The Path

What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life

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About The Book

For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas—like the fallacy of the authentic self—can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.

Astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.

In other words, The Path “opens the mind” (Huffington Post) and upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place—just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently. “With its…spirited, convincing vision, revolutionary new insights can be gleaned from this book on how to approach life’s multifarious situations with both heart and head” (Kirkus Reviews).

A note from the publisher: To read relevant passages from the original works of Chinese philosophy, see our ebook Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi: Selected Passages, available wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with authors Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Asian culture and philosophy have become increasingly popular in the West, but what if much of what we think we know about Chinese philosophy is wrong? This is the central question at the heart of Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. Inspired by Puett’s popular class at Harvard University, The Path asks us to reconsider popular interpretations of Asian philosophy, shift our perspective, and learn how we can best apply the teachings of masters such as Confucius, Laozi, and Mencius in our own lives. Setting aside the notion of the importance of self-acceptance and transformation through large-scale change, the authors suggest that we reexamine not only our relationship to these philosophies but our daily habits in order to change how we live. Through an accessible discussion of popular Chinese philosophers and their teachings, the authors offer compelling new ways to consider life-changing questions, such as: Where does power come from? How can we make better decisions? How do we become good people and lead good lives? The Path is much more than a book about the West’s relationship with Chinese philosophy. It is a revelation and the starting point to a transformative journey that illuminates the power we have to create our world and live our best lives, if only we are willing to stray from the path we have known and open our minds and hearts to new perspectives.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. In the Preface, what do the authors reveal as the central theme of the book? What do they say our vision of how to build a good life is rooted in? What is much of our current thinking a legacy of?

2. What vision of history do the authors say has been adopted as conventional wisdom? According to this story, what realizations allowed the modern world to be born? How did this story, including our view of “traditional societies,” influence our interpretation of Asian cultures? Why is this vision of history dangerous, and what are some of the myths born from this misunderstanding?

3. Where does the title of the book come from? What is the path to which the title refers? Why does the book reference so many mundane aspects of daily life?

4. What is the myth of globalization? What factors contributed to the development of the Age of Philosophy that saw the teachings of Confucius, Socrates, and the Buddha? What do the authors say unified the philosophical movements that sprung up during this time?

5. According to the authors, what fundamental and deceptively profound question was at the heart of Confucius’s teachings? What does it mean to respond through propriety, and how can we develop and refine our propriety?

6. What are as-if rituals, and why are they important? Why, for instance, did Confucius consider the ritual of ancestor worship essential? What do the authors say we must let go of before we can be transformed through as-if rituals?

7. How did Confucius define goodness? How would he suggest that we become a good or ethical person? Which is more important ethically according to Confucius: big changes or minor shifts? Explain.

8. What do the authors say primarily shape our decisions today? What can we learn about decision-making from the world-views of Mencius and Mozi? Do the authors suggest which view is better or more useful? What potential did Mencius believe we are all born with? How does this affect our decision-making? What is ming, and how should we respond to it?

9. According to Laozi, who is most influential in any situation? Where does true power come from? What do the authors say is the enduring power of the Laozi? How can we form the Way?

10. What is qi? As qi becomes more refined, what does it become? What kinds of qi are humans composed of? What can we cultivate in order to refine our qi, and how is this accomplished? What does it mean to “concentrate the qi as if you were a spirit” (137)?

11. What can Zhuangzi’s dream teach us about perspective and how to experience life more fully and spontaneously? How did his understanding of the Way differ from Laozi’s? What did Zhuangzi argue is the “one thing in the entire cosmos that does not spontaneously follow the Way” (144)? What is “trained spontaneity,” and how can it help us to become “true people” (158)?

12. What did the Confucian scholar Xunzi believe about self-acceptance? What does the tale of the invention of agriculture reveal about humans’ relationship with the world? What is artifice, and why would Xunzi say it is important? Why should we avoid thinking that everything in the world needs to be natural?

13. In Chapter 9, what do the authors reveal about how we have mistakenly interpreted Asian ideas? How have the teachings of Buddhism, for example, been misappropriated? How does our definition of mindfulness differ from the true Buddhist definition of this concept?

14. What ultimately connects the thinkers presented in this book? What commonly held ideas did all of these thinkers oppose? What challenge do all of these philosophers present, and where can we begin to answer this challenge?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Analects purposely included descriptions of the daily habits and mundane activities of Confucius. Write a list of your own daily habits and mundane activities. What can you learn about yourself from considering (or reconsidering) these habits? How might you refine these habits to self-cultivate and create the Way?

2. Practice an activity that heightens your sense of vitality and gets you in the flow. Read a book, listen to music, take a trip to a museum, exercise, or participate in some other activity that refines your qi. How can you make these practices a part of your daily life?

3. Make a case for the reconsideration of a commonly held interpretation of a philosophy or teaching not presented in the book. How might we look at this popular philosophy or teaching in a new way? Discuss what you believe has caused us to misinterpret this philosophy or teaching in the past.

4. Like Zhuangzi, consider the world as if you were a butterfly pretending to be human. In other words, do something today that changes your perspective. Visit a place you have never been to or reconsider a familiar place, try a new food or activity, learn about a new culture, swap daily routines with a friend. How did this mundane experience change your view of your life and the world around you?

A Conversation with Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

Michael, where did you first get the idea to teach a course on this subject at Harvard University, and why do you think that the course became so popular?

I had been teaching a version of this class for years to graduate students, but the readings were all in classical Chinese and hence accessible to only a limited number of readers. My hope for the undergraduate class was to bring that same level of engagement with the texts to a wider audience that could not read classical Chinese. I assign only the philosophical texts in translation, without any textbooks or secondary sources, because I want them to grapple directly with the philosophers and their ideas.

It was very exciting to find that these ideas resonated so powerfully with these students. This generation of students seems particularly open to rethinking big ideas and has been very receptive to these rather counterintuitive teachings.

Christine, can you tell us about a particular philosophy or teaching that you came to see in a new way during the writing of this book? Was there one in particular that really surprised you?

I was quite surprised by the Confucian notion of ritual, as interpreted by Michael. I admit that before working on The Path I held some of the same stereotypes about ritual that we call into question in the book. I did spend many years living in Japan, which is where I first began to question our own culture’s fealty to authenticity and sincerity and to appreciate the transformative potential of ritual, but it wasn’t until we began writing this book that I started putting all the pieces together.

Michael, since you were attempting to bring popular misconceptions about these philosophies to light, research must have been a bit challenging. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?

Most of the ideas came from decades of research I’ve done on the works of these philosophers and on conceptions of divinity and ritual in early China. This has formed the basis for my academic books and papers. But I found that misconceptions about these ideas very much continue in general history textbooks and in popular culture, so one of my hopes for the course and now The Path has been to help break down some of these common stereotypes. In fact, I first became interested in Chinese philosophy in high school, when I was becoming very interested in history and philosophy and reading everything I could find on these subjects. It’s then that I noticed a real difference between what I read about Chinese philosophy in textbooks, and what the texts themselves actually say.

Does each of you have a favorite Chinese philosopher? If so, why?

We both are drawn to the same philosophers, actually—Confucius and Zhuangzi. They are quite different in some ways (as The Path explains), and yet they are linked by a concern that one of our dangers as human beings is to fall into ruts and patterns of behavior—ruts and patterns that must therefore be broken.

What was the biggest challenge in writing The Path, and how did you overcome this challenge?

When we first began writing the book, we met an editor who told us, “It’s deceptively hard—but incredibly important—to write complex ideas as clearly and simply as you can.” This is so opposite of what most academics take to be good writing, and that comment stayed with us as we wrote and rewrote, trying to distill the ideas and make them come alive in a reader’s mind. Nothing is ever written in a vacuum, and we found it invaluable to send drafts to outside readers and get their feedback.

Why did you choose to coauthor the book, and what was the collaborative experience like? What surprised you most about the process of coauthoring a book?

We decided to coauthor the book because it just made sense to join forces: Michael had deep experience with the ideas that would form the basis for the book, and Christine was familiar with these philosophies and also had experience writing for a popular audience. It seemed an expedient way to get these important ideas out there.

Although it could be challenging at times to coauthor a book, it was also helpful because we could run ideas by one another and discuss them before even committing them to words on paper. It was also helpful to have someone with whom to “divide and conquer” all the various tasks that go into the writing and publicizing of a book.

Maybe the most surprising thing was that coauthoring can actually be just as laborious as writing a book by oneself. In fact, in some ways it’s harder: phrases have to pass muster with both authors, chapter structures have to be agreed upon, and all this requires a lot of back-and-forth. But book writing is normally a very solitary occupation. In our case the upside was that we each had a partner with an equal stake in how things turned out.

About The Authors

Photography © Margaret Lampert

Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the recipient of a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

Photograph © Margaret Lampert

Christine Gross-Loh is a journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and The Guardian. She has a PhD from Harvard University in East Asian history.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 5, 2016)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476777856

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Raves and Reviews

**New York Times and International Bestseller**

“I read The Path in one sitting and have been talking about it to everyone. It’s brilliant, mesmerizing, profound—and deeply contrarian. It stands conventional wisdom on its head and points the way to a life of genuine fulfillment and meaning.”

– Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package

"A remarkable combination of self-help guide and iconoclastic take on ancient Chinese wisdom... The authors superbly succeed at highlighting ancient Chinese philosophy’s tools for achieving its vision of a flourishing life... Confucius famously declared in the Analects, "I transmit, but do not innovate." Puett and Gross-Loh deftly do both."

– The Chronicle of Higher Education

“This is a book that turns the notion of help—and the self, for that matter—on its head. Puett and Gross-Loh bring seemingly esoteric concepts down to Earth, where we can see them more clearly. The result is a philosophy book grounded in the here and now, and brimming with nuggets of insight. No fortune-cookie this, The Path serves up a buffet of meaty life lessons. I found myself reading and re-reading sections, letting the wisdom steep like a good cup of tea.”

– Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius

"Puett’s dynamism translates well from his classroom theater onto the page, and his provocative, radical re-envisioning of everyday living through Chinese philosophy opens wide the 'possibilities for thinking afresh about ourselves and about our future.' His text presents creative alternatives to the stale 'confines of our narrative.' With philosophical consideration, our methods of interacting and coexisting may, as the author promises, have the power to better our lives and our relationships. With its . . . spirited, convincing vision, revolutionary new insights can be gleaned from this book on how to approach life’s multifarious situations with both heart and head."

– Kirkus Reviews

“This book is a revelation, a practical way through a fractured, distracting world. I thought I knew these philosophers—and I was wrong. Rigorous, concise, deeply informed, The Path retires our facile shorthand about ideas ‘from the East’ and presents a powerful intellectual case to engage, to care, and to remember.”

– Evan Osnos, National Book Award-winning author of Age of Ambition

"Offers interesting alternatives to some of our modern ideas of self and society . . . worth the cover price."

– Financial Times (UK)

"The Path will not only change your life--it will change the way you see history and the world. From its wondrously fresh take on  Confucius to its quietly profound read of just what it is the great sages have to say to us, this book exemplifies all that can come of the radical openness of Chinese philosophy. Read it and be transformed."

– Gish Jen, author of Tiger Writing and The Love Wife

"If you're looking to get out of a rut, or rise above the doom and gloom of our present global situation, Puett's channeled knowledge from the Chinese masters will be a wake-up call. We sometimes forget that our problems are as old as civilization, and maybe the answers have always been hidden in plain sight."

– Publishers Weekly (Staff Pick)

"This book opens the mind. . . . These thoughts echo in my life, even if the origins were unknown to me. . . .
Puett and his co-author have performed a service for all of us. They have succeeded in their project. Their accessible, conversational style introduces anyone with interest to what Chinese sages suggested about giving meaning to our days. Even more impressive, they inspire interest."

– Frank Wu, The Huffington Post

"A very accessible and inspiring piece of work. . . . Anyone willing to put the work in might find that this book really can change your life."

– The Sentinel (UK)

"The book is full of ancient wisdom and insights that can help you rethink the choices you make every day so that they lead to greater happiness and fulfillment."

– Business Insider

"The Path illuminates a little-known spiritual and intellectual landscape: the rich body of Chinese thought that, starting more than two millennia ago, charted new approaches to living a meaningful life. But Puett goes a lot further, creatively applying this ancient thought to the dilemmas of modern life. The result is a fresh recipe for harnessing our natural energies and emotions to strengthen social connection and build islands of order amid the chaos that sometimes surrounds us.”

– Robert Wright, author of The Language of God

"Puett's book encourages us to chuck away our stiff, encrusted western notions, and to adopt a more fluid, less didactic approach to life. The Path is not your classic self-help book, and not just because it dismantles the self. It doesn't serve up an easy set of how-to activities. . . . You are also advised that any changes you make will be slow, incremental, the result of constant daily work. . . . To talk to Puett is to view our western tradition through an entirely different lens."

– The Sunday Times (UK)

“Offers a contrarian view to pop psychology... [and] cultivates a meaningful life. The teachings in The Path offer ways to work with what you have.”

– Chicago Tribune

"The Path looks at the teachings of ancient Chinese philosophers and explains how we can apply these largely forgotten teachings to our everyday lives. Granted, it sounds like a tough read. It sounds specialist and niche and intimidating. It sounds all of those things. But it is none of those things. It's a big ask in under 200 pages. But there's something wonderfully simple and refreshing about the ideas. There is a simplicity to this book: all we have is ourselves, let's try and make things better."

– Marisa Bate, The Pool (UK)

"Puett's course has become the most popular on campus, even with those studying other subjects, and that's because he talks about how to have a good life. Using ancient Chinese philosophy challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish in life."

– Sarah Montague, Today programme (UK)

"This beautifully written book is a must-read. . . . The Path has tremendous riches to offer young people (and not so young people) precisely because it begins with a challenge to Western notions of the Self. . . . This slender little book carried a very big punch."

– Scattering Blossoms, Fallen Leaves (blog)

The Path is, in a word, brilliant! I would encourage everyone to get a copy of this book! Great discussion will come from reading it, and you may find yourself looking to delve deeper into some of the writings of these wise teachers from the past. The Path will be joining a select group of books on my shelf which I reread every year.”

– Book Tardis (blog)

“Odd and interesting, brightly accessible.... The book seems deeply knowing and is certainly respectful of this ancient wisdom.”

– Shawangunk Journal and Sullivan County Democrat

"[The Path is] 1) a disrupting challenge to almost any rigid worldview and 2) a brief overview of Chinese philosophy. . . . The authors repeatedly point out that these philosophies are not just abstract 'big question' type approaches; they are intended for use and exploration thru the daily nitty-gritty of real life. . . . Though in some cases, you’ll have to go deeper into these 'paths' to figure out how, this book is a good place to start."

– Dwarf + Giant (blog)

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