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The translation of a small passage can turn out to tell us a great deal. Consider section 4B12 of the Mencius. Mencius says in this section that the great man is one who retains, or does not lose, chizi zhi xin 赤子之心. This Chinese phrase translates literally as something like “heart/mind of baby.” Most translators have followed the interpretation of the great Neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi, which dovetails smoothly with the optimistic view of human nature generally attributed to Mencius: in D.C. Lau’s translation, “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” We are born naturally good as babies, and become bad only if something intervenes to impede our natural development. (Contrast Augustine in the first chapter of the Confessions, who observes babies as creatures of desire and envy.)

Bryan Van Norden’s recent translation of Mencius challenges this interpretation. He translates 4B12 as “Great people do not lose the hearts of their ‘children.'” And he notes that in this he is following the early commentator Zhao Qi – for whom “children” refers to the subjects of a ruler, whose hearts must be won over. Nothing here about babies or children being naturally good.

Van Norden could be right about Mencius to this point; I’m far from a Mencius scholar and wouldn’t be able to tell. What struck me as far more surprising, though, is what Van Norden says next. He adds: “I think that Zhu Xi is led to this reading [that the great man doesn’t lose a natural childlike heart] because of the Buddhist influence on his thought, which encouraged him to seek something akin to a pure, underlying Buddha-nature as the source of the Way.”

Here, I did a double-take. Wait, you seriously think Zhu Xi got the idea of a naturally good humanity from Buddhism? That’s the exact opposite of traditional Buddhist views – that’s like saying Jewish influence made you an atheist.

But then, Marx and Freud – two of history’s most famous atheists – were Jewish. And as it turns out, this optimistic view of human nature actually does show up a lot in Buddhism – just not in Indian Buddhism. I was reminded of all this while reading Jason Clower’s The Unlikely Buddhologist, on the 20th-century Confucian thinker Mou Zongsan. Mou is firmly committed to Mencius’s idea that human nature is good – and he praises those systems of Buddhism which accept this idea, the ones that claim we all have an “original enlightenment” or “Buddha nature.” He acknowledges that such an idea, tathāgatagarbha in Sanskrit, may have had its roots in India; but Indian philosophers never did a lot with it. Clower says: “It was only in China, Mou thinks, with its indigenous Mencian tradition of optimistic universalism, that such a theory had a chance to grow and flourish.” (114)

Now this account sounded a lot more plausible to me. Notice, though, how it seems diametrically opposite to Van Norden’s. For Mou, the negative early Indian Buddhist view of human nature could be supplanted in China because of the influence of Mencius. For Van Norden, we misread Mencius by attributing to him an overly positive view of human nature that actually originates in Buddhism.

So does any of this matter for constructive philosophical reflection? Well, it seems to me, it does matter how we view human nature – and that view is going to be tied to the rest of our philosophical commitments.

The way we view humans’ natural tendencies has implications for the way we cultivate ourselves. This point came out in the comments on last week’s post. Jim Wilton, commenting about Gretchen Rubin, linked her approach to the Zen thinker Shunryū Suzuki. Both, in some respect, take the view that happiness comes in some respect from letting our true self, our “original nature,” shine through. Jim is probably right that Suzuki’s Zen view is deeper than Rubin’s, but they’re going in the same direction. It seems to me a different direction from the one that Elisa Freschi sensibly recommended on the same post: the things you don’t like (say, the particulars in novels as opposed to philosophical abstractions) can also be your blind spots. By cultivating desires for things you’re not naturally predisposed to, you can make yourself more whole. Our natural tendencies may lead us to exacerbate our flaws, not our virtues.

And so to the contrast between South and East Asian Buddhism. It’s no coincidence that the idea of sudden liberation flourished among the East Asians, who also took a much sunnier view of human nature – whether or not we see that view as beginning with Mencius. If you think that our original natures are basically and generally good, then getting in touch with that basic goodness is something you can do more or less suddenly, immediately. You just have to remember it. But if our basic nature is one that keeps us mired in suffering, as the South Asian Buddhists generally believed, then it’s going to be a long, slow, gradual, potentially painful slog getting us out of it to somewhere better.

Something clearly changed in Buddhism as it went from South to East Asia, from India to China. It seems likely to me that it came from Confucian influences, including those of Mencius. But even if the change came about somewhere else on the way, it still has big consequences for ideas about life and how we should live it.