What do Mark Twain, “Ancient Hindu Scripture,” Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln have in common? One may rightly wonder.  These eclectic sources are thrown together here in defense of a supposed Secret of the East (such secrets having to be capitalized) — the secret of “thick face, black heart,” the title of Chin-Ning Chu’s book.

As my brief comments below will make clear, I would not have started, let alone finished, this book except that my effort related to this blog.  I took a bullet for you, dear reader.  And this book’s unfocused and ultimately damning advice  gives me a chance to provide a strong warning about the perils of unfettered reading in the self-help literature.

“Thick Face” means keeping a positive image of one’s self despite adversity. This is part of the book essentially admonishes the reader to keep a solid self image despite the inevitable challenges of life. Much of this advice, though, is of the playground variety (I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me an sticks to you!  Yes, I have a 6-year-old.) If the reader wants to actually learn how to achieve a positive self-image, I recommend books like Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, or Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, or even Albert Bandura’s seminal work on Self-Efficacy.  Those books rely on either compelling storytelling (Robbins) or solid research (Seligman and Bandura) to actually teach readers how to change their behavior for the better. This book does not.

“Black Heart” is “the ability to take action without regard to how the consequences will affect others.” (Text at 13.) I’m a lawyer by training, and in the common law system, we call this “recklessness.” It often leads to moral and legal culpability. I don’t think even the author, Chin-Ning Chu, really means what she advocates here. Even she shies away from the worst consequences of such a code. But the implications are obvious: as even she concedes, “A Black Heart is ruthless, but it is not necessarily evil.” (Emphasis mine.)

So the way of life you’re advocating might be evil? It’s often or even mostly — but not “necessarily” — evil?  And that’s a good thing, Ms. Chu?  And how should the good reader avoid evil? She really doesn’t say. Not that most people are going to slog through the book to find out.

There is a vast amount to be learned from Asian writings, both ancient and modern. The Tao is a treasure, Confucious is remarkable, Mencius thoughtful, the I Ching fascinating, Mao controversial.  Lots to be learned from Hindu scriptures.  Twain, Lincoln, and Gandhi also have a lot to teach. Don’t look here for that teaching.  In fact, in my opinion, don’t look here at all.