There’s a song in Disney’s Mulan called ‘Make a Man Out of You’. It’s originally performed by Donny Osmond and is essentially this musical montage piece depicting the transformation of civilians to soldiers in order to stand against the invading Hun armies. As the Chinese Army only allowed men to be soldiers, Mulan pretended to be a man in order to volunteer. While the principle of the song and the movie are very unique and interesting, I’d like to take a look at what he says in his chorus. This is what they’re defining as a man. They aren’t saying this is what a soldier is, they’re saying this is what it means to be a man, and by being this, being a soldier will come naturally.
I’m omitting much of the song’s references to the Huns, and focusing on the descriptions themselves.
Tranquil as a forest
When we walk through the forest, alone, for the sake of basking in nature, tranquil may be one of the best words to describe it. While it’s anything but silent, the forest’s every sound and every aspect can lend itself to the state of tranquility.
In many ways, the tranquility of the forest can be a needed component in meditation and mindfulness. Meditating in the forest is much easier if your goal is to center yourself, distance your attention from the past or the future, and to find the true self within. The hum of life, from the smallest creature to the thundering steps of the bear, can ground us.
So, to me, being as tranquil as a forest means to find serenity, hone your attention to detail, ground yourself in the present moment, and find your harmony with your surroundings.
But on fire within
While being tranquil is necessary, the fire within gestures to having the ability to take that focus and use it to direct your passions and your intentions towards a purpose. Residing within the present moment grants us the ability to commit our whole mind to the task, and the fire gives us the will and passion to commit to those tasks without waiver.
To me, having a fire within means to have energy and passion, coupled with focus and temperament.
Once you find your center, you are sure to win
This is less a metaphor and more about a lesson we could all learn. In Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Yoga, and many other eastern practices, our center is our source, and no matter how deeply you look at anything, including the universe, warfare, and combat, finding and understanding the center on a deep level is key to mastery.
Finding your own internal center is a physical, spiritual, psychological, and even very literal practice. Physically knowing where your center is enables balance and the complete mastery of your own body. It enables your graceful movements even when reacting to extreme conditions. Spiritually, finding your center grants clarity, health, wisdom, courage, and an absence of fear and doubt. Psychologically, finding your center enables intuition and critical thinking to be done in a fast past environment.
Once we find our center, we are sure to win – once we are centered, we can only know success.
You must be swift as a coursing river
From a literal standpoint, the river may be fast but certainly is not the fastest thing. To me, this reference is less about the speed and more about the steadiness of the river. There’s a saying I have often heard which is “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This means that rushing too much leads to mistakes and a lack of mindfulness, which chain reacts into folly. But being mindful and careful, slowly and smoothly acting, the actions can appear to be effortless, flawless, and indeed, very fast.
In Kung Fu, we practice with our hands touching our partner’s hands, wrist to wrist. In Tai Chi, we emphasize technique and motion, not haste. But in having deliberate, masterful, smooth actions, complex movements can be performed effortlessly and, in time, grow to become truly masterful.
The Coursing River also bends and has its own pace. But through all of the bends and courses it flows. It is calm, deliberate, steady, and thus, swift.
With all the force of a great typhoon
Being smooth, steady, and swift – like the river – is half the battle. As mentioned above, one can achieve mastery at complex actions by mastering their pace. Understanding the technique of being smooth yet knowing how to guide this flow into striking power is the other half of the battle.
In life, being smooth and serene is optimal, but knowing when and how to act when the time comes is paramount. When one acts, it must be powerful, decisive, and correct. Both in life and in combat, an action must not be done in haste, but in swiftness.
With all the strength of a raging fire
A fire is an often used metaphor. The raging fire’s strength is as powerful a metaphor as any other. Fire, having been born from the smallest of embers, nursed and coaxed, given patience, appropriate fuel and attention, grows. When a fire is raging, it stops being a small, easily extinguishable ember to a nearly unstoppable force. While incredibly destructive, it is also decisive and changing. Fire is change, so much so that having the strength to both accept change and to be the instrument of change, is to have the strength of a raging fire.
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon
Mystery is often a quality associated with men of firm stature. The dark side of the moon does not boast its presence or its mystery, it simply is. It rests and allows others to perceive it how it may. It is not persuaded by the judgements of others; it does not change what it is based on the whimsical nature of another’s point of view.
To be as mysterious as the dark side of the moon is to be yourself, undauntedly, and to maintain your humility, your poise, and your honor even in the face of adversity. You share only what you decide to, and you are not coaxed into behaving beyond your intentions.
With all this in mind, allow these metaphors to sink in. What does it mean to be a man, as described here? To me, it means to be capable, competent, humble, centered, strong – in mind, body, and spirit – and determined. It means to stand as who you are and by what you believe in. It means to constantly grow, accept responsibility, remain accountable, yet accept others in turn.
In Buddhism, there’s an often referred to path called the Eight Fold Path to Enlightenment. To understand this path, one must understand the Four Noble Truths. These truths can be summarized into:
1. The Noble Truth of the Reality of Dukkha (or difficulty, suffering, pain, anguish, or conflict) as part of a condition existence. In essence, Dukkha is that in our lives that is difficult to bear, both as great or as minor as it may come. This truth suggests one must realize what exactly Dukkha – Suffering both big and small – from an internal standpoint.
2. The Noble Truth that Dukkha has a casual arising. This really means to understand that the proportion of Dukkha one experiences is nearly directly comparable to either the latching onto, or the shying away from, various things in life. It is understanding that we take things that are not about us, about the world around us, and make them about ‘me, mine,’ or completely ‘not mine, not me’. The truth explains that we are neither fully in control of, nor absent in the influence of, all the experience of our lives.
3. The Noble Truth of the End of Dukkha. This is often described as Nirvana. At its core, this is reached by finding your Awakening, in that we realize that we are not bound to anything. Neither the things we want to be, nor the things we don’t. Nothing is ‘ours’, save for our experiences. Nirvana is achieved when we can shed our attachment to things in our lives, and accept that attaching ourselves either to the control of, or lack of control of, anything, is folly. Nirvana literally means ‘Unbound’. Only when we are ‘unbound’ can we truly find our Awakening.
4. The Noble Truth of the Path that Leads to Awakening. We just talked about what Awakening is, but how do we get there? This last truth is the treatment, of sorts. It’s difficult to comprehend because devoting oneself to it utterly is, by definition, never reaching it. Its paradoxical, in a way, because to truly let go of all things – all desire – avidly and as a way of life, your life will be filled with the desire to shed all of desire. Many feel that it’s a step-by-step process, where Awakening is a result of that process. Truly, Awakening is the realization that truly letting go means to let go of letting go, too.
While the path is a process, it is not designed to have an end-state. It is meant to guide you beyond your conditional responses in your life. To suffer means you are experiencing a conditional response, and the path leads you from that responses, back to your true Self – a Self that is not bound by the conditional responses we often have. A Self that does not suffer.
With all that in mind, let’s talk about the path – the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.
1. “Samma-Ditthi” – Right Vision/View.
a. This a reference to seeing or understanding the nature of reality and the path of transformation.
2. “Samma-Sankappa” – Right Emotion/Thought/Attitude.
a. Understanding and liberating your emotional intelligence and understanding how to act from a place of love and compassion. Learning the language of emotion and how to don the attitude of love and compassion.
3. “Samma-Vaca” – Right Speech.
a. Clear, honest, uplifting, non-harmful communication to others.
4. “Samma-Kammanta” – Right Action.
a. Similar to Right Speech, using actions in an ethical manner, not exploiting others.
5. “Samma-Ajiva” – Right Livelihood.
a. Living an ideal life socially. This has a lot of interpretation, obviously, but the general rule is to have a livelihood that maintains ethical principles of non-exploitation.
6. “Samma-Vayama” – Right Diligence.
a. Being aware of your life energy and making the conscious decision to direct this energy to the path of creative and healing actions that fosters wholeness. Diligently maintaining compassion for all things.
7. “Samma-Sati” – Right Mindfulness.
a. Having the thorough awareness of both the self and the awareness. Don’t lie to yourself, don’t make excuses for your behaviors. Perform moral and ethical inventories. Conscious evolution.
8. “Samma-Samadhi” – Right Concentration.
a. Also called meditation, absorption, one-pointedness of mind, etc. Difficult to say in English, but the idea is to be grounded in the present moment and focus on one, single task at a time. Do not scatter your mind, your concentration, your intentions, or your energy in many directions. When you do something, do it with your whole being and your whole self.
I think it’s easy to see the correlation. What does it mean to be a man? Perhaps it means to be aware of yourself, aware of your environment, and to embody the nature of all things within yourself. It means to maintain your honor, act selflessly, and maintain your focus.
In today’s world, perhaps we suffer the most from an absence of these things. At least, it can seem that way. But if you take the time to understand the character outlined here, both implicitly through song and through the scope of the lessons of a 4000+ year old religion, I think you’ll find that the world needs more of just such a character.