Thoughts on Civility and Humaneness
After a few days of reflection, I have decided to accept the risk of offending some readers with my perspective as a brand-new American citizen, who has nevertheless lived here for most of my adult life, mastered the art of making apple pie, learned to shoot a gun, and raised a thoroughly American daughter all the way through prom and beyond. I feel the need to share my personal story because it may spark a conversation or offer a different perspective. I believe that these times call on all of us to speak truth from our hearts, and to listen to our fellow humans’ truth with an open heart in exchange. For only with honesty and openness to other viewpoints can we start the hard work of overcoming our current divisions and make room for love and reconciliation instead. What do I know? Not a whole lot, of course, but it may be different from what you know, and it may be worth your time to look at the world through my lens for a minute or two. If you find my personal account below offensive, you can always stop reading or skip the first half of this blog post to get back to the safe ground of historical China further down. May this casual blog be an inspiration to all of us to take up the pen, the hammer and nails, the pots and pans, the needles and herbs and tuning forks, the accordeons and pianos and tea cups or whatever else your gift may be, to contribute positively to the world in these dark times and continue to let each of our little lights shine for each other to see and point the way.
Whether you live in the United States or elsewhere in the world, the preparations for Tuesday’s presidential election and its aftermath have brought into plain sight an ugly stew of anger, hatred, angst, xenophobia, misogyny, ignorance, arrogance, and a host of other negative emotions, on both sides of the political spectrum. How do we respond gracefully and meaningfully to what many perceive as a deeply significant event with global ramifications? As human beings, as individuals, as members of nuclear and extended families, in the work place and in our larger communities, how do we move beyond the wreckage of the past few months of hate-filled rhetoric and the shock, despair, grief, and all too often also self-righteous urge to blame and judge in anger and fear on the basis of tightly clenched “Truths” that exist only in our respective social bubbles while we accuse the other side of ignorance? How do we overcome our plethora of individual and collective traumas and respond with a still heart from a place of true compassion and wisdom to whatever situation may arise in these dark times?
One perspective that I have personally found helpful in making some sense of the situation is that this ugly underbelly has always been there and has at last revealed itself, for all to see and for nobody to ignore. Americans are finally forced to reckon with their own dark shadows that have now come out of the closet. To anybody who is of Hispanic, African, Asian, native, or any other darker-skinned descent or who is Muslim or female or gay or who has suffered visible poverty in a wealthy place (anything from homelessness to riding an old bicycle), or who has friends who fit into any of these boxes, these shadows are not really new. They have been with us all along, hiding behind a thin veil of politeness and “political correctness” that a certain He Who Shall Not Be Named has now gleefully shredded. The stark reality underneath that veil, while shocking and heart-wrenching, offers an opportunity, in my mind at least, for real healing to take place. It is only through the alchemical smelting in the blazing fire of truth and honesty that the elixir of reconciliation can materialize. Whether we manage to rise to this occasion and allow “this little light of mine” to shine is up to each of us individually. But the many deep soul-searching conversations I have enjoyed over the last few days have actually filled me with a renewed sense of hope and depth and passion that I have not felt in many months. And that is why I want to share my experience with you. This situation requires each of us to move beyond our comfort zones, speak our truths, listen, and get out there to do healing work. This is no time for silence, complacency, or denial. Put away the tequila and the pot, get off the cell phone, and take a hard look in the mirror! And then start talking and listening to your neighbors, but not the ones you are friends with, but the other ones. The ones who scare you, swing a gun at you, make you uncomfortable, and thereby offer opportunities for growth and learning.
Have no doubt: As a German only two generations and a few short decades removed from a horrific Nazi past that is never far from my mind, the volatility of the current situation sends spikes of terror deep into my genetic marrow. I left Germany as a young adult to get as far away from my grandparents’ Nazi past as I could and spent years denying my German ancestry. It is no coincidence that I have lost my German accent and raised my daughter speaking English. Indeed, one of the things that struck me when I first moved to the US with a still obvious German accent was that people talked a lot about the Holocaust to me and did somehow put me in the “Nazi” box, when there was no conversation to be heard about slavery or about Wounded Knee. I never dared to vocalize that then because I myself felt such deep shame about my German-ness and therefore responded with defensiveness, refusing to let myself be defined by my German roots until I became just as American as everybody else around me.
I went so far from home to leave my family’s past behind, and yet, here I am today, seemingly so far away and yet staring with the open eyes of a critical historian at a situation that triggers my worst nightmares. I suppose we cannot run away from our past and our ancestral Karma, or if we do, and smother our consciousness with drugs or overwork or who knows what along the way, we simply pass it on to the next generation. In my case, the desire not to pass this darkness on to my daughter has perhaps been the single strongest reason motivating me to face my family history and start digesting it. I am still working on it, and it has been the hardest scariest gut-wrenching thing I have ever done, but the healing power of this process has blown me away and keeps me going. Admittedly, the universe had to hit me over the head with some really intense blows to get me started on the process but here I am, better late than never. I am sharing my experience in the hope that it can encourage others to deal with your own family’s past in a similarly healing and proactive manner and stop the cycle of Karma so that history will not repeat itself.
After a decade or so of living in Tucson, Arizona, I ultimately chose to run away from the political tensions in Arizona after September 11 and then the Iraq War. So I left my beautiful community in Tucson and moved with my young daughter to bucolic Taos, New Mexico. There I got an editing and writing job and then a goat farm with the world’s most lovely apple orchard in the village of Talpa, a small mostly Hispanic and Native community just outside of Taos. The plan was to raise my daughter in rural bliss, stick my head in the sand about the larger political situation in the US, and just create an oasis of peace on the basis of the ancient Chinese principles of harmonizing Heaven and Earth, in combination with biodynamic agriculture, on my own little piece of land, squarely in the tradition of Chinese hermits many centuries ago. Well, that didn’t quite work out when my neighbors decided to run me out of town in a toxic stew of racism and misogyny. I guess the times weren’t ripe for a single white female goat farmer insisting on her fair share of irrigation water. After a few years of fighting back, I moved, happy to leave my loaded gun and shattered faith in humanity behind. It’s taken me years to recover from experiences that are unfortunately all too familiar to people of the wrong color or gender or religion in this wonderful united-divided country of ours: having a loaded gun pointed at me, being arrested by the police when I called 911 for help in fear of my life, being yelled at by a judge in a closed court room for daring to challenge the traditional power structure, wiping my daughter’s frequent tears because of racist slurs hurled at her at school that the teacher left unchallenged, or seeing my crops dry up years in a row for lack of irrigation water that was denied me by some powerful old men in retaliation for being “uppity.” The list goes on. Same old same old…
The biggest lesson that I eventually took away from these horrific experiences was that it may in fact sometimes be easier for victims to forgive, heal, and move on than for the victimizers. Let that sink in. If you find yourself currently in the box of “victim” instead of “perpetrator,” please suspend your response of righteous indignation that may spontaneously arise in you right now, and do not turn away here, but keep reading. Hang in there with me at least through the end of this paragraph. We are all in this together, and for true healing to take place, we need to figure out how to talk to each other and forgive ourselves and each other. It turns out that shame and denial may ultimately be as difficult to overcome, or perhaps even more so, than trauma, which is after all the result of what somebody else has done to you, rather than what you, or your ancestors, have inflicted upon somebody else. And the inter-generational suffering that results from shame and denial may be more subtle but no less real than the suffering from experiencing trauma or inheriting that. What do I know! I am a strange combination, ultimately like most human beings if you only dig down a few generations, of both victim and perpetrator trauma, and all any of us can do is to turn our particular individual experiences into opportunities for growth, compassion, and development in the service of humanity. We live in darkening times, I sense, and must speak out so we can come together.
To move forward from unhealthy patterns of the past, I believe that it is essential for us to recognize and honor the reality of this difficulty for perpetrators (and their children and children’s children and so on) to heal from past crimes and create peace with their victims. This fact does not in any way excuse their crimes or belittle the very real suffering of victims, it is simply a fact that we may need to consider in our joint efforts at creating unity and moving forward. In my case, being on the receiving end of a racist misogynistic mini-war that could have easily ended far worse than it did had I not had the option to simply pack up and leave was an unexpected gift from the universe because it allowed me to experience the other side, the side of the victim, which I believe provided the opening needed for my own healing.
In retrospect, a key factor that helped me to come to this realization was perhaps a most gracious invitation, when I was right in the thickest stage of this mini-war, to lecture at the International Congress for Chinese Medicine in Israel. Raw and open from my home situation, I wasted no time to engage my new Jewish friends and colleagues there in deep honest conversations about the effect of trauma across generations and how to heal it. Looking at the effects of my own trauma, from a situation infinitesimally smaller compared to the suffering of their grandparents’ generation, how did they, as professional Chinese medicine doctors, find the strength to practice medicine in a country full of Holocaust survivors and their descendants? And even more so, how could they find the space in their hearts, in all this trauma, to welcome me, the granddaughter of a Nazi general who had very likely sent some of their relatives to concentration camps? And not only did they welcome me with professional civility and an open mind, but they actually offered me their conscious loving support and healing presence that ultimately allowed me, a few years later, to return to Jerusalem and truly be present with the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust Museum. To stand there in front of that box of shoes and experience the full blast of grief, terror, loss, and despair that my family has carried with it and tried to deny for more than 70 years! To cry and breathe and feel my throat constrict and continue to breathe and go on, and to emerge from the exit of this place and sit there in an olive grove in the sun with my dear friend holding my hand, holding my grief! I am very clear that I could not have done this without her silent presence and forgiveness and love.
This is an image of my dear Israeli friend and me, sitting in silence at a 10-day Wang Fengyi retreat in 2012, listening to Drs. Liu Lihong and Heiner Fruehauf talk about the "Dao of the Good Person" Shanrendao 善人道, facing a painting of Wang Fengyi. This is the same friend who later held me in her heart and arms at the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Sometimes crimes are so big that their processing has to skip a generation or two before somebody is ready and able to take them on. Like many Germans of my generation, I used to feel resentment towards my parents for their failure to process their parents’ crimes. But how could they, so deeply traumatized from the Second World War and the raping and pillaging and mass flight westward that took place in its aftermath! My mother saw Dresden, and with it life as she knew it, blow up in flames from a railroad car with nothing but the clothes on her body, running away from the Russian army, when she was far too young to understand and process. Little children in the midst of war learn to survive in spite of it all. And so the seeds of war bear their bitter fruit generations later. As a global civilization, this is the situation that I see us confronting right now.
In the case of the United States, most families, especially the ones with white skin, have a complex combination of victim and perpetrator traumas to digest, of which slavery and the destruction of native lives, society, culture, and lands may just be the two most obvious factors in need of healing, to be continued today with drone strikes on wedding parties in far distant lands that most Americans can’t locate on a map, or recruitment flyers by the KKK in mailboxes in lovely peaceful suburban Portland, Oregon, supposedly one of the most progressive and kind places in the US. Regardless, I do believe that this is a history that has been festering for much too long and may now be breaking out into the open, for better or for worse. We may be witnessing a pivotal moment where we can and must address this past in order to prevent a horrid repetition where we will all be victims. This being said, of course my take on this election is only one small aspect of what is going on, triggered by my personal history, and is not intended to serve in any way as an explanation of what happened. I am a historian of early China, after all, and perhaps a philosopher and writer, but certainly not somebody with a deep understanding of current political processes. It is simply my way of processing my emotions, making sense of recent events, and finding a silver lining in them.
What does all this have to do with Chinese history and philosophy, or with Happy Goats for that matter? In my journey of processing my personal experiences that I have shared above and in trying to make sense of events this past week, I have also found much wisdom and support in the writings of the ancient Chinese sages. Here are a few samples. All translations are my own unless otherwise specified. I don’t have the energy to write a long commentary on each of these but believe that they are powerful enough to speak directly to you, without any interpretation by myself. If not, maybe I’ll write a follow-up blog with explanations from Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist perspectives but for now, these texts can speak for themselves. What you make of them is up to you….
Analects 《論語》Book 12
Yán Yuān asked about humaneness. Confucius replied: "Overcoming the self and restoring civility, this constitutes humaneness. If for a single day you can overcome the self and restore civility, all Under Heaven will return to humaneness through that. Enacting humaneness originates in the self, so how could it originate in others!”
Yán Yuān said: “Please explain your perspective.”
The Master said: “If something is not civil, do not look at it. If something is not civil, do not listen to it. If something is not civil, do not speak it. If something is not civil, do not do it.”
Yán Yuān said: “Even though I am not clever, I will surely devote myself to this teaching!”
The Great Learning 《大學》
The Dào (“Way”) of Great Learning lies in making bright virtue shine forth brightly, in making the people new/close kin, and to only stop after reaching the epitome of goodness.
The knowledge of when to stop is followed by certainty. Certainty is followed by the ability to be still. Stillness is followed by the ability to be at ease. Being at ease is followed by the ability to deliberate rationally. Rational deliberation is followed by the ability to achieve.
Things have foundations and branches; affairs have beginnings and endings. Knowing what comes first and what comes afterwards brings us closer to the Dao!
When the ancients wanted to make their bright virtue shine forth brightly in All Under Heaven, they first put their state in good order. Wanting to put their state in good order, they first harmonized their family. Wanting to harmonize their family, they first cultivated themselves. Wanting to cultivate themselves, they first straightened out their heart. Wanting to straighten out their heart, they first made their intentions sincere. Wanting to make their intentions sincere, they first perfected their inner knowing. Perfecting their inner knowing lies in structuring things in frameworks of understanding.
When things are structured in frameworks of understanding, inner knowing is perfected. When inner knowing is perfected, intentions are made sincere. When intentions are made sincere, the heart is straightened out. When the heart is straightened out, the person has cultivated themselves. When the person has cultivated themselves, the family is harmonized. When the family is harmonized, the state is put in good order. When the state is put in good order, All Under Heaven is at peace.
From the Heaven’s Child (i.e. the Emperor) down to the common people, every one of them must take self-cultivation as the foundation.
To have chaos in the foundation and good order in the branches, this is an impossibility. To make insignificant what is significant and to make significant what is insignificant, this does not happen.
Zhuangzi, “Autumn Floods” 《秋水》 17
The Yellow River God said: “If this is so, then what value is there in the Dao/why value the Dao more than anything else?”
Ruò, God of the North Sea said: “Those who know the Dào invariably apprehend the principle. Those who apprehend the principle invariably have clarity on the scale of things. Those who have clarity on the scale of things do not allow things to harm them. As for those who have reached consummate Dé (“virtue” or “power”, the outward manifestation of being aligned with the Dào), fire cannot burn them, water cannot drown them, cold and summer-heat cannot harm them, and the birds and beasts cannot injure them.
This is not to say that they regard [these dangers above] as minor. It means that they are observant about safety and risk, calm in the face of good or bad fortune, and cautious about distancing themselves from or engaging with something. Thus nothing is able to harm them.
Therefore it is said: ‘Heaven is inside, humanity is outside,’ and Dé (Virtue/Power) resides in Heaven. Know the actions of Heaven and humanity, root yourself in Heaven, and position yourself in Dé (virtue/power)! Advance and retreat, bend and stretch, return to the crux of things and speak of the farthest pole!”
The Yellow River God said: “What do you mean by ‘Heaven’? What do you mean by ‘humanity’?”
Ruò of the North Sea said: “Cows and horses have four feet, this is what I mean by ‘Heaven’. To place a halter on a horse’s head, to put a ring through a cow’s nose, this is what I mean by ‘humanity’. Therefore I say: ‘Do not let humanity destroy Heaven! Do not let purposive action destroy mìng [“destiny/fate”]! Do not let material gain cause you to die for your name!’
Guard [the Dào] carefully and do not lose it. This is what it means to return to the genuine.”
Zhuāngzi was fishing by the River Pú, when two high officials sent by the King of Chǔ went before him and conveyed the message: “We would like to put you in charge of our territory!”
Zhuāngzi kept holding his fishing pole and did not turn to look at them. He said: “I have heard that there is a divine tortoise in Chǔ that has been dead already for three thousand years. The king has wrapped it in cloth and placed it in a bamboo box and keeps it in the ancestral temple. This tortoise, would it rather be dead and have its bones kept and treasured? Or would it rather be alive and drag its tail through the mud?”
The two high officials said: “It would rather be alive and dragging its tail through the mud.”
Zhuāngzi said: “Shoo! I want to drag my tail through the mud.”
3. Tang Poetry on Tea
And to make sure we do not disregard the power of beauty in healing social upheaval and easing suffering, allow me to cite an excerpt from the famous poem about tea by Lu Tong (775-835 CE). It describes the poet’s experience of sipping seven cups of a special imperial tea that he had received as a gift. May we all treasures moments like this!
The following is excerpted from a translation by Steven D. Owyoung, published in full with a highly informative introduction on his wonderful blog (http://chadao.blogspot.com/) as “Lu T’ung and the “Song of Tea”: The Taoist Origins of the Seven Bowls”
…The brushwood gate is closed against vulgar visitors;
all alone, I don my gauze cap, brewing and tasting the tea.
Clouds of green yielding; unceasingly, the wind blows;
radiantly white, floating tea froth congeals against the bowl.
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
Where are the immortal isles of Mount Penglai?
I, Master Jade Stream, wish instead to ride this pure wind back
To the tea mountain where other immortals gather to oversee the land,
protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain.
Yet, how can I bear knowing the bitter fate of the myriad peasants
toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!...
4. Wang Fengyi
Finally, I will leave you with some perspectives from Wang Fengyi王鳳儀, the Manchurian peasant sage who founded what is known in English as “Five-Element Virtue Healing” in the late nineteenth century and encourages us in his writings to avoid judgment and blame and instead look inside ourselves to respond to whatever situation to the best of our ability. For more information on Wang Fengyi, visit this short page on this website.
Here are just two excerpts from a book I translated:
Let the Radiant Yang Shine Forth: Lectures on Virtue by Liu Yousheng.
The order of nature today is reflected in the way in which the Dào is expressed in the family. Home is nothing but an opportunity to practice the Dào, the place of concrete evidence for genuine cultivation. Are we able to make our families perfect, to completely walk this aspect of the Dào? Nowadays, so many people disregard the Dào of the family, believing that they can only practice the Dào when they leave the family. In fact, though, the family is the true practice of the Dào. Leaving your family is just like leaving the root to pursue the branches, or in other words, attending to mundane matters while neglecting the essentials. Aren’t you then going in the opposite direction, away from the Dao?
“When confronted with a good reason, not to let anger flare up is medicine for long life. In the presence of fire not to let it erupt is a pill for immortality. In the face of injustice not to seek retribution is to truly practice cultivation.” These sentences are worth a lifetime of study. Who is able to stop anger from flaring up when they have a good reason? Who is able to open-heartedly accept anger and fire? A single person cannot cause a fire on their own. The Chinese character for “burn” (yan 炎) is made up of two fires (huo 火) on top of each other, just like it takes two people to make a quarrel. If between two people, one starts a fire and the other one does not, the fire simply burns itself out in a little while. But if your opponent starts a fire and you respond with another fire, you end up with a blaze. If you possess wisdom, when the other person comes at you with a fire, you do not respond with your qi. You let your qi dissipate instead of using it to blow on the other person’s fire, so that that fire will not flare up. Therefore I say, you have to know how to employ this trick. If you don’t, you are in great trouble…
Wang Shanren said, “Not to blame others is the root of the great path towards enlightenment.” When cultivated persons lack virtue, they blame their own lack of cultivation, but when small-minded people have faults, they blame others. If they don’t blame with their mouths, then they blame in their heart, and as this blame lodges in the heart, it turns into illness. Just think about it. If you continuously butt heads with an individual above you, trample an individual under your foot, carry an individual in your heart, hide something from a person behind your back, how could you not fall ill? Because others are always wrong and you are always right, you will invariably make your illness grow.
Regardless of whether you encounter a good situation or a bad situation, do not turn your blame towards the outside but search within yourself for any shortcomings, look at yourself to see whether you might have done wrong. Events can get turned upside down, logic can get flipped around. So always consider other people’s hearts in comparison with your own. Wang Shanren often lectured: “If you always blame others, no matter what happens, does that make you right?” If you are annoying to other people and they are irritated by you, you will not feel comfortable. In reverse, if they are annoying to you, will they be able to feel comfortable?
Continuing in a similar vein, my book Twelve Characters: A Transmission of Wang Fengyi’s Teachings contains the following quotations.
As the saying goes, when you plant gourds, you get gourds, and when you plant beans, you get beans. Whatever you harbor in your Heart, and whatever deeds you commit with your Body, this is what your Inner Nature will transform into. Goblin, demon, ghost, or monster, or sage, saint, immortal, or Buddha: the choice is yours entirely. Whatever you live your life like, this is what you will become after you die. What a shame that people are only concerned with looking on the outside at whether other people are right or wrong and don’t know to turn inward and critically examine their own Heart and Inner Nature. How could they understand that whatever they harbor in their Heart and whatever actions they commit, this is what their Inner Nature becomes. When uprightness resides in the Heart, you will naturally walk in radiant light of the upright Dao.” (chapter 16)
The venerable Wang Fengyi said: “Seeking the positive in others opens the road to paradise in Heaven; acknowledging one’s wrongs closes the gates to hell on Earth.” And furthermore: “The ancients cultivated the Dao. People today do not need to cultivate. They only need to get rid of the Five Poisons in their Inner Nature—anger, hatred, blame, irritation, annoyance—and that’s enough. When you hear me speak about turning the world inside out, you may think I am bragging, but in fact great events require small actions, and humans are the root of the world. If all of humanity were able to turn themselves inside out like this, wouldn’t the world naturally become pure and peaceful?” (chapter 17)