When Zengzi was ill, he called his disciples together and said: “Look at my feet! Look at my hands! It is said in the Book of Songs:
We should be vigilant and careful,
As if we are standing on the edge of an abyss,
As if we are treading on thin ice.
But now, my little ones, I know that I am escaping whole now and forever after.”
The third chapter of Book 8 kicks off a series of passages that feature the utterances of Zengzi, one of Confucius’s most famous disciples and proselytizers who went on to become a major philosopher in his own right.
Zengzi started following Confucius when the latter was already an old man. After the sage’s death, he played an instrumental role in promoting the teachings of Confucius and is credited with having written a large part of the Great Learning (大學/dàxué), one of the four Confucian classics. In addition, his own disciples are said to have played an important role in the compilation of the Analects. It’s perhaps not a coincidence, therefore, that Zengzi himself is featured in the book.
One of the key elements of Zengzi’s particular brand of Confucian philosophy was a strong (some might say extreme) sense of filial piety (孝/xiào), a duty that he believed should be observed even after the death of one’s parents. Hence, in this chapter he proudly demands that his disciples look at his hands and feet so that they can see he is honoring his parents by leaving the world just as he arrived in it – with his body completely intact (though perhaps with a few wrinkles).
Just to make sure they get the point, Zengzi summarizes his philosophy towards life with a quote from chapter 195 of the Book of Odes: thanks to his vigilance and caution, he has succeeded in avoiding getting caught up in the vicissitudes and temptations of the tumultuous times he has lived in and departs with his body and spirit in a pristine state.
Given the great contribution he made towards establishing the intellectual foundations of Confucianism, Zengzi’s cautious approach to living certainly worked for him. Except, I can’t help thinking that it’s the scars you pick up along the way that make life really interesting…..