A Lesson by Nan Huai-Chin
[Nán Huáijǐn, 南怀瑾, 南懷瑾]
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In the modern world, thanks to Western culture, which favours the promotion of material progress, we can easily travel around the world, we have splendid houses, and we lead our lives with all modern comforts. At first sight, it would seem that we live in an era of happiness; and yet we struggle to make our way in a competitive society, we are in fear of murderous wars, and we are drowning in a sea of unquenchable desires. Thus we live in an era of great suffering unprecedented in human history. Humanity is now facing an existential crisis that springs from the contrast between material abundance and spiritual poverty.
Sometimes we may be disappointed, but let us not despair, for we have the responsibility and the opportunity to perpetuate the ancient wisdom that will enable the new generations to flourish. In order to bear on our shoulders this pillar which will carry the bridge between past and future, we must renew the ancient spirituality of the West and of the East. We must select those facets that will bring us spiritual nourishment and help us to enrich and fulfil ourselves and one another. We must promote an exchange between the two cultures so that together we can deal with this great crisis now confronting humanity.
In an attempt to solve the current problems of the world – the environment, the diminution of natural resources, world peace – as an old man of ninety who has seen much of life, I would like to propose something that seems to me universal. Let us consider a fundamental, cosmic law: that of change, of mutation.
We must acknowledge that the law of Nature, the Dharma of the cosmos, the routine of all life, is subject to this rule of mutation. In both the material and the spiritual world, there is nothing that does not change. We must seize on this principle of change and follow its course. Not only must we follow it, but we must also have the wisdom to foresee it, prepare for it, and anticipate its consequences. Taoist wisdom tells us that in the stream of life we need only go with the natural flow. If you wish to stop that flow and utilize its strength, you will lose your energy. If you try to go against the flow, you will be drowned. Taoists also tell us: “Follow the course of life, channel the current, and you will be carried in the right direction, you will profit from things without difficulty.” To those who wish to dedicate their lives to preserving Nature and improving the future of humankind, I invite you to embrace the principle of change and work out a course of action…
Lao-tzu said: “Having reached the extremity of the void, firmly anchored in quiet while ten thousand beings burst forth as one, I myself contemplate the return. People prosper at every opportunity, but they always return to their roots. To return to one’s roots is quiet.” In the change and movement of things there is quiet… It is easy to lose oneself in the change and to forget the quiet. We exhaust ourselves through pointless movements, and we use up all our natural resources, wasting our energies on all kinds of excesses, of luxuries. In order to maintain the health of body and mind, it is essential that everyone should cultivate the art of resting in quietness.
Lao-tzu said: “Have you succeeded in harmonizing your body and soul so that they move in unison and do not drift apart? Have you succeeded in breathing as deeply as possible, as flexibly as possible like a newborn babe?”
Let us calm our agitation, let us find our peace again, as relaxed as a newborn babe. I suggest you try two simple methods:
• The postures of meditation can be varied in ninety different ways. What is important is not the posture but the way you look into yourself, like a mirror of what is happening in your mind. Meditation allows you to find quiet.
• The song of the mantra will also help you to connect with yourself in inner peace. Once you hear the song, you will return quite naturally to a state of calm. Whether you are high in the mountains or down in the desert, if you chant a mantra, you will acquire a serenity that will move you to tears. They will not be tears of sorrow but of blessing and of gratitude. Your whole body will open up like a flower, and your cares will disappear completely. This joy of being in solitude, in quietude, can never be bought with money.
In China, the words that signify ‘life’ are ‘sheng’ and ‘ming’. ‘Sheng’ means everything that contains life, ‘Ming’ means everything that has a soul. It is that of which the Buddha speaks: body and soul are united, are One. To what does this ‘life’ lead us? What are these values? In China there is an old saying: “Life is lighter than a feather, death is heavier than a mountain.” It is this ancient tradition that influences the countries of Asia. Asian culture puts emphasis on kingship, filial devotion, fidelity, justice, morality. We respect those who devote their lives to a good cause for humanity, to the rule of justice and peace. Life and death are thus transcended.
And yet today this fine old code is gradually disappearing in the face of modernism. Current education places emphasis on the truth of knowledge, of pragmatism, and it is dissipating traditional culture… as a result, everyone follows the daily grind of life, but forgets to really live. Most people live without living – they no longer have roots or culture. They forget the meaning of their lives, the value of their lives.
Currently, the cultures of East and West have thus been disrupted; we are fighting for survival, and we forget to actually live. It is the duty of intellectuals to save the situation. We are preoccupied with earning more and more money – that is the aim of our career. In the I Ching, the word ‘career’ means busying oneself in the service of the people, for the wellbeing of others. If everything we do is for ourselves, that is just a job. Let us never forget the true meaning of life.
Twenty years ago, when I wanted to invest in the railways of my native region of Wenzhou, I proposed four conditions to the Chinese government: “Let us retain Communism as a Utopia, let us realize Socialism through social aid, let us improve management by emulating the efficiency of Capitalism, and let us disseminate traditional Chinese culture.” I wanted to give all the profits to the villagers who lived along the railway line.
But the Chinese government did not accept these conditions. I gave them the money with the sole intention of doing something for the people, and I did not gain a penny.
Once we truly realize that the world belongs to everyone, without egotism, we shall be invincible.
Mo-tzu insisted on the development of technology. He himself was a pioneer in science and in Chinese architecture. He was a world citizen. Whenever there was a war somewhere, he would go there to protest and to try to stop it… All his life he pleaded against war and advocated love. In promoting the rule of harmony on Earth, he was a fine example for the world of today.
By relying uniquely on the development of technology, we are plunging into the abyss of misery. It is time for us to bring together the sciences, the arts, and qualities of the spirit. Our wellbeing derives from the unity of these three things, and hope springs from this unity…
– A lesson given by Nan Huai-Chin in October 2006
at the Taihu Great Learning Centre in the province of Jiangsu.
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