An ancient book of history tells us that 3000 years ago, in a land as far away as you can travel on this planet, a Profound King held dominion over the greatest civilization humankind has ever known. This was a land at peace with the world, where each individual achieved the fullness of their potential. Good relationships were held by all. Leaders were admired and trusted by their citizens, families lived in harmony, couples were in love, the aged and children were cherished and cared for. All was right with the world because the King lived according to the Way. He had achieved the Central Harmony: both within his heart and throughout the world his thoughts, feelings and actions were in accord with the Heavenly Mandate.[i]
But the King died, and over the course of many years, in the inevitable motions of growth and decay that mark the nature of manifestation, the world declined. The Way fell into obscurity, and heresies and violence arose. Kings and fathers were killed by their subjects and sons. Tyrants without prudence provoked wars for dubious causes. Warlords, thinking only of their own lucre, plundered neighboring states. Relationships were in disarray. Divorce was epidemic. Children and parents were divided by an unbridgeable gulf. Individuals were depressed, anxious, cynical, hopeless or despairing. There was no balance in life. People mostly thought about their own profit and little about the good of the whole. Morality appeared absent from the world. The Kingdom fell into ruins.[ii]
Out of this shattered civilization, a hero was born. The hero bemoaned the state of the world. He saw suffering wherever he looked. Not least of all he felt the pain in his own heart. Like all the spiritual seers and prophets, the wise and enlightened, the chosen and the divine, his heart overflowed with compassion. He asked, “Why do people suffer unnecessarily?” “Why should they be so riven with fear?” “Why do the great masses waste the few precious specks of time that they have on this planet in useless pursuits?” The hero knew there had to be something better than the world and the lives he saw around him. He longed for a way to transcend his own feeling of being lost.
He set as his goal in life to set things right again. He studied day and night trying to answer the questions: how does one heal the wounds of the world, and return it to a condition of harmony? How can humankind be liberated, freeing its potential for joy and love? How could he be that which he knew he must?
The hero looked within himself for the answer, but the waters were murky and having no compass he lost his way. He then looked to the world outside for a model to follow but he could not find one honest man who lived in his own day.
With nowhere else to turn, he looked to the distant past and it was here that he found the light for which he had been searching. He discovered a legacy of explorers of humanity who, too, devoted their life to the study of themselves and others to advance the cause of universal realization. He traveled back through the generations and found that each teacher had a teacher, until he chanced upon the story of the King and his time of peace and happiness.
Now he knew what he had to do. If he could understand the way of this King, if he could follow this model, he could bring this boon back to his own time and return the world to its purity. The hero knew that something of the greatest significance had been lost from those golden days. If this thing could be named it could be found. And if it could be found, the world could be restored to fruitfulness.[iii]
Through unceasing self-cultivation, the hero became a Sage. Over the decades, by following the instructions of those who came before, he came to know his own nature and so he came to know human nature. From his understanding of human nature he came to grasp the nature of the cosmos. With the discovery of the ineluctable laws of the whole he uncovered the central clue to the intractable problems of humankind.
With this discovery, he knew that it was he who had been chosen to bring this gift back to humankind. He said,
“Heaven, in producing the people, has given to those who first attain understanding the duty of awakening those who are slow to understand; and to those who are first to awaken the duty of awakening those who are slow to awaken. I am amongst the first of Heaven’s people to awaken. I shall awaken the people by means of this Way. If I do not awaken them, who will?”[iv]
He brought his wisdom back to the world, but no one would listen. The leaders paid him no mind. He was not able to convince others to follow the ways of the ancient Sages and Profound King. Though he was respected by his disciples, he had to accept that he fell short of his goal. Old and past the peak of his powers, he retired to a life of study and writing. He died in obscurity. His one hope was that his writings might be uncovered at some later time when humanity would be ready to hear, and follow, the truth.
For many years the work of the Sage remained unknown. Though he did not solve humanity’s difficulties, in each generation new scholars, mystics, and poets emerged to continue the search for what was lost, within the self and in the world. They, too, turned to the past for guidance and eventually the words of the Sage were rediscovered. His work became the object of veneration. Seekers scrutinized his oracular writings, trying to understand the mysteries held in his texts.[v] For over one thousand years every student across a great land studied his words. His words built a grand civilization.
Despite the fact that our exemplar transformed more human beings than any other he has again fallen into obscurity. Today, this man’s name is virtually unknown. He is all but forgotten. Yet to understand what people can be — to know wisdom — one begins with him. Who was he? The man whose words have the power to inspire us to this day lived in China around 300 BCE and was named Meng-K’e. If he is known to us at all it is through the name of Mencius (pronounced MEN-shus). Of his many cryptic writings the most compelling were,
“Pity the man who has lost his path and does not follow it, and has lost his heart and does not go out and recover it. When people’s dogs and chicks are lost they go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts – or original nature – are lost, they do not go out and look for them. The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.”[vi]
Within this paragraph lies the clue. Mencius tells us that what we seek is the lost heart and the way to find it is through self-cultivation. What does this mean? Since the time of their composition, across the ages and down to the present day these words still resonate. Scholars have pored over these symbols to discover the central meaning, the core – la coeur — of the Sage’s revelation that holds the answer to the mysteries of the human condition.[vii]
The work of self-cultivation and finding the lost heart that the Sage inspired is far from complete. The quest for harmony continues as humanity stumbles along its way. The search is kept alive by a tradition of explorers who have passed the torch of illumination, one to the next, down over the millennia to this day.
In order to find what we are looking for, those of us who have joined this project do what the Sage did. We travel back in time and ‘commune with the ancients’[viii] to find examples, or models, on which to base ourselves.
As the Sage looked backwards and found the Profound King as his model, when we look backwards to find the person who can serve as our inspiration, we find the Sage. As the Sage was a disciple of those before him, we become a disciple of the Sage.
[i]. Mencius, Mencius, trans. D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 2003) xi; John M. Koller, Oriental Philosophies (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1970), 202.
[ii]. Lau, xi, 72; “Handbook for the Study of Eastern Philosophy” Confucius by Dr. Robert Churchill, Creighton University, http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/english/worldlit/wldocs/churchill/confucius.htm, (Accessed January 6, 2010).
[iii]. James Legge, Confucian Analects (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 214, 160.
[iv]. Lau, 108.
[v]. Chün-Chieh Huang, Mencian Hermeneutics. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001).
[vi]. Lin Yutang, Trans. and Ed. The Wisdom of Confucius, (New York: The Modern Library, 1938, 1966), 287.
[viii]. Lau, 121.