Feb 18

Kung Fu Exercise Book #5

5) The Perfect Man leaves no traces of his conduct.

This statement created so much paradox when I was a teenager… In a society that is so focused on giving people the limelight and spotlight, and awards so many things in the effort of inspiring people to greatness, this statement cut that focus short.  I spent hours trying to figure out what this meant, and if you keep in mind that I thought these statements held some of the greatest wisdom that could surpass the ages, the juxtaposition of Western societies need of being out in the forefront and this Eastern statement of being in the shadows or on the sidelines really confused me.

Think about it – Our society is so front facing and forward focused that we forget many things.  Think about it – if you’ve ever heard “If you’re not the lead dog the scenery never changes”, or “It’s better to be first and wrong than last and right”, then you will realize exactly how individualistic and reverent of the lead person we are.

The type of people who are probably more inclined to understand the sentiment behind this are people who would help a stranger, and prefer to remain anonymous.  Those who don’t actively seek out attention, or otherwise think that they deserve a trophy for helping someone in need… And this is admirable, as I would like to think that I am in that number (and to detail what I’ve done to prove the point would be self aggrandizing, and counter productive).

Those who may be less inclined to understand are the same people who are more inclined to say the above quotes.

As a teen and early adult, I remember interpreting this particular statement in more of a superhero context.  Again, I reiterate the notion of the paradox – a superhero by its definition doesn’t ‘leave no traces’ – but it was the paradigm I was working with.  A superhero tries to help people, but doesn’t want to have people find out who they are and thus have secret identities… Their secret identities are usually secondary to their Superhero activities, and this practice not only protects them but their loved ones as well.  Spiderman left a calling card, but Peter Parker never did.

The principle of this is what stuck – Peter Parker left no trace of his conduct.  As I got older, the realization that he didn’t was more out of self-preservation and protecting his loved ones, but the essence of it still ties in:  He was trying to help others, and in so doing needed to be a little discreet in his activities.

As I studied the “Eastern” philosophies more, I began to realize that my original interpretations were a little off.  This particular statement is attributed to Chuang Tzu, a Taoist philosopher from the 4th century BCE (about three hundred years after Lao Tzu).  There are difficulties in direct association, as the writings attributed to him have been called into question, but the writings bear his name so this writing will reference that work.

In Confucian and Taoist thought, relative siblings in a philosophical bent, the concept of “ren” (人, “human”, or 仁 “benevolence” – note that both of these words are pronounced “ren” and are the ideal of being human) is that a ‘Perfect Man’ is completely in tune with these ideals, and it is this thought that resonates through many of their philosophies.  And, in case anyone thinks that this will be a gender thing – no, this will not run down the rabbit hole of gender.  We all know that most cultures until the 20th century CE were Androcentric, meaning that they focused on and inflated the value of the role of men, and the Eastern cultures are no exception. Although the quotes speak of “man”, I prefer to think of this as “human” (not in a “ren” sense, but in a human being sense), even though I don’t specifically alter the text, etc.

Although these two ways of thinking differ on exactly what constitutes the “Ideal”, “Superior” or “Perfect”, they both go back to the concept of human-ness.  Human-ness, without getting into all of the things that it entails, is essentially all of the beneficent aspects of the human condition.  Ultimately Confucian thought would focus on the “perfect” being associated to learning and the willingness to continue learning in an effort to advance towards this state, while Taoism would argue that this “perfection” comes from the persons relationship to the Tao (if one fights against the Tao – the actual and natural order of things – they are not in tune, and thus not “perfect” or “superior”).

Although Chuang Tzu identified with being a Taoist, preferring Lao Tzu’s worldview to Confucius’, we can see a parallel thought process between the two in this statement.  The writing that this comes from (simply titled “The Chuang Tzu”) is a writing that challenges many of the ideas of the day, and is often referred to as one of the earliest relativist works.  Relativism is a philosophical viewpoint that basically means that anything that is considered good or bad are based on degrees, and relative to where a person’s position is situated.

Interestingly, this brings us to a conflicting point – Usually it is only those who are acting (or considering to act) badly who would not want people to know what they are doing.  This will tie in with KFEB entry #23 (Do right, and do it alone.  Commit something wrong and you will need a gang to work with.  That is why even a burglar posts someone to watch for them), but we will travel down that particular rabbit hole when we get there; although I am sure that you can see where I am going by making that connection.

In our western world, we believe that anyone who succeeds or is a good person and does good works should get recognition for their success and generosity.  As a matter of fact, most people feel apprehensive about finding out another person has been anonymously doing good things or becoming successful, and with these fears in their mind, they start to question the veracity and sincerity of the person’s actions.   I believe that this stems from an ingrained belief or understanding that it is only criminals or people doing less-than-savoury things that want anonymity, and try to leave no traces… because they don’t want those traces to become evidence, and that evidence to send them to prison.
This is, I believe, the linchpin of how the West views this point.

When it comes to accolades, success is one thing and usually is considered its own reward; getting recognition for success is a reward system, although arguably it is creating an incentive for others to strive for such success.  This competition is almost foundational in the Western world, so the question is who actually benefits from this reward practice: the person, or the society?

The issue regarding those who perform good works and receive a reward is one of intent:  Why are they performing those good works?  Chuang Tzu was very much a sceptic, so this question is appropriate and valid, tying in with his philosophical bent.  Even Mencius (a Confucian scholar from the same era) would agree with this question.

If someone performs good action with the intent to gain public favour or popularity, they are acting out of selfish desire and not in a manner that align with the ideals of “superior” or “perfect” human-ness.  This applies to the commoner, but interestingly I believe that it is intended to apply to the government or leadership.

Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching (attributed to Tao Tzu, the 6th Century BCE philosopher that Chuang Tzu identified with) holds leadership in a minimalist capacity – the better the leadership, the less likely the people know about the leader.  “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists…But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”  Chuang Tzu just takes this concept a little further and applies this to everyone – as why would someone need to leave something behind to be remembered by; As some sort of self-aggrandizing motive or an underlying need to be recognized?  Considering that the Tao is constantly in flux, and continually changing so nothing is permanent, why would one try to affix a form of permanence on the Tao?  This concept of impermanence would resonate with Buddhist thought, which was making its way to China around the same time as Chuang Tzu lived.  This notion of impermanence resonates very closely with concepts in Chan Buddhism specifically… which came about later on.

My original thoughts on this entry still stand, being a fan of superheroes and how their epic stories and iconic stature fuel our imagination and serve as grounds for the telling of tales of the conflict of good and evil; but I believe the spirit of this particular statement is to know your own motives, and be willing to do good for its own sake.  As if you can do something without needing praise or thanks, then you’re one step closer to the benevolence of “ren”.

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  1. KFEB #23) Do right, and do it alone. Commit something wrong and you will need a gang to work with. That is why even a burglar posts someone to watch for them. » Harmony Budo.com

    […] was an entry in the Kung Fu Exercise Book that was previously referenced back in KFEB #5 (“The perfect man leaves no trace of his conduct.”), providing counterpoint to my […]

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