In this final installment of our series on vocation, Mark Berkson, professor and chair in the Department of Religion at Hamline University, discusses calling and vocation from a Confucian and Daoist perspective. Diane Millis, interviewer from the Lives Explored video project, sat down with Mark and other leaders from various faith traditions to discuss these concepts as featured in Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). You can read previous interviews on Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam here.
How do Confucianism and Daoism understand the concept of calling?
I wrote in Calling in Today’s World about how these two traditions have made me think about the notion of calling and my own path in life in radically different ways, and yet the fundamental paradox is that to me, they’re both true. Ultimately I hold the two in a productive tension, trying to remind myself to live with insights from both of these traditions all the time.
Confucianism has the notion of self-cultivation: developing yourself over time. This is framed in a narrative fashion: you should work on yourself in different ways in different stages of life, so that you can move to the next stage. This cultivation is always being done in relation to others. So Confucianism is focused on self-cultivation, but the self in that context is relational. This is a path of development, reflection, learning, ritual, and right relationships.
The Daoist framework—as seen in the philosopher Zhuangzi and other Zen masters that he influenced—calls into question the internalized narrative structures that we are given by culture and by society that say, “If it’s this stage of life, this is what I should be doing now. This is the point when I’ve got to settle down and get a job. Or when I start a family, get a house, and have a mortgage.” Every culture will give you a structure or narrative that you are supposed to live out, and you work on yourself that way. But Zhuangzi is the playful underminer of all such things. He is constantly shaking your foundations and leading you to ask fundamental questions. He sees the internalized categories by which we structure our lives as structures that are externally imposed upon us.
Instead what Daoism says we should do is find a set of practices to see through these categories, to question them, and to be able to subvert them. When you are no longer prisoner to these categories, then you are able to discern the movements of your own nature. From there you will be naturally led in a certain direction. The word Daoists use is wu wei which means “effortless action”—non-intentional movement in accordance with the flow of the Dao. The Dao is the natural pulse of life of which you are a part, unless you separate yourself with your mind by these internalized categories.
These are very different ideas about calling.
Yes they are, and that’s what makes bringing them together in a kind of tensive relationship so interesting and fruitful. For the Confucians, you are called by your tradition, by your ancestors, and particularly your parents. It is important that you try to live out the things that your parents want and hope for you—and that you live with a sense of responsibility to your descendants and the future. The narratives do not begin and end with your life. They start before you are born and continue long after you die. So you can view your life within a much larger framework.
Daoism, on the other hand, offers what I would call a momentary notion of time, rather than a narrative conception. Zhuangzi emphasizes rapid, constant change and the need to flow with change instead of resisting or holding on. Even at death’s doorstep we are to welcome each change as a movement of the Dao. So in that sense Daoism says to have a present focus rather than thinking in the big narrative picture.
Having a basic openness to life and being able to meet new circumstances with a sense of possibility is a contribution from Zhuangzi. One of the chapters in Zhuangzi’s book is called “Free and Easy Wandering.” Another translation is “Rambling Without a Destination.” Can we move through life without always having a fixed sense of “here is where I’m heading”? I don’t ever want to lose the Zhuangzian voice that says, “Be open to change; be completely receptive to transformation.”
How do you bring the Confucian and Daoist traditions together in your own life?
These traditions have helped me see that the two movements of my life are cultivating the self and losing the self. You work on developing yourself through the work you do, through the relationships you have, through education, and through meaningful activities of various kinds. But in those moments of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state,” you experience a loss of self. So the dynamic of cultivating the self and losing the self is the same tension that is found between Confucian narrative and Zhuangzian momentariness or Confucian remembering and Zhuangzian forgetting.
There were periods of my life when I wondered, “Which is the way?” But looking at Chinese history, I realized they are both the way. In general the Chinese have not felt the need to say, “Which is the true path? Let’s get rid of the other one.” Most people have an affiliation with more than one tradition. There are times in your life when it makes sense to think in a Confucian way, in a Daoist way, or in a Buddhist way, and so you weave together these different traditions. Multi-faith identity has been a norm in China that has been embraced for centuries. In the United States it’s just starting now, because the sense of affiliation here has always been “you can’t be more than one thing.” Now you have increasing numbers of people who consider themselves as multi-faith or recognize these different influences on their lives. So for me, the notion of holding these things in a productive tension and living the paradox between them—that’s how I try to think of my path vocationally.
For more from Mark Berkson, watch his Lives Explored story and companion videos for the new book from the Interfaith Perspectives on Vocation seminar, Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016).