Why a Sage Asks Questions

When the Master went into the Great Ancestral Temple, he asked questions about everything that took place. 
   Someone said, “Who said that this son of a man from Zou understands ritual? When he went into the Great Ancestral Temple, he had to ask questions about everything.
   When this comment was reported to the Master, his reply was, “This asking is, in fact, part of the ritual.” (Analects, 3.15, tr.Slingerland)

Ancient paintings of Confucius like to show him lecturing from a podium, but in fact Confucius in the Analects does not “teach.” He has conversations with people, and the Analects are mostly obiter dicta that his interlocutors remembered and cherished. The quality of his mind and character radiated in every fleeting interaction; there was no need for “teachings” or treatises. Eastern traditions have a tendency to turn their founders into omniscient gurus with super-powers, but Confucius was always steadfast in his belief in the goodness of character attainable by ordinary human beings in ordinary lives, and made a point of his lack of omniscience. Since even the wisest human being has things to learn, the fundamental activity of human life has to be questioning. 

   Tradition has interpreted the Analect above to imply that Confucius really knew the answers but was asking ceremonial questions, or he was asking in order to criticize the rulers of Lu’s misunderstanding of the sacrifice. These interpretations — coming from the assumption of omniscience — are not impossible, but is it not equally likely that Confucius was sincerely interested and asking genuine questions? The word Li, translated “ritual,” encompasses not only civic and religious ceremonies, but also all acts of propriety that govern everyday life, such as handshakes and greetings. Moreover, “ritual” includes the sensibility underlying all of this, which is permeated by deep respect for the sacred in everyday relationships. To presume that one does not need to ask questions would be arrogance that goes against the very essence of ritual. Confucius describes himself as one who “knows what he does not know,” and such a person will naturally ask questions. The questioning emanates from wisdom, self-knowledge, sincerity, and desire to understand. In this way, Confucius is an exemplary human being.

The Master said, “Do I possess wisdom? No, I do not. A common fellow asked a question of me, and I came up completely empty. But I discussed the problem with him from beginning to end until we finally got to the bottom of it.” (9.8)


2 thoughts on “Why a Sage Asks Questions”

  1. “To presume that one does not need to ask questions would be arrogance that goes against the very essence of ritual.”

    Keeping the meanings secret is something I find endlessly frustrating, bordering on offensive. It’s one thing to be subtle, because that reflects complexity. But so often I feel pieces of art or academia, especially ones boiled in religious symbolism, play some kind of encryption game. You have to know the code to get the message. The problem is, if you know the code, you probably know the message. And if you don’t know the message, you probably don’t know the code. So, how was that a useful experience?

    I greatly appreciate Confucius’ moxy in asking questions about the meanings of rituals. How else is one supposed to know that meaning, and how else is one supposed to it alive?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Krishnan,
    You have touched on the the very foundation or heart of Confucianism.
    The coin of Confucius has ‘li’ (rites, rituals, any social norms and practices, taken in a broad abstract sense, as there are hundreds of different Chinese tribes – China is like the whole of Europe as one country) as its ‘head’ and ‘yi’ (learning, critical thinking and analysis, reflecting, contemplating, common sense and creative insight) as its ‘tail’; and it is with this Confucian coin that you can purchase or acquire the ‘ren’ (exemplary virtue and conduct and uprighteousness and social standing) of the superior man or gentleman.
    Explaining it this way – you have Confucianism summed up in a very simple formulae, easily understood by even the most ‘common fellow’; for the Chinese are a mercantile race – you grow or make or buy to sell – it is like ‘show me the money in following Confucian tenets – how does Confucianism profit me?’
    Confucius’ asking questions at the Temple is not about his teaching nor his manner of teaching. Questions are not just questions, oils ain’t oils!
    In fact Confucius in his teaching or instructing, was a ‘situational’ or ‘conversational’ or ‘dialectical’ instructor. He must be asked a question first and then if he sees you are going to be co-participative, and only then, will he answer your question; and once so engaged and within the subsequent dialogue that followed, there will then be questions of enquiry and analysis – for after all, so he instructs – every decision must be based on its own individual context, facts and circumstances.
    And it is in this dynamic sense that there is a sense of ‘li’ or ritual or style or technique to his instructing or teaching. To learn by rote like many Chinese do is simply denying, deceiving and failing Confucius, the Father of Education in China.
    Now, back to the preamble. Confucius asking questions at the Temple, or in the market place or in the streets is not about him being a chatterbox or busybody or a mumbling buffoon. That is another type or version of ‘li’ as in proprietary ritual. This is standard Chinese etiquette to this day -“How are you?” “May I know your surname?” “May I enter?” “Are the meat fresh today?” “Can you give me a discount?” “It is fine weather this morning is it not?”.
    This is how ‘li’ or ritual is in Chinese etiquette – in asking questions as a matter of conversation, as a matter of manner and form, of manners and formality. You do not, in Chinese ‘li’, simply say as in a self-judgmental statement – “You are rude!”. You should say – “You are being rude to me, are you not?” Then you are politely rude, for you have ‘li’ or as as we will say it in Chinese, you have ‘li mou’.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s