Saturday, March 16, 2013

Treasure of Humanity

The Analects (Penguin Classics)The Analects 
by Confucius

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” ― Confucius

This is one of the spiritual texts that I have read, considered, and meditated upon in recent years (Along with Lao-Tse, Mohammed, and the Old Testament). The Analects were distilled over centuries from the teachings of Confucius who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.
Confucius' political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord" (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6).
The importance of education and study is a fundamental theme of the Analects. For Confucius, a good student respects and learns from the words and deeds of his teacher, and a good teacher is someone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of antiquity (Analects 7.22). Confucius emphasized the need to find balance between formal study and intuitive self-reflection (Analects 2.15).
Throughout the Analects Confucius' students frequently request that Confucius define ren and give examples of people who embody it, but Confucius generally responds indirectly to his students' questions, instead offering illustrations and examples of behaviours that are associated with ren and explaining how a person could achieve it. According to Confucius, a person with a well-cultivated sense of ren would: speak carefully and modestly (Analects 12.3); be resolute and firm (Analects 12.20); be courageous (Analects 14.4); be free from worry, unhappiness, and insecurity (Analects 9.28; 6.21); moderate their desires and return to propriety (Analects 12.1); be respectful, tolerant, diligent, trustworthy, and kind (Analects 17.6); and, would love others (Analects 12.22). Confucius recognized his followers' disappointment that he would not give them a more comprehensive definition of ren, but assured them that he was sharing all that he could (Analects 7.23).
It strikes this reader as a very un-western book and difficult to decipher. In spite of that there is a lot that Confucius' thought has in common with the wisdom of the west. One of the most famous doctrines is that of "reciprocity".
15.24 Zigong asked: "Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?" The Master said: "Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others." (Simon Leys trans., p 77)
That is complementary to the more familiar "Golden Rule" that says one should "do unto others as one would have them do unto you." From reading the aphorisms one comes away with an appreciation for culture, family and what seems to be a conservative view of man. It also is a very humane, even humanistic, view of society.
Apparently this was just what was needed during the lifetime of Confucius as there was great change in his society. He lived during a period of acute cultural crisis. Confucius, like thinkers in the West from Socrates to Gandhi, demonstrated a confidence that in turn drew followers to him and his thought. We can thank them for what little of Confucius' thought that we have. In these books and fragments we have the distillation of his thought and it impresses me as worth meditating on. It is a treasure of humanity.

The Analects by Confucius.  D. C. Lau, trans. Penguin Classics, 1979

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