Wang Yang-ming and the democratization of sagehood

To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming

By Julia Ching

New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.

Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming.  Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned.  Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.  There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice.  He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.

It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment.  He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”

Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China.    This, in itself, makes it a good read.  But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty.  This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest.  Far from it.  Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.

It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing.  For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense.  As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.”  On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”

And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal.  Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us.  You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:

the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition.  It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…

Sounds great, but how do we get there?  Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences.  “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born.  To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.”  If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me.  I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”

But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered.  Far from it.  One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other.  In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”

As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[1]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.

By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us.  This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world.  For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.”  In his own words:

Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached [through] my humanity (jen).  Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.

At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature.  Ultimately, we’re all one and the same.  As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:

Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power;
Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao.
Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven:
I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things.
People talk endlessly about rites and music;
But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?

And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?

[1] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

A Moment to Touch the Li

Wife lying sick in hospital bed.
Long hours sitting by her side.
But lunch time brings a walk to grab a sandwich
Through quiet pathway along a little stream.

Surrounded by hedges on both sides
Sounds and smells of spring in the air.

The tweeting of birds calling to each other
Fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle flood the nose.

New shoots jutting out from the hedges
And flowers beckoning with splashes of color.

What a moment to touch the li!

A Global Ethic for the 21st Century

The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive On a Volatile Earth

By Dianne Dumanoski

New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2009.

There’s something even more fundamental going on in our world than climate change.  While the world focuses its attention on geopolitical power struggles over approaches to global warming, and the American media gives credence to those who attack the science of climate change to score cheap political points, something far more profound is taking place in our world below the level of public discourse.

This is the crucial point made by award-winning journalist Dianne Dumanoski in The End of the Long Summer.  In the second half of the 20th century, Dumanoski tells us, we passed “a fundamental turning point in the relationship between humans and the Earth, arguably the biggest step since human mastery of fire.”  Our modern civilization emerged as “a global-scale force capable of redirecting Earth’s history.”  The implications of this are enormous, as she describes:

The consequences are not limited to global warming, nor are weather extremes the first evidence of our new status.  Accelerating climate change signals a far deeper problem – the growing human burden on all of the fundamental planetary processes that together make up a single, self-regulating Earth.

And just as the problem is far deeper than global warming, so the solution will require changes in our behavior that go way beyond cuts in carbon emissions.  The changes that are needed go right to heart of our sense of who we are as human beings and our fundamental relationship with the natural world.  “This modern culture,” states Dumanoski, “is not the only or best way of being human… Our civilization is profoundly at odds with the world we now inhabit.”  If we don’t change “the obsolete ideas and practices that underlie our culture, our civilization surely won’t survive.”

Dumanoski’s viewpoint might not win votes in an election, but it’s shared by other thinkers who have watched with alarm as our society accelerates into an unsustainable trajectory.  Before his death last year, the environmental theologian Thomas Berry wrote how “The violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability… We are into a new historical situation.”[1] Berry pointed out how this devastation is normative for our Western culture:

the truly remarkable aspect of all this is that what is happening is not being done in violation of anything in Western cultural commitments, but in fulfillment of those commitments as they are now understood… Our Western culture long ago abandoned its integral relation with the planet on which we live.[2]

And you certainly don’t need a theological perspective to see the magnitude of our predicament.  Biologist Paul Ehrlich writes how we have “permitted enlargement of the scale of the human enterprise to the point that it is destroying the life-support systems on which all our lives depend,” and that as a result this “may be heading us toward the worst catastrophe in the history of Homo sapiens.”[3]

Dumanoski shows how our current crisis is the result of some deep historical drivers.  She points out the uniqueness of Western civilization’s approach to the natural world, characterized by its quest for domination:

While all human societies have possessed and exercised the cultural capacity to shape the world, in the modern era we have pursued power and control – abetted by fossil fuels, science, and industry – with an aggressive intensity that makes our civilization unique.

As I describe in my blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I believe that Dumanoski is in fact describing one of the most glaring results of an imbalance within our collective consciousness, one that has led to a view of our human nature as something apart from – and superior to – the natural world.   Dumanoski sees Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as the prophet of the new power-oriented approach to the natural world, a view that’s consistent with most historical interpretations.  But she also traces how this desacralization of nature became imprinted in the Western mindset, quoting Robert Boyle, a pioneer of the Scientific Revolution, on his desire to “banish any reverence for nature”:

The veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.

The depth of this cultural bias, and the severity of the global crisis that has ensued, means that some of the more comforting proposed solutions are really not viable, attractive as they may appear.  On this topic, Dumanoski is refreshingly and unusually candid in exposing some of the prevalent myths.  She attacks the arguments of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow that “our ingenuity will allow the economy to find endless substitutes for depleted resources so ‘the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources,’” showing how he and other economists are “strangely untethered from physical reality.”

She also points out the inadequacies of the “stewardship” viewpoint towards the natural world.  At first blush, the notion of “environmental stewardship” seems benign enough: we humans have a responsibility, along with our great intellectual powers, to act as “stewards” of nature, taking care of it for the next generation.   [Click here for a typical example of this approach.]  But, as Dumanoski points out, this idea “loses traction on the planetary scale.”  It gives us a false sense of security, implying that “we are in a position to take charge of nature and it thus mistakes our position vis-à-vis the larger world.”  Dumanoski convincingly argues that, in fact, we’re too far gone for this approach to work.  We need, instead, to “find creative ways to adjust and redesign our civilization.”

So what is, in fact, the way forward, if we accept this bleak prognosis of our current state?  Dumanoski calls for a “new cultural map” to orient us as we as we grapple with a “profound ‘human crisis’ that cuts to the heart of our civilization.”  Essential to this new orientation is moving away from the dualistic mindset that has entranced our civilization for the past two thousand years.  Here’s how Dumanoski describes it:

If humans are to have any chance at a long-term future, we must give up the persistent and pervasive notion that we do not really belong to this imperfect Earth of mortal creatures.  We must abandon the conviction, which also has deep roots in the Western tradition, that we are some sort of special creation, mortal gods, noble beings in exile.  We must wake from dangerous dreams of escape from the human condition, of emancipation from Earth.  We must reconcile ourselves to the truth that death, suffering, and finitude go with the territory as much as life, joy, and beauty…

This, Dumanoski points out, is both “a journey of self-understanding and a matter of survival.”  Once again, although her diagnosis won’t score high in the opinion polls, she’s in good company with some of the profoundest thinkers of our times.  Environmentalist advocate James Gustave Speth writes of the need for a “new consciousness” in meeting our environmental challenges:

Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.  For some, it is a spiritual awakening – a transformation of the human heart.  For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself.[4]

Many people might wonder, at this juncture, what is the form of spiritual awakening required, and how would this translate into our daily practices and values.  In some recent posts, I’ve suggested that we can learn some profound lessons from the Neo-Confucian thought tradition from a thousand years ago, which sees the spiritual aspects of our existence as inextricably linked with the material world, leading to a sense of the interconnectivity of mind and nature.

Perhaps, by arriving at a spirituality which is not at odds with science but actually arises from a scientific view of the natural world, we might become convinced that “our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists.”  Then, perhaps, we have a chance of developing an ethic for the 21st century, one that might just help us to achieve the survival of the most valuable aspects of our civilization.

[1] Berry, T. (1999). The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, New York: Three Rivers Press, 108-9

[2] Berry, op. cit.,146

[3] Ehrlich, P. R. (2000/2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, New York: Penguin, 321.

[4] Speth, J. G. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 199-200.

The Li Series

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

The Li Series is an integrated set of five posts which introduce the traditional Neo-Confucian concept of “the li” – the organizing principles of Nature – and explain their relevance to today’s world.

I recommend reading them in order, but I’ve given a brief synopsis of each one below, so you can jump to any post that you find particularly interesting.

I hope you find the ideas in the posts as interesting as I do!

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Introduces the Neo-Confucian idea of the li and explains how it evolved to mean the “ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.”

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

Contrasts the li to our Western concept of the “laws of Nature”, and explores similarities to some scientific views of Nature expressed in the area of complexity science.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

Explains how the li relates to the Chinese concept of ch’i (energy/matter), and explores some of the philosophical implications of viewing life in terms of the integrated dynamics of li and ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

Argues that an understanding of the li offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

Explores how the Neo-Confucian way of understanding the natural world may offer us a view of humanity’s oneness with Nature that’s increasingly important in light of the current global environmental crisis.

Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things

Supposing we all learned to view the universe like Einstein saw it?  Wouldn’t that lead to a very different world?  Now, I’m not suggesting that any of us can ever hope to have the genius that Einstein possessed, but it’s possible that the traditional Neo-Confucian approach to understanding the universe (that I’ve described in earlier posts) might offer a few insights into seeing the same natural wonder that Einstein saw all around him.

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.  It was all encapsulated in one sublime vision.  “The most beautiful thing we can experience,” he tells us, “is the mysterious.”[1] In Einstein’s view, the religious feeling of the scientist “takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”[2]

Well, that may have been the case for Einstein himself, but it certainly hasn’t been true for most scientific voices of the past few hundred years.  In direct contrast to Einstein, the typical viewpoint from the Western world has been one which originated in the writings of English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose vision of the role of science led to the founding of the British Royal Society and the institutionalization of the scientific methods that we take for granted nowadays.

Bacon’s favorite metaphor of the natural world was that of a powerful woman who needed to be conquered and subdued.  As he tells us in his book, Novum Organum:

I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.[3]

Bacon viewed science as the means to gain power over Nature, “to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”[4] Bacon’s metaphors might sound disconcerting to our 21st century sensibilities, but they form the foundation of the Western view of science.  For example, later in the century, echoing Bacon, Joseph Glanvill defended the recently founded Royal Society arguing that “Nature being known, it may be master’d, managed, and used in the Services of human Life.”[5]

That approach succeeded beyond Bacon’s wildest dreams, but it has also led our civilization to a precipice of climate change and global destabilization, where Nature now seems to be threatening to shake us to our own foundations.  Many observers have seen the Baconian view towards Nature as the fundamental source of this imbalance.  The great spiritual ecologist Reverend Thomas Berry, wrote that:

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans… Consistently we have difficulty in accepting the human as an integral part of the Earth community.[6]

Ultimately, we’ll only escape from our global predicament if we can find a way to view Nature that’s fundamentally different from Bacon’s domination.   This is where the Neo-Confucian tradition can possibly help us out.

I’ve described elsewhere how the Neo-Confucians of China’s Song Dynasty understood Nature in terms of the li, the dynamic organizing principles underlying everything in the universe.  For Chu Hsi, the leading Neo-Confucian philosopher, one of the driving imperatives of human existence was what he called the “investigation of things” (ko wu).  But this investigation was very different from the kind that the Royal Society instituted in Europe.  When you see the natural world in terms of the li, this leads to an emphasis on the underlying principles in nature that are shared by all of us.  So, in Chu Hsi’s approach, an investigation of nature was equally an investigation into yourself.  Only by understanding yourself could you make sense of the world, and vice versa.

Chu Hsi’s investigation of things broke down the barriers between man and nature, subject and object, intellect and feeling – as described here by 20th century Chinese scholar, Wing-Tsit Chan:

…in Chu Hsi’s doctrine, full understanding of li leads to full realization of man’s nature; there is unity of nature and li when knowledge and practice go together… [I]n Chu Hsi’s investigation of things … there is no distinction of subject and object, for only when one comes into contact with things can one investigate their principle.  Thus intuition and intellection are simultaneous.[7]

Echoes of this worldview may be re-emerging in the thinking of some biologists who apply complexity theory to understand natural processes.  Here are the thoughts of biologist Brian Goodwin:

Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[8]

Nature Within Our Mind: Diffusion spectrum image of association pathways in the human cortex, taken by Van Wedeen, Massachusetts General.

But the Neo-Confucian investigation of things goes further than a mere awareness of our interdependence with Nature.  For Chu Hsi, there’s really no separation between understanding Nature out there and the Nature within us.  “Every individual thing in the universe has its own li; all these separate li, furthermore, are to be found summed up in the Nature which is contained in our own Mind.  To acquire exhaustive knowledge of the li of these external objects, therefore, means to gain understanding of the Nature that lies within ourselves.”[9]

Again, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[10]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.  Up till now though, we’ve been looking at a purely intellectual approach to understanding.  In another crucial difference from Western thought, Neo-Confucian investigation involves all aspects of our consciousness: thought, feeling, and everything in between.  As Chan said above, “intuition and intellection are simultaneous.”

This is why Chu Hsi’s description of the investigation of things seems closer to the Buddhist process of achieving enlightenment than a scientific investigation.  “As you progress in accumulating your understanding of the world,” Chu Hsi believes, this can “eventually lead to a moment of sudden enlightenment, when the li of all the myriad things in the universe will be seen to exist within our own Nature.”[11] Here’s how Chu Hsi himself describes it:

When one has exerted oneself for a long time, finally one morning a complete understanding will open before one.  Thereupon there will be a thorough comprehension of all the multitude of things, external or internal, fine or coarse, and every exercise of the mind will be marked by complete enlightenment.[12]

What’s the nature of this “complete enlightenment”?  Well, one insight of Neo-Confucian thought is the underlying interpenetration of everything in Nature, the fact that, underneath it all, the principles of life are the same for all of us.  Wing-Tsit Chan describes this insight in another Neo-Confucian thinker, Ch’êng-Yi:

… if one investigates more and more, one will naturally come to understand Li. It can readily be seen that the principle in any one thing is the same principle in all things. This is why [Ch’êng-Yi] said, “We say that all things are one reality, because all things have the same Li in them.” As Li is the universal principle, “The Li of a thing is one with the Li of all things.[13]

Cosmic Unity: an insight shared by Albert Einstein and the Neo-Confucian thinkers.

This sense of cosmic unity may sound mystical and unscientific to some Western ears, so let’s look again at the striking parallels to the understanding of the universe that Albert Einstein achieved.  Here’s how Einstein described it:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘the Universe’, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.[14]

Perhaps if we can learn to practice the Neo-Confucian investigation of things, in our own modern terms, we might find ourselves on the path to “accepting the human as an integral part of the Earth community,” as Thomas Berry so fervently hoped.  After all, as noted by 20th century philosopher Ernst Cassirer:

He who lives in harmony with his own self … lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle.[15]


Note: This is the fifth in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Quoted by Ravindra, R. (2008). “Notes on Scientific Research and Spiritual Search.” Parabola, 33(3: Fall 2008), 7-11.

[2] Quoted by Ricard, M., and Thuan, T. X. (2001). The Quantum and the Lotus, New York: Three Rivers Press, 50.

[3] Quoted by Hartmann, T. (1998/2004). The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, New York: Three Rivers Press.

[4] Leiss, W. (1972/1994). The Domination of Nature, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 55-59.

[5] Leiss, op. cit., 79-81.

[6] Quoted by Speth, J. G. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 202.

[7] Chan, W.-T. (1976). “The Study of Chu Hsi in the West.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 35(4), 555-577.

[8] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, x.

[9] Fung, Y.-L., and Bodde, D. (1942). “The Philosophy of Chu Hsi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 7(1), 1-51. In Bodde’s original translation of Fung’s work, the word “Law” is used instead of li.  For reasons discussed in another post, I’ve taken the liberty of “de-translating” the word back to its original “li”.

[10] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

[11] Fung and Bodde, op. cit.

[12] Cited by Morton, W. S., and Lewis, C. M. (1995/2005). China: Its History and Culture, New York: McGraw-Hill, 114.

[13] Chan, W.-T. (1957). “Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Scientific Thought.” Philosophy East and West, 6(4), 309-332.

[14] Quoted by Thuan, op. cit., 72.

[15] Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man, New Haven: Yale University Press.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

For millennia, the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were undecipherable to the modern world.  Then Napoleon’s troops discovered the famous Rosetta Stone in 1799, with an ancient proclamation in three languages, one of which was Greek and another hieroglyphs.  After some years of intensive work, the hieroglyphs were finally deciphered.  The awesome – and previously unknowable – world of ancient Egyptian thought had opened up to modern minds.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

The chasm that currently exists between spirituality and science is a little like the gap between hieroglyphs and European languages before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.  From the perspective of our scientific world, spirituality remains mysterious, alluring, but ultimately unknowable.  However, I believe that the traditional Chinese conception of the li – the organizing principles underlying every aspect of the universe – offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of mathematics and science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

In western thought, the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam or Judaism are often viewed as the only spiritual alternative to scientific materialism.  With their dualistic worldview, positing an intangible dimension of God and immortal souls, they are incommensurable with scientific thought: ultimately, one can never be measured in terms of the other.  Many people, rejecting dualism but sensing something greater than reductionist science allows, seek non-traditional explanations, which are frequently dismissed by science as incoherent.

In contrast to these approaches, the perspective of the li offers a coherent, non-dualistic mode of understanding how the natural world can be at the same time tangible and mysterious, how our lives can be both flesh and blood and spiritually meaningful.

The Neo-Confucian approach to the li and modern scientific thought both start out from the same place.  They both posit a material universe explainable on its own terms, without having to come up with a supernatural Creator.  The greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi, was very clear about this, as we can see from the following excerpt:

The blue sky is called heaven; it revolves continuously and spreads out in all directions.  It is now sometimes said that there is up there a person who judges all evil actions; this assuredly is wrong.  But to say that there is no ordering (principle) would be equally wrong.[1]

Both Neo-Confucian and scientific thought look at how energy and matter interact in order to understand how nature is organized.  But from that same starting place, they follow two different directions.  Science looks for measurable laws that are held to be universally true, and technological advances have permitted science to find these laws in ever smaller units.   Neo-Confucianism, by contrast, looked for organizing principles, regardless of whether they were measurable or not.  With this approach, it perceived the very thing that science has eliminated from its purview: the boundless spirit pervading the natural universe.  This is best seen in another excerpt from Chu Hsi’s teachings, where the master responds to a reductionist-leaning pupil:

Fu Shun-Kung asked about the Five Sacrifices, saying that he supposed they were simply a duty; a manifestation of great respect; it was not necessary (to believe that) any spirit was present.  (The philosopher) answered: ‘(No spirit, say you?)  Speak of the mysterious perfection of the ten thousand things and you have spoken of the Spirit.  Heaven and earth and all that is therein – all is Spirit![2]

Natural laws lead us to hard science.  The li leads us to a spiritual understanding of the world.  One key to the difference between “natural laws” and the “li” is the concept of measurability.  Natural laws must, by definition, be measurable in order to be counted as laws.  The li, on the other hand, exist in an infinite array through time and space and can never be completely measured.  For this reason, natural law works well with what we can measure, such as molecules, spectrums of light, acceleration of gravity, etc.  But it struggles when we try to use it to understand things we can’t measure: feelings, ecological systems, evolutionary processes, consciousness.  The li, by contrast, makes no distinction between what you can and what you can’t measure.  To understand the li requires a different approach – it requires integration.

Leading thinkers in complexity science find themselves at the boundary where natural laws meet the li, and struggle to communicate this thought within the limitations of our Western scientific terminology.  Here is how J.A. Scott Kelso, a neuroscientist who applies complexity theory to the dynamics of the brain, describes his view of what lies beyond the boundaries of conventional physics:

… my answer to the question, is life based on the laws of physics? is yes, with the proviso that we accept that the laws of physics are not fixed in stone, but are open to elaboration.  It makes no sense to talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.  As I stressed earlier, it will be just as fundamental to discover the new laws and principles that govern the complex behavior of living things at the many levels they can be observed… At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods.[3]

Kelso is describing the li.  The key to understanding what I mean is that “the li” is both a scientific and a spiritual term.  It’s a term that covers equally well findings of modern complexity theory and traditional Chinese philosophy.  The reason this can occur is that complexity science and the spirituality of Chinese thought are interconnected.  Rather than describing different dimensions, they’re using different approaches to understand the same underlying reality.

There are profound implications to this.  Complexity science leads us into a world where some conventional scientific preconceptions have to be reconsidered.  As we explore that world, we are fortunate to have generations of sophisticated thinkers from traditional Chinese philosophy to help us map out the way.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

For example, the conventional scientific approach to the world is predicated on the notions of prediction, power and control: the ability to predict natural phenomena gives us power and consequently control over those phenomena.  In contrast to this, a scientific approach that acknowledges the li – the complexity arising from self-organization and emergent states of living organisms – leads to the realization that the conventional level of prediction, power and control are impossible.    Instead, acknowledgement of the li leads towards a sense of participation rather than power, encouraging harmony within a process rather than attempting to impose control.  This is how biologist Brian Goodwin describes this realization:

A new frontier is now opening for our culture, a frontier where science will continue to be relevant, but in a radically altered form.  Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[4]

The “participatory worldview” Goodwin describes raises another key principle arising from the li: the interactivity inherent in our relationship with both ourselves and the world around us.  We are inseparable from the natural world: what we do to it has implications that inextricably pull us back in.  And we’re equally inseparable from ourselves: we are constantly creating and re-creating ourselves whether we know it or not.  As physiology researcher Peter Macklem puts it: “Who is our artist?  We sculpt ourselves.”[5]

A full understanding of this dynamic interactivity has the potential to take us to places that are considered “mystical” in Western traditions, but mainstream in the traditional Chinese philosophy of the li.  In a famous document known as the Western Inscription, one of the founders of Neo-Confucian thought, Chang Tsai, took this participatory worldview to its ultimate logic with a vision of our cosmic inseparability from the natural world:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.  What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[6]

Chang Tsai is not alone in his vision; in fact, he’s part of a long tradition of Chinese thought.  Over a thousand years earlier, the ancient philosopher Mencius noted that “One who fully explores his heart/mind will understand his own nature, and one who understands his own nature will thereby understand Heaven.”[7]

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

What do they mean?  These statements begin to make sense when you think about them in terms of the li – nature’s organizing principles.  Modern scientific research is beginning to identify self-organized dynamics within each of the trillions of cells in our body that are similar to those that form ecological communities – even communities as large as the entire natural world.[8] Biologists are increasingly discovering close parallels between the organized behavior of social insects such as ants or bees and the neuronal interactions of our brains.[9] Kelso touches on this dynamic when he notes that “a remarkable, possibly quite profound, connection seems to exist among physical, biological, and psychological phenomena.”[10]

If the li that comprise our own existence share their dynamics with the li all around us in the natural world, then this might explain the feeling of awe and oneness we sometimes experience as we observe our universe.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough gives a sense of this bridge between science and the sacred:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[11]

In fact, some studies have identified similar patterns of self-organization in both music and the human brain, offering us a hint that our esthetic sense is intimately connected with the universal patterns of the li that Chang Tsai described.[12] The modern Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield expresses the sense of spiritual awakening that can arise from this realization:

From an awakened perspective, life is a play of patterns, the patterns of trees, the movement of the stars, the patterns of the seasons and the patterns of human life in every form…  These basic patterns, these stories, the universal archetypes through which all life appears, can be seen and heard when we are still, centered, and awakened… Our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists…  All things are all a part of ourselves, and yet somehow we are none of them and beyond them.[13]

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

How far we’ve come (while remaining commensurable with scientific thought) from the reductionist thinking that’s typically associated with conventional science, an approach that can be epitomized in this observation by Nobel laureate physicist and reductionist spokesman Steven Weinberg: ‘I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.’[14] In contrast, here are some thoughts of Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi on the experience of touching the li of Nature:

Spring colors in the West Garden beckoning,
I rushed up there in straw sandals.
A thousand blossoms and ten thousand buds in red and purple:
Who knows the creative mind of Heaven and Earth?[15]


Note: This is the fourth in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Cited by Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

[3] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[4] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001).  How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Macklem, P. T. (2008). “Emergent phenomena and the secrets of life.” Journal of Applied Physiology(104), 1844-1846.

[6] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Cited by Slingerland, E. (2003). Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] See, for example, Lovelock, J. (1979/2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] See, for example, Couzin, I. D. (2008). “Collective cognition in animal groups.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 36-43; Wilson, D. S., and Wilson, E. O. (2007). “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4: December 2007), 327-348; Ward, A. J. W. et. al. (2008). “Quorum decision-making facilitates information transfer in fish shoals.” PNAS, 105(19), 6948-6953.

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

[11] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

[12] Wu, D., Li, C.-Y., and Yao, D.-Z. (2009). “Scale-Free Music of the Brain.” PLoS ONE, 4(6:June 2009), e5915.

[13] Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, New York: Bantam Books.

[14] Quoted by Horgan, J. (2003). Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, New York: Mariner Books.

[15] Quoted by Ching, J., op. cit.

The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature

It was all so clear to Galileo.  “Philosophy,” he tells us, “is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes (I mean the universe)… It is written in the language of mathematics, and the characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures.”[1] Who did the writing?  God, of course, who in Galileo’s mind is “a geometrician in his creative labours – he makes the world through and through a mathematical system.”[2]

In Galileo’s mind – and in the received wisdom of Western civilization ever since – the immutable Laws of Nature held the secret to how our universe works.  Galileo was one of the great thinkers who first began to put mathematical equations around these laws, but the notion of the fixed, eternal laws had been around in Western thought for a very long time.  We can trace it back to the Old Testament, where God declares himself as the great lawmaker, as in this passage from Jeremiah:

Fear ye not me? saith the LORD: will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?[3]

And there are many other places in the Old Testament with similar descriptions, such as in Psalm 148 where we’re told how “He hath made them fast for ever and ever; he hath given them a law which shall not be broken.”

God the lawgiver, who wrote the Laws of Nature – a hallowed Western tradition.

In fact, we can go back even further, to Babylonian times.  “There can be little doubt,” classical scholar Joseph Needham tells us, that the conception of a celestial lawgiver ‘legislating’ for non-human natural phenomena has its first origin among the Babylonians.”  The sun-god Marduk is pictured as the law-giver to the stars.  He it is ‘who prescribes the laws for (the star-gods) Anu, Enlil (and Ea), and who fixes their bounds’.  He it is who ‘maintains the stars in their paths’ by giving ‘commands’ and ‘decrees’.”[4]

So, the fixed Laws of Nature seem to have a long and unbroken tradition in Western thought, from polytheism, through monotheism, and all the way to our scientific world today.  Only one problem.  The Laws are incomplete.  Sure, they’re amazingly powerful at sending rockets to the Moon, seeing distant galaxies, determining molecular structures, and a whole host of other wonders that have built our modern world.  But let’s face it – the amount of stuff they can predict is swamped by what they can’t.   That fly buzzing around the room… which way is it going to turn next?  Will your boyfriend remember your birthday this year?  When will Greenland’s ice cover slide into the ocean?   Will you catch the flu this winter?

Physicists Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff capture this dichotomy well when they write:

One of the most striking aspects of physics is the simplicity of its laws.  The world is lawful, and the same basic laws hold everywhere.  Everything is simple, neat, and expressible in terms of everyday mathematics…

Everything is simple and neat – except, of course, the world.

Every place we look – outside the physics classroom – we see a world of amazing complexity… at all levels: huge mountain ranges, the delicate ridge on the surface of a sand dune, the salt spray coming off a wave, the interdependencies of financial markets, and the true ecologies formed by living things.  Each situation is highly organized and distinctive, with biological systems forming a limiting case of exceptional complexity.[5]

The natural world is exceptionally – and beautifully – more complex than the fixed laws of nature.

The Chinese had a name for this organized complexity: the li.  As I’ve described in an earlier post, the li of the Neo-Confucian philosophers is the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.

It’s a concept that we lack in our Western understanding, partly because we’re so fixated on Nature’s laws that we can’t even imagine there could be any other natural forces driving our universe.  But in recent decades, complexity theorists using advanced mathematics are beginning to come across the natural dynamic of the li that had been integral to a thousand years of classical Chinese thought.  They’re just not sure exactly what to call it.

The Chinese themselves had different words to distinguish “laws” from the principles of the Tao.  They used the word tse to mean a law imposed by men: “the laying down and following of written rules and lists of what may and may not be done, … going by the book.”[6]

For example, there are references in Chinese texts to “his words will be a rule for the empire”; “unvarying laws”; “a Customs tariff” – all using the Chinese word “tse[7].  By contrast – and here we get the full magnitude of the distinction – the Tao is viewed as “non-law”, as the opposite of tse.  The following comes from a Chinese classic of the 2nd century BCE, called the Huai Nan Tzu book:

The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously and secretly; it has no fixed shape; it follows no definite rules [wu-tse, literally “non-law”]; it is so great that you can never come to the end of it; it is so deep that you can never fathom it.[8]

Philosopher Alan Watts explains further how this relates to the li: “But though the Tao is wu-tse (non-law), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables.  This kind of order is the principle of li.”[9]

Joseph Needham clarifies the difference between “law” and “li” by contrasting our Western notion of “natural laws” as extrinsic, as opposed to the li which are intrinsic:

…[Li] is…in effect a Great Pattern in which all lesser patterns are included, and the ‘laws’ which are involved in it are intrinsic to these patterns, whatever their degree of complexity, not extrinsic to them, and dominating them, as the laws of human society constrain individual men.[10]

The Chinese saw an intrinsic relationship between all things in the universe.

To try to get at what Needham is saying, let’s think about the Western concept of law.  What are essential elements of a law?  First, you need a law-maker – somebody who creates the law.  Then, you need a target – some group who must obey the law.  And finally, you need power – some agent to enforce the law.  Needham’s point is that none of those three elements exist within the concept of “li”.

This highlights a fundamental difference between Western mental constructs of the universe, with an external Lawmaker appointing order to the natural world and enforcing it, and the Chinese construct, where order arises from the intrinsic relationship between things in the universe: the li.  In the words of Wang Pi, who wrote a famous commentary on the I Ching in the 2nd century AD:

… divine law has no sanctions.  We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they do not swerve from their course.[11]

What Wang Pi is describing, nearly two thousand years ago, is the same dynamic being discovered by Western complexity theorists and systems biologists in recent decades, as they investigate the principles of self-organization in the natural world.  Here’s biologist Brian Goodwin describing the notion of “order for free”:

… much (and perhaps most) of the order that we see in living nature is an expression of properties intrinsic to complex dynamic systems organized by simple rules of interaction among large numbers of elements.[12]

Sounds similar to old Wang Pi?  I propose that these similarities are not just superficial – they are describing fundamentally the same dynamic, one in the language of the Tao, the other in the language of 21st century science.

The implications of this are enormous.  Most of us have spent our lives under the impression that there’s a huge chasm dividing scientific truths from spiritual truths.  The principles of the Tao have always seemed a long way from Newton and Einstein.  And yet, if Wang Pi and Brian Goodwin are describing the same thing, then there’s a continuum that exists between experiencing the mysterious Tao in the natural world and the cold, hard logic of scientific inquiry.  They’re not two different dimensions at all.

And if that’s the case, then it suggests that perhaps our Western culture has a lot to learn from more than two millennia of the Chinese thought tradition.  I’m not just talking about “spiritual learnings” seen as separate from our everyday, scientific approach to the world.  I’m suggesting that our scientific conceptions of the world, the framework within which we envisage reality, may be enhanced, even transformed, by the application of ancient Chinese thought traditions.

And it all begins with accepting the notion that our universe isn’t just driven by our so-called laws of nature, but also by the dynamics of the li.


Note: This is the second in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Livio, M. (2009). Is God a Mathematician?, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Burtt, E. A. (1924/2003). The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, New York: Dover Publications, p. 82.

[3] Jeremiah 5:22 (King James Version).

[4] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 533.

[5] Goldenfeld, N., and Kadanoff, L. P. (1999). “Simple Lessons from Complexity.” Science, 284(2 April 1999), 87-89.

[6] Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way, New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 45-6.

[7] Needham, J. (1951). “Human Laws and Laws of Nature in China and the West (II): Chinese Civilization and the Laws of Nature” Journal of the History of Ideas. City, pp. 211-12.  In addition to tse, another important Chinese term for the body of law is fa, which is the word used for the rule-oriented philosophical group called the Legalists who were frequently in direct opposition to the Confucians in ancient Chinese history.

[8] Quoted by Watts, op. cit.

[9] Watts op. cit.

[10] Needham (1951) op. cit., pp. 220-21

[11] Cited by Needham (1951), op. cit., p.213.

[12] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001) How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 186.  In this passage, Goodwin is describing the work of theoretical biologist and complex systems theorist Stuart Kauffman.

Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Look at a piece of wood that happens to be close to you.  See the swirling pattern of its grain.  If there’s any natural stone close to you, look at it too.  See how the patterns form a random shape, yet somehow seem ordered in a way that you could never define.  What you’re looking at is what the classical Chinese called “li”.  In its most ancient meaning, the word li literally meant “the markings in jade or the fibers in muscle tissue.”  As a verb it meant “to cut things according to their natural grain or divisions.”[1]

The li, as Alan Watts describes it, is:

…the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand.”[2]

From this simple idea arose one of the most powerful concepts in mankind’s attempts to understand the world around us.

One manifestation of the li as natural patterning: a manzanita tree at Phoenix Lake, Marin County

From the original meaning of markings in jade, the word li became commonly used in a way that dictionaries often translate as “principle”.  But the Neo-Confucians of China’s Song Dynasty[3] took this notion and transformed it into something far broader, expanding it to a more general level to represent all the patterns or principles through which the natural universe expresses itself.  For the Neo-Confucians, the li represented “the ordering and organizing principle in the cosmos… the order and pattern in Nature.”[4]

Since this blog is called Finding the Li, it’s self-evident that I see this classical Chinese view of the li as important.  In fact, I believe that a true understanding of the Chinese conception of the li can be a crucial step in our society developing a cosmological construct of the universe for the 21st century: one that can bridge the gap between science and spirituality and give a framework for truly integrating technology and the natural world.

The first thing to understand about the li is that it doesn’t refer to a fixed pattern.  We’re talking about dynamic patterns, patterns within patterns, patterns both in space and in time.  And it’s not something that only exists in beautiful natural scenery such as trees, clouds and streams (although that’s a great place to look for it).

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

The li is the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.

Chu Hsi, the greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher[5], gets this point across clearly when he describes:

… the ever-flowing presence of li.  This li moves in the world in continuous cycles without a single moment’s cessation.  None of the myriad things and activities – be they small, large, fine, or coarse would have been possible without the ever-flowing presence of li in them.  So is my mind (heart)[6] which also receives it.  The li never ceases to stay in my mind for a moment; its creative process never ceases to reciprocate with the physical world.”[7]

In the words of Joseph Needham, the great 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought, “It is dynamic pattern as embodied in all living things, and in human relationships and in the highest human values.  Such dynamic pattern can only be expressed by the term ‘organism’.”  In fact, Needham suggests thinking of Neo-Confucian philosophy as “a scheme of thought striving to be a philosophy of organism.”[8]

Tropical mollusk shell: the li as "pattern of the organism"

So far, we’ve been seeing li as patterning – as all the patterns that embody existence.  But if you raise this idea to a higher level of generality, then you can begin to think about the li as the set of “organizing principles” that form these patterns.

In the description of Ch’en Shun (a disciple of Chu Hsi), what we’re looking at in the li is “a natural and inescapable law of affairs and things…It is a Patterning Law.”  Ch’en Shun further explains his meaning:

The meaning of “natural and inescapable” is that [human] affairs, and [natural] things, are made just exactly to fit into place. The meaning of ‘law’ is that the fitting into place occurs without the slightest excess or deficiency.[9]

In an earlier post, I’ve described how ancient Chinese thinkers saw the universe in terms of cosmic harmony.  The notion of the li is a key element in explaining how this harmony manifests itself in the ongoing workings of nature.  The ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu encapsulates this sense when he says:  “The ten thousand things have perfect intrinsic principles of order [li], but they do not talk about them.”[10]

For Western-educated readers, this might seem like a natural place to think to yourself “Nice idea, but what does this ‘cosmic harmony’ stuff have to do with the real world?”  In the next few posts, I intend to answer this question, and propose that the concept of the li represents a missing dimension to our Western reductionist worldview while remaining compatible with scientific thought.

I’ll try to show how the li contrasts with our Western idea of the “laws of Nature,” and how it relates to modern complexity theory and to the Tao.  Along the way, I hope to point to how the conception of the li can help us to understand current views of how the mind creates consciousness, modern approaches to evolution, and where to look for spirituality in a material world.

Ultimately “finding the li” is about finding our way in this world by finding ourselves.  Or, in the words of Chang Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucianist movement:

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[11]


Note: This is the first in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Needham, J. (1951). “Human Laws and Laws of Nature in China and the West (II): Chinese Civilization and the Laws of Nature”Journal of the History of Ideas, pp. 194-230.

[2]Watts, A., (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books.

[3] The Song Dynasty, considered by some to be the pinnacle of classical Chinese civilization, existed between the years 960 and 1279.

[4] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. II, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 558.

[5] Chu Hsi lived from 1130 to 1200.

[6] The Chinese thought of the mind as having its physical existence in the heart as opposed to our Western view of it existing in the brain.

[7] Quoted in Yu, D. (1980). “The Conceptions of Self in Whitehead and Chu Hsi.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 7(1980), 153-173.

[8] Needham, J. (1951), op. cit.

[9] Needham, J. (1951) op. cit., pp 216-18.

[10]Quoted by Needham, J. (1956/1972) op. cit. p. 546.

[11] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

Reverent Guests of Nature

This week, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss what to do about global warming.  How did we ever get into this mess?  Yes, we all know the proximate causes – the greenhouse effect, carbon emissions, etc.  But I’m asking about the underlying cause: the construction of our view of mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at an entirely different perspective of our place in the universe: the ancient Chinese view of the cosmos.  It’s fundamentally different from how the Western world sees things.  And there’s a lot we can learn from it.

Let’s start with what there wasn’t.  There was no “command and control” Creator that ruled over the natural world.  Consequently, there was no God to create Man in His image to follow His command and dominate Nature.  Instead, there was the Tao, which existed even before the creation of the world.  But there was no ruling mandate that came along with the Tao’s role in creation, as the Tao Te Ching itself states:

Tao everlasting does not act
And yet nothing is not done.
If kings and barons can abide by it,
The ten thousand things will transform by themselves.[1]

And in a direct contrast to God the Creator expecting Man to follow His own dominating role, the Tao instead informs the sage how to follow the ways of the Tao in leading the people:

In loving the people and governing the state…
To give birth yet not to claim possession,
To act yet not to hold on to,
To grow yet not to lord over,
This is called the dark virtue.[2]

As historian Toby Huff so clearly puts it: “Within this cosmos there is no prime mover, no high God, no lawgiver”.[3]

So, if there was no Creator, how did this harmony come about?  In the West, we’re used to an either/or approach to cosmology.  In our present day, it’s the faith of religion against the reductionism of science.  Either there’s a God who created everything and gave it all meaning, or there was just the Big Bang and ever since then the immutable laws of physics arranged everything down to the last molecule in a cold, hard universe without magic, mystery or meaning.

But the Chinese view of Nature had nothing to do with either of these two extremes.  Instead, they saw the universal order of things as “an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer”.  Joseph Needham, the leading 20th century expert on ancient Chinese cosmology, gives the analogy of a traditional country-dance to describe the Chinese view:

Spontaneous yet ordered, in the sense of patterned movements of dancers in a country dance of figures, none of whom are bound by law to do what they do, nor yet pushed by others coming behind, but cooperate in a voluntary harmony of wills.[4]

Joseph Needham sees country dancing as an analogy for the Chinese view of natural harmony

Here’s how an early Chinese philosopher – Wang Pi writing around 240 AD – described the cosmology expressed in the I Ching, on which he wrote a famous commentary:

We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they never swerve from their course.  So also we do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him.

Needham describes this thought as “extremely Chinese.  Universal harmony comes about not by the celestial fiat of some King of Kings, but by the spontaneous cooperation of all beings in the universe … not from the orders of a superior authority external to themselves, but from the fact that they were all parts in a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic pattern, and what they obeyed were the internal dictates of their own natures.”[5]

Needham coined the phrase “an organic worldview” to describe this – self-contained organisms following their own internal rules within the context of larger organisms, and themselves comprised of smaller organisms also following their own rules.

And this worldview leads to a very different perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.  In contrast to the Genesis myth putting Nature under Man’s dominion, “the universe did not exist especially to satisfy man.  His role in the universe was ‘to assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth.’”[6]

In my blog, Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how, beginning with Plato, our dualist Western tradition came to idealize the mind and separate the abstractions of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) from our animate consciousness.  By contrast, Chinese traditions looked for harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and the other aspects of our existence.  “Hence the key word is always harmony; the ancient Chinese sought for order and harmony throughout natural phenomena, and took this to be the ideal in all human relationships.”[7]

The Chinese never conceived of an immortal soul.  They never conceived of an omnipotent Creator.  The notion of dualism never entered their consciousness.  They used their pfc faculties every bit as much as the Greeks, but for the purpose of understanding the integration of these faculties with other aspects of themselves and with the natural world around them.

Clear Weather in the Valley, an example of Sung dynasty landscape painting by Tung Yüan (late 10th century) shows the view of humanity’s relatively subordinate place within the natural environment and demonstrates how human activity is seen to blend in with the environment.

Because of their emphasis on harmony, it never occurred to them that they should use their intellect to conquer the natural world.  On the contrary, traditional Chinese thought is pervaded by the notion of “non-purposive action”, wuwei, as the wisest approach to the natural world and to life in general.  In the words of the Tao Te Ching:

One who desires to take the world and act upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses.[8]

Over two millennia of Western dualism, billions of people have spent their lives struggling with the conflict between the natural drives of their animate consciousness and a conceptualized ideal of spirituality arising from the pfc’s abstractions.  In traditional Chinese thought, the opposite is true.  Harmony is seen as arising from each of us being in touch with and following our own true nature.

And the same harmony applies to our relationship with the natural world.  As world leaders meet this week in Copenhagen to debate how to manage the global climate crisis we’ve brought on ourselves, they might do well to pause for a moment and consider this view from the Tao Te Ching of the Taoist approach to the natural world:

Careful, like crossing a river in winter…
Reverent, like being guests…
Those who keep this Tao,
Do not want to be filled to the full.
Because they are not full,
They can renew themselves before being worn out.[9]

[1] Chen, E.M., (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. Chapter 37.

[2] Ibid. Chapter 10.

[3] Huff, T. E. (1993/2006). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251-2.

[4] Needham, J., (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2. London: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Needham, ibid.

[6] Needham, ibid.

[7] Needham, ibid.

[8] Chen, ibid. Chapter 29.

[9] Chen, ibid.  Chapter 15.

Digging into the archaeology of the mind

For those of us who have grown up in a world dominated by Western thought, the prevailing mindsets available to us – scientific methodology, monotheism or some other dualistic belief – seem like the only ones to choose from.

In my blog entitled Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how our Western thought structure has led to an imbalance in our collective consciousness, whereby the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – the part of the brain that mediates symbols and abstract values – has predominated over other aspects of our consciousness.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  And it doesn’t have to be this way.  There were other ways in which the pfc could have constructed its cosmology without seeing itself as an immortal soul separate from its own body and the rest of the natural world.  Without seeing its intellectual constructs as the only ultimate truth.  And there are other approaches we can use to construct meaning in a way that integrates with our bodies and with our animate consciousness, without having to reject the evidence of science.

Time to dig into the archaeology of the mind

To find these other approaches to meaning, we need to dig deep into the archaeology of the mind.  Back to the era of the ancient Greeks, when Plato first posited an immortal soul separate from our material bodies.  Only we’re going to look at another path taken by the pfc, a path that connects the pfc’s drive for meaning with the living, feeling reality of the animate consciousness.  It’s a path taken thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, in a culture virtually untouched by the Proto-Indo-European mental structures that pervaded both Western and Indian cultures.  It’s a path laid down by the Chinese thought tradition.

When Plato was setting the foundations for mind-body dualism in the West, ancient Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Lao-Tzu[1] and Chuang-tzu were offering very different viewpoints on the nature of the cosmos.  These masters were the mouthpieces for ancient traditions that had grown up over thousands of years, completely cut off from the other thought traditions of Western Eurasia.  Chinese scholar Chad Hansen describes how “early Chinese and Greco-Indian philosophical traditions materialized on opposite divides of a great physical barrier – the Himalaya mountains and Xinjiang barrens.”[2] This physical barrier led to a philosophical chasm: “early Chinese philosophers show startlingly little interest in the familiar staples of early Western thought” such as dualism of body and soul.

Joseph Needham (arguably the greatest 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought) describes the East/West dichotomy as follows:

Europeans suffered from a schizophrenia of the soul, oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the ‘atoms and the void’ on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and state, and all things past, present, and to come.[3]

Until the last few hundred years, China’s culture and civilization were more advanced than anything the West had achieved.  But something even more remarkable in Chinese culture is that it represents an unbroken tradition from our prehistoric indigenous roots.  We see in classical Chinese culture a sophisticated and complex cosmology, but one which evolved along a continuum from early shamanistic conceptions of the world.  In the West, by contrast, the confluence of ideas generated in Proto-Indo-European, Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought traditions led to the revolution in thinking that occurred in classic Greek culture: the ascendancy to power by the pfc in the form of dualism.

Classical Chinese and Western thought are built on different foundations.  The Chinese foundation connects all the way down to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots.  The Western foundation was reset in a new Platonic concrete over 2,000 years ago, providing a solid base for monotheistic and scientific thought, but creating a separation between our conceptual and animate consciousness, and between humans and the natural world.

Chinese culture connects to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots

And what we see in early Chinese thought is an approach fundamentally different from that in the West.  Instead of dualism there’s the polarity of yin and yang.  Instead of Heaven and Hell, there’s a harmonious interaction between different aspects of the natural world.  Instead of mankind’s separation from nature, there’s a complex, organic view of our connectivity with nature.  Instead of the pfc dominating human consciousness with its idealization of reason and the mind, there’s a harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and our animate consciousness.  Instead of God, there’s the Tao.

How does this difference translate into daily life?  For starters, as environmental philosopher George Sessions notes, the contrast between these two thought traditions shows up in their relationship with the natural world.  Sessions observes that “while Taoism and certain other Eastern religions retained elements of the ancient shamanistic Nature religions, the Western religious tradition radically distanced itself from wild Nature and, in the process, became increasingly anthropocentric.”[4]

But the difference goes even further than that.  It’s so pervasive that, even after hundreds of years of Western cultural impact on East Asia, and modern education systems that prioritize scientific-based thinking, the traces of a different conceptual blueprint show themselves in an individual’s self-definition.  Research findings by psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have identified a difference between a Western-oriented “independent self” versus an East Asian sense of an “interdependent” self, which arises out of a more holistic view of integration with nature.  Here’s how they describe it:

The notion of an interdependent self is linked with a monistic philosophical tradition in which the person is thought to be of the same substance as the rest of nature.  As a consequence, the relationship between the self and other, or between subject and object, is assumed to be much closer.  Thus, many non-Western cultures insist on the inseparability of basic elements, including self and other, and person and situation.  In Chinese culture, for instance, there is an emphasis on synthesizing the constituent parts of any problem or situation into an integrated or harmonious whole.

They contrast this with the “Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.”[5]

This difference extends to the very way in which we conceptualize the world existing around us.  Psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues have reviewed multiple research studies showing East Asians emphasizing relationships and similarities between objects and events, in contrast to Western subjects focusing more on categories and rules for particular items.  They see this difference as arising from the cultural foundations of Chinese thought.  In contrast to the ancient Greeks who were focused on the “object independent of its context,”

… the Chinese were convinced of the fundamental relatedness of all things… It is only the whole that exists; and the parts are linked relationally, like ‘the ropes in a net’[6]

These differences in cognition can literally be seen in the neural connections activated by people raised in East Asia versus those raised in the West.  Multiple functional neuroimaging studies have identified these differences.  In one study, led by Trey Hedden, participants were asked to perform “absolute” and “relative” conceptual tasks.  Westerners had to use more of their frontal brain regions (i.e. had to work harder) on “relative” tasks than “absolute” tasks.  East Asians showed the opposite effect.  Thus, they concluded, “the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.”[7] In a survey of such studies, Shihui Han and Georg Northoff conclude that “one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions.”[8]

The implications of these differences in East Asian and Western are enormous, but are frequently misrepresented in the political tug-of-war arising from such research.  Much of the debate centers around nature/nurture issues such as “Are Westerners hard-wired to be more creative?” or “Are East Asians hard-wired to be meeker?”  I believe that these issues are relatively fruitless to pursue and tend to be used by people to buttress their own prejudices.

Instead, I think these findings offer a path to much richer pastures.  I propose that those of us who are Western-educated can learn something invaluable from the classical Chinese thought traditions.  We can discover different ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, which have the potential to lead to a more integrated sense of ourselves, and increased harmony with the natural world.

Is our Western thought structure on shaky foundations?

But, as anyone who has done foundation work on their house can attest to, it ain’t easy.  Digging down below the floorboards can be messy and painful, and can turn up long-forgotten buried secrets.  It can also, though, be essential for survival.  If the foundations are not rooted well into the soil, a bad storm or an earthquake can cause devastation.  There’s a growing awareness that our society has created its own perfect storm in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.  At this point, I think our conceptual constructs could gain a lot from a tradition that’s rooted to the earth, that’s founded on an organic unity with the natural world.

In future postings, I’ll look in more detail at the cosmology of classical Chinese thought, and explore its direct relevance to the scientific and spiritual views of the 21st century.  Let’s get digging!

[1] Most modern scholars question whether the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by one individual.  However, for convenience, virtually everyone remains comfortable referring to the author(s) as Lao-Tzu.

[2] Hansen, C. (2000). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[4] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[5] Markus, H. R., and Kitayama, S. (1991). “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.  It should be  noted that, while Markus & Kitayama focus their analysis on East Asia, they extend their view of an “interdependent self” to other “non-West European” cultures such as in Africa and South America.

[6] Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. (2001). “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition.” Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

[7] Hedden, T., Ketay, S., Aron, A., Markus, H. R., and Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2008). “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.” Psychological Science, 19(1), 12-17

[8] Han, S., and Northoff, G. (2008). “Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(August 2008), 646-654.