From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Living and Learning (6)—Finding the Way

Click here to go to section one of "Living and Learning."
Click below for the other "Living and Learning" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
The Emperor's Teacher—Chapter Two
During the month of June I will be posting segments of The Emperor's Teacher (the big business book that will rock the world). Chapter two is called "Living and Learning," and forms (along with chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel") the first section of a three-part book.
If you have read The Art of War, you have arrived at the doorstep. Still, no one ever managed anything in China having just read Sunzi (Sun-tzu), but don't despair. You are now ready for what comes next in leadership. Compiled nine-hundred years ago, it is the greatest management book ever written, and there are only two problems: (1) it is in "medieval" Chinese; (2) it is 10,000 pages long. No worries, though. That's what I am here for. I have been studying this stuff for thirty years, and I have been waiting for you. Welcome. 歡迎. 
Let's begin to study real Chinese management together.
[a] Ways  RL-[1]
 After reading chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel," you will have some acquaintance with Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror (資治通鑒). Now, it is time to consider how people learned "management" lessons in early China. From there, we will begin to tackle the heart of the management book in the rest of this summer's entries (July and August), which will deal with practical lessons from the Comprehensive Mirror.
Don't worry.  If you want to start here and loop back to chapter one (Breaking the Vessel) in due time, that is fine.  This chapter should stand on its own as a way of thinking about living and learning (and living) at any time and in any place.
Finding the Way
Han Fei criticized the gullible and excessively literal. Going several steps further, China's Daoist philosophers delighted in showing the flaws in all textual learning and all rule-making. A major theme in their writings is that by striving too much—by being too literal, too result-oriented—one will forget to live, and forget to be a part of the larger world. In short, the "striver" will almost inevitably leave her best thoughts, insights, and efforts among the dusty shelves of her private study. The Daoist critics focused on the process of living—and learning from that experience.

One of the most memorable critiques of bookish education comes from a lowly wheel builder of ancient China, by way of the philosopher who is known to us as Zhuangzi, and was said to have lived at about the same time as Mencius (c. fourth century BCE).

Duke Huan was reading upstairs in the hall while Pian the wheelwright was hewing a wheel in the courtyard below.  Pian set aside his chisel and went upstairs, where he said to Duke Huan, “Dare I ask what words are in the book my Duke is reading?” The Duke responded: “They are the words of the sages.”  “Are these sages alive today?,” asked the wheelwright.  The Duke answered, “They have been dead for some time.”  The wheelwright said, “Thus what your Excellence is reading is like the dregs of dead sages!”

Duke Huan said, “How may a wheel chiseler have opinions about my reading? Explain, and I will allow it; if you cannot explain, you will die.”  The wheelwright replied, “I, your servant, understand things from the perspective of my own work.  When I chisel a wheel, if I move slowly, it will not stay put; if I go fast, it will not carve.  I find the way somewhere between a pace of fast and slow—I grip the chisel in my hands but respond with my heart.  I cannot articulate it, yet something is contained within me.  Your servant cannot teach it to his son, nor can his son learn it from him.  In this manner I have put this into practice for seventy years, growing old carving wheels.  Men of antiquity could not pass on what they practiced, and died.  Because of this, what your Majesty is reading is the dregs of men of antiquity.”

[b] Veins   PD
For Pian the wheel builder, the duke is a stumpwatcher—someone who ponders the dregs of dead sages, waiting for the moment of inspiration. Pian's hands-on-the wheel learning is something very different. He chisels and shapes his world from the rhythms of his work. It is a matter of feel and harmony and flow. If you press or try or strive, you lose that flow. You must go with it (and, of course, even in English we have phrases that speak to this). The early Daoists stressed that the Way was like the veins in a piece of jade. They constitute a natural patterning that, once followed, is smooth and harmonic.

Think for a moment about the great teachers you have had, especially when they have been "in the zone"—another way of saying that they are "one with the Way." There is an effortlessness, and ease, a oneness that cannot be written down, cannot be passed on. It can only be experienced. What if the best teacher you ever encountered were to write a book of reflections about teaching? Many of us would want to read it for its insights and "secrets." But it is not the teacher teaching. Pian the wheel chiseler might tell us that the book is merely the teacher's dregs. The teacher teaching or Pian chiseling is the Way; talking or writing about it is something else. The Daoists focused on living—and learning from that experience in a completely different way.

There are many examples of "the zone" that is the Way—for people of a certain age, Wayne Gretzky behind the net, Michael Jordan in transition, and Yo Yo Ma in concert give us the "feel" and perspective. Dwyane Wade, Peyton Manning, and Barack Obama have all been there, too. We have seen it. We have also seen these very people (every one of them, except maybe Yo Yo) when the flow that is the Way has eluded them, or they have tripped over its imaginary lines. As Pian the wheel chiseler might say, you can only learn it for yourself, and it is new, every single time (every single snap of the football, political speech, cello concert, or slam dunk). New. Every time.
[c] Incline  RF
I once learned something about the Way on my bike. A decade ago in Boone, North Carolina, I brought my racing bike to an academic conference in the Appalachian Mountains. I arrived on a Thursday morning and jumped on my bike, knowing that I had all day to ride (my paper was to be delivered on Saturday). I saw the first big climb and attacked it. I slowed, frustrated by my inability to sail up the incline the way I had rehearsed in my mind for days. I redoubled my effort and eventually reached the summit through sheer force of will. By the end of a single hour, I was utterly defeated. I pushed. I weaved. I panted. I slowly made my way back to the conference hotel.

[d] Oneness 
I wheezed through the opening reception that night. Unable to sleep, I thought about the paper that I was to deliver on negative examples in Chinese history—on how leaders failed in moments of great opportunity. I thought about how Daoists made fun of Confucians who tried too hard. Then it hit me. I failed because I strived. The next morning I got on my bike again, a bit more tired and sore than I had felt twenty-four hours earlier. Echoing the Daoist writers, I kept a single goal in mind—be one with the mountain. I rode within myself, and with a feel for the inclines, cycling for three hours each of the next three days. I gained a vital new perspective on my academic work as well as my life. My conference paper became "real" for me, precisely because I adapted to the Way.

When we fumble with our keys as we hurriedly try to open our car doors, we are fighting the Way. Relax. The key fits perfectly, if we only follow its path—like the patterned lines in jade. Think about golf. If you try to keep your head still, your left arm straight, and your weight on your right instep while attempting to carry the water with a five iron from 180 yards, you will likely break the relaxed, even flow of the perfect swing. Tiger Woods in his prime just flowed...and eagled the fifteenth at Augusta. The greatest cyclists just sail up the Col de la Madeleine to the yellow jersey.

My own favorite example comes from speaking Chinese. Many years ago, after spending a year in Taiwan followed by a six-month hiatus among my Norwegian roots in North Dakota, I returned to the island, got into a taxi, and spoke Mandarin with an effortlessness that shocked me when I reflected upon it later. I was not thinking about grammar, about tones, or about sounding like a Norwegian lost in Taipei. I was happy to be "back" with a language that only occupied my dreams on the Dakota prairie. I was not thinking about it, but my spoken Mandarin and my "self" were one. The "zone" is a funny thing, though. You can't bottle it (or write down an equation). A few days later, I was "thinking" again—worrying about vocabulary and grammatical constructions—and had returned to my uneven mixture of relative fluency and ridiculous errors.

Mountains, keys, golf swings, language facility—they all have their Ways to succeed...and fail.

[e] Flyway  RF
The real value of learning the lessons of the present and past is in achieving this completeness, this effortlessness in our own Ways—and that goes far beyond what any pedestrian sayings about life and learning could ever do. In my classes I ask my students to find their own Ways. I have heard examples that range from ironing to making doughnuts, and from working a cash register to fly-fishing. Chinese philosophers found theirs, too. Zhuangzi, the author of the wheel chiseling anecdote, delighted in showing the Way in the most offbeat of examples.

Cook Ding was carving a cow for Duke Wenhui.  His hands darted, his shoulders leaned, his feet tapped, and his knees bent—performed, without missing a beat, to the tune of The Mulberry Grove Dance and the Jingshou Suite—as his knife sliced the meat.  Duke Wenhui said, “How excellent it is that your skills have reached this level!”  Cook Ding wiped his knife, put it aside, and responded.  “What your servant loves most is the Way, which surpasses mere technical ability. When I began carving oxen all I saw were whole oxen.  After three years, I never again saw an oxen whole. At present, I, your servant, encounter it with my spirit, and do not see it with my eyes.  Knowledge stops and the spirit follows its course.  Relying on the natural, heavenly pattern, I pierce the large openings leading to the largest cavities, following that which is inherent.  I never cut a tendon or ligament, much less a bone.  A good cook changes knives each year—he cuts.  A so-so cook changes knives every month—he hacks.  Now your servant has already had this knife nineteen years.  It has carved several thousand oxen, and yet the blade appears to have just come from the grindstone…

Duke Wenhui said, “Excellent.  After hearing Cook Ding’s words, I have obtained knowledge of nurturing life!”

If there is oneness—if there are lessons for living—in chopping up dead cows, we can be sure that it lies there waiting for our personal chiseling, crafting, and cutting as well. Every action has its way, as any Daoist could tell you, but it is only in action that it can be found. Once you "jot it down," it is something else. Once you try to make a lesson of it, it is lost. It is only real when it is in motion. The first line of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Virtue) states the case in memorable fashion: "The way that can be articulated is not the constant way"—道可道非常道也.[2]

[1] Nine Heavens Palace Temple (九天宮), Mt. Hua (Shaanxi Province). Photo by Robert André LaFleur.

[2] This is probably the most agreed-upon version of the phrase. The beauty of classical Chinese (and especially Daoist writers) is that there are many ways to think about these matters. We spent two hours in a graduate seminar on Daoism one day discussing possible "readings" of the phrase above—with options that ranged from "standard" to outlandish.

Living and Learning 1          Living and Learning 2            Living and Learning 3           Living and Learning 4
Living and Learning 5          Living and Learning 6            Living and Learning 7           Living and Learning 8
Living and Learning 9          Living and Learning 10          Living and Learning 11         Living and Learning 12

Nothing Doing
Doing nothing...yet nothing remains undone. What's that all about?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very postmodern, or perhaps postmodernism sounds very daoist(ic)

    Thanks again