Inner Peace

The Master said, “What a worthy man was Yan Hui! Living in a narrow alley, subsisting on a basket of grain and gourd full of water — other people could not have borne such hardship, yet it never spoiled Hui’s joy. What a worthy man was Hui!” (Analects 6.11, tr. Slingerland)
Yan Hui was Confucius’ favorite student, the most naturally virtuous and intelligent person he had ever met. When Yan Hui died young, the Master was inconsolable. This Analect tells us everything we need to know about his character. It is the character not of someone mindlessly happy (do such people exist?), but of someone who is serene and clear in the knowledge that he is doing everything he is meant to be doing. The 11th century Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhou Dunyi comments, “Master Yan simply focused on what was important and forgot what was trivial. When you focus upon what is important, your heart is at peace; when your heart is at peace, you will fnd satisfaction in all things.”

   A macrobiotic nutritionist, extolling the goodness of ordinary brown rice and lamenting the desire to complicate it with spices and additional tastes, once said to me that a healthy person finds simple things like brown rice and fresh bread tasty. Not needing extra stimulation, healthy taste buds are fully satisfied by a bowl of rice and water. It is not that Yan Hui’s elevated virtue enabled him to tolerate his poor man’s diet; to other people it would have been hardship, but to him this diet was abundant.  The insight of this Analect is that even though Yan Hui might have been a man of poor physical health, it was his moral and spiritual health that freed him up to find contentment in the simple.


1 thought on “Inner Peace”

  1. Krishnan,
    Confucius was first and last a teacher/counsellor rather than a philosopher like Socrates or a preacher like the Buddha. He was however not regimented like a kungfu sifu or insoucient and withdrawn deep in contemplative meditation like a Zen or Taoist Master. Confucius taught and instructed ‘situationally’, out in the real world – at home, in the class room and in the workplace.
    To know a teacher, from his teachings, when there were no set course or curriculum, you need to know him from the questions asked of him by his students or by those who sought his counsel, and conversely from his answers and how he grades his top students – in this case Zilu, Zigong and Yan Hui.
    Yan Hui was the student that he praised the most – the one that was most like him in proclivity and perspicuity – the one that he would have nominated as his successor – had Yan Hui not die before him – Confucius ended up not nominating a successor – he grieved for Yan Hui more than did for any other in his lifetime.
    If we looked upon Confucius as the ideal teacher, hand in hand we would have to look at Yan Hui as the ideal student – he was assiduous, he was reverent, he was humble, he was respectful and even when he reached higher than his teacher in spirituality in acquiring equanimity to all things, to accept the world for what it is and changing it and accomodating it to one’s best ability, to go with the flow in a Wu-Wei sense, he always ‘lowered’ and subordinated himself to Confucius like an honourable loyal pious filial son.
    Confucius said it all when he said to Yan Hui in front of the impulsive and impetuous Zilu – “Only the two of us are able to take action when action is required and to retire (walk away) when we have let go.”
    So what did Confucius really teach? Nothing really, other reiterating how to play the game of Wei-Qi of life – know first the rules or rituals and then learn and think how to make the right moves! All else depends on Tien (Heaven).

    Liked by 1 person

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