End of a dream

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子曰:「甚矣吾衰也!久矣吾不復夢見周公!」
Confucius said: “I am becoming terribly weak. It has been a long time since I last saw the Duke of Zhou in a dream.”

Although he didn’t directly acknowledge it, it is clear that Confucius long held out the hope that he would be able to emulate the legendary Duke of Zhou and return the country to its former glory by restoring the institutions and cultural rites that were established by his role model in the twelfth century BC. Continue reading End of a dream

Endless worries

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子曰:「德之不修,學之不講,聞義不能徒,不善不能改,是吾憂也。」
Confucius said: “Failure to nurture my virtue, failure to discuss what I have learned, failure to follow what I know to be right, and failure to correct my faults: these are the worries that plague me.”

There’s an intensity to these words that sounds almost hollow in an age when bureaucrats glibly talk about “lessons learned” from one fiasco before promptly moving on to preside over another, and all badly-behaving celebrities and athletes have to do in order to achieve absolution is to make a ritual, preferably tear-filled, apology on TV or the Internet. Continue reading Endless worries

Irrepressible enthusiasm

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子曰:「默而識之,學而不厭,誨人不倦,何有於我哉?」
Confucius said: “Quietly absorbing knowledge, learning and yet never growing weary, teaching and yet never becoming tired – how can any of these be difficult for me?”

The opening section of Book 7 of the Analects features some revealing quotes from Confucius about his character and approach to life. Continue reading Irrepressible enthusiasm

I transmit but I don’t create

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子曰:「述而不作,信而好古,竊比於我老彭。」
Confucius said: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past. In this respect, I dare to compare myself with Old Peng.”

Confucius makes no claims of originality in his work. There are no trademarks attached to the words and phrases he uses to describe the principles and practices he espouses, and there are no copyright marks either. He is sharing thoughts and ideas from the past so that they can be passed on to future generations. No royalty fees included. Continue reading I transmit but I don’t create

Path to goodness

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子貢曰:「如有博施於民,而能濟眾,何如?可謂仁乎?」子曰:「何事於仁,必也聖乎!堯舜其猶病諸!夫仁者,己欲立而立人,己欲達而達人。能近取譬,可謂仁之方也已。」
Zigong said: “What if far-reaching policies were implemented among the people that benefited the masses? Could that be described as goodness?” Confucius said: “Such an action labeled as goodness could almost be described as perfection. Even Yao and Shun would not be able to match it! Good people help others get on their feet before themselves and empower them to achieve their goals before they achieve their own. When good examples can be followed in your immediate vicinity, it can be said that you are on the right track to benevolence.”

Where does the path to goodness start: with the enlightened policies of a virtuous ruler or simple acts of individual kindness? This is the question that is addressed in the final chapter of Book 6 of the Analects. Continue reading Path to goodness

Doctrine of the Mean

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子曰:「中庸之為德也,其至矣乎!民鮮久矣。」
Confucius said: “Virtue acquired by the application of the Doctrine of the Mean is supreme. Yet it has been rare among people for a long time.”

The term 中庸 (zhōngyōng) literally means “central ordinary” so it’s probably no surprise that it has caused endless scratching of heads among translators of the Analects. I have chosen to go with Burton Watson’s “Doctrine of the Mean” for the simple reason that it has a much grander ring to it and is much better known than alternatives such as “Constant Mean”, “Middle Way”, or even “Focusing the Familiar”. Continue reading Doctrine of the Mean

May Heaven punish me!

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子見南子,子路不說。夫子矢之曰:「予所否者,天厭之!天厭之!」
Confucius went to see Nanzi (the concubine of Duke Ling of Wei). Zilu was not happy. Confucius swore: “If I have done wrong, may Heaven punish me! May Heaven punish me!”

You only have to glance at the portrayals of the notorious Qing Dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi and Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian to realize that powerful women do not enjoy the most, er, wholesome of reputations in Chinese history. Both are accused not only of quite incredible feats of promiscuity but also of using their feminine wiles to seduce innocent men in their insatiable lust for power and riches. Continue reading May Heaven punish me!

Cultural and ritual balance

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子曰:「君子博學於文,約之以禮,亦可以弗畔矣夫!」
Confucius said: “A leader expands his learning through culture and keeps his behavior in check through the rites; as a result, he is unlikely to go wrong.”

A leader needs to achieve the right balance between creativity and order. Culture provides the fuel for boosting creativity while the rites help keep the ego in check so that you stay on the right path. Continue reading Cultural and ritual balance

Analects of Confucius, Book 20

Chapter I
堯曰:「咨!爾舜!天之歷數在爾躬,允執其中!四海困窮,天祿永終。」舜亦以命禹。曰:「予小子履,敢用玄牡,敢昭告于皇皇后帝,有罪不敢赦,帝臣不蔽,簡在帝心!朕躬有罪,無以萬方;萬方有罪,罪在朕躬。」「周有大賚,善人是富。」「雖有周親,不如仁人;百姓有過,在予一人。謹權量,審法度,修廢官,四方之政行焉。興滅國,繼絕世,舉逸民,天下之民歸心焉。所重民,食喪祭。寬則得眾,信則民任焉。敏則有功,公則說。」
Yao said: Oh, Shun! The Heavenly succession was bestowed upon you; hold faithfully to the middle way; if the people within the Four Seas fall into suffering and penury, the honors bestowed on you by Heaven’s gift will be taken away from you forever.

Shun passed the same message to Yu.

Tang said, “I, the humble Lu, dare to sacrifice a black bull and dare to make this declaration before my great Lord. I dare not pardon those who are guilty. Your servants cannot hide anything from you. You have already judged them in your heart. If I am guilty, please do not punish the people of the myriad states because of me; but if the people of the myriad states are guilty, let the responsibility lie with me alone.”

“The House of Zhou is greatly blessed. Good men are its riches.” “Although I have my own kinsmen, I prefer to rely on good men. If the common people do wrong, let their faults fall on my head alone. If I set the standards for weights and measures, carefully examine the laws and regulations, and restore the offices that have been abolished, the authority of the government will reach everywhere. If I restore the states that have been destroyed, revive the broken dynastic lines, and bring back to office great men who were sent into exile, I will win the hearts of the people throughout the world. I will give priority to the people; food; mourning; and sacrifice. If I am tolerant I will win the masses. If I am trustworthy, the people will entrust me with responsibility. If I am enthusiastic, I will achieve success. If I am fair and just, I will bring happiness to the people.”

Chapter II

子張問於孔子曰:「何如斯可以從政矣?」子曰:「尊五美,屏四惡,斯可以從政矣。」子張曰:「何謂五美?」子曰:「君子惠而不費,勞而不怨,欲而不貪,泰而不驕;威而不猛。」子張曰:「何謂惠而不費?」子曰:「因民之所利而利之,斯不亦惠而不費乎?擇可勞而勞之,又誰怨!欲仁而得仁,又焉貪!君子無眾寡,無小大,無敢慢,斯不亦泰而不驕乎!君子正其衣冠,尊其瞻視,儼然人望而畏之,斯不亦威而不猛乎!」子張曰:「何謂四惡?」子曰:「不教而殺謂之虐,不戒視成謂之暴,慢令致期謂之賊,猶之與人也,出納之吝,謂之有司。」
Zizhang asked Confucius: “What qualities must you have in order to be fit to take part in government?” Confucius said: “If you cultivate the five virtues and cast out the four vices you are fit to govern.”

Zizhang asked: “What are the five virtues?” Confucius said: “A leader is generous without having to spend anything; he inspires people to work hard without complaining; he is ambitious without being greedy; he is confident without being arrogant; he is imposing without being frightening.”

Zizhang said: “How can you be ‘generous without having to spend anything’?” Confucius said: “If you let the people take advantage of what is beneficial for them, aren’t you being generous without having to spend anything? If you assign the people to work on tasks that are reasonable, who will complain? If your ambition is to be good and you accomplish it, how can you be greedy? If a leader treats everyone equally no matter whether they are many or few or humble or great, he is confident without being arrogant. If a leader wears his robe and cap correctly, his gaze is straight, and he carries himself with a dignified air that inspires the people’s awe, he is imposing but not frightening.”

Zizhang said: “What are the four vices?” Confucius said: “If you execute people without attempting to reform them you are being cruel; if you carry out an inspection of a public works project without giving a prior warning you are being tyrannical; if you expect the immediate completion of a project after being slow to approve it, you are acting like a thief; if you are tight-fisted in paying people what is rightfully theirs, you are being bureaucratic.”

Chapter III
子曰:「不知命,無以為君子也。不知禮,無以立也。不知言,無以知人也。」
Confucius said: “If you don’t understand fate you cannot become a leader. If you don’t understand the rites, you cannot become a complete person. If you don’t understand the meaning of words, you cannot understand people.”