynasty poet, Fu Zai, described a big party that had been thrown to witness the painter Zhang Zao in action:
Right in the middle of the room he sat down with his legs spread out, took a deep breath, and his inspiration began to issue forth. Those present were as startled as if lightning were shooting across the heavens or a whirlwind was sweeping up into the sky. The ink seemed to spitting from his flying brush. He clapped his hands with a cracking sound. Suddenly strange shapes were born. When he had finished, there stood pine trees, scaly and riven, crags steep and precipitous, clear water and turbulent clouds. He threw down his brush, got up, and looked around in every direction. It seemed as if the sky had cleared after a storm, to reveal the true essence of ten thousand things.
Fu Zai added of Zhang (whose works are sadly now lost) that, ‘he had left mere skill behind’ and that his art ‘was not painting, but the very Dao itself’. Zhang Zao would often fling his ink and spread it with his hands on a silk scroll, to create spontaneous forms that he then worked up into expressive images of nature. Splodges were incorporated and ingeniously made to flow back into the work. All this was wu wei.
A good life could not be attained by wu wei alone – but this Daoist concept captures a distinctive wisdom we may at times be in desperate need of, when we are in danger of damaging ourselves through an overly stern and unyielding adherence to ideas which simply cannot fit the demands of the world as it is.
Though we may keep a little quiet about this, especially when we’re young, we tend deep down to be rather hopeful that we will – eventually – manage to find perfection in a number of areas. We dream of one day securing an ideally harmonious relationship, deeply fulfilling work, a happy family life and the respect of others. But life has a habit of dealing us a range of blows – and leaving nothing much of this array of fine dreams save some shattered and worthless fragments.
It’s at moments of disillusion that we might turn our minds to a concept drawn from Japanese philosophy, and in particular, from the Zen Buddhist approach to ceramics. Over the centuries, Zen masters developed an argument that pots, cups and bowls that had become damaged shouldn’t simply be neglected or thrown away. They should continue to attract our respect and attention and be repaired with enormous care – this process symbolising a reconciliation with the flaws and accidents of time, reinforcing some big underlying themes of Zen. The word given to this tradition of ceramic repair is kintsugi:
Kin = golden
tsugi = joinery
It means, literally, ‘to join with gold’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that breaks have a philosophically-rich merit all of their own.
The origins of Kintsugi are said to date to the Muromachi period, when the Shogon of Japan, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) broke his favourite tea bowl and, distraught, sent it to be repaired in China. But on its return, he was horrified by the ugly metal staples that had been used to join the broken pieces, and charged his craftsmen with devising a more appropriate solution. What they came up with was a method that didn’t disguise the damage, but made something properly artful out of it.
Kintsugi belongs to the Zen ideals of wabi sabi, which cherishes what is simple, unpretentious and aged – especially if it has a rustic or weathered quality. A story is told of one of the great proponents of wabi sabi, Sen no Rikyu (1522-99). On a journey through southern Japan, he was once invited to a dinner by a host who thought he would be impressed by an elaborate and expensive antique tea jar that he had bought from China. But Rikyu didn’t even seem to notice this item and instead spent his time chatting and admiring a branch swaying in the breeze outside. In despair at this lack of interest, once Rikyu had left, the devastated host smashed the jar to pieces and retired to his room. But the other guests more wisely gathered the fragments and stuck them together through kintsugi. When Rikyu next came to visit, the philosopher turned to the repaired jar and, with a knowing smile, exclaimed: ‘Now it is magnificent’.
In an age that worships youth, perfection and the new, the art of kintsugi retains a particular wisdom – as applicable to our own lives as it is to a broken tea cup. The care and love expended on the shattered pots should lend us the confidence to respect what is damaged and scarred, vulnerable and imperfect – starting with ourselves and those around us.
The story of the Buddha’s life, like all of Buddhism, is a story about confronting suffering. He was born between the sixth and fourth century B.C., the son of a wealthy king in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. It was prophesied that the young Buddha — then called Siddhartha Gautama — would either become the emperor of India or a very holy man. Since Siddhartha’s father desperately wanted him to be the former, he kept the child isolated in a palace with every imaginable luxury: jewels, servants, lotus ponds, even beautiful dancing women.
Young Prince Siddhartha with his bride and servants
For 29 years, Gautama lived in bliss, protected from even the smallest misfortunes of the outside word: “a white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew.” Then at the age of 30, he left the palace for short excursions. What he saw amazed him: first he met a sick man, then an aging man, and then a dying man. He was astounded to discover that these unfortunate people represented normal—indeed, inevitable—parts of the human condition that would one day touch him, too. Horrified and fascinated, Gautama made a fourth trip outside the palace walls—and encountered a holy man, who had learned to seek spiritual life in the midst of the vastness of human suffering. Determined to find the same enlightenment, Gautama left his sleeping wife and son and walked away from the palace for good.
A Chinese painting from the Tang Dynasty shows Buddha discovering illness and old age
Gautama tried to learn from other holy men. He almost starved himself to death by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, as they did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not bring him solace from suffering. Then he thought of a moment when he was a small boy: sitting by the river he’d noticed that when the grass was cut, the insects and their eggs were trampled and destroyed. Seeing this, he’d felt compassion for the tiny insects.
Reflecting on his childhood compassion, Gautama felt a profound sense of peace. He ate, meditated under a fig tree, and finally reached the highest state of enlightenment: “nirvana,” which simply means “awakening”. He became the Buddha, “the awakened one”.
A second-century carving of the Buddha receiving enlightenment under a fig tree, surrounded by admiring members of creation
The Buddha awoke by recognising that all of creation, from distraught ants to dying human beings, is unified by suffering. Recognising this, the Buddha discovered how to best approach suffering. First, one shouldn’t bathe in luxury, nor abstain from food and comforts altogether. Instead, one ought to live in moderation (the Buddha called this “the middle way”). This allows for maximal concentration on cultivating compassion for others and seeking enlightenment. Next, the Buddha described a path to transcending suffering called “the four noble truths.”
The first noble truth is the realisation that first prompted the Buddha’s journey: that there is suffering and constant dissatisfaction in the world: “Life is difficult and brief and bound up with suffering.” The second is that this suffering is caused by our desires, and thus “attachment is the root of all suffering.” The third truth is that we can transcend suffering by removing or managing these desires. The Buddha thus made the remarkable claim that we must change our outlook, not our circumstances. We are unhappy not because we don’t have a raise or a lover or enough followers but because we are greedy, vain, and insecure. By re-orienting our mind we can grow to be content.
The fourth and final noble truth the Buddha uncovered is that we can learn to move beyond suffering through what he termed “the eightfold path.” The eightfold path involves a series of aspects of behaving “right” and wisely: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. What strikes the western observer is the notion that wisdom is a habit, not merely an intellectual realisation. One must exercise one’s nobler impulses. Understanding is only part of becoming a better person.
Seeking these correct modes of behaviour and awareness, the Buddha taught that people could transcend much of their negative individualism—their pride, their anxiety, and the desires that made them so unhappy—and in turn they would gain compassion for all other living beings who suffered as they did. With the correct behaviour and what we now term a mindful attitude, people can invert negative emotions and states of mind, turning ignorance into wisdom, anger into compassion, and greed into generosity.
Art being invited to support philosophy: a beautifully carved eight-spoke wheel commonly used as a Buddhist symbol. The eight spokes represent the eightfold path
The Buddha travelled widely throughout northern India and southern Nepal, teaching meditation and ethical behaviour. He spoke very little about divinity or the afterlife. Instead, he regarded the state of living as the most sacred issue of all.
After the Buddha’s death, his followers collected his “sutras” (sermons or sayings) into scripture, and developed texts to guide followers in meditation, ethics, and mindful living. The monasteries that had developed during the Buddha’s lifetime grew and multiplied, throughout China and East Asia. For a time, Buddhism was particularly uncommon in India itself, and only a few quiet groups of yellow-clad monks and nuns roamed the countryside, meditating quietly in nature. But then, in the 3rd century B.C., an Indian king named Ashoka grew troubled by the wars he had fought and converted to Buddhism. He sent monks and nuns far and wide to spread the practice.
Buddhist spiritual tradition spread across Asia and eventually throughout the world. Buddha’s followers divided into two main schools: Theravada Buddhism, which colonised Southeast Asia, and Mahayana Buddhism which took hold in China and Northeast Asia. The two groups sometimes distrust each other’s scriptures and prefer their own, but they follow the same central principles passed down through over two millennia. Today, there are between a half and one and a half billion Buddhists following the Buddha’s teachings and seeking a more enlightened and compassionate state of mind.
Modern monks meditate under a fig tree near the place the Buddha first attained enlightenment
Intriguingly, the Buddha’s teachings are important regardless of our spiritual identification. Like the Buddha, we are all born into the world not realising how much suffering it contains, and unable to fully comprehend that misfortune, sickness, and death will come to us too. As we grow older, this reality often feels overwhelming, and we may seek to avoid it altogether. But the Buddha’s teachings remind us of the important of facing suffering directly. We must do our best to liberate ourselves from our own tyrannous desires, and recognise suffering as our common connection with others, spurring us to compassion and gentleness.
Little is truly known about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (sometimes also known as Laozi or Lao Tze), who is a guiding figure in Daoism (also translated as Taoism), a still popular spiritual practice. He is said to have been a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C., and an older contemporary of Confucius. This could be true, but he may also have been entirely mythical—much like Homer in Western culture. It is certainly very unlikely that (as some legends say) he was conceived when his mother saw a falling star, or was born an old man with very long earlobes – or lived 990 years.
Lao Tzu as a deity, carving from the 7th or 8th century
Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt. So he left and rode on a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border official recognised him and asked him to write down his wisdom. According to this legend, what Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred text called the Tao Te Ching. After writing this, Lao Tzu is said to have crossed the border and disappeared from history, perhaps to become a hermit. In reality, the Tao Te Ching is likely to be the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching have passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over two thousand years and have become wondrously embellished in the process.
Lao Tzu leaving the kingdom on his water buffalo
Today there are at least twenty million Daoists, and perhaps even half a billion, living around the world, especially in China and Taiwan. They practise meditation, chant scriptures, and worship a variety of gods and goddesses in temples run by priests. Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China in order to pray at the temples and absorb spiritual energy from these holy places, which are believed to be governed by immortals.
Daoist pilgrims visit a temple on Mount Tai, one of the five sacred mountains in Daoism
Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought like Confucianism and Buddhism. Confucius is often believed to be a student of Lao Tzu. Similarly, some believe that when Lao Tzu disappeared, he travelled to India and Nepal and either taught or became the Buddha. Confucianist practices to this day not only respect Lao Tzu as a great philosopher but also try to follow many of his teachings.
A 12th-century Song Dynasty painting entitled ‘Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one’ is artistic evidence of the way these three philosophies were mixed over time, and often believed to be fully compatible.
There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. This is telling, because Lao Tzu’s philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and see an underlying harmony guided by something called the ‘Dao’.
“The Vinegar Tasters”
The Tao Te Ching is somewhat like the Bible: it gives instructions (at times vague and generally open to multiple interpretations) on how to live a good life. It discusses the “Dao,” or the “way” of the world, which is also the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony. This “way” isn’t inherently confusing or difficult. Lao Tzu wrote, “the great Dao is very even, but people like to take by-ways.” In Lao Tzu’s view the problem with virtue isn’t that it is difficult or unnatural, but simply is that we resist the very simple path that might make us most content.
In order to follow the Dao, we need to go beyond simply reading and thinking about it. Instead we must learn wu wei (“flowing” or “effortless action”), a sort of purposeful acceptance of the way of the Dao and live in harmony with it. This might seem lofty and bizarre, but most of Lao Tzu’s suggestions are actually very simple.
An immortal (here walking on water) has certainly mastered wu wei, living in harmony with the Dao
First, we ought to take more time for stillness. “To the mind that is still,” Lao Tzu said, “the whole universe surrenders.” We need to let go of our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a while and simply experience the world. We spend so much time rushing from one place to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It is particularly important that we remember that certain things—grieving, growing wiser, developing a new relationship—only happen on their own schedule, like the changing of leaves in the fall or the blossoming of the bulbs we planted months ago.
An 11th-century Chinese painting depicts a scholar practising stillness by studying nature in a meadow
When we are still and patient we also need to be open. We need to be reminded to empty ourselves of frivolous thoughts so that we will observe what is really important. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourself of everything, let your mind become still.” If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss a thousand moments of the human experience that are our natural inheritance. We need to be awake to the way light reflects off of ripples on a pond, the way other people look when they are laughing, the feeling of the wind playing with our hair. These experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves.
An open, decorated metal pot from the time of Lao Tzu
This is another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing: we need to be in touch with our real selves. We spend a great deal of time worrying about who we ought to become, but we should instead take time to be who we already are at heart. We might rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side we had forgotten, or simply an old affection for long walks. Our ego is often in the way of our true self, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on some critical, too-ambitious internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” Lao Tzu wrote, “I become what I might be.”
Deified Lao Tzu looks peaceful because he knows who he really is. A sculpture from between the 8th and 11th century
What is the best book about philosophy one could look at? For Lao Tzu, it wasn’t a volume (or a scroll) but the book of nature. It is the natural world, in particular its rocks, water, stone, trees and clouds, that offers us constant, eloquent lessons in wisdom and calm – if only we remembered to pay attention a little more often.
In Lao Tzu’s eyes, most of what is wrong with us stems from our failure to live ‘in accordance with nature’. Our envy, our rage, our manic ambition, our frustrated sense of entitlement, all of it stems from our failure to live as nature suggests we should. Of course, ‘nature’ has many moods and one can see in it almost anything one likes depending on one’s perspective. But when Lao Tzu refers to nature, he is thinking of some very particular aspects of the natural world; he focuses in on a range of attitudes he sees in it which, if we manifested them more regularly in our own lives, would help us find serenity and fulfilment.
Lao Tzu liked to compare different parts of nature to different virtues. He said, “The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject. This is why it is so similar to the Way (Dao).” Each part of nature can remind us of a quality we admire and should cultivate ourselves—the strength of the mountains, the resilience of trees, the cheerfulness of flowers.
Daoism advises us to look to trees as case studies in graceful endurance. They are constantly tormented by the elements, and yet because they are an ideal mixture of the supple and the resilient, they respond without some of our customary rigidity and defensiveness and therefore survive and thrive in ways we often don’t. Trees are an image of patience too, for they sit out long days and nights without complaint, adjusting themselves to the slow shift of the seasons – showing no ill-temper in a storm, no desire to wander from their spot for an impetuous journey; they are content to keep their many slender fingers deep in the clammy soil, metres from their central stems and far from the tallest leaves which hold the rain water in their palms.
Water is another favourite Daoist source of wisdom, for it is soft and seemingly gentle and yet, when it is given sufficient time, is powerful enough to mould and reshape stone. We might adopt some of its patient, quiet determination when dealing with certain family members or frustrating political situations in the workplace.
Daoist philosophy gave rise to a school of Chinese landscape painting still admired today for awakening us to the virtues of the natural world.
At one level, it seems strange to claim that our characters might evolve in the company of a waterfall or a mountain, a pine tree or a celandine, objects which after all have no conscious concerns and so, it would seem, cannot either encourage nor censor behaviour. And yet an inanimate object may, to come to the lynchpin of Lao Tzu’s claim for the beneficial effects of nature, still work an influence on those around it. Natural scenes have the power to suggest certain values to us – mountains dignity, pines resolution, flowers kindness – and in unobtrusive ways, may therefore act as inspirations to virtue.
The idea that the contemplation of nature is a source of perspective and tranquility is well known in theory, but so easy to overlook because we take it for granted – and never give it the time and focus required.
Lao Tzu in stone, near Quanzhou in China
Often our heads are filled with unhelpful phrases and ideas: things that have wormed their way into our imaginations and, by stirring up anxieties, make it harder for us to cope. For example, ‘Have the courage to live out your dreams,’ ‘Never compromise,’ ‘Fight until you win…’ These can (in certain cases) be a kind of poison, for which Lao Tzu’s words – combined with natural scenes – are the ideal antidote.
Nature does not hurry
yet everything is accomplished.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.
Do not resist them.
That only causes sorrow.
The words of Lao Tzu set a mood. They are peaceful, reassuring and gentle. And this is a frame of mind we often find it difficult to hold onto, though it serves us well for many tasks in life: getting the children off to school, watching one’s hair go grey, accepting the greater talent of a rival, realising that one’s marriage will never be very easy…
Be content with what you have.
Rejoice in the way things are.
It would be a mistake to take Lao Tzu’s sayings literally in all cases. To rejoice in the way everything happens (a mediocre first draft, a car crash, a wrongful imprisonment, a brutal stabbing…) would be foolish. But what he says is, on certain occasions, extremely helpful: when your child has a different view of life from you but one which is full of unexpected insight nevertheless; when you are not invited out but have a chance to stay home and examine your thoughts for a change; when your bicycle is perfectly nice – even though its not made of carbon fibre.
We know that nature is good for our bodies. Lao Tzu’s contribution has been to remind us that it is also full of what deserves to be called philosophical wisdom; lessons that can make a particular impression on us because they reach us through our eyes and ears, rather than just our reason.
This 12th-century painting depicts a Daoist temple nestled in nature
Of course, there are issues that must be addressed by action, and there are times for ambition. Yet Lao Tzu’s work is important for Daoists and non-Daoists alike, especially in a modern world distracted by technology and focused on what seem to be constant, sudden, and severe changes. His words serve as a reminder of the importance of stillness, openness, and discovering buried yet central parts of ourselves.