When Confucius fell seriously ill, Zilu asked permission to pray. Confucius said: “Does such a practice exist?” Zilu replied: “Certainly. The liturgy says: ‘We pray to the spirits from above and the spirits from below.’” Confucius said: “If that’s the case, I’ve been praying for myself for a long time now.”
Is it appropriate to offer to pray for someone if they don’t share your religious beliefs? No doubt Zilu was so worried about his master’s condition that he was willing to try anything that might help him to stay alive, but Confucius clearly thought not and decided stuck to his own secular principles.
Probably in deference to his faithful friend and follower’s obvious concern, Confucius chose to laugh off Zilu’s offer to call for the aid of the spirits from above and below as a joke rather than give him a direct refusal. A sensitive way to deal with a tendentious question!
This article features a translation of Chapter 34 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.
(1) Confucius was very suspicious of the malign influence that talk of spirits and ghosts had over people and thus avoided discussing the subject as much as possible. For him, it was much more important to focus on improving the here and now rather than worrying about the unknowable mysteries of the other world.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.