Today marks the birth date of the man who might be said to have fathered the East.
More than two and a half millennia have passed since Kong Fuzi was born, and even still he is alive and well in the hearts of over a fifth of the world’s inhabitants. Confucius (as he’s known in the West) is one of the pillars of humanity, in the same pantheon as Socrates, Muhammad, Moses, the Buddha, and the Christ. If you want to understand life on this present Earth, he cannot be omitted.
The Master said: “I transmit and do not create. I believe in and love antiquity, secretly comparing myself to our Lao Peng.”
Lun Yu, 7.1, trans. Chichung Huang
Born in the tumultuous Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou Dynasty, when the empire had fragmented into scores of contending states and scores of contending lords, Confucius began to study the ancient practices of the first Zhou rulers, believing their ways would restore peace across the land. While learning as much as he could of their rituals and wisdom, he rose through the ranks of the feudal system and gathered a company of devoted students.
Students applying for Santa Fe’s Master of Arts in Eastern Classics begin their journey with Lun Yu (Analects, or more literally, Ethical Dialogues), a collection of sayings and exchanges between the Master and his students. He, like many a transcendent genius, is not believed to have written down any of his own teachings; Lun Yu is considered the most authoritative source on what the Master actually espoused.
Zi-gong asked: “Is there one single word that one can practice throughout one’s life?”
The Master said: “It is perhaps ‘like-hearted considerateness [shu].’ ‘What you do not wish for yourself, do not impose on others.'”
Lun Yu, 15.24, trans. Chichung Huang
Confucius exhorted his followers, and the rulers he hoped to council, to be gentlemanly, to culture themselves in the arts and classic texts, and to order their lives according to the Way of humaneness. Quote after quote in the Lun Yu details the Master’s belief in virtue over forcefulness, and attaining knowledge over attaining fortune. He used each day to learn more about the Way (for he admitted he didn’t possess it himself) and to impart this same indefatigability to his students.
Unfortunately, Confucius failed to take office from which to practice on the political level what he preached. His five-year stint as minister in the State of Lu resulted in just one diplomatic victory over the neighboring rival State of Qi, but Qi’s ruler easily revenged the deed by seducing Lu’s ruler with a gift of singing maidens. Confucius, unable to persuade Lu’s ruler to follow the Way of humane ruling, promptly left the court. He died never achieving his goal of societal peace, not even on the local level.
The Master said: “Oh, it is all over! I have never seen anyone who can, on seeing his own fault, inwardly improve himself.”
Lun Yu, 5.27, trans. Chichung Huang
The story, of course, doesn’t end with the Master’s death in 479 BCE. His teachings were kept alive and promulgated by his disciples, defeating rival schools of thought and surviving statewide book burnings, until Confucian thought was infused into both the civil and educational infrastructure of Chinese society.
As scholar Chichung Huang writes in the introduction to his translation of Lun Yu, Confucian “moral philosophy, incorporated in the classics of the Ru School, was the basis for a whole civilization that was passed down from generation to generation through the private school system and the elite class (the officials and scholars who formed the intelligentsia of the time) and, by word of mouth and daily practice, was partially passed on through the elite class to the commoners, so that it has dominated the Chinese mind for the last twenty centuries.”
And it didn’t stop there: his words were carried into the Korean peninsula, and from there they sailed to Japan. (Even Bashō’s poetry, the final author on the Eastern Classics reading list, finds inspiration from the Master.) Centuries later sees celebrations held in numerous countries in East Asia, even in China — after decades of Maoism threatening to strip the republic clean of backward Confucianism — where Confucius is honored during “Teachers’ Day.”
The Master said: “Do not worry about men not knowing you; rather, worry about your incapability.”
Lun Yu, 14.30, trans. Chichung Huang
May his life’s work continue to be celebrated as a ritual in itself!