Michael Puett is a professor at Harvard University whose freshman seminar on ancient Chinese philosophy is the third most popular course on campus. He challenges students to set aside their Western ideas about self, success, relationships, and "the good life." Believing that today's students are open to big and even radical ideas that will reframe everything they have been taught, he focuses on the wisdom teachings of Chinese philosophers who lived over 2,000 years ago. The students, in turn, take Puett seriously when he states that this adventuresome course has the potential to transform their lives.
The first Chinese philosopher he assesses is Confucius (1551 - 479 B.C.) whose book The Analects reveals that he was a master teacher of everyday life, recommending that we take note of the little things which involve our emotions, choices, and rituals. Puett discusses greeting people and ancestor worship as having priority over our patterned behaviors and rote habits.
A key Confucian point is that goodness involves "the ability to respond well to others; the development of a sensibility that enables you to behave in ways that are good for those around you and to draw out their better sides." Cultivating and expressing goodness are pathways to being an ethical person.
Another Chinese philosopher who offers salutary advice from long ago is Mencius who was convinced that we are all wired with the potential to do good. The trick is to accept that we live in a messy and capricious world. Admitting this reality, we can shuck away rigid views of success, destiny, and living in a stable moral cosmos.
Going with the flow is an essential teaching of the "Way" taught by Laozi (a.k.a. Lao-Tzu). Those who choose to tap into the teachings of this Chinese sage see all things as interconnected, accept that strength lies in weakness, and discover that practicing nonaction (wui-wei) is preferable to forging ahead with a full head of steam.
Another path derives from the Inward Training, an anonymous collection of self-divinization verses from the fourth century BC. Here is a celebration of qi, the divine energy that pulsates through our bodies, and harmony as a balancing and refining force in the human repertoire.
The last two Chinese philosophers are Zhuangzi and Xunzi. The first emphasized the Way as endless movement and change. He also was an advocate of trained spontaneity, creativity, and imagination as illustrated by his parables and anecdotes.
Xunzi lived about 250 years after Confucius and turned out to be the person who managed to synthesize the works of all those who proceeded him.
Puett concludes that these Chinese sages have much to teach us about moving out of passivity into real engagement with the world as we try to do good. The Way contains ritual, vitality, spontaneity, harmony, creativity, and new possibilities. He ends with the following:
"If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. It begins there, then everything is up to us."