Ancient chinese philosophy

Part Two

Do you remember the first time you were paid for your work as a kid? Maybe you mowed the lawn or shoveled snow or watched someone’s kids. I hope you had the experience of getting a bundle of money that felt generous, maybe even extravagant. There are so many subtle messages tied up in that exchange: you are valued, you belong in a reliable community of caring, you have the power to make the world better for people around you, you deserve to be safe and celebrated. 

Maybe, too, you’ve encountered mean and stingy people, who think it’s a virtue to pinch their pennies and get the most they can from people – even kids! – for the least investment. They keep track of all the ways people owe them and never stop to consider that we are each born onto this beautiful planet with no rights, but with a duty to take care of each other however we can. 

Confucius lived in a world that looked much different from ours on the surface. Work, family structures, travel, healthcare, government, communication were so much more rudimentary. Certainly society is brighter and shinier and more temperature-controlled now than it was 2500 years ago. But Confucius was a student of human nature, and much of what he observed is just as relevant today as it was then. I’m not even sure we’re further as a species, for all our history and knowledge and increased connectedness, than we were then. 

What a person had then and what we each have today is just one little life, no more and no less, to work out the best way to live with others and with ourselves. What we are each surrounded by are temptations to skip ahead, to choose whatever feels good fast over what our hearts need. (We are also surrounded by teachers who devote their lives to offering what our hearts need. Two of my favorites were Thich Nhat Hanh, who died this week, and bell hooks, who died last month. Hereis a conversation between the two of them on love, if you want more to read after this.)

Confucius was talking about exactly the same choices, in essence, that we have today. Reverence. Honor. Holding to our truth. Twice in Book Twelve he talks about staying rooted in the family. We might feel so modern with our child labor laws and compulsory K-12 education, but what does it mean if our children don’t learn that they are cherished and that the way they conduct their lives for themselves and others matters? 

Excerpts from this week’s reading that influenced my thinking (jumping between Ames/Rosemont and Pound translations):
Book Five, XXV: I would most like that the aged have quiet, and friends rely on our words, and that the young be cherished.
Book Six, II: If a man’s home address is reverence he can be easy-going, and thereby come near the people, that’s permissible. But if his basic address is: take it easy and he carries that into action, it will be too much of a take-it-easy.
Book Six, XI: Observe the phenomena of nature as one in whom the ancestral voices speak, don’t just watch in a mean way.
Book Six, XVIII: Those who know aren’t up to those who love; nor those who love, to those who delight in
Book Six, XXI: The wise enjoy water; those humane in their conduct enjoy mountains. The wise are active; the humane are tranquil. The wise find pleasure; the humane get long life.
Book Seven, XI: If I could get rich by being a postillion I’d do it; as one cannot, I do what I like. 
Book Twelve, II: In your public life, look on others as if you were receiving great guests; employ the common people as though you are overseeing a great sacrifice. What you don’t want (done to you) don’t do to another, settle in a district without fault-finding, take root in the home without fault-finding.
Book Twelve, V: I have heard it said, “Life and death are a matter of one’s lot; wealth and honor lie with heaven.” The man with the voices of his forebears within him is reverent; he gives others respect and observes ritual propriety, everyone in the world is their brother.  
Book Twelve, X: To get to the centre (what it is all about), making good on one’s word, and seeking out what is appropriate as one’s main concerns, is to accumulate excellence/ raise the level of conscience.
Book Twelve, XX: The far-effective man is solid, upright, loves justice; examines people’s words, looks into their faces, thinks how, in what way, he is inferior to them, roots in the state and goes far; roots in his family and effects things at a distance.

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