Zigong said: “The teachings of the master can be learned; but his views on the nature of things and the way of heaven can’t be learned.” (1)
What’s the purpose of education? Is it to teach people how to think or what to think?
Confucius was firmly in the former camp. By teaching the ancient Chinese classics to his followers and students, his aim was to equip them with the knowledge and intellectual and ethical tools they needed to become a productive member of society and deal effectively with the challenges of the here and now.
When it came to more ethereal topics such as the origins and nature of the world, Confucius avoided talking about them. Why spend precious time and energy worrying about questions you have no hope of answering when there are more than enough problems in the real world left to solve?
Given his deep knowledge of ancient rituals and texts such as the Book of Changes, not to mention his great love of nature, there is little doubt that Confucius thought deeply about what we would term as spiritual affairs. However, like any teacher worth their salt, he chose not to impose his views on his followers and students and left them free to ponder such matters themselves.
This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.
(1) There has been extensive debate over whether Confucius was spiritual or religious. Some of this was fueled in the West by the Jesuit priests and subsequently protestant missionaries who were the first to translate ancient texts and attempted to position him as a Chinese religious figure. Such efforts were, to put it mildly, misguided to say the least.
I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.