Have you heard of the Chinese sage Wu Hsin?
Wu Hsin is an allegedly ancient Chinese sage whose inspiring teachings were brought to light by an obscure character named Roy Melvyn. Wu Hsin's teachings have inspired millions of people across the globe — even if all evidence indicates that he never existed and was made up by Melvyn. The remarkable story of Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn explores the conflict between the nature of faith and literal or interpretative readings of religious texts.
Last week, a renowned and highly respected Brazilian journalist emailed me a link to a YouTube video. The video, she said, was about the teachings of Wu Hsin, an obscure Chinese sage that presumably lived about one hundred years after Confucius, some time between 403 and 221 BCE. In a book that collects his writings, translated and edited by Roy Melvyn, Wu Hsin is a teacher of non-dualism, credited with being the bridge between Taoism and Confucianism and what later became Zen Buddhism in China and Japan.
I asked my 13.8 partner Adam Frank and my friend, the philosopher Evan Thompson — both experts on Eastern religions — about Wu Hsin. “Never heard of him,” said Adam. “Wu Hsin is a fictional character likely invented by Roy Melvyn. No historical evidence of any such person. It’s kind of an ancient Chinese version of Carlos Castañeda’s Don Juan,” said Thompson.
The strange story of Wu Hsin and Roy Melvyn goes to the heart of the debate between literal and nonliteral interpretations of religious texts and figures. To what extent is it necessary to attribute real existence to a religious historical figure to be inspired by his or her teachings?