A Peek Into Eternity

The Duke of She asked Zilu about Confucius. Zilu had no reply.
   [Upon Zilu’s return] the Master said, “Why did you not just say, ‘He is the type of person who is so passionate that he forgets to eat, whose joy renders him free of worries, and who grows old without noticing the passage of the years.'”   (Analects, 7.19)

Dutiful translators as well as Confucian scholars conspire to make Confucius sound like a stiff, know-it-all fuddy-duddy obsessed with the fine points of etiquette. They want him to speak like an authority-figure because they have made him into one. Instead, this Analect reveals a man of child-like innocence who, even in age, regularly loses track of time. It is touching that this is what he wants to be known for — not his wisdom, his social sensitivity, or any of his achievements. This capacity for forgetting time is what makes all the other attainments worth while.

   When was the last time you were so engrossed that you forgot to eat? Do you remember a period in your life when this happened a lot? If it still happens a lot, you are lucky — because commonly it happens less and less frequently as we age. The losing of time is our peek into eternity, and it may be all the eternity we get as human beings.  It is the special gift of childhood, and we call it play: in this state there is nothing lacking, no before or after. The sense of time intrudes later, as a residue of regret and anxiety, of things left undone, done badly, or yet to be done. Without the concern for past and future, we are free of time. We do our children a disservice by forcing them prematurely to learn how to schedule; children should be spacey and absorbed, and they should be free play. The revelation here is that the great sage of East Asia, whether he is conducting ceremonies or teaching or trying to tame tyrants, might in fact be playing — not in the sense of “fooling around,” but as the deepest, most serious human engagement. 

   Living in deep play, one might not even notice the passing of time and the withering of age.


15 thoughts on “A Peek Into Eternity”

  1. Krishnan,
    I think something has been lost in the translation.
    We have a habit of reading Confucius, like the way we we read the Bible or the Gospels; of reading what Jesus said long after his death, instead of reading what Jesus said, as if we were a Pharisee, Sadducee or a Samaritan standing in the crowd before him.
    We fail to understand the chaotic context of Confucius’s China. He was a nobody outside of his hometown or district. He was a resident in the Duchy of Lu. Those days you do not cross boundaries unless you are in exile or on the run. There were more chieftains or local godfathers that control your existence then the ‘unseen’ King. Over the hill, across the river, across the district, you are already a ‘foreigner’. People spoke different languages, different dialects. Only the written brushstroke hieroglyphics were their common language.
    In the Duchy of She, Confucius and his companion and students were in exile, wandering or on the run. They were basically jobless. Confucius was a counsellor teacher like Aristotle was to Alexander the Great. Confucius was not a Taoist hermit or philosopher. He was a man of society. He taught about how society is to be run and not about running away from society. He was not a spiritual man; beyond rituals to honour one’s ancestors, Heaven and to placate demons and ghosts. In fact in one of the Analects he told this very Zilu – why talk about death when you do not yet know about life?
    Zilu is to Confucius what Ananda was to the Buddha or Lazarus was to Jesus. Zilu as the retainer or aide-de-camp would have had to go ahead to inform the Duke of She about Confucius & Co ‘s presence.
    Something must have gone wrong or amiss if Zilu in this instance could not reply to the Duke of She. This was after all a normal task for him announcing and heralding his Master. But most Kings, Princes and Dukes in Confucius time were not ‘learned’ men. They were more into military forays and debauchery and womanising. The Duke of She must have been a ‘learned’ man, and therefore Zilu must have been eight-balled! He did not know what to say to someone who was equivalent to his Master but had ‘regal’ power on top of that!
    So Confucius’s reply here to Zilu was more like a retort to Zilu’s saying to him that he said nothing to the Duke of She – in the sense as why did you not give the usual trite cliche or name card about me?
    Even then this verbal curriculum vitae that you cited has been mistranslated.
    In vernacular (remember Confucius has to advertise that he is a thinker and teacher, a man who can solve civil and public service mismanagement) it would have gone as follows in Chinese conversational way of speaking – ‘he is a learned man and of action when it comes to solving problems – when he is given a problem to solve, he is so happy that he forgets he has to eat, forgets about life pleasures and he will be so totally absorbed by his thinking that he has no idea that time is passing by.”
    The stress should be on the nature of Confucius’s ‘passion’. His passion was his occupation as a counsellor teacher. His passion was not that of a hermit or a philosopher like Zhuangzi, with no idea of time. Confucius was in fact fearful that he had not enough time to return and work and die in his home Duchy. The ancient Chinese had a fear of dying in a foreign place, and in those ancient times it could be just over the hill or across the river.
    To understand Confucius’s conversation you have to first transform or translate a newspaper reporter’s written account of a conversation into vernacular speech like a novel into a play.



  2. 葉公問孔子於子路,子路不對。子曰:“女奚不曰,其為人也,發憤忘食,樂以忘憂,不知老之將至云爾。As you can see, there is not much information about context, and what you give is largely reconstructed by tradition. I’m aware of your interpretation because it would be a thoughtful variant of what has become the traditional one. It is most helpful to me, because as always you remind me of the other side. My reading is simply how I am understanding Confucius in this passage, and not at all an attempt to give a correct account of him as a historical figure. I know that I am reading against the cultural grain (much as we both read the Gospels against the cultural grain!), but I think my reading is in line with later Confucian scholars like Wang Yangming and with the “exalted” Confucius we see in some other analects and the Zhong Yong. It suffices for me that my interpretation is possible; whether it is plausible or not we shall see, but let me have about 20 of these before we judge. I know it’s easy to find fault with my reading of any one particular passage (especially with no room for scholarly expatiation), but bear with me over time as I try to find words for what it is that moves me about this guy. I am trying to see Confucius “new” and for myself, and ignoring what the tradition says. He is BEFORE Chinese, because what later becomes Chinese is woven on interpreting him — so I’m going to ignore all that and rashly flesh out my own sense. As Zhuangzi says, “I am goung you speak to you some reckless words, and I want you to listen recklessly!”


    1. By the way, the translation I am using, by Slingerland, is excellent. I don’t agree with all his renditions, but he has assimilated the Chinese scholarship as well as Neo-Confucian commentaries to produce the most careful and, to me, most interesting version.


  3. Krishnan,
    Yes, I understand. The Analects are not comprehensive and complete. There are more blanks than what we have to read or know about them. We have only some pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The Bible is the same. I do not understand how the Church and Christians at large can pretend that it is the sum total of everything that Jesus ever said. Can you appreciate the Mona Lisa if you only have the cheeks and the ears?


    1. Exactly! All philosophers see things that are true; the problem comes when they try to turn what they see into the Whole. The refreshing thing about the ancient Chinese is that they never did that and were content with the wisdom of fragments.


    2. And again, as you say, no person or culture owns it all. I have always been struck by Nietzsche’s observation that only in the 19th century have we begun to understand Socrates. I think he is right. It can take 2000 years for someone to be understood, and often it is by people outside the culture — e.g., how the Chan and Zen masters understood the Buddha. I often feel that Zhuangzi’s time is only just beginning, and Confucius has to be dug out from his culture before we can really see him — same in the West with the Bible. It may well be that a Chinese Zen practitioner is the best able to understand Jesus.


  4. Krishnan,
    I think we both appreciate that when get into the depths of wisdom of Zhuangzi’s Taoism and also Zen Buddhism, the original Confucianism must be left as it is – a humanistic or societal philosophy of scholarship and learning, ethics and morals, social structure and human relationship and most importantly equal opportunity based on education and merit and of proper governance by those in power – which are later articulated more fluently by Mencius. Confucius was however the catalyst for change to China or should that be the Chinese becoming ‘civilised’. He was the Father or Founder of Chinese learning and education and moral philosophy. That is why he is revered and in fact worshipped like no other Chinese that was not an Emperor. No Chinese will ever consider himself or herself learned if he or she did not recognise Confucius as the Master Teacher. Lao Tze is only needed by those into metaphysics and the esoteric and occult – but that is a personal spiritual quest and not about learning and education and dedication to be a ‘superior man’ in society, in the community.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, because these are the people who made the culture. Like Homer for the Greeks, Dante for Italians, Goethe for the Germans. You can inagine the culture just fine without its statesmen and generals, but not without figures like these.


  5. Krishnan,

    I thank you for refreshing in me my thoughts of Confucius. As a Chinese, and on a day to day basis in terms of culture and tradition, particularly the standard set of being considered having ‘ren’, which the one word used colloquially to represent ‘the ideal moral being’ (the ‘ren’ for human benevolence or compassion sounds exactly like the ‘ren’ as in human – so when I was a young I thought of it in terms of being human as in good or a demon as in evil), the Confucian ideal is to be inculcated through education and ritual (in main – filial piety and ancestral reverence).

    In my opinion, Confucian Analects cannot be considered in isolation from the two main successor Confucian Masters – Mencius and Xunzi (or Xun Kuang). Both basically split Confucian thought into two. This is because the former believed that man is innately good but the latter believed that man is innately bad or evil. Confucius was not specific on this point as he was more into how a superior being should behave and into avoiding the bad and fraternising with the good.

    Once Buddhism arrived in China and was married to the Tao and had Zen as their progeny, the worldly scope and stage of Confucius, was pushed back to being just a historical and cultural foundation of being Chinese.

    The Chinese Tao/Zen spiritual or eschatological revolution or renaissance then took over.

    So, please be longaminous and patient and forgive me if I somehow discuss Confucius more from a Chinese cultural and his being a fatherly icon perspective rather than from an academic philosophical point of view. This comes from being Chinese and in taking Confucius for granted, as being part of the inheritance, as part of our DNA.



    1. Nothing to forgive, Vince! I learn from your perspective. While I know that the Odes, the Analects, Mengzi, and Xunzi should be taken as a single ball of thread to understand Confucius as he has come down to us through time, I try to disentangle this ball and get a new vision — perhaps ending up occasionally with a playful sabotaging of the conventional view, like Zhuangzi’s portrait of Confucius! Anyway, thanks.


  6. Krishnan,
    If you get to see the movie ‘Confucius’ starring Chee Yun Fatt (another Hakka lad) as Confucius, you will the true state of despair and despondency of both Confucius in his attempt and effort to be righteous and to survive in an unrighteous feudal world, his years of futile and hopeless wandering in exile with a few loyal student/companions and the rigid ritualistic corrupt and depraved ‘dog eat dog’ chaotic society he was seeking a livelihood in.
    Like Jesus, he became a ‘somebody’ only after he died, and then through the efforts of Mencius and Xunzi centuries later.
    And thus the creation of a Chinese people’s legend like Confucius like Camelot or Robin Hood but in a ‘pen mightier than the sword’ sort of sense, rather than the valour of a knight.
    But the ideal is not in the creating an ideal out of the limited ‘words’ in fragments of bamboo writing found but the ideal is in the ‘man’ Confucius himself, in his (i) seeking to better himself, to seeking a position of status, as a Mandarin, no matter how poor your socio-economic status, through education and learning (ii) seeking to be the ‘ideal exemplary moral man’ to uphold the Chinese traditions and culture and cohesion and peace and law and order in Chinese society.
    In the three-legged stool of ‘equal opportunity’, ‘meritocracy’ and ‘structured society’ (shortformed as ‘Filial Piety’ or ‘family unit’ or ‘No-Self’) that is represented by Confucianism, you can see why in the West, with its basic unit block as the individual or Self, if it should apply Confucianism, it will flop like a two legged stool!


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