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