Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lin Yutang: October 10, 1895--March 3, 1976

I can no longer remember how I was first introduced to Lin Yutang, but it just might have been simply seeing one of his books and getting intrigued by the cover. How can one not even stop and glance inside a book whose cover reads as follows:

The Importance of Living

The Classic Bestseller
That Introduced Millions
to the Noble Art of Leaving
Things Undone

Lin Yutang

I found it irresistible and purchased the book. I read it and have been dipping into it at random since then.

One of his skills is the way he presents his ideas. Unlike many other writers, he can write something that I disagree with and, yet, does not irritate me in the least. I simply read it, realize I disagree with him at this point, and then continue reading. I wish I could do the same. I am not sure as to how he does this. I've wondered though if it might be the context. This book is very mellow and relaxed; perhaps this is his secret. Relaxed and mellow readers might be more likely to remain so even when encountering ideas they disagree with. Just a thought. . .

The following quotation comes from "The Awakening," the first chapter of The Importance of Living--to be precise, the opening paragraphs. It is here that he writes about his philosophy of living.

"In what follows I am presenting the Chinese point of view, because I cannot help myself. I am interested only in presenting a view of life and of things as the best and wisest Chinese minds have seen it and expressed it in their folk wisdom and their literature. It is an idle philosophy born of an idle life, evolved in a different age, I am quite aware. But I cannot help feeling that this view of life is essentially true, and since we are alike under the skin, what touches the human heart in one country touches all. I shall have to present a view of life as Chinese poets and scholars evaluated it with their common sense, their realism and their sense of poetry. I shall attempt to reveal some of the beauty of the pagan world, a sense of the pathos and beauty and terror and comedy of life, viewed by a people who have a strong feeling of the limitations of our existence, and yet somehow retain sense of the dignity of human life.

The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance, and who alternately wakes up from life's dream and then nods again, feeling more alive when he is dreaming than when he is awake, thereby investing his waking life with a dream-world quality. He sees with one eye closed and with one eye opened the futility of much that goes on around him and of his own endeavors , but barely retains enough sense of reality to determine to go through with it. He is seldom disillusioned because he has no illusions, and seldom disappointed because he never had extravagant hopes. In this way his spirit is emancipated.

For, after surveying the field of Chinese literature and philosophy, I come to the conclusion that the highest ideal of Chinese culture has always been a man with a sense of detachment (takuan) toward life based on a sense of wise disenchantment. From this detachment comes high-mindedness (k'uanghuai), a high-mindedness which enables one to go through life with tolerant irony and escape the temptations of fame and wealth and achievement, and eventually makes him take what comes. And from this detachment arise also his sense of freedom, his love of vagabondage and his pride and nonchalance. It is only with this sense of freedom and nonchalance that one eventually arrives at the keen and intense joy of living."

In the second paragraph, Lin suggests the Chinese philosopher lives a dreamlike existence. An early 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu once said that he had dreamt one night that he was a butterfly, completely happy and satisfied. Then he awoke and found himself to be Chuang Tzu, but he didn't know whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tzu who dreamt he was a butterfly. (taken from the Wikipedia entry on Chuang Tzu or Zuangzi, alternate spelling)

A Poem by Li Po

"Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real--the butterfly or the man?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns in time to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil--what for?"

In the second paragraph, Lin wrote "we are alike under the skin, what touches the human heart in one country touches all." Perhaps the East and the West are not that far apart once we get beneath the surface:

"Vanity of vanity, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever."

"All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."

King James Version: Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, v. 1-4 , 7

Who knows? Perhaps some day we will see our similarities as being as important as, or perhaps even more important than the differences. And the differences will become fascinating and intriguing--and not hateful.

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