In Book 6 of the Analects, Confucius expresses his devastation at the loss of Yan Hui, his protégé and favorite, on three occasions. When Duke Ai, the nominal ruler of the state of Lu, asks him in 6.3 which of his followers love learning, he laments: “There was Yan Hui who loved learning; he never vented his anger; he never made the same mistake again. Sadly, his life was cut short and he died. I have not heard of anyone else with such a love of learning.”
It’s important to note that rather than talk about the intellectual knowledge that Yan Hui has accumulated as a result of his love of learning, Confucius focuses on demonstrating how he exhibits this knowledge though his conduct, including keeping his temper under control and never repeating previous mistakes.
In 6.7 Confucius continues in a similar vein, pointing out that “Yan Hui could focus his mind solely on goodness for three months, whereas others can manage only a day or a month.” In 6.11, the sage provides an even more vivid description of how Yan Hui has absorbed his teachings so completely that even though he had only “a handful of rice to eat, a gourd of water to drink, and a hovel in a shabby lane to live in… he never let it make any difference to his happiness.”
Unlike Confucius’s other followers, and indeed Confucius himself, Yan Hui appears to have reached such a sublime internal state that he is no longer affected by external conditions and events. No wonder Confucius was left reeling by the loss of the follower who was the living embodiment of his teachings.
I took this image at the Shanghai Confucius Temple. You can read more about it here.