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  • Ru Meditation: Gao Panlong (1562–1626 C.E.) trans. by Bin Song
  • Leah Kalmanson (bio)
Ru Meditation: Gao Panlong (1562–1626 C.E.). Translated and annotated by Bin Song. Edited by Paul Blair. Boston: Ru Media Co., 2018. Pp. 53. Paper $9.99 (softcover), isbn 978-0-9996140-2-0.

Bin Song's translation of Gao Panlong's (1562–1626) works on quiet sitting (jingzuo 靜坐)) is a slim volume that nonetheless makes a large statement on the status of "Confucianism" as a subject of scholarship in philosophy and religious studies. The opening paragraph of the introduction announces Song's interpretative and methodological commitments:

In this book, "Confucius" will be known as Kongzi, his venerated pinyin name. The terms "Ru" and "Ruist" will be used in place of "Confucian." Likewise, "Ruism" will be used in place of "Confucianism." Lastly, the term "Neo-Confucianism," which is normally used to describe new developments within Ruism during the Song and Ming Dynasties (960–1644 C.E.), will be replaced with "Song and Ming Ruism"

(p. 3).

This aligns Song with other scholars (such as David Elstein and Robert Eno) who opt for "Ruism" over "Confucianism," generally due to concerns about the use of Western paradigms to classify Chinese traditions, especially the characterization of rujia 儒家--the "scholarly lineage"--as a religion named for its founder (Kongzi).1 Nonetheless, readers familiar with Song's blog for the Huffington Post2 will know that he is interested in rehabilitating precisely those aspects of Ruist practice that many might categorize as "religious." His translation of Gao Panlong reflects this scholarly approach to the ritual practices of Ruism that cuts across any conventional understanding of the philosophy-religion divide.

The book is organized around two chapters of Gao's poetry, two chapters of his instructions for contemplative scholarship, and two chapters of his philosophical reflections on quiet-sitting, followed by a seventh chapter containing a report on Gao's last days and death. The opening chapter consists of four short poems describing Gao's meditative experiences at four different locations: in the mountains, on a riverbank, among flowers, and beneath trees. The various locales inspire spiritual insights characteristic of Ruist thought: the harmony of cosmic order and the place of humanity within it, and the importance of conditioning the heart-mind to attune it to the "pattern-principle" (li 理) pervading all things. For each poem, Song provides line-by-line [End Page 1] commentary to explain (1) references to historical or legendary figures, (2) allusions to classic texts, and (3) the philosophical significance of certain terms and translation choices. At the end of the chapter, he offers a brief summary pointing readers toward larger conclusions that may be gleaned from Gao's sparse poems. As he says, "the Ruist universe is a value-laden continuum between the worlds of man and nature. This means that mystical practices--such as quiet-sitting--enhance, rather than undermine, the values of humanism and worldly happiness…" (p. 12).

This theme of the role of meditation in human life is continued in the second chapter containing Gao's verses on the quiet-sitting technique itself. As Song points out later in the book, "Compared to other methods of quiet-sitting, Gao's is almost a 'non-method'" (p. 25). It requires no esoteric knowledge of ritual or doctrine nor any special equipment--"Let us give up our meditation cushions," says a cheerful Gao (p. 17). This easygoing attitude is particularly evident in the distinctions between Ruists, Daoists, and Buddhists that Gao offers in his verses. For example, in one poem, he says, "Quiet-sitting is neither mysterious nor Zen-like [靜坐非玄非是禪]" (p. 13); in another, he comments, "Envy not the Immortalists brewing their grand elixirs;/ What need is there for Buddhist doctrines of empty reality? [莫羨仙家烹大樂,何須釋氏說真空]" (p. 15). In Song's subsequent commentaries on these poems, he makes sure that readers know that the term "mysterious" (xuan 玄) refers to Wei- and Jin-period Daoist schools of "Mysterious Learning" (p. 14) and that the "Immortalists" in the second poem are likewise Daoist practitioners (p. 16). Compared to complicated Daoist rituals and rarefied Buddhist monastic practices, Gao's quiet-sitting seems simple and accessible.

Moving from...


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