The Six Lessons I Learnt This Week

The past seven days has been nothing but an intense learning journey for me.

From my thoughts and experiences on my 24-hour plane ride, the materials I read, to the discussions I’ve had with people both in and outside a recent international workshop, I have been overwhelmed by just so many insights and interesting lessons on so many issues covering so many different aspects of life.

So allow me to share with you six of the most interesting lessons I’ve learnt over the past week. I’ll list them here in the order of light-hearted interesting facts, to heavier philosophical insights.

 

1. Chopsticks

It turns out that the Chinese invented chopsticks because, unlike eating with a fork or spoon, chopsticks allow you to experience the fullness of flavour when you taste your food. The presence of the fork or spoon in your mouth affects the way the food interacts with your tastebuds, thus the taste does not present itself in it’s fullness. Hence, the reason why the Chinese invented something so counter-intuitive to use, and it has since been the preferred utensil for eating.

(After I heard this, I felt like I should try to eat everything with chopsticks just to experience the difference)

 

2. Intra-mouth Cooking

A Japanese explained to me that many Japanese dishes require you to do the final mixing in your mouth. E.g. you dip a piece of food into a sauce, and put it into your mouth. Or you mix the liquids from two (or more) cups into your mouth. It’s part of a Japanese philosophy (of food), which sees the mouth as the final point where the flavours are harmonised within the mouth of the consumer.

This has been something I’ve long thought about in the Chinese philosophy of cooking, that harmony is not just about the harmony produced in the dishes alone, since one must be able to taste and perceive that harmony within the field of one’s own subjective experience. But it seems that the Japanese have taken it a step further in their understanding of cooking, and made it more explicit. The final touch lies in how much sauce you add to the dish, harmonising the amount of sauce and its flavours with the piece of food, and most importantly, with yourself.

 

3. Sakura Cherry Blossoms as the Image of the Beauty of Corruption/Decay

When the Japanese sakura flowers (cherry blossoms) blossom, they beautify the trees. But this process of beauty does not end there. Beauty continues to persist as the sakura flowers corrupt and decay, shedding petals onto the ground, beautifying the land on which it grows.

This image of beauty persisting before and during corruption/decay is a very strong image that informs many of the Japanese’s outlook of the negativity of corruption and decay. I like how the Japanese use this image of the sakura flower as a framework for seeing beauty in corruption and decay in many other situations and aspects of life. For would, for us, appear as horrifying ugliness, is seen through a sakura “lens”, and the ugliness is viewed instead as beauty that continues to persists in another form.

 

4. What Makes Your Life Good?

It’s interesting how for so many centuries, philosophers have asked: What makes a life good? And then they prescribe it as a universal prescription for all to follow. And it’s interesting how in many ways, many of us have lived our lives following after certain abstract models of what the good life is about, e.g. lots of wealth, honour or power, etc.

But a more interesting project would be to reframe the question, and instead ask people: What makes your life good? What makes your life good enough that you’d continue living like this?

This question was inspired by a person who was so intrigued when he saw how happy people were despite living in the slums. He had never seen happiness to such a degree anywhere else. Perhaps we’re mistaken in some ways on our ideas of happiness or at least what would count as a good life, subjectively.

Perhaps we should really examine the lives of many people and ask them, what makes their life good, and that might inform us on the things in life we should value and cherish instead. Perhaps this might lead to a more interesting formulation of the good life.

(If you are willing, please share with me what makes your life good in the comments below. I’d like to hear.)

 

5. “I know each other so much less well now.”

A few days ago, someone said: “I know each other so much less well now.” The context was that if a meeting goes well, then people will come to realise just how little they know each other. He was suggesting that future meetings should be structured in such a way that by the end of the event, we’d all realise just how little we know about each other.

I think it’s a good quote and one that serves an essential reminder that we can never fully know a person too well.

One of the big obstacles in a relationship with another human being is to think you know him/her so well. And then when conflict arises, you realise how little you know of that person, and then proceed to revise your view of that person as having all these bad traits as the underlying characteristic. And voila, we conclude that we know all that we need to know about him/her.

The person is then judged and condemned for good (as someone who stays forever in this way, as this pathetic person). Strange how we always think we know a person so well.

Stranger still that we always assume that we know ourselves so well, as if our character and person remains the same over the years.

Yes, every good meeting with people should always leave us realising how little we know about each other (and maybe, how little we know ourselves too). I think that should be a good goal to seek. Not every single time we meet up with people, though. That might be too exhausting. But every once in a while would be nice.

 

6. “Beauty will save the world”

Not fear, not violence, not any technocratic revolutions. “Beauty will save the world.” This was a quote by Dostoevsky. In the novel, The Idiot, the protagonist, a naive prince undergoes tremendous suffering. Yet, it was in his state of ignorance and naiveté, that he comes to a clear realisation of reality:

“What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?”

And thus the conclusion that beauty will indeed save the world.

It is beauty that draws a person to curiosity and to love. It is beauty that removes fear of the unknown to have reverence for the mysterious. It is beauty that lifts up the human spirit from the darkness of pessimism and cynicism, and raises it to the heights of hope. It is beauty that unites the hearts and minds of people. And it is beauty that will bring people together to make a change.

It is such a beautiful idea and ideal.

Truly, “beauty will save the world.”

Death as the Ultimate Climax of Life

One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.

In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).

But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.

Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.

The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.

The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.

This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.

It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.

Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.

I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.

I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.

In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.

In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.

That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.

These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.

Philosophy is meant for life!

Socrates thought of philosophy as something that came from life and was meant for life, not something that came from books and was meant for books. And this thing (philosophy) that meant “the love of wisdom” he called “a rehearsal (melete) for dying.”

Peter Kreeft, Before I Go: Letters to our children about what really matters, n.42, p.70 (United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007)