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.


The Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”    (Confucius, Analects 7.8, tr. Slingerland)

All of the ancient teachers followed this principle, and probably all real teachers everywhere. They know that knowledge is not something that can be “spread,” and that people only learn what they think for themselves. The genuine student, the one who seriously wants to learn and is receptive, strives to understand and struggles to speak. The opposite of glib, and holding high standards of clarity, a student is only too aware of how difficult it is to find the right words for things that matter. A real teacher will perceive the struggle and love the student for it.

   Every pre-18th century thinker that I have read holds up one corner and expects us — sometimes teases and provokes us — to find others. Perhaps one misleading thing in every translation of this Analect is the translator’s insertion of the article “the” when it is absent in the original. “The other three” makes it sound as if the teacher wants the student to tell him what he is hiding in his pocket. This may look attractive to a mind in search of an omniscient guru, but it turns teaching into a trivial game. In fact, serious teachers are also model learners, and more aware than anyone else of what they do not know in the face of fathomless reality. Thus, they delight in being surprised by the student, and take joy whenever the student discovers something the teacher did not know.  They show one corner and want the student to find three more. Delight in teaching is really the same as delight in learning; each spills out of the other.

Voices from Antiquity

They speak to us across two thousand years, and we still listen: Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Gautama, Nagarjuna, Heraclitus, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many others. Even across oceans and through translations, somehow their voices still sound clear and distinctive, and they still have the power to get us to see things and understand ourselves a little better. Their words deserve and repay continued mulling. Even — perhaps especially — after many readings, they are able to surprise and instruct us. This is why they grow better as we age, and why readers of each century find new layers to the old books.

In this blog, I’ll be posting one or two sentences of ancient wisdom a few times a week. They wIll be somewhat more demanding than “ancient memes,” and they will be actual selections from the books and not quotations made up by one of our contemporaries to sound like something the Buddha or Plato might have said. They will be sentences that resonate through my day, and I hope they will be richly resonant for you too. I will say a few words about why the day’s sentences have moved me to share them with you — and above all, I will keep it brief! Your thoughts and comments, if you have time to write any, will always be appreciated. At the very least I hope that these pages will turn out to be a useful anthology of wonderful passages.

Today — March 30, 2017 — I have been re-reading Confucius…