On Uphekka – equanimity

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Uphekka – equanimity – is the capacity to remain unaffected by the flood of emotions arising from the constant ebbs and flows of social interaction. The meditation calls a person to mind and, without breaking contact, repeats: ‘May you be responsible for your own happiness. Every creature is responsible for their own karma’.

Cold? Yes – and respectful. Uphekka warrants other people’s right to emotional independence. As my virtue-buddy Patrick underlined, it evokes the distance between a therapist and their patient: it creates an open space to reveal and process complex emotions without the fear of rejection, or the fear of dragging others down the spiral of our own despair. Uphekka captures the Shakespearean ideal presented by Hamlet – ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I shall hold him to my heart of hearts!’ For in the heat of passion, the perfect friend may not be they who join in our turmoil, but they who gently cool us down.

The world has its own determinism, recognises Uphekka. All living creatures suffer the consequences of their actions. This came real to me professionally during those weeks, as I leave a role I started three years ago. We finished a major project in June, leadership changed after that, but no new direction emerged – or if it did, the stars did not shine bright enough to reach from Northern Europe, where the organisation is based, all the way down to Melbourne. In the face of ongoing uncertainty, I diversified my commitments which, in turn, increased structural tension. As the year – and my current contract – came to an end, things unravelled. Should I believe in statements that I was highly valued, things would improve, and all we needed was a bit more patience – or acknowledge that the combined mechanics of distant timezones, portfolio careers, cultural differences and internal restructures had a logic of their own, making exit a better choice? Rather than strive to keep this long-distance professional relationship alive any longer, I accepted gravity, and let myself detach.

Uphekka is a melancholy virtue: it embraces the sadness of things that pass, and our incapacity to save them. Cherry blossoms that fall off the branch and decay. Mono no aware. Lacrimae Rerum. No matter what we may desire, says Uphekka, things will evolve, under the deep influence of forces we cannot resist. This applies to the world at large, and the minds of others. Best, then, to calmly sit by and repeat, ‘may you be responsible for your own happiness. I hope that you behave in such a way that the mechanical consequence of your actions will bring happiness to you.’

One of my oldest friends, a refugee from communism, once told me that the freedom to fall straight on your face is a fundamental right. This requires Uphekka. For if your failure affects me, I will deter you from taking risks; but if I can remain unaffected by your collapse, then I might let you try. Could Uphekka, then, be the condition for a more resilient world? Last Sunday, I joined a philosophical dinner. The topic was ‘peaceful revolutions’. It struck me, as I followed the conversation, that when we consider ways to prevent conflict, we tend to focus on actions – how might we stop whatever will precipitate an entire system into chaos. Meanwhile, we disregard another form of intervention: develop and encourage emotional resistance – whether to pain or boredom – and by doing so, reduce the likelihood that our social fabric will rip under pressure.

 

 

On Mudita – empathetic joy

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Mudita – empathetic joy – is the deliberate cultivation of positive feelings associated to the success and happiness of others. The meditation practice starts with an evocation of my own joy – whether energetic or content, grand or modest. It then invites me to think about three people in turn, a good friend, an indifferent person, and somebody who frustrated me – and in turn, think of those people as able to experience joy, and rejoice in their happiness, repeating, ‘May you be happy, may your joy continue, I am happy for you.’

The setting was peculiar: shortly after I started my daily Mudita meditation, I went on a silent retreat and begun my journey with Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, where – as a first step – I prayed for gratitude at the magnificence of the created world. The two practices somehow merged, Christian and Buddhist empathetic joy. And – possibly through the make-up of my own mind, or the circumstances, feeling joy at the joys of others was incredibly easy, like plugging a lamp into the mains and pressing on a button for light to shine in the room.

This kind of joy, however, I experienced as closely connected with humility. Mudita says, it is irrelevant where the joy comes from, or who feels it first – it can and it must circulate. Therefore, let go of your critical ego: instead, align yourself emotionally to the positive emotions of others. In other words – let a situation affect you, rather than critically standing aside and judge. Be not a cold observer, but a warm participant.

There is a profound hospitality to Mudita: celebrate with the traveller, make them feel welcome, do not critically judge their customs or experience, but give a space for their feelings to resonate. Joy has a preventive effect. It connects people, increases the perceived value of time spent together, and thus avoids relationships or situations collapsing. As warm air rises, allowing the balloon to gently glide above the ground, the collective uplift of empathetic joy allows a group to float above petty differences and swamps of despair, easily moving past obstacles which, to those heavier souls creeping on the ground, stand in the way of many collective endeavours. Mudita – thus – should be cultivated for its transformative power.

More keenly than ever, I noted how dangerous the absence of Mudita could be. I went out with a friend for dinner – an intelligent friend, with one of those dark, cynical forms of intelligence. I would share some joyful details of my life, and he would crush them down with questions to make a point. This, I realise, is the absence of Mudita – refusing to partake in the small joys of others on ethical grounds, because we see them as unfounded, vain, or slightly ridiculous.

Moliere painted this remarkably in his Misanthropist. The protagonist, Alceste, is quick to criticise those around him, their vanity, their lies. He dreams of finding ‘a distant place where one could have the freedom to be a man of honour’, but instead, sees vice everywhere. Romantic interpretations have made him a hero of truth, and this play a satire on social hypocrisy. But I like to read Moliere differently, as a much more incisive critic of pride: the fierce egotistical belief that some of us have an ethical duty to tell the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth, at all times and in all settings – preferably covered in a thick coat of black paint, in case anybody may be distracted by gentle reflections of light on the shape of that truth. The consequence resembles the sins of the angels: a terrifying drop  into despair which, through sheer power of gravity, threatens to drag everyone around us down the same pit of darkness.

 

 

 

 

On Karuna – compassion

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Karuna – compassion – cultivates a desire to end suffering, in oneself and others. Expanding my circles of empathy, the meditation process I followed invited me to wish “May I be free from suffering. May my close ones be free of suffering. May my enemies be free from suffering.” Metta came easily – flows of loving-kindess rippled through my brain like a gentle stream on demand. Karuna was dry: an experience of profound boredom. While I would close my eyes and experience metta right away, when it came to Karuna, I felt nothing – and simply sat through, patiently, repeating the mantra, seemingly to no end.

Reflecting on this blockage, my first guess is that I experienced a reluctance at a practice that appeared selfish. When I wished for the relief of someone close to me, someone neutral, or even someone I rather disliked – I couldn’t help but think: their suffering makes my life difficult. Wishing for an end to their suffering, therefore, has nothing disinterested: quite the opposite, it is entirely self-centered.

Yet, when I thought about it deeper, my resistance was profoundly irrational. Why should I not want the end of others’ suffering, particularly if it causes mine? Is this not a form of empathy, that I should fully experience the suffering of others as my own? Does Karuna, then, reveal an invisible hand of suffering – whereby if everyone was to focus on reducing their own pain, then the collective would improve as well.

I reflected further – why should that be a problem? I realized I hold a belief that suffering is good, is inevitable on the path to growth and experience. Whether imitatio Christi, or a post-Hegelian embrace of contradiction, this belief in the value of suffering now strikes me as very European. Often, concretely, it result in a light form of mania: increase pleasure so that pain will drown. A vision of the good life as one where good things are accomplished. As Patrick and I jokingly said – the Buddhist model say under a tree for years. And yet, within my own tradition, this image resonates: as Pascal wrote, the world would be at peace if men were able to sit in a room doing nothing.

As I reflected further yet, I realised that the same pattern – focus on reducing pain rather than increasing pleasure – echoed one of my regular rants when it comes to business. Profit is about spending less than you make – and yet, in most companies, the salesperson bringing in 10k will be celebrated more than the procurement person saving 100k. That same logic underlies our highly wasteful economies. If we were to all embrace more of Karuna, what pain might we then avoid – to ourselves and the planet. The price to pay may be temporary boredom. But the result is something I left aside: a lightness, a greater capacity to act, and rather than temporary manic pleasure, the deep bliss of lasting, effective and purposeful activity.

 

 

 

On Metta – loving kindness

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Metta – generally translated as ‘loving kindness’ – is a feeling of benevolence towards other human beings, wishing them happiness, peace and calm irrespective of our relationship to them. The meditation practice unfolded in that manner: after a few minutes of breathing exercises to focus attention on the present, I was invited to visualize a series of people, in turn, and tell them “I wish that you can be well” or “I wish that you can be at peace”.

When I read about Metta meditation, I understood that I should start with people close to me, and gradually extend the circle to people I felt indifference or hostility towards. But the meditation track I adopted gave only loose directions, and I followed an invitation to simply notice where my attention went, and let things happen. What I noted was how easily faces came to my mind: people I knew from various periods of my past – and how many there were – but also people I met casually during the day, the waiter at a café where I stopped, the person who sold me tea in Guangzhou, a child I crossed at the airport, or even actors I saw.

The practice was cheerful and easy: I felt myself overflow with love. Maybe, the fact that I was travelling had an impact. I left a long Australian winter for a beautiful stopover in subtropical China, and an exciting project in Europe. At the Guangzhou airport, our midnight flight to Paris was delayed by two hours. People were grumbling. I visualized them, wishing them peace, calmly breathing in and out.

But here is what I noticed as well. After about a week, as planned, I stopped the practice. The overflowing sense of loving kindness for my fellow humans quickly waned. Worse – I found myself angrier than before, for small things: a waiter ignored me, somebody blocked my path on the street, the cashier was too slow. Feelings of anger bubbled up easily, quickly, stronger than usual – then slowly receded. Again, this might have been a side-effect of living far from home, cultural differences, a difficult project. But I wondered – could it be the side-effect of Metta meditation?

The practice was quick to bring up self-suggested feelings of love towards everybody, yet nothing else changed, not my expectations, not my relationships, not other people’s behavior. All my negative feelings, anger, frustration, had no outlet – they were unvoiced, repressed. And so, when meditate stopped, up they came, back to the surface, poison stored in a dark bladder now pouring out.  Metta meditation acted like a drug, affecting perception for a short period, but leaving a difficult hangover in its wake.

I wondered then – is the purpose of meditation transformation, or self-knowledge? The darkness of the soul did not disappear – but I understand it better now. Loving-kindness, sustained over time, is harder than I thought, requires more self-transformation than a simple shift of intention: this I know now. Could it be, then, that Metta meditation was never intended to bring about greater perfection in a direct manner, but rather, through the winding path of awareness, guilt, and slow change.

 

On 信

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

The character 信 – xin, typically translated as trust – brings together the character for ‘man’ on the left and the character for ‘language’ on the right. A superficial reading would identify the following simple metaphor, that a trustworthy person it true to their word – they are reliable, they tell the truth, and there is consistency between their actions and the promises they make. But as I considered the character further, 信 started reminding me of the first virtue that I examined in this Confucian cycle, 仁. Ren is the virtue that prevails in a relationship between two people – benevolence as a basis for all positive human interaction. Could 信, then, connecting man and language, represent the other end of the spectrum, the virtue that binds a large group of people together through shared language and stories?

Looking through the Analects, I noted how xin was repeatedly mentioned in relation to friendship. Articulating a definition of the noble man, Confucius says “He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber.” [1:8] (主忠信。无友不如己者。). This statement is repeated almost word for word at [9:25]: “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. ” (主忠信。毋友不如己者。) One of the things that qualifies a person as ‘learned’ (学) is to “be honest in speech when dealing with your friends” [1:7] (与朋友交、言而有信。). When the Master is asked about his aspirations, again, trust and friendship are mentioned: “I would like to give comfort to the aged, trust to my friends and nurturance to the young.” (5:26) (老者安之、朋友信之、少者怀之。). Earlier in the text, at [1:4], as part of an introspective series of questions, we can read the following: “In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy?” (与朋友交而不信乎。) – for this would be the biggest failure in friendship.

I was brought back to my early readings of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where friendship is defined as a primary virtue – the source of our deepest happiness – and a cornerstone of political life. Indeed, Xin must prevail not only between friends, but also  between rulers and the ruled. When asked what a government needs to succeed, Confucius replies: “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” [12:7] (足食、足兵、民信之矣。) When asked which of those three is most important, Confucius identifies trust, because: “ From ancient times, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” [12:7] (民无信不立。)

Trust is, indeed, what allows a ruler to guide the action of the people: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing. ” [19:10] (君子信而后劳其民。未信、则以为厉己也。信而后谏。未信、则以为谤己也。) We know that there is a correlation between the level of trust that prevails in a country and its wealth. Indeed, this is not surprising: if I operate in a high trust environment, then I will build teams and coordinate projects on the basis of talent and motivation. But if trust is lacking, I will work only with people that I already know, and whose behaviour is controlled through a dense network of mutual connections, mafia style.I ndeed, xin is the hallmark of a person’s usefulness: : “If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don’t know what s/he can be good for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of a small wagon, how can it go?” [2:22] (人而无信、不知其可也。大车无輗、小车无軏 , 其何以行之哉)  This primacy given to trust is universal. “If your speech is sincere and honest, and your way of carrying yourself is earnest and reverent, such behaviour will work even if you live among the Southern and Northern barbarians. But if your speech is insincere and dishonest and your way of carrying yourself is neither earnest nor reverent, then even if you live in your hometown, you will have problems.” [15:6[] (言忠信、行笃敬、虽蛮貊之邦行矣。言不忠信、行不笃敬、虽州里行乎哉。立、则见其参于前也。在舆、则见期倚于衡也。)

When I considered a potential practice to better understand this virtue, I chose to write down what expectations I had of my friends, my government, and the people leading various projects I am involved in. The intention was, after identifying those expectations, to figure where they stemmed from, whether explicit promises had been made, or what assumptions I made as to their expected future behaviour.  With surprise, I noticed a recurring incongruence: there is a gap between what I wish for, and what I expect. In all cases, my expectations were inconsistently both high and low. I hope for the greatest levels of support, transparency, reliability – yet anticipate situations where friends, governments and leaders fail on all fronts. Am I setting myself up for constant disappointment on the basis of past negative experience, doubts about my own trustworthiness, or the side effects of working with global catastrophic risks?

A discussion with Patrick yielded a precious insight. The conversation was going sideways, exploring an inherent tension in the coaching practice. On the one hand, a coach must create a safe space where ‘what is’ for the client is accepted with no judgement – as a therapist; on the other hand, a coach must help their client identify patterns of possibility inherent in their situation, and help them go through personal transformation, leaving ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what may be’. I realised how strongly the second appealed to me, and how thinking about that aspect of my own practice resonated with a number of elements in my mental pantheon: Shiva, god of creative destruction; the family myth of a grandfather in the French resistance during the Second World War; my ongoing fascination for power as the basis for transformation.

Could it be, then, I thought, that when considering friends, government and organisations, trust is about focusing not on ‘what is’, but ‘what may be’. Patterns emerge, hinting at future potential – which I see, giving me those high hopes – but I remain aware that what I perceive is not ‘what is real’, only ‘what could be’ – and that many negative ‘could be’s’ are latent in any situation, and need to be accepted from the start. This – I thought – may very well constitute the essence of trust: not a promise made and kept, but the willingness to keep space open for an uncertain future.

Trust, then, is not about firmly constructing an island of reliability within the chaos of a threatening world, but rather, the deliberate opening of a collective space that welcomes and embraces transformation. Where trust prevails, it becomes possible for individuals not only to identify the many potential futures latent in the present, but also, to weigh in on the situation and, hopefully, with help from their friends, bring about one of those futures. Trust offers an alternative to determinism and fatalism: when trust exists, the future is no longer simply conditioned by the past in a linear manner. Trust is not blind continuity, but narrative potential imagined in conversations with friends and emerging from coordinated action, whereby a group of people establish a joint reading of their collective past that leads towards their chosen collective future. Trust, understood in that manner, is then the political virtue par excellence, grown through friendship, extending across teams and governments – and the cornerstone of human freedom.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

On 智

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

This round started with linguistic confusion. The process has been this: I found a digital version of the Analects, and used the search function to select passages where the virtue that I was practicing, using the browser search function. But when I put in ‘智’, wisdom, nothing turned up. I remained perplexed for a while, but as I scanned through the text, I wondered: there is another character with the same pronunciation – 知, to know – what if the two got somehow bundled. Bingo! now there was over 100 occurrences to scan through, which I filtered as best I could – and selected a few passages that seemed more particularly to reflect on the virtue that I was aiming to understand.

This passage offered a simple starting point, showing potential overlap between 知 – knowledge – and 智 – virtue: “I listen widely, select the good and follow their ways. I observe broadly and contemplate. This is the second level of knowledge.” [7-28] (多闻、择其善者而从之。多见而识之。知之次也。).  Wisdom is explicitly presented as derived from experience, more specifically from a process of observation, selection and imitation, applied to people.

Wisdom, indeed, appears not to be derived from the natural world, but other people. “Fan Chi asked about the meaning of ren. Confucius said “love others.” He asked about the meaning of “knowledge.” The Master said, “Know others.” [12-22] (“樊迟问仁。子曰。爱人。问知。子曰。知人。” But it goes beyond, and entails judgement, discrimination, followed by action.

Something about wisdom has to do with effectiveness: it is about doing the most we can with our time and energy. ” The Master said: “When a person should be spoken with, and you don’t speak with them, you lose them. When a person shouldn’t be spoken with and you speak to them, you waste your words. The wise do not lose people, nor do they waste their words.” [15-8] (子曰。可与言、而不与之言、失人。不可与言、而与之言、失言。知者不失人、亦不失言。) At first reading, this may sound harsh, but the passage echoes the fundamental optimism of all educators – and managers – that with the right attention, by carefully guiding our interaction with others, and identifying their passions and characters rightly, it is actually possibly to transform situations and the people themselves. Following the passage above, we read: “Fan Chi couldn’t get it. The Master said, “If you put the honest in positions of power and discard the dishonest, you will force the dishonest to become honest.” [12-22] (樊迟未达。子曰。擧直错诸枉、能使枉者直。)

 

Before starting reflection on this virtue, I had been attending an international conference on governance innovation. The key message was that it is easier to criticise than constructively develop – but that our collective goal at the conference was to do the difficult thing, and start building. At the conference, and later when I spoke about it with friends and family, I noticed a certain recurring type of response: people – often intelligent people – harnessing their analytical skills to demonstrate that the work we were doing was impossible, and why. When digging through their underlying assumptions, I found this: a belief that ‘human nature’ is ultimately both dark and unchangeable, that ‘people are like that’ or ‘things are like that’. Analytical cynicism then becomes an easy refuge for strong egos – and offers a rhetorical position from which they can avoid the difficult question – ‘so human nature is dark and unchangeable, people will not cooperate or rationally try to do good together – does that apply to you?’

By contrast, Confucian wisdom signals a fundamental optimism about humanity. Some people may be led by dark negative purposes, situations may be adverse. But if we can identify the character of people around us, and if we can wisely choose who receives power from us – starting with the more fundamental power that we have, the power of giving attention – then we can change not only the shape of a situation, but a person’s very character – including our own.

Wisdom perceives the world as liquid, changeable, and a space for joyful human activity : “The Master said: “The wise enjoy the sea, the humane enjoy the mountains. The wise are busy, the humane are tranquil. The wise are happy, the humane are eternal.” [6-23]  (子曰。知者乐水、仁者乐山。知者动、仁者静。知者乐、仁者寿。) The practice I derived from this analysis was a deliberate attempt to exert a sharper form of discernment in my interactions with people – a difficult task, I realised. It revealed that I could err on the side of softness, and invited me to think more about the tension between benevolence and wisdom – and in the Catholic framework that I explored last year, between prudence, justice and charity.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

On 礼

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Li’, variously translated as ‘ritual’ or ‘propriety’ – written 禮 in the traditional form, and礼 in the simplified form – represents the third of the five Confucian virtues, and the one most often typically associated to some ‘Chinese’ spirit. Before delving into the Confucian texts, and basing myself on pure generalisation, I considered this relationship to ritual as the condition of possibility for a certain eccentricity that I noted among my Chinese friends. If external behaviour is not about expressing an authentic inner truth but performing a ritual, then in areas that are not strictly determined by ritual, it is possible to be radically free.

However, when I started reading Confucius more closely, I realised that this interpretation was somewhat superficial. “When Confucius entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything. Someone said, “Who said Confucius is a master of ritual? He enters the Grand Temple and asks about everything!” Confucius, hearing this, said, “This is [precisely] ritual.” [3-15] (子入大庙、每事问。或曰。孰谓邹人之子知礼乎。入大庙、每事问。子闻之、曰。是礼也。). The linguistic form of 礼is not imperative, but interrogative. 礼 is also, therefore, present and relational: it emerges in the course of an interaction between two people. There is a certain naïve, post-romantic way of understanding ritual as a pure act of mindless repetition. This may be ritual in the 19th century, but it is certainly not 礼.

I practiced the virtue while on a work trip in Stockholm. I was living in a friend’s home with four other people, and working with a multicultural team on a major global forum. Questions of protocol needed to be resolved in both settings, and I had little immediate cultural understanding to guide me. I embraced 礼, and asked. This I realised: at first, I imagined that the purpose of this questioning was for the other to share their predetermined understanding of what was expected – allowing me, then, to comply. But instead, often, the question elicited a new form of shared understanding on matters that had not been properly thought through. This was the case at home, but also during the forum. There was no mastermind holding every detail of what should happen and how. Rather, knowledge of rules and rituals required by the event were distributed in the team. There was no proper way to behave that existed as a preconceived idea to follow: proper behaviour – 礼 – emerged as a shared conscious decision through the act of questioning.

There is a measure of collective magic to ritual. “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” [2.3] (子曰。道之以政、齐之以刑、民免而无耻。道之以德、齐之以礼、有耻且格。) If we know that our behaviour is exposed to questioning, self-regulation emerges naturally – and both parties eschew selfishness for mutual benefit. This understanding of ritual, in turn, opens a new way to understand justice. ”The Master said: “The noble man takes justice as essential. He actualizes it through propriety, demonstrates it in humility, develops it by truthfulness. This is the noble man!” [15.18]  (子曰。君子义以为质、礼以行之、孙以出之、信以成之。君子哉。。 ) Justice actualized is precisely the collective construction of a shared world.  Eliciting assumptions as to the right action in a certain circumstance, and making assumptions as to the right behaviour conscious, is a way to surface underlying patterns and reveal the underlying order of this shared world.

礼 does more: it allows us to stand firm. “Structure yourself with propriety” [8.8] (立于礼) encourages Confucius. We all run the danger of becoming trapped in our own nature. “Studying liberal arts broadly, and disciplining yourself with propriety, it is easy to stay on the narrow path.” [12-15] ( 子曰。博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫。) )“The noble man who studies culture extensively, and disciplines himself with propriety can keep from error.” [6:27] (君子博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫 。) 礼 frees us from tyrannical self-attachment, and the associated risk of drifting off into self-delusion. Ritual reveals the structures of the world -– the bones of social relationships – and thus makes flexible practice possible. “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”[1:12] (有子曰。礼之用、和为贵。先王之道、斯为美、小大由之。有所不行。知和而和、不以礼节之、亦不可行也。)

Ritual does more: it not only makes practice possible, but provides a sense of historical continuity,whereby practice gains meaning. “Zi Zhang asked whether the state of affairs ten generations hence could be known. Confucius said, “The Shang based its propriety on that of the Yin, and what it added and subtracted is knowable. The Zhou has based its propriety on that of the Shang and what it added and subtracted is knowable. In this way, what continues from the Zhou, even if 100 generations hence, is knowable.” [2:23] (子张问:十世可知也 子曰。殷因于夏礼、所损益、可知也。 周因于殷礼、所损益、可知也。其或继周者、虽百世、可知也。) Here again, however, careful reading is required, and yields a surprising interpretation. Rituals do not evolve over time in a Darwinian fashion, shedding elements least adapted to the circumstances through the pure passage of time. Rather, ritual past and present is an act of ongoing questioning and emergence: so it was with the Yin, so it was with the Shang, so it was with the Zhou, and so it is with us. We are at great risk of projecting perfection on the past. There is no reason to believe that the past was any less chaotic than the present, nor that our ancestors – and with them, any people we think of as representative of an ‘old culture’ – simply repeated an inherited script, while we moderns are living in an age of free collective decision, where the sense of ritual got lost. No, what 礼 reveals is that all human societies – past and present – are at equal risk of chaos ,unless we make the concerted effort to build a common world through the questioning act of ritual. And by keeping this in mind, we are protected from the dangerous myth of a golden age.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller