Living in China during the fourth and third century BCE, Meng Tzu* (Latinized by the West as “Mencius”), following in the footsteps of his sixth century spiritual ancestor, Kung Tzu (Confucius), represented their shared belief in the essential goodness of human beings and our “basic tendency to love” with the memorable Parable of Ox Mountain.
Once upon a time there was a great forest on Ox Mountain, near an urban area. Residents of the city came and cut down all the trees, and the forest was no more. But nature tried to reclaim the forest, and the stumps sprang green shoots. The people, however, let their flocks loose to graze on the mountain, and they ate all the new growth. Their children and grandchildren never knew there had once been a grand forest on Ox Mountain, because now it appeared barren and desolate.
In his 1967 book, Mystics and Zen Masters, (an unread copy of which I discovered a few weeks ago in one of those free libraries popping up in neighbors’ yards), Thomas Merton presents Meng Tzu’s conclusion:
So too with man: he is naturally inclined to virtue, but his actions, in a greedy and grasping society, so completely destroys all evidence of his innate goodness that he appears to be naturally evil.
This parallels the understanding of sin and human nature in Celtic Christianity, which I’ve written of admiringly.
To me, Meng Tzu’s experience gets magnified in a media culture, and magnified exponentially in our own time of a 24/7 news cycle on a global internet stage (or platform, if you will) in which the worst news gets our attention. Mahatma Gandhi once illustrated the problem with an example of two people locked in a dispute who resolve things peacefully, so do not get the attention they would draw if they fought publically or took the matter to court. Gandhi suggested that’s why we have a skewed perspective on human nature. The good, the peaceful, the loving, the compassionate is not “news” because it aligns with how we believe things ought to be.
All of this flies in the face of what many of us are feeling these days, as we see fists raised angrily in the air in opposition to many of the values and people we hold dear.
But Meng Tzu, Merton writes, lived also “in an age (like ours) of war and chaos” (Parenthetical observation Merton’s).
Kung Tzu (Confucius) had not, according to Merton, entertained any sort of “sentimental humanitarianism.” Rather, he believed that people “could be good, but that for them to actualize these potentialities they had to live in a society that fully respected their hidden goodness, respected them as persons, with sacred and God-given rights, and educated them in the same respect…”
This sounds like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community.”
Merton explains that Kung Tzu’s understanding of personal development is very different from that of the West:
Here we come closer to certain modern and pragmatic misconceptions concerning the development of the person: that is, the development of aggressiveness, of astuteness, of attractiveness, of diplomatic skills; in a word, the ability to succeed. ‘Personality’ in this sense is the power to impose yourself and your wishes on others. For Kung Tzu, wisdom by no means consists in imposing your will or your ‘personality’ on somebody else, and making him serve your own ends by domination or by flattery. It is not that this is ‘wrong’ according to some abstract standard, but before all else it is unhealthy because it is unreal. The man who acts like this is untrue to himself and at the same moment, by the same token, untrue to heaven, whose will is embedded deep in his very heart. He can only act so because he has failed to get to the root of good action. He does not really know himself (p 63).
Sorry for such a long quote! But I wrote “WOW!” in the margin beside this conclusion, because it opens my eyes to the stark contrast between views about the development of a person. It reminded me of Merton’s critique of the “false” or “inauthentic” self that too often characterizes our personhood. He writes of the feeling in his book Contemplative Prayer: “A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth” (p 24).
Merton earlier clarified that Kung Tzu does not describe “heaven” as a metaphysical concept but “a transcendent and objective reality,” parallel but more down-to-earth and anthropocentric than what his contemporary, mystic Lao Tzu, referred to as the Tao. Being in line with it brings order to chaos, harmonizing “with the ultimately real.” And it requires both religious community and sacred ritual, Li (“rites’), the way of life that gives “visible expression of the hidden reality of the universe”—in my view, a kind of living sacrament, which gives me new appreciation for the Christian Eucharist, whose central element could be said to be sacrificial love, another organizing principle bringing harmony out of chaos.
The Confucian ethic, Merton writes, “is the fruit of spiritual awareness. Thus, moral action is at the same time contemplative and liturgical.” Wow again!
My post on The Lord’s Prayer explained that it helps me align myself with the universe, so to speak: “Thy will be done in my earth and on this earth as it is in heaven.” For me, heaven is where human will is in sync with God’s will.
Our own “Ox Mountains” may have been deforested by the actions of the world and of ourselves. Contemplation is an opportunity to let seedlings grow, replenishing our natural state. As the Ox Mountain Parable declares, “The moisture of the dawn spirit / Awakens in us the right loves, the right aversions.”
*I am using Merton’s spellings of these names. I hope to explain the title “tzu” in a future post.
With colleague Debra Weir, I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat open to all April 30-May 4, 2018, at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, entitled “Beside Still Waters.” Sacred Heart is a welcoming community and a beautiful place. Please come!
Please support this blog ministry:
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.
Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!
Photo and text Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.