Human Spirit Passed on in Traditional Classic Literature

November 12, 2011 at 9:00 am | Posted in Asia, Culture, Good Advice, Reflections, Relevance to Today | Leave a comment
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By Zhi Mei

 

(Clearwisdom.net) Literature is an art that uses words to reflect objective reality as well as psychological activity. It is an important part of a culture. The criteria for classic literature is its value in literature and inheritance. Its contents can play a role for modeling, inspiration and eternity. China has a tradition of using poems to convey ambitions and using literature for moral instructions. Classic literature attracts its readers and cultivates their minds with its fine art techniques and its profound inner meaning of ideology. This will lead a person to endless aftertastes.

Classic literature includes poems, verses, prose and novels as well as many other forms such as ci (poetry that originated in the Tang Dynasty, written to certain tunes with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, in fixed numbers of lines and words), fu (an intricate literary form combining elements of poetry and prose), and music. The influence of the idea “harmony between Heaven and humans” advocated by Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism to the relations between words and meaning has directly elevated the realm of poetry, prose, calligraphy, painting and music. The manifestations of classic literature can be summarized in the following categories: thoughts connecting with the ancient past, exploring the heavenly law, looking inwards as well as outwards, exploring mysteries, letting the instantaneous godliness be eternal, and showing eternity. I will explore the following categories.

1. Pay Attention to Mankind’s Rational Spirit

Seeking the truth, the heavenly law, as well as human values is an eternal theme in classic literature. The ancients’ perception on the short life of human beings, but the eternal universe, as well as their thoughts on history and human life was actually their longing for the infinite eternal realm. I Ching: Book of Changes was listed above all other classics. It pointed out the cosmology of the “harmony between Heaven and humans” which includes imitating heaven and earth, embracing the universe, connecting human beings with God and blending human beings with nature. Humans are able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, and humans can correlate with nature. Besides, the Book of Changes revealed the basic principles of the relationship between humans and nature: humans should care for each other, be inclusive of all things and be honest and tolerant.

Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way and its Virtue), the Confucian classics The Book of Songs, The Book of History, The Analects of Confucius and Spring, all spoke of following the Heavenly Way and respecting and promoting virtues. Educated and nurtured by the saints, people respected Heaven and God, conformed to Heaven and were content with their fate, were open and aboveboard, but did not break any rules. The various schools of thought all based their theories on the Way. Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty wrote the masterpiece Shih Chi; Historical Records. Though Sima Qian lived in a difficult time, he still put moral ideas as the highest level of pursuit in a human’s life. In these works that were handed down from generation to generation, some deplored with sighs the passing of time, some thought about the reason for being human, some explored the myths of the universe and still others longed for something that transcended the mortal world.

After setting a lofty goal, there must be a way to reach that goal; therefore, the saints in various dynasties all paid attention to cultivation. The self-examination consciousness, the value-consciousness and the cultivation efforts, the constant self-perfection and the creation of an ideal personality, formed the human spirit of “internal transcendence” of the Chinese nation. The Confucian classic Book of Rites – the Great Learning pointed out: “Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.” That was the process of cultivation of: “Rectifying their hearts and being sincere in their thoughts” and setting an example by personally taking part in: “Self-cultivation, family harmony, state governing and world peace.” Confucius said: “When we see men of worth, we should think of imitating them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.” Confucius also said: “Every day, I examine myself once and again.” This required a strict and an all-round standard for oneself, but to be simple and tolerant of others. Only in this way, can one cultivate oneself into a benevolent gentleman.

2. Demonstration of Morality and the Spirit of Benevolence

As an important carrier of traditional culture, classic literature is full of demonstrations of morality, human relationships and the three cardinal guides (ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife) and the five constant virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and fidelity) as well as moral standards. Tso Chuan (a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals) recorded Yu’s intention of casting a Ding (an ancient Chinese vessel with three legs) in the ancient Xia Dynasty. It used this vessel, which symbolized the primitive, to reveal the harmful spirits and strange things, and which made clear to all that Heaven bestowed blessings onto those who have virtues. Therefore, people could receive moral education through this symbol.

The spirit of benevolence advocated by the Confucius School became the standard for people to live together, which in ancient society meant to love others. The Book of History speaks of the “five teachings:” Father’s humaneness, mother’s benevolence, elder brother’s friendship, younger brother’s respect and son’s filial piety. Zhuang Zi advocated: “One love of all things, heaven and earth together” to use the spirit of benevolence, with which to treat all things in the world and to form one body with Heaven and Earth. Over 5000 years of history, countless people with lofty ideals came forth. They were all completely upright, honest, clean and above flattery and listened to the pleas of the people. These kinds of values and pursuits drove the Chinese people forward to conquer all hardships and thus passed a long course of history, which has come to this day. This is one of the important factors for the Chinese classic literature to be full of vitality; it has thus formed a literary tradition of promoting righteousness and caring about the people’s livelihood.

The famous classic works of all times have all paid great attention to the moral integrity of the characters and always tried everything possible to praise loyalty, piety, chastity and righteousness as well as those people, who were of high moral standards. They also focused on the depiction of a good character. The classic works not only paid attention to the external beauty of the works but also the rich inner meaning of morality. All of this gave people high aesthetic enjoyment as well as a lofty realm for the human spirit.

3. Traditional Indoctrination of “Morals through Literature”

One of the important features of traditional culture is used for reference, because all the classic works have a tradition of education. The Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi said: “Articles were written with the background of times, whereas poems, ci, song and fu were written for individual events.” The ancients emphasized one’s moral character, virtue, merits and expounding one’s ideas in writing. Caring for the world also became their spontaneous responsibility. They went beyond personal gains and losses, did not feel happy because of material gains and did not pity themselves over losses. They were concerned about the country and the people.

Classic literature sang praises of brightness and justice, lashed the dark and the decadent, advocated moral standards, promoted kindness, punished the evil and raised the issue of destiny. The classic works of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism all advocated a philosophy of life based on virtue and morality. The Book of Songs, Lament and some others expressed people’s pursuit of an ideal personality. When Sima Qian wrote Lian Po and Lin Hsiang-ju Biographies, he depicted the gentleman-like demeanor of Lin Hsiang-ju as well as Lian Bo’s willingness to ask for punishment and his intention to correct his mistakes after he realized that these mistakes were concrete manifestations of moral standards. People can feel the solemness and the literary style of the Historical Records. The Tang poems and the Song ci were described as treasures of Chinese literature. They have become the essence of the inner meaning of the Chinese culture and depict the spiritual world of the people. The four famous novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties helped to raise people’s aesthetics and aesthetic judgments with their fascinating plots. The short novel collections Stories from a Ming Collection talked about karmic retribution in order to warn people: “Doing good deeds is met with good rewards, and being evil is met with evil returns,” so that people could choose and follow good deeds.

On the perception of enlightenment in life, this classic literature pointed out the directions for life, and expressed strong social and human care. From classic literature, we have seen a Picture of Justice of Heaven and Earth and heard a Song of Justice of the human world. They are like healthy streams, which clean up the filth and mire. These works not only unfolded the process of the Chinese history with their language and art forms, but also contended lofty moral standards and the pursuit of the principle of “harmony between the heaven and humans.” They provided future generations with inexhaustible spiritual sources. They shone in both artistic and ideological characters, inspired people’s conscience and compassionate thoughts, so that they could face the Heavenly Way, transcend human life and choose justice and compassion.

Posting date: 8/26/2010
Category: Traditional Culture
Chinese version available at http://minghui.org/mh/articles/2010/7/19/227179.html

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