When the Asia Education Foundation, University of Melbourne, recently invited me to speak to a group of teachers, I was delighted and honoured to be remembered. They have been tracking me for close to three years and in the past, I had to turn down their invitations for one reason or another. So I was especially glad that this time, I was available on their chosen day and time. Delighted, I asked what the topic was. How about the essence of Chineseness or something like that, they very kindly suggested. Great, I thought. How much time have I got and she said: 20 minutes! My delight turned to consternation. How can such a big topic be captured in 20 minutes!
That was my challenge and I took it up in my usual.
Taoist/Buddhist/Confucianist/Hindu way. Unzip my chi and let it flow, baby!
The venue was the Immigration Museum and I had no idea where it was. When I discovered that it was somewhere in the city, around Flinders St and I was to be there around peak hour traffic, all my worst nightmares were transformed into a box office buster. I have no sense of direction, city traffic reduces me to a bowl of jelly and I loath parking in one of those Wilsons’ places designed for midget Martians in their toy cars. And I am a giantess in a flying machine, man!
As usual, whenever I am given limited time to speak on a big topic, I always choose to speak from my heart. When I speak from my heart, I speak about my own experiences and they are shared in the spirit that the listener wishes to take it. Or leave it.
The essence of my Chineseness is derived from the 3 great teachings of the Chinese heritage: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. (Taoism shares many similarities with Hinduism, a spiritual path that is manifested most popularly in hatha yoga practices, and of course, as everyone knows, Buddhism was born in India and spirited across to China.)
Being born as a Chinese, my soul or spirit is shaped by Taoism. The essence of Taoism is for me this; I live in a material or physical world but essentially I also have a soul. My soul yearns and longs for the Tao which is the union of the yin and yang, the two universal forces that shape my universe. When these two forces are in harmony, I attain the ultimate in health and wealth. The Tao, because it defies definition, can only be grasped through manifestations in the form of deities, including gods and goddesses.
From Buddhism comes a focus on the mind and the gymnastics of the mind. It says to me that all my suffering and pain, joy and pleasures, are mind games. In order to find peace and harmony within and without, I must learn to discipline my mind.
By combining Taoism and Buddhism, these two great teachings offer a description and explanation for the mind and spirit/soul. In Taoist and Buddhist philosophy and psychology, the spiritual and mental dimension of what it means to be human are intricately interwoven in a common tapestry, impossible to separate, thread by thread.
The third teaching, namely Confucianism, offers a set of virtues for me as a Chinese, to lead life in the material and secular world. For me, the greatest of all the virtues Confucius taught is the virtue of ren – human-ness. Ren is a concept that defies easy translation. It is a complex virtue that includes love as in devotion and duty, benevolence and the existential recognition that others are human just as I am. It also includes an implicit imperative that as human beings, we must remember to be grateful to others who have granted us favours and assistance. In doing so, we form a web of guanxi that goes beyond material benefits for to forget how to be grateful, we also violate a spiritual opportunity in that we miss out on the next step to cultivate our moral character and also lose a potential friend. In short, we fail to connect with another human spirit. Confucianism teaches the overt behaviour that goes with the virtues. So if the virtue is gratitude, that inner feeling must be followed with an action, for example, returning that phone call. It’s as simple as that. In doing so, we connect with another human being and in that process, co-create our human-ness in a profoundly existential manner. Whew!!!! Anyone for a coffee break.?
I judge myself as a Chinese in terms of these 3 great teachings. I am able to separate them as different from the universal. In doing so, I am able to say, yes, this is the Chinese part of me and that is the Australian part of me.
So the essence of Chineseness: after all is said and done, after the superficial and material culture is stripped away, what is left? That is the essence of Chineseness : the spirit from Taoism, the mind from Buddhism and the body (actions towards others) from Confucianism. Very whole brain, kids. Spring is here so go and fall into love, hug a tree and unzip your chi.
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