The Way of Beauty

Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation


About The Book

Five meditations on the role of beauty in human life and its direct connection with the sacred

• Looks at how beauty has the power to elevate and counterbalance the negative side of the reality facing us

• Presents the role of beauty in transforming individuals and transforming the world from a Taoist perspective

In a time of mindless violence and widespread ecological and natural catastrophes, François Cheng asks if talking about beauty may not seem incongruous even scandalous. Yet this is actually the most appropriate time to revisit a subject that was a philosophical mainstay for millennia. The power of beauty to elevate and transcend counterbalances the negative side of the reality facing us. As John Keats noted in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” beauty is inseparable from truth:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The ultimate human reality pivots on these two extremes of the living universe--beauty and evil.

Cheng begins his teachings with the intrinsic sense of beauty revealed by the landscape, symbolized by the staggeringly beautiful Lu Mountain of his native province in China. His five meditations carry the reader from the understanding of beauty being in the mind of the beholder to its intimate relationship with the sacred, both from a Western and Taoist perspective. He shows that the most telling indication of the importance of beauty in human life and for individual spiritual realization can be grasped by simply imagining a world without it.


Second Meditation

It is an understatement to say that humans have a relationship with beauty. In the midst of the tragic human condition, it is, in fact, from beauty that we draw meaning and pleasure. Moreover, as we approach the question of artistic creation, we will try to refer to a few great aesthetic traditions, and to distinguish certain criteria for gauging and judging beauty. For the moment, suffice it to say that the beauty I have witnessed is not limited to combinations of external traits, to appearances, which can be described using a whole arsenal of qualifiers: pretty, attractive, colorful, sparkling, sumptuous, elegant, harmonious, well-proportioned, and so on.
Formal beauty exists, of course, but it hardly encompasses the entire reality of beauty. That is more strictly a matter of Being, moved by the imperious desire for beauty. True beauty does not reside only in what is already manifest as beauty; it resides almost primarily in the desire and the impulse. It is a becoming, and the dimension of spirit or soul is vital to it. Accordingly, it is governed by the principle of life. Thus, beyond all the possible criteria, only one guarantees its authenticity: true beauty is that which follows the course of the Way, the Way as understood to be nothing other than the irresistible progress toward open life, in other words, a principle of life that keeps its whole promise open. This criterion based on the principle of life--and I have not forgotten the question of death, which we will come to--excludes all use of beauty as a tool of deception or domination. Such use is ugliness itself; it always constitutes a path of destruction. Yes, we must always avoid confusing the essence of a thing and the uses to which it can be put. How true that is with regard to beauty!
To further clarify my remarks, again, let me add this: beauty is something that is virtually there, eternally there, a desire that bursts forth from within beings, or Being, like an inexhaustible fountain that, more than an isolated, anonymous form, reveals itself as radiant, connected presence, inspiring acquiescence, interaction, and transfiguration.
A matter of being and not of having, true beauty cannot be defined as a means or instrument. In essence, it is a way to be, a state of existence. Let us observe this through one of the symbols of beauty: the rose. By what course of habit and distortion has the rose become a somewhat banal, slightly mawkish image, even while the universe had to evolve over billions of years in order to produce this miraculous entity of harmony, coherence, and resolution?
Let us agree to take a good, long look at the rose. Let us begin by recalling this couplet by the seventeenth-century Silesian poet, Angelus Silesius, who is associated with Flemish-Rhenish mystics like Meister Eckehart and Jakob Böhme:

The rose is without a why, flowers because it
Without concern for itself, or desire to be seen.

Well-known, admirable lines before which one can only bow. Indeed, the rose is without a why, as are all living beings, all of us. If a naïve observer wanted to add something nevertheless, he could say this: to be fully a rose, in its uniqueness, and nothing else at all: that constitutes sufficient reason to be. That requires the rose to bring into play all the vital energy at its disposal. From the moment its shoot emerges from the earth, it pushes in one direction, as if driven by an unwavering will. Through it, a line of force is established that is crystallized in a bud. Beginning from this bud, the leaves and then the petals will soon form and open out, adopting such curvature, such sinuousness, opting for such fragrance, such a hue. Henceforth, nothing will prevent it from completing its signature, fulfilling its desire to be fulfilled, to be nourished by the soil, but also by the wind, the dew, and the rays of the sun.
And finally there it is, the rose, manifested in the full radiance of its presence, propagating its rhythmic waves toward its aspiration: pure, limitless space. This irrepressible opening into space evokes a fountain endlessly pouring forth from the depths. Because in so far as the rose desires to last for the time of its destiny, it also depends upon being deeply rooted. Between the soil and the air, between earth and sky, a give-and-take occurs, symbolized by the very form of the petals, a form so specific, simultaneously curved inward and turning outward in a gesture of offering. Jacques de Bourbon Busset summarizes it in a lovely phrase: “brightness of the flesh, shadow of the spirit.” Indeed it is fitting that the flesh be in the light, the spirit in shadow, in order for the latter to support the principle of life that governs the flesh, so that even when the petals have fallen and mixed with the nurturing humus, their invisible perfume may persist as an emanation of their essence or a sign of their transfiguration.
“In a gesture of offering,” we said. Nevertheless the poet wrote, “without concern for itself, or desire to be seen.” It is true that since the why of a rose is to be fully a rose, the moment of its plenitude of being coincides with the plenitude of Being itself. In other words, the desire for beauty is absorbed into the beauty; it no longer has to justify itself. If we want to continue thinking in terms of “being seen” and “not being seen,” we can say that--beyond the role it plays in “educating” the human gaze--the rose’s beauty, its radiance resonating with the full radiance of the universe, can finally only be taken in by the divine gaze. By which I mean: gathered in, not gathered!

About The Author

François Cheng was born in 1929 in Shangdong Province, China. He moved to France in 1949 and was elected to the Académie Française in 2002. He is a translator, calligrapher, and essayist, best known for his essays on Chinese art and poetry, as well as a renowned poet. He is the author of several novels and The Way of Beauty, a companion volume to Five Meditations on Death.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (June 25, 2009)
  • Length: 128 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781594776557

Raves and Reviews

"Cheng's The Way of Beauty seems to prove that, in fact, meditations on beauty lead inevitably to what we may deem 'the important things,' embracing as it does the questions we should ask, but seldom acknowledge. With a quiet joy in his discoveries, Cheng carries the reader along on his journey toward the center of the soul, making The Way of Beauty not only a personal vision, but a collective experience in enlightenment."

– Deborah Adams, Curled Up With a Good Book, Sept 2009

"Cheng moves with indescribable ease from Alfred de Musset to Saint Augustine, from Chinese poetics to Sufi story. . . . This collection of Cheng's subtle reflections drawn from many traditions is highly recommended."

– Library Journal, Oct 2009

"The carefully worded essays/meditations average twenty pages and showcase Francois Cheng's resplendent language skills."

– ForeWord Reviews, Sept 2009

"[Francois Cheng] describes beauty as a state of being, and of becoming - not of "having" - and refers to the traditional Chinese perspective that beauty is part of the essence of a thing. He notes that it is from society's devotion to consumption that beauty becomes a something one attempts to have rather than to be. Thus, he elevates beauty from a cosmetic and manipulated product an restores it to the nature of things aligned with their essence. The author appears to have been inspired by nature and infused with wisdom of contemplation, and is able to convey that inspiration to the reader."

– Karl Schlotterbeck, MA, CAS, LP, The Henge of Keltria, August 2010

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