We have departed the metropolis of Chongqing, the first stage of our journey, by going to the wrong train terminal, hopping into a suspicious random van, then hustling our way to the front of the sole queue open for ticket collection, and strolling onto the train with mere minutes to spare. On the roll to Xi’an we are!
Meanwhile, here’s what Chongqing has shown us about a life well lived. Follow us on Facebook / Instagram at life.yalenus to see daily updates!
For students in the ivory tower of higher education like ourselves, it is all too easy to get caught up in theoretical problems at the cost of real action. The question “What is a life well lived?” cannot be asked in a purely theoretical vacuum – there is no magic recipe, bulletproof philosophical system, or step-by-step solution. It is a comprehensive question concerning nothing less than life itself and therefore must be investigated holistically.
This is what inspired me as I listened to the story of Mr. Zhang, arts manager at Hua Yan Temple in Chongqing. What impressed me was not his theoretical knowledge. I tried posing a few metaphysical questions, but each time Mr. Zhang seemed reluctant to give a complete answer. This was not his specialty; he told us to ask the high-ranking monks instead of himself.
Instead, it was Mr. Zhang’s demeanor that left a deep impression on me. The Confucian tradition teaches that a man’s virtue is conveyed in his demeanor. The gentleman commands a kind of ethical charisma, a powerful aura of virtue that permeates his very being. Mr. Zhang told us how he had overcome difficulties in life, found his calling in Buddhism, and dedicated his life to helping other people. Listening to him, it was clear that he walked the walk. Every little kindness of his – inviting us in for a chat when we looked lost, treating us to tea (and constantly refilling our cups), giving us life advice – was heartfelt and genuine, showing that he really cared about us. Here was a person who could care less about the esoteric details of Buddhist doctrine. After all, what is religion for if not to serve people? What use is scholarly knowledge if it does not translate into real ethical action? When we asked Mr. Zhang what he thought of other faiths, his reply was refreshingly simple: “As long as a religion helps people, it is a good religion.”
Mr. Zhang’s philosophy reminds me of Wang Yangming, a Neo-Confucian philosopher, and his ethical injunction to “just do it.” During his time, too many people had misinterpreted the teachings of Zhu Xi and had become mere bookworms, petty scholars who spent their time memorizing texts and polishing their rhetoric instead of learning to become better people. To correct this, Wang Yangming taught that in many cases, there is really no point to excessive theoretical learning. Oftentimes we already know what is right – we just have to do it.
As we perused temples and scenic areas the past few days in Chongqing, a thought occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. The fact that we had embarked on this trip with the purpose of answering the question of what a well-lived life is… it somehow seems to imply the notion that, perhaps to us, a well-lived life is the contemplative life, which Aristotle had mentioned in Nicomachean Ethics as a life of eudaimonia. However, contemplation is also the reason why I find myself restless, uncertain, skeptical, and why the term ‘缘分’ (fate/chance/affinity) that many we have met in Chongqing use to explain the choices they make in life does not sit well with me – for how can I accept it as truth when there is nothing scientific or concrete that proves it?
“Journeys are the midwives of thought,” says Alain de Botton in ‘The Art of Travelling’, which I read on the high speed rail from Chongqing to Xi’an. After hopping around Chongqing over 4 days, the diverse scenes of modern urban infrastructure, traditional spiritual sites, and the vehicles of travel themselves, have become fuel for our thoughts, inspiring our posts probing the dynamics between physical environment, man’s curation of nature, everyday mindfulness, and spirituality. Thus, travel has allowed us to sharpen our understanding about possibilities of lives well lived.
de Botton continues: “We may value foreign elements not only because they are new, but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitment than what our homeland can provide”. Thinking about our reactions to the numerous amazing sites, I became conscious of how our own personal ideals were projected upon our perception of a foreign destination, determining its excellence to us. This gave me an idea. Perhaps, not only can travel develop one’s ideals, it actually also offers something far greater – allowing one to experience, to live in our ideal reality. For a city or natural site that inspires us is really a consequence of our own assumptions and simplifications of the place. We idealize a place by isolating and amplifying its best aspects, and believing that a desirable essence underlies a physical site. For instance, we assume a certain fundamental tranquility to a beautiful lake. Yet, upon closer inspection, the beautiful city or natural site collapses into the ordinary – the inconvenient aspects of realities like social ills or insects comes into focus, and we see that it is ultimately an aggregate of physical particles without any inherent positive essence. Regardless, we continue to imagine the beauty in these sites, and through this belief, we do come close to living our ideal realities, as if those places were truly as we idealize them to be, from our distant perch as a traveller.
And so, it turns out that travelling makes dreams come true afterall.
What is a life well lived? To me, Chongqing taught me that it was one which one purposefully choose for oneself. I base my answer on my observations in Hua Yan temple, where the people we spoke to appear to be content with their lives. Mr Zhang (whom I mentioned in my post) has been to work everyday for the last ten years, commenting that he feels weird if he doesn’t go to work just because work makes him happy. The volunteer helping him said that she choose to dedicate her time at the temple, serving others instead of choosing to work. To me, that is a way to live life well, being content with the choices one makes and as Po says in Kung Fu Panda: inner peace. I don’t think it has to look a certain way, I know of people who are happy with their jobs and their lives. Spirituality simply provides different methods (or formulas) to get that contentment, be it through letting go of attachment in Buddhism or abiding by Confucian values.