By AK Vanprasthi
21 August 2018, Kathmandu
If a list is made of the names of the most influential thinkers in world history, whose thoughts and ideas have had a worldwide impact, the name of Chinese philosopher Confucius would certainly occupy a prominent place in that roster. He was most probably a contemporary of Gautam the Buddha. He possessed an evolved consciousness, and he was a sharp observer of the human condition and state of affairs.
Fung Yu-lan, a 20th-century Chinese historian opines that the influence of Confucius on Chinese history is comparable to the influence of Socrates’ ideas on Western history and philosophy. Such has been the abiding influence Confucius over the millennia for over two millennia and a half.
Huston Cummings Smith, an American religious studies scholar, has remarked that “For though Confucius did not author the Chinese culture, he was its supreme editor”. Many present-day Chinese scholars regard Confucianism as a doctrine which provides an alternative to the Western ideas, offering “alternative universalism”.
Confucius regarded himself as a person who recodified the values of times earlier than himself, namely the values prevalent during the Shang and Zhou dynasties in China. Thus, he played an instrumental role in retransmission of the inherited values.
Born on 28th September, 551 B.C. during the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, Confucius was a towering personality – perhaps the tallest — having very deep and penetrating insights in several areas. Therefore, his functional roles included those of a teacher, an educator, an editor, a politician, and a philosopher.
China in the sixth century B.C. was full of strife, marked by widespread civic unrest. States were conniving against each other and were continually on warpath in order to establish supremacy, and the rulers were routinely assassinated.
Despite being born in such a turbulent time, perhaps quite fittingly, Confucius developed a humanistic outlook and emphasized self-cultivation and development of virtue. He gives a roadmap for peace and harmony saying “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nations. When there is order in the nations, there will peace in the world.”
Confucius’ advice to people seeking peace and harmony is very similar to spiritual masters and meditation teachers of South Asia: “First there must be order and harmony within your own mind. Then this order will spread to your family, then to the community, and finally to your entire kingdom. Only then can you have peace and harmony.” Thus, Confucius emphasized the need and primary of transforming oneself before trying to change others. It is exactly what a South Asian spiritual master would advise his/her disciples.
According to Confucius, the goal of human life to be a sage (sheng), if possible. Since attaining the level of sage was difficult for most people, he prescribed that people become at least a perfect gentlemen (junzi), which was considered being only second to the sagehood. The first condition to become a perfect gentleman was benevolence and compassion.
The name Confucius is actually a Latinized form of the Mandarin Chinese language term “Kǒng Fūzǐ”, which translates as .”Master Kong”. The master of wisdom offered views on personal and governmental morality, ways to maintain correctness in social relationship, justice, and sincerity.
Confucius is believed to have either authored or edited five great Chinese texts, presently known as Five Classics: Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, I Ching, and Spring and Autumn Annals.
Even a casual reading of Confucius would convince anyone of his profound wisdom. Hence, calling him a grandmaster of wisdom should not be taken as a hyperbole. Of course, each one of us can find fault in teachings of anyone, including Confucius, and are free to disagree. Nevertheless, people familiar with the ancient wisdom of South Asia would be fascinated by uncanny similarities in sayings of ancient saints, seers, and sages of this part of the world with the observations and sayings of Confucius.
Take this one: “What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others”. Isn’t it a very obvious reference and call for an inward journey, which is a goal of all spiritual-religious traditions of South Asia? This is the goal of life set up by a Chun Tzu, translated into English as an ideal or superior person. Confucius’ prescribed practice of benevolence and compassion, proper conduct, and the stipulated a doctrine of the mean, among others, for a man who aspires to become such an “ideal person”.
Many of these ideas and prescription for becoming an “ideal person” have striking parallels with Gautam the Buddha’s teachings. The question about the way to transcend normal human condition was a central concern for Confucius. He observed that “The noble-minded are calm and steady. Little people are forever fussing and fretting” and issuing an advice, reminded people that “He who knows and knows that he knows is a wise man – follow him; he who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool – shun him”.
“What is knowledge?”, Confucius put forward the question, and provided an answer saying “What you know is what you know, what you don’t know, you don’t know, and understanding that and knowing that is true knowledge.”
One of the things Confucius wanted a person interested in becoming a “superior man” was to cultivate the art of peace as against the art of war. His art of peace included the use of poetry, music, odes, self-contemplation, restraint, the art of sensibility, etc. He wanted to promote harmony in society.
An observation and command of Confucius to governments, politicians and law enforcement agencies is very much relevant today as well: “Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously”.
As a young student, Confucius learned the then popular Six Arts: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy and Mathematics. Actually, during the era of Zhou Dynasty in China, all students were required to learn these skills collectively called the Six Arts. Later, as an educator, he taught these arts to his students and disciples. It is said that he had seventy-two disciples, who are now referred to as “72 disciples of Confucius”.
A sagacious advice from Confucius which all of us can very profitably apply in everyday life is ” do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”. This is especially an important point to order and apply for those who constantly fret and fume about others and their behavior to us, totally forgetting the pain inflicted by our own speech and actions to others.
And this one is very relevant in everyday life: “When the wind blows, the grass bends.” Grass does not fight with the wind. Since grass bends, it remains alive in its full greenery and glory. If we learn to manage our ego when the wind is blowing in an unfavorable direction to us. That is a wise way to survive and march forward.
(The quotes from Confucius are translations into English from many people, and have been collected from various sources.)