Friday, August 15, 2014

Receive benefits as if startled

At least until our own times, the most widely published book in the world was a Chinese moral manual called the Tractate of the Most High One on Actions and Consequences (太上感应篇). It was probably composed sometime between the Song and the Ming dynasties, apparently in spirit dictation from the Most High One, who is none other than the divinized Laozi 老子. It's the first example of the "discursive/scriptural modality" in anthropologist Adam Yuet Chao's influential account of the five "modalities of doing religion" to be found in Chinese life, which is both appropriate, given the text's ubiquity, and a little wicked, since the uses of this rather banal text are rather less intellectual than many text-focused understandings of religion might lead you to hope. Besides following the advice in the text, one could attain religious merit simply by reading or rereading it, or by ritually chanting it, and also by printing it and offering it for free distribution. And merit is the name of the game. I've looked through parts of it, conveniently translated by David K. Jordan here. The ledgers of infractions and their consequences are tedious, including what Jordan tartly describes as the seemingly endless and repetitive list of those human deficiencies that strike amateur moralists around the world as so especially fascinating. But the section Jordan calls "How to be good" contains some useful, if all fortune cookie able, advice, including this

受辱不怨 受寵若驚

 which Jordan renders Suffer humiliation without resentment, receive benefits as though startled. (Paul Carus and D. T. Suzuki - yes, them! - translated it as Show endurance in humiliation and bear no grudge. Receive favors as if surprised.) Do you suppose a year in China will get me to the point where I can determine whether good people really are startled at good fortune or only act as though they are? (Beyond its Chinese context this issue connects, of course, to the question of what Max Weber called the theodicy of good fortune, Theodizee des Glücks, and other old bones I've been gnawing on for a long while.)

Adam Yuet Chao, “Modalities of Doing Religion,” in Chinese Religious Life
ed. David A. Palmer, Glenn Shive and Philip L. Wickeri (OUP 2011), 67-84, 69; image

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