Arthur Rosenfeld: An Ancient Classic Reborn


Sixteenth-century Chinese philosopher Hung Ying-ming was a man who walked his talk, a scholar who stepped away from the complex and contentious society of the day to become a near recluse in the mountains of southeastern China. There he penned what might just be the most accessible and enjoyable treatise on classical Chinese philosophy a Western reader can find. Exhorting us to a life without material complexities but rich in awareness of our own true nature, Hung offers a profound discourse on the games we play with ourselves, and how to avoid them. In doing so he offers a path to meaning along with the perfect antidote from the stressful and often hollow frenzy of modern life.

The Unencumbered Spirit (Tokyo, 2009, Kodansha International) is translator William Scott Wilson's interpretation of this classic. Hung Ying-ming built his understanding of the world on the so-called "three creeds" of traditional Chinese culture -- Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism -- and this volume too brings three great thinkers together between a single set of covers. The original author is the first, translator Wilson is second, and respected traveler, essayist and Sinophile Bill Porter is the last.

In his foreword, Porter sets the stage for Hung's 357 aphorisms with a brief and sweeping description of the rise of Chinese philosophy. Wilson follows with the same sort of scholarly and insightful introduction typical of all his works (see them at and Hung, speaking English with Wilson's tongue, soars with bits of wisdom that are often beautiful and poetic. Hung is so insightful the reader is likely to feel his or her spiritual pants have been yanked down to expose the tender flesh of self-delusion, procrastination, and bad choices, while simultaneously discovering a raft of better, simpler, more natural options.

The literal translation of the title of Hung's work is "a discourse on the roots of vegetables" referring to the pure, thin, life-sustaining juice of the earth, but Wilson has chosen a title that more closely embodies the original author's intention to free us from the fetters and shackles of conventional social thinking by accessing our "true mind". Though Hung draws heavily on the words of Confucius, the Buddha, and the great Daoist sages, he isn't shy about offering his own opinion about such a mind.

The True Mind is free from distracting thoughts.
So why should we look into it?
Shakamuni's comment that we should observe the Mind
Only heaps up obstructions.
All things originally being One,
Why should we have them be equal?
Chuang Tzu's comment about the equality of all things
Itself divides their uniformity.

This notion of a true mind, this need to purify our consciousness by attending to our own thoughts -- to watching ourselves -- is an upwelling theme in the book, and often the message is beautifully couched.

People of this world wrap themselves in chains
For the sake of profit and gain,
Then talk of the world of dust, the sea of bitterness.
They do not know that
Clouds are white, mountains blue.
Rivers run, rocks stand tall.
Blossoms invite, birds laugh.
The valley responds, the woodcutters sing.
This world, after all, is not of dust;
The sea, after all, is not bitter.
It is only that, on their own, people put dust and
Bitterness in their hearts.

In Hung's day, as now, people who spend their time enjoying nature or focusing on artistic, aesthetic, or even martial pursuits were seen by some as dilettantes. In his introduction, and later through his translation, Wilson makes it clear that such a prejudice is the creation of those elements of society who would bend others to their will, elements threatened by those who see through the veil of social convention to the fearful and manipulative heart that lies within. Developing this piercing gaze to see things as they real are both in nature and in the affairs of men requires the recognition of what Wilson terms "universal patterns."

When winds grow bitter and rains angry,
Even small birds are frightened and sad.
When skies become clear and breezes are bright,
The grasses and trees are fresh and full of joy.
From this it can be seen that
Heaven and Earth are unable to go one day without harmony:
The human heart is unable to go one day without joy.

Seeking such joy, a reader could treat the book as a daily wisdom calendar, and in doing so find inspiration and direction every morning through every season. Yet like all great works of Chinese philosophy, The Unencumbered Spirit rewards more prolonged attention with a sense of peace and calm and tranquility. Hung's words, brilliantly translated by Wilson, seem to transmit a mystical mood and an intoxicating energy.

In his introduction, the translator refers to Hung's work as a "tour de force of Chinese tradition expressed in a very palatable form". In truth, The Unencumbered Spirit is an inviting, seductive, and deliciously subversive alternative to far better known works such as Confucius' Analects, the Buddha's sutras, and Lao Tze's marvelous but often inaccessible Daodeqing. Get a copy of this new translation for your bedside table. Read it each night before you sleep and see if it does not, in fact, unencumber your spirit.

Read more: Chinese Philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Self-Improvement, Lao Tzu, Buddhism, Enlightenment, China, Books News

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