Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and the Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He joined the Harvard faculty after receiving both his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. His main focus is on the relationships among religion, anthropology, history and philosophy. His "Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory" is Harvard's third most popular undergraduate course and that inspired him to write his new book, The Path – What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to have Professor Puett participate in our One Hundred Words project from Cambridge, Massachusetts by writing his responses to the topics we suggested.
STAY THIRSTY: Rituals.
MICHAEL PUETT: We tend not to like rituals. We think they tell us what to do; we prefer to be free individuals acting as we think best for who we are. But think of rituals instead as "as if" spaces where, for a brief moment, we enter into a space, becoming a different person relating to those in the ritual space differently than we otherwise would. The reason rituals work is that they break us from patterns that usually dominate our everyday lives. Instead of being limited by who we think we are, rituals open up possibilities for us to become better.
STAY THIRSTY: Relationships.
MICHAEL PUETT: We like to think of ourselves – at our best – as unique individuals, and those we enter into relationships with as ideally being the same. So good relationships allow us as individuals to grow with others. But what if "we" are relationships all the way down? What if we are messy selves, and others are too? Different sides of ourselves are always relating with different sides of others. And more often than not, relating badly. In that case our goal should be to train ourselves to respond as well as we can, which brings out better sides of others in turn.
STAY THIRSTY: Influence.
MICHAEL PUETT: We often think of influence in terms of power, control, and domination. But what if our attempts to dominate others only create resentment and ensure our ultimate downfall? What if the way to influence others, on the contrary, is to create the conditions within which they relate to us and to the world around them in different ways? If so, our goal should be to sense others in all of their complexity, and act in such a way that we can bring out better sides of all of us as we work to build a world within which everyone flourishes.
STAY THIRSTY: Excellence.
MICHAEL PUETT: We commonly think that we are born with natural gifts, talents, and abilities. And if we were to develop these natural gifts, we could become successful and fulfilled. But what if by focusing on our natural endowments, we are constraining ourselves. What if what really matters in the end is training, not endowment? Then our goal should be to better ourselves, indeed to become something different, not to restrain ourselves by what we think we are born to be. We should focus on constructing a better self, constructing a better world, not limiting ourselves to what we think is natural.
STAY THIRSTY: Transformation.
MICHAEL PUETT: We are all unique individuals. Our lives follow an arc based on who we are. We all live in a world that is relatively stable, a nice stage for us to play out our life arcs. But what if this is all wrong? What if, in fact, we are actually always transforming into something radically different, and our attempts to think of ourselves as unique human beings and the world as a stable place are futile? If so, then our goal should be to work with these transformations, to work productively with them, and not endlessly battle against the inevitable.
STAY THIRSTY: Journey.
MICHAEL PUETT: Our life is a journey that we travel through until we pass away. But what if that isn't the end? What if the entire journey is cosmic? A cosmos in which everything ultimately transforms into everything else, and our death, like our birth, is simply one of these transformations. Our death would not be then the end of some unique self, but simply one more moment in the ceaseless transformation. The journey is greater than any one of us in our momentary forms, but one in which we can play a crucial role if we think of it as such.
STAY THIRSTY: Assumptions.
MICHAEL PUETT: We in the modern world are free, liberated. We can decide for ourselves how to live and what to think, unlike those who came before us, mired in a traditional society that defined for them how to act, how to think. They had assumptions that controlled them. We have an open world in which we are free to choose for ourselves. But what if this is wrong? What if we also have assumptions about ourselves, our place in history, and who we are and how we make choices? Maybe these assumptions are the restricting ones that limit what we do.
STAY THIRSTY: Possibilities.
MICHAEL PUETT: We like to think we live in a world of possibilities, endless horizons open to us. But what if our visions of the self, our visions of the world, and our visions of how we make choices and decisions, are constraining what we can do and how we can grow as human beings? Ironically, our notion of a unique individual exercising free will to alter the world may actually be what is holding us back. It is by learning from alternate visions of the self and of the world that we can open up possibilities we could not otherwise imagine.