The Importance of Living: Lin Yutang meets the Dude

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This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.

Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I’m ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it

–from Paul Westerberg’s Hold My Life

An essay I’ve recently published in Reality Sandwich, “An
Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski
,” has been very well received. There
are a few works out there, be they novels, movies or even pieces of music, that
manage to make the esoteric, exoteric. Such works rarely surface, though,
because the shallow machinery of the publishing, movie and music industry is
mostly allergic to them. As I was re-reading Lin Yutang’s masterwork, The
Importance of Living
, I found so many passages that seem custom-made for
the Dude that I thought it might be fun to explore the points of departure and
arrival of both works, in tandem. To do that, I need to start from the
not-so-distant premises that prompted Lin Yutang himself, back in 1937, to
write his book.

Even today, despite the West having gone through an unprecedented process of
secularization, the numbers are staggering: there are 2.1 billion Christians
worldwide; 1.6 billion Muslims; about 900 million Hinduists; and 350 million
Buddhists. Therefore, almost 5 billion people follow the four largest
religions, which have one common trait — they are life-renouncing.

In a nutshell, the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — see
life as a period of probation in which man, by acting virtuously according to
the doctrine set out by each religion, will earn for himself a place in heaven.
The focus, therefore, is on the afterlife. Life on earth is a series of tests
that must be passed and temptations that must be resisted. Again in a nutshell,
Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major Indian religions, are similar in that both
hold that life is suffering and the only way out is freedom from the endless chain
of reincarnations. The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha
and nirvana respectively, consists of liberating oneself from samsara,
thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Union with
God can then be attained.

Recently an old friend of mine, for years a convert to Buddhism, suffered an
aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the aorta that I am familiar with
because my father died of it. When he began to feel sick a friend who was with
him, a medical doctor, rushed him to a hospital, where he was operated on
within minutes. For days his life hanged by a thread in the ICU. His anguished
wife, back at home, organized reunions with fellow Buddhists who would pray and
chant together for him to be spared and then recover. As I followed from a
continent away, my heart went out to him and his family and friends, but in the
back of mind I couldn’t stop hearing a nagging voice. It asked: “What
business do Buddhists have in asking to prolong one’s life?” It was
incongruous. The followers of the most life-renouncing religion known to
mankind were fervently praying for this one man to cling to life. Mercifully,
the surgery was successful and my friend pulled through, but I still wonder if
his Buddhist wife and friends behaved consistently with Buddhism?

Of course they didn’t, and this incident is meant to make a point: almost five
billion people living on this drinkable, edible, and breathable planet of ours
follow religions that, I fear, go against our nature. Normally, we want to
live, not to let go of life. It is only natural, so natural, in fact, that it
seems very strange that this would need to be stated in the first place.
Lin Yutang’s world was less populous than ours, but in proportion more
religious yet, especially in the West. Back in his day some pioneers were
exploring the “occult”, that more than vague definition that has been
since subdivided into many fields: the Royal Art, Alchemy, parapsychology,
extrasensory perception, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and
near-death experiences, not to mention humanity’s penchant for the most varied
psychoactive substances in the hope that altered states will lead in the
exploration of parallel or otherworldly realities. From all this and the four
major life-renouncing religions I’m bound to infer that by and large we don’t
like our lot on earth. Lin Yutang started from the same premise.

Like early man, do we envy the birds for being able to fly? The fish for being
able to breathe under water? Cats for seeing in semidarkness? The list goes on and
on: from a physical standpoint, we’re inferior to so many species. But not to
worry, modern man has come up with a number of flying contraptions, scuba
diving equipment, night vision goggles, and many other gadgets that mimic the
abilities of more physically gifted species. And yet the premise stands: either
our adherence to a life-renouncing religion, or, more recently on a large
scale, our multifarious attempts at transcending our very nature and

That we feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skin is not a supposition but
a statement of fact. Do we feel so chokingly uncomfortable because the first
time we realize that, sooner or later, we are doomed to die, our natural
impulse is to cry? My wife and I have witnessed this reaction in two of our
three boys. When, around five years of age, they understood that life doesn’t
last forever, they cried inconsolably, out of disbelief, then anger, finally
fear. This tragic cognizance we carry inside ourselves for our whole life. It’s
our congenital memento mori, which kicks in the moment the concept of
time ceases to be a present-tense continuum, as it is during early childhood,
and becomes one of duration, with a precise beginning and end.

For the materialists, those not interested in religions or attempts at
transcending human nature, there are the following bits of ancient wisdom:
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s “Live each day as if it were your
last;” the ancient Roman poet Horace’s Carpe diem, seize the day,
which was reprised during the Renaissance by Lorenzo De’ Medici in his famous
poem Canzona di Bacco, Bacchus Song, which begins: “Youth is
sweet and well / But does speed away! / Let who will be gay, / Tomorrow, no one
can tell;” even the ancient Chinese proverb: “Enjoy yourself;
it’s later than you think.” Many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics have no
better guideline than this to live by, and accordingly try to feast on life,
which, they perceive, is “here today, gone tomorrow.” 

Lin Yutang offers an approach that goes beyond life-renouncing religions,
daring transcendental explorations, and clichés such as enjoy yourself, it’s
later than you think. One thing was clear to him as it must be to so many of
us: being alive, living, matters. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests
why in the ninth of his Duino Elegies, written between 1912 and 1922,
and excerpted here in the translation of A. Poulin, Jr. To the question,
“Why, then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate, long for
fate?” the poet replies: “Because being here means so much, and
because all / that’s here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us / and
strangely concerns us.” And a few lines down: “To have been on earth
just once — that’s irrevocable.”

How are we to celebrate, then, the plain yet miraculous reality of being alive?
The poet surprises with “Praise the world to the angel, not what can’t be
talked about. / You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos /
where he so intensely feels, you’re just a novice. So show / him some simple
thing shaped for generation after generation / until it lives in our hands and
in our eyes, and it’s ours. Tell him about things. He’ll stand amazed

So there it is, straight from the pen of one of the most mystical poets in
western literature: an exhortation to speak to the angel not about grand
emotions but about the world, about things. Some years after Rilke
finished his elegies, Lin Yutang wrote in The Importance of Living:
“As for philosophy, which is the exercise of the spirit par excellence,
the danger is even greater that we lose the feeling of life itself. I can
understand that such mental delights include the solution of a long
mathematical equation, or the perception of a grand order in the universe. This
perception of order is probably the purest of all our mental pleasures and yet
I would exchange it for a well prepared meal.” Years ago, when I first
read this passage, I laughed out loud. It was liberating. But where is Lin
Yutang coming from? In another book of his, The Wisdom of China, he
remarks: “The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must
soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer
who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface

I’d tend to agree, but there probably is a linguistic reason for this. The
Chinese never developed a proper alphabet, but rather ideograms, or Sinograms,
or better yet, Han characters. The Kangxi Dictionary contains the astonishing
number of 47,035 characters. Compared to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet,
the 23 of Classical Latin and the 30 of the German alphabet, it’s evident that
writing and reading in Mandarin is an effort in itself, which explains the
emphasis placed by Chinese on calligraphy.

Ancient Greek, Latin and German have been used by most of the greatest
philosophers of the western tradition, with Latin being the lingua franca of
European scholars for centuries. Inevitably, intellectuals would be tempted to
play around with words — and they did! Western philosophy is immensely more
voluminous than its Chinese counterpart, but its value should always have been
considered from an historical perspective. No one in his right mind should have
argued over, say, St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of the existence of God —
but that went on for centuries. The history of Western (theoretical/discursive)
philosophy ought to have been read like the history of architecture:
philosopher so-and-so built that castle in the air, while his opponent built
this other castle. Western philosophy should be appreciated aesthetically
rather than intrinsically.

Again in The Wisdom of China, Lin Yutang writes: “The Chinese can
ask . . ., ‘Does the West have a philosophy?’ The answer is also clearly ‘No.’
. . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German,
English, and American professors, but still he hasn’t got a philosophy when he
wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but
there are no philosophers.”

So, what exactly does Lin Yutang prescribe as a philosophy of life? And how
does the Dude, our hero (I haven’t forgotten him), happen to behave in
accordance with so many of the philosopher’s ideas?

Read the rest of this article at Reality

Image bySleeper Cell, licensed under Creative Commons.

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