In honor of Confucius’ birthday on September 28th, 551 BCE*, I’m republishing a piece originally published here last year by one-time regular contributor Eric Gerlach. Following his interesting piece, you’ll find a list of great online sources and articles for learning about this seemingly timeless sage: so many of his words of wisdom seem as pertinent today as in his own time.
Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics, by Eric Gerlach
The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.
Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy. Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.
Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this? Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom. Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.
The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful. The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right. The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.
Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone
When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings. First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.
Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.” Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing. Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.” Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.
Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves. Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves. Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning. Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.
Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state. When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone. About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”
Daoism, Perspective & Less is More
The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind. Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours. In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight. The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls. In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:
You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs. They’re limited by the space they live in. You can’t discuss ice with summer insects. They’re bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars. They’re shackled by their doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.
If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp? If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey? Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live? We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice. Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste? Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish. Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?
Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action. This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more. Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again. In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position. He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time. The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes. The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it. The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father. The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.
There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:
Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike. Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry. Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them. Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.
Those who divide fail to divide. Those who judge are bad at judging. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others. So I say, those who judge fail to see.
When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill. When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.
Learn more about the great Confucius:
Confucius ~ by Jeffrey Riegel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Confucius ~ by the editors for the Encyclopædia Britannica
Confucius (551—479 B.C.E.) ~ by Jeff Richey for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up ~ by Simon Worrall for the National Geographic, March 25, 2015
*By the way, it may seem rather amazing that we’d have an exact date for Confucius’ birthday. I’m just guessing that there might have been a cultural reason to assign this date to his birth later on. Here’s the source for that date: Confucius: A Guide for the Perplexed by Yong Huang, 2013, p. 3.
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