Getting on in the world

子張問「行」。子曰:「言忠信,行篤敬,雖蠻貊之邦行矣;言不忠信,行不篤敬,雖州里行乎哉?立則見其參於前也,在輿則見其倚於衡也,夫然後行!」子張書諸紳。
Zizhang asked about getting on in the world. Confucius said: “If your words are sincere and trustworthy and your actions are honorable and respectful, you will get on in the world even among the barbarian tribes. If your words are insincere and untrustworthy, if you act without honor and respect, how can you possibly get on in the world even in your own village? When you stand, you should always have this principle in front of you. When you drive you should have it carved upon the yoke of your carriage; only then will you truly be able to move ahead.” Zizhang wrote this down on his sash.

Success comes from cultivating your inner self rather than chasing after its external trappings such as fame and wealth. This is what Confucius is telling his ambitious young disciple Zizhang in this passage. If you live up to the commitments you make and treat other people well, you are guaranteed to “get on” in the world (even if it may take longer than you hope).

To make sure you stay on the right track, it helps to keep regular reminders of your core values on your car dashboard and smart phone if you don’t happen to ride in a carriage or wear a sash.

Confucius on effortless action

子曰:「無為而治者,其舜也與!夫何為哉?恭己正南面而已矣。」
Confucius said: “If there was a ruler who achieved order through effortless action it was Shun, wasn’t it? How did he do it? He composed himself with reverence and sat facing south. That was all.”

Effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is a term much more closely identified with Daoist teaching than Confucius, which is hardly surprising given that this is the only time it appears in the Analects. Continue reading Confucius on effortless action

A single thread (again)

子曰:「賜也,女以予為多學而識之者與?」對曰:「然,非與?」曰:「非也!予一以貫之。」
Confucius said: “Zigong, do you take me for someone who learns a lot and then stores it all up in my head?” Zigong replied: “Yes, is that not the case?” Confucius said: “No. I weave it all together into a single thread.”

Confucius made the same point in Book 4 Chapter XV when talking about his overall teachings: “Shen, my doctrine is all woven into a single thread.” 「參乎!吾道一以貫之。」 Continue reading A single thread (again)

Dire straits

在陳絕糧。從者病,莫能興。子路慍見曰:「君子亦有窮乎?」子曰:「君子固窮,小人窮斯濫矣。
In Chen, the food supplies were exhausted. His disciples became so weak that they could not rise to their feet. Zilu came to him and said indignantly: “How is it possible for a leader to be brought to such dire straits?” Confucius said: “A leader stays resolute in even the direst of straits but only a petty person loses his cool about it.”

I can’t say I blame Zilu for getting upset with Confucius for landing him and his fellow disciples stuck in the middle of nowhere sick, tired, and hungry. Still, Confucius gives back as good as he gets with his rejoinder, pointedly reminding Zilu and his companions that they should maintain their dignity even in the face of possible death. Talk about a captain going down with his sinking ship. Continue reading Dire straits

Military affairs

衛靈公問陳於孔子,孔子對曰:「俎豆之事,則嘗聞之矣;軍旅之事,未之學也。」明日遂行。
Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military tactics. Confucius replied: “Although I have experience in handling ritual vessels, I have never studied military matters.” He left the next day.

Duke Ling (c. 534 — 492 BC) was the ruler of Wei, one of the most powerful states during the Spring and Autumn Period. While he was wandering around in exile, Confucius worked very hard to secure an appointment with him in the hope of attaining an official position in the duke’s court. Continue reading Military affairs

A boy from the village of Que

闕黨,童子將命。或問之曰:「益者與?」子曰:「吾見其居於位也,見其與先生並行也;非求益者也,欲速成者也。」
A boy from the village of Que came bearing a message. Someone asked about him, saying: “Is he likely to improve himself?” Confucius said: “I have noticed that he seats himself among others and walks alongside people older than himself. He is not looking to improve himself; he wants to grow up too fast.”

Although there’s nothing exceptional about the boy’s behavior in the more informal social climate that prevails today, Confucius is scandalized by the lack of deference he shows to his elders. By wanting “to grow up too fast”, the boy promises to be nothing but trouble…. Continue reading A boy from the village of Que

An incorrigible rogue

原壤夷俟。子曰:「幼而不孫弟,長而無述焉,老而不死是為賊。」以杖叩其脛。
Yuan Rang sat cross-legged waiting for Confucius. Confucius said: “You were disobedient when you were young, achieved nothing of note when you grew up, and you’re still not dead now that you’re old: you’re nothing but an incorrigible rogue.” Then he struck him across the shin with his staff.

Yuan Rang was reputedly an eccentric old friend of Confucius, so this passage is probably meant to be humorous. I certainly hope this is the case, though a more censorious interpretation like the one below is by no means unfeasible: Continue reading An incorrigible rogue

Rigorous self-cultivation

子路問「君子」。子曰:「修己以敬。」曰:「如斯而已乎?」曰:「修己以安人。」曰:「如斯而已乎?」曰:「修己以安百姓。修己以安百姓,堯舜其猶病諸。」
Zilu asked what makes a leader. Confucius said: “Rigorous self-cultivation.” Zilu asked: “Is that all there is to it?” Confucius said: “He cultivates himself to bring comfort to the people. He cultivates himself to bring comfort to the people: this is something even Yao and Shun would have found very difficult.”

You can read all the “pearls of ancient wisdom” and “inspirational quotes” you like, but there’s no substitute for the daily grind of cultivating your thoughts and behavior. In the end, it’s all down to you. Continue reading Rigorous self-cultivation

An unhappy lot

子曰:「上好禮,則民易使也。」
Confucius said: “When their rulers love the rites, the people respond readily when they are called on for service.”

In common with other ancient Chinese thinkers, Confucius had a top-down view of how society should be governed. If the ruling classes adhered to the correct ethical principles and customs, the people would automatically follow them. Continue reading An unhappy lot