Learning from eastern wisdom

Learning from Confucius: The Analects (2)


Reflections by Noriko Takigami

(This is the second article of a series in which Noriko Takigami (Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom) will share personal observations from her ongoing study of the Analects of Confucius.)

Let's get started. Here is a passage from the Analects.

The Master said, "The person of excellence (de 徳) is certain to have something to say, but someone who has something to say is not necessarily an excellent person. The benevolent person (ren 仁) is certain to be courageous, but someone who is courageous is not necessarily benevolent."

* Precise translations of these terms are often difficult, but徳 (excellence) generally means to do one's best for others, while仁 (benevolence) can also mean being authoritative or consideration of others.

The idea of "de" (徳, excellence) is the ideal image, the best a person can be. It means being equipped with excellent qualities as a human being. I should remind readers of the five cardinal virtues of Confucianism which we have covered before. In my translations I have referred to them as "ren" (仁, benevolence), "yi" (義, righteousness), "li" (礼, propriety), "zhi" (智, wisdom), and "xin" (信, trustworthiness). Confucius said that among these five virtues, the virtue of "ren" (仁, benevolence) is the highest and most important one. In the world of Confucius and the Analects, "de" (徳, excellence) is an inherent quality or trait that people are born with. But it not enough just to possess it. We must also be able to manifest it.

My own interpretation of the passage at the top goes something like this: People who have been equipped with good qualities as human beings and are manifesting them properly will always say noble and proper things. That is because as they live, they are acting in the interest of others to the best of their ability. But people who say noble and proper things are not necessarily persons of excellence. Sometimes they are just saying those things. And a person who is benevolent and considerate of others will always be courageous when the going gets tough, motivated by their good nature. But there is no guarantee that a person who appears to be courageous is also benevolent. They may just be putting on a show.

There is also the concept of "zhongyong" (中庸, the middle path or moderation, and also, one of the four Chinese Classics, the Doctrine of the Mean). I introduced a related idea in "Learning from eastern wisdom: Yin and yang and you" (https://inst-east-and-west.org/en/learning/2019/002689.html). It means that after something goes to one extreme, it reverses and goes the other way. Date Masamune,* a storied historical figure and popular character in Japanese samurai movies, left us these words (my translation).

(*Date Masamune (1567 - 1636) was a regional ruler in Japan's Tohoku region, from the Azuchi-Momoyama period through the early Edo period. He eventually founded the modern-day city of Sendai.)

Too much benevolence makes one weak.
Too much righteousness makes one inflexible.
Too much propriety makes one pretentious.
Too much knowledge makes one spew untruths.
Too much trust makes one lose.

The five virtues of Confucius are important, but if we depend too much on them, we might end up going in the wrong direction. We need to have discretion to find the right balance.

I ask myself, day-to-day am I really considerate of the other person in my thoughts and actions? Reflecting on this, I feel I have some room for improvement. Going forward, as I continue to study the five virtues, I would like to think more about what I can do to make "excellence" a real part of who I am.