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The path : what Chinese philosophers can teach us about the good life
2016
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The Path Foreword Christine Gross-Loh On a crisp, sunny morning in the fall of 2013, I sat in on a course at Harvard University on Chinese philosophy. I was there to write an article for the Atlantic on why an undergraduate class on such an arcane subject had become the third most popular on campus, after the predictable choices of introductory economics and computer science. Professor Michael Puett, a tall, energetic man in his late forties, stood on the stage at Sanders Theatre speaking animatedly to over seven hundred students. His famously engaging lectures are done without any notes or slides--fifty minutes of pure talk every time. Students aren't assigned any readings except the translated words of the philosophers themselves: Confucius's Analects, the Dao de jing, the writings of Mencius. They are not assumed to have any prior knowledge of or interest in Chinese history or philosophy; they merely need to be open and willing to engage with these ancient texts. The course is well known for the bold promise the professor makes every year on the first day of class: "If you take the ideas in these texts seriously, they will change your life." I'd completed a PhD in East Asian history at Harvard and, when I was a graduate student, taught undergraduates about Chinese philosophy. This material was not new to me. But as I listened to Michael that day and during the weeks that followed, I saw him bring these ideas to life in a way that I had never experienced before. He asked his students to not only grapple with the ideas of the thinkers but also to allow the ideas to challenge some of their fundamental assumptions about themselves and the world they are living in. Michael speaks on Chinese philosophy at other universities and organizations throughout the world. After each talk, people invariably come up to him, eager to know how these ideas can apply to their own lives and real issues: their relationships, their careers, their family struggles. They realize that these principles present a fresh perspective on what it means to live a good and meaningful life; a perspective that stands at odds with so much of what they have assumed to be true. It is a perspective that has affected many for the better. Michael's students have shared with me stories of how their lives were transformed by these ideas. Some have told me that they have changed the way they look at their relationships, now recognizing that the smallest actions have a ripple effect on themselves and everyone around them. As one student explained, "Professor Puett opened the door to a different way of interacting with the world around me, of processing my feelings, of establishing with myself, and with others, a sense of calm that I hadn't felt before." These successful young people, positioned to become future leaders in whatever career they might pursue, told me how these ideas changed their approach to major life decisions and their own trajectory. Whether they decided to go into finance or anthropology, law or medicine, these ideas equipped them with different tools and a different worldview than those with which they had been raised, opening a new window onto the purpose of life and its infinite possibilities. One student told me, "It's very easy to have the mind-set that you're building toward some ultimate goal and climbing a ladder to some dream end--whether that's a certain position or a certain place in life. But this message really is powerful: that by living your life differently, you can open yourself up to possibilities you never imagined were even possible." And it isn't just the philosophical texts that shape these students. Michael himself is an inspiration. He is known for his kindness, humility, and dedication to helping his students flourish: traits that come directly out of his decades of immersion in Chinese thought. "He completely embodies these teachings," one student said. What is it about these philosophies that has such an impact on those who study them? None of these ideas is about "embracing yourself," "finding yourself," or following a set of instructions to reach a clear goal. In fact, they are the very antithesis of that sort of thinking. They are not specific, prescriptive, or grand. Rather, they are about changing from the ground up in unpredictable, unimaginable ways. One student explained how liberating it was to recognize that what we think is ingrained and inherent really isn't so: "You can adopt new habits and literally change the way you take in the world, react to it, and interact with other people. I learned that you can wield that power of habit, or 'ritual,' to achieve things that you never thought were possible, given who you thought you are." We have long looked at Chinese thought through the wrong lens, tending to see it as inextricable from a "traditional" world and therefore considering it irrelevant to our contemporary lives. But as these students can attest, the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosophers force us to question many of the beliefs we take for granted. Their ideas on how people approach the world--how they relate to others, make decisions, deal with life's ups and downs, attempt to influence others, choose to conduct their lives--are just as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. In fact, they are more relevant than ever. Michael and I realized that these ideas can speak to all of us, and that's how this book came into being. On the pages that follow, we will show how the teachings of these Chinese philosophers can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about ourselves and about our future. Excerpted from The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life by Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Summary
For the first time an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how these ancient ideas can guide you on the path to a good life today.<br> <br> Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard?<br> <br> It's because the course challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish. This is why Professor Michael Puett says to his students, "The encounter with these ideas will change your life." As one of them told his collaborator, author Christine Gross-Loh, "You can open yourself up to possibilities you never imagined were even possible."<br> <br> These astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.<br> <br> In other words, The Path upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Above all, unlike most books on the subject, its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place--just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.<br> <br> Sometimes voices from the past can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about the future.<br> <br> A note from the publisher:<br> To read relevant passages from the original works of Chinese philosophy, see our free ebook Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi: Selected Passages , available on Kindle, Nook, and the iBook Store and at Books.SimonandSchuster.com.
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