Wax On, Wax Off

What kinds of things do the close disciples of Confucius disagree about? Ziyou and Zixia, two men praised by the Master for their intelligence and refinement, do not see eye to eye about what should be given priority in teaching:

子游曰。子夏之門人小子、當洒掃、應對、進退、則可矣、抑末也。本之則無。如之何 子夏聞之曰。噫、言游過矣。君子之道、孰先傳焉、孰後倦焉。譬諸草木、區以別矣。君子之道、焉可誣也。有始有卒者、其惟聖人乎。
Ziyou said, “The disciples and followers of Zixia, in sprinkling and sweeping the ground, in answering and replying, in entering and departing formal company, are sufficiently competent. But these are only the lesser branches of learning, and they are left ignorant of what is essential. How can they be acknowledged as sufficiently taught?”

Zixia heard of the remark and said, “Alas! Ziyou has missed the point. Whose disciples will be first to be taught the Way of the superior person and then first to weary of it? As in the case of grass and trees, which are sorted according to their classes, so he deals with his disciples. How can the Way of a superior person be such as to stunt them? Is it not the sage alone, who can start at the beginning and work through to the consummation of learning?” (19.12)

Ziyou, speaking from the perspective of one who would place the “higher learning” foremost in education, expresses polite contempt for Zixia’s apparent fixation with trivial rudiments: surely we should go straight for the fundamental principles, and teach the young how to think about important matters first? Understanding Confucius, the Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, is more important than knowing how to clean our rooms and do our laundry!

   Since this Analect gives Zixia the last word, it is reasonable to assume that the editors sided with his criticism of Ziyou’s misapprehension of how education works. Anybody who has tried to raise functional teenagers knows that if the young person is clueless about how to go about cleaning up a kitchen or a desk, and cannot perform such basic tasks with vigor and attentiveness, he is unlikely to be blessed with a mind that is clear and orderly enough to study anything difficult. Little tasks and big projects exist in a continuum; besides, which of us occupies the viewpoint of one able to behold the entirety of things and judge what is small or large? The bacterium you fail to wash off your plate might kill you, and if studied, might lead to profound knowledge about organisms; the ability to think carefully about the descent of a pebble from hand to ground may yield insights into the laws of physics. Likewise, an ambitiously cogent theory about virtue might have zero affect on the behavior of someone too immature or impetuous to assimilate it deeply; reading Nietzsche or Heidegger might be confusing or even crippling to a student who has never attained any kind of excellence or experienced heroism.  In fact, studying the great writers on war, such as Xenophon or Thucydides, might turn a callow youth into a reckless warmonger if that youth has never experienced military training, physical hardship, and care for wounded comrades. Zixia’s educational ethos is fundamentally not about practical necessity but about Li, or propriety, which shades into Ren, or Humane Goodness. When a student is assigned to clean a bedroom for a guest, he will do a lovingly meticulous job if he imagines that he is cleaning it not for “just anyone” but for his mother: the feeling of affectionate respect will permeate every movement, and if it permeates every task that he does each day, the understanding of Li and Ren will be both deep and natural to him, not just shallowly conceptual. 

   In playing a musical instrument, even the Master will practice his scales daily; in practicing martial arts, a black belt will not cease to practice basic footwork and strikes. Indeed, the difference between a good practitioner and one who falls away from the practice early is that the good practititioner enjoys practicing the basics. Spending hours getting a beautiful sound from individual notes is not lesser musicianship than playing Brahms; working diligently on hitting a heavy bag hard with a perfect fist is not a lower level of karate than performing complex forms. It is common to see how the student fixated on the more glamorous tasks soon wearies of the basic ones and ceases to do anything. Zixia is reminding us that a good teacher always needs to know where each student is in terms of mental preparedness, and also takes care in guiding the student step by step. If we care enough, we will not rush it. Mencius gives us an image for this: a mountain brook, as it flows downwards, fills up a hollow fully before it spills over and continues on its course.

   The last sentence of this Analect can also be rendered: Both beginner’s mind and simultaneously consummate attainment — only a sage can have that. The rest of us need to observe well conceived progressions, and learn how to find satisfaction in ordinary practice. 

On Conversations, and Refusing to Teach


Why do so many of the ancient masters come down to us in the form of recorded or fictionalized conversations? I am thinking of Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mencius, Yajnavalkya, and Jesus. It is not only because in some cultures writing wasn’t a “thing ” yet; even in cultures with established literary traditions, it is possible to reject writing, as Socrates does in the Phaedrus. However, writing is only one mode of the larger activity that is refused: this is teaching or instructing. The surviving records of these masters are already formalized documents that enshrine official teachings, carrying the stamp of approval from institutions that have grown up and sometimes ossified in the footsteps of the master’s disciples. But even in these documents — even through stiff translations —  it is remarkable how distinct the voices of Socrates, the Buddha, and Jesus can sound across the millennia. In reading these texts, it is striking how many of them are conversations, not lectures or treatises; and in a conversation, the interlocutors also have voices and characters that have to be taken into account, because the masters say different things to different people. 

   Mencius explicitly broaches the choice of conversation over instruction on several occasions — for example,

孟子曰:「教亦多術矣,予不屑之教誨也者,是亦教誨之而已矣。」

Mencius said, ‘There are many ways to teach. I refuse to teach or instruct, but that’s just another kind of teaching.’ (Mencius, 6.2.16)

Poring through the Book of Mencius, we find that he almost never teaches; most of the passages are memorable snippets of conversation. The same is true of Confucius: the Analects (Lun Yu, literally “edited conversations”) feels like a collection of obiter dicta, things that Confucius said that at least one person did not forget. Although subsequent tradition likes to picture these sages as sitting on a raised platform lecturing, in fact they didn’t believe in teaching as a valuable mode of transmission. Instead, the proof is in the day-to-day living, how the master speaks and conducts himself, his sensibility and humane refinement as they are expressed in his actions and words from moment to moment. The “teaching” is only one surface of a rounded, fluid way of being, which is entered into by hanging out with the master, listening, watching, questioning, playing, and emulating:

孟子曰:「君子之所以教者五:有如時雨化之者,有成德者,有達財者,有答問者,有私淑艾者。此五者,君子之所以教也。」

Mencius said, ‘There are five ways in which the superior person teaches. There are some on whom his influence descends like seasonable rain. There are some whose virtue he perfects, and some whose talents he helps to develop. There are some whose questions he answers. There are some who, inspired by him,  privately cultivate and correct themselves. The superior man teaches in these five ways.’ (7.1.40)

   The books of Confucius and Mencius do not present theories or arguments; rather, they are fragments of conversations through which we can glimpse and imagine what a better human life might be like. They give no formulas for thought or action, and no transcendent vantage point from which we can criticize life. Instead of “theory,” which stands outside and “beholds” (theaw), we are inside the flow of life circumstances in which people think, speak, and interact continuously, figuring out new situations as they appear and struggling to understand what just happened. Recollected conversation is the only fitting literary medium to render the character of someone who knows how to live well.

   I have come realize that nearly all the great doorways and turning-points in life occur in conversations: the job interview, the new friendship, the destruction of friendship, the romance, the conversion, the profound reconciliations, the discovery of “calling.” Conversation is where learning really happens. I am a deadly-serious, slow, intense reader, and books have affected me a lot — but no book has taught me as much as some conversations I have had. I learned more about literature from weekly conversations over three years with Arthur Sale, my tutor in Cambridge: he never lectured, but drew me naturally into his living relationship with books, and our conversation blossomed over tea and on walks — indeed, thirty years after his death, in my head he is still the main person I talk with when I read poetry. From my brief career as a researcher into Shakespeare’s texts, I am certain that no graduate program would have given me as much as my three-year apprenticeship with Marvin Spevack, great philologist and Shakespeare scholar, in which I spent hours each day studying the specific textual decisions of three hundred years of Shakespeare editors, and discussing these details with a professor for whom these dead editors were living colleagues. I learned osmotically from his silences, grunts, chuckles — how his fingers found words on the page, the speed and accuracy with which he worked, the way his mind made connections. Through conversation, we study three-dimensionally, and it is what the human intelligence is meant to do. The ancients knew this. Confucius and Mencius, like Christ and the Buddha, didn’t attempt the more two-dimensional mode of argument or theory, because what they were after was so much greater. 

   

   

The Love of Study

On a first reading of the Analects readers are often surprised by the emphasis placed throughout on “study” or “learning,” and how intimately connected it is to moral excellence:

子夏曰:「博學而篤志,切問而近思,仁在其中矣。」

Zi Xia said, “Studying extensively, and with firm, sincere focus; asking incisive questions, and reflecting on what is near at hand — Humane Goodness (ren) is in these.” (Analects, 19.6)

This is spoken late in the book by the student of Confucius who happens to be known for his refinement and learning — and whom Confucius found to be occasionally too cautious, perhaps from excessive meticulousness. Zixia’s point — amplifying on many statements by his teacher — is that Humane Goodness (ren), the central Confucian virtue, is incomplete if it is blind and without understanding. Humane Goodness is not simply a feeling, a sentiment, an intention: the feeling, if it is not to be misguided sentimentality, has to encompass accurate perception, understanding of the situation at hand, and intelligent determination of what to do. The analogy from the classics of the West would be how three of the four cardinal virtues depend on the fourth: Justice, Courage, and Moderation would be stunted and inchoate without Wisdom — for how can we be just if we are not interested in thinking through the facts of a case, and how can we be truly courageous if we are too stupid to perceive danger or distinguish between good ends and bad ends? Understanding is thus essential for the fulfillment of the virtuous impulse.

   Obviously Zi Xia is not just talking about book-learning or academic study, although he might include it. By “study” what he means is the whole intelligence — mind, heart, and imagination — as it is sincerely brought to bear on a particular problem. Typically Confucian here is the emphasis on “reflecting on what is near at hand”: by fully exploring and comprehending ourselves, our immediate relationships, the world around us to which we have direct access in our experience, we have the wherewithal to grasp more “distant” things like history and politics. If we are not interested in studying in these ways, how can it be said that we care about anything? Our supposed acts of ren would then be only gestures and imitations, not based on any genuine concern with the truth of the situation. Humane Goodness, ren, is thus not possible without the desire to understand, which generates the activity of study.

   In another passage Confucius expatiates on the love of study as a corrective or moderating component in the six virtues. Without it, the virtue becomes unbalanced and distorted:

子曰:「由也,女聞六言六蔽矣乎?」對曰:「未也。」「居!吾語女。好仁不好學,其蔽也愚;好知不好學,其蔽也蕩;好信不好學,其蔽也賊;好直不好學,其蔽也絞;好勇不好學,其蔽也亂;好剛不好學,其蔽也狂。」

The Master said, “Zilu, have you heard of the six excellences and their corresponding six distortions?” Zilu replied, “I have not.” “Sit down, and I will tell them to you. The love of Humane Goodness without the love of study leads to a foolish simplicity. The love of knowledge without the love of study leads to dissipation of mind. The love of steadfast faithfulness without the love of study leads to harmful inflexibility. The love of uprightness without the love of study leads to haughty intolerance. The love of boldness without the love of study leads to unruliness. The love of resoluteness without the love of study leads to willfulness.” (17.8)

Here he is giving a valuable lesson to a disciple known for warrior-fortitude and courage, strong-willed impetuousness and stubborn zeal: the lesson itself represents an effort to temper a tendency to excess. In each case, the impulse to excess is slowed down by study, which brings more nuance, perspective, and dimensionality to the occasion. How often have we felt righteous indignation melt away when we stop to consider the reasons motivating our opponents, and how often have we mindlessly given in to generous impulses only to find that in letting ourselves be duped we have only made the situation worse? To a true Confucian it is not enough to follow propriety and the heart’s impulses; indeed, sincere respect for propriety and humaneness requires the full engagement of the understanding. Li and ren are not two blind guys stumbling around on the rocks; they require far-sighted acuity, which is developed in study. Confucian goodness is therefore never simple-minded, since in most judgments there are opposing considerations to juggle and knots that require subtle insight to unravel. To become good at such juggling and unraveling, the student of excellence has to love to study — because without such love, the work would only be exhausting.

A Way with Words

Just as Socrates loved Homer enough to know the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, Confucius had the Book of Odes burned into his bones and memorized in his marrow; indeed, the Analects are permeated by the Odes. When one of the disciples asks Confucius’ son if there was anything his father taught him that he didn’t teach the disciples, the son replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not have the wherewithal to speak.’ I retired and studied the Odes.” (16.13) 

   The Odes are the foundation for humane education, not for the sake of a merely technical skill with words (as in “grammar” and “rhetoric”) but for acclimating the young to a noble elevation and dignity, and stirring them to higher planes of character and admirable utterance, which may be absent in their ordinary lives:

The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
   “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
   “It is from Music that the consummation is received.”
(8.8)

The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

   However, studying the Odes brings something more important than moral edification; it teaches us to read words of multiple significations and teases us into developing an ability to see beyond literal denotation. In the following exchange, we see the zealous Zi Gong making a connection and discovering hidden meaning in an old poem:

Zi Gong asked: “What do you think of a poor man who doesn’t grovel or a rich man who isn’t proud?” Confucius said, “They are good, but not as good as a poor man who is satisfied and a rich man who loves propriety.” Zi Gong said, “The Book of Odes says:

Like cutting and filing,
Grinding and polishing. 

“Is this what you are talking about?” Confucius said, “Ah, now I can begin to discuss the Book of Odes with Zi Gong. I speak of various things, and he knows what is coming.” (1.15)

In what Confucius says to him, Zi Gong hears the Ode and understands that he is being advised to keep working on himself. Confucius then humorously remarks that Zi Gong is now ready to grasp the deeper senses of the Odes. The Book of Odes has also become an occasion for two people to relate to one another in discussing goodness. 

   There is a similar conversation with the refined Zixia:

Zixia asked, saying, “What is the meaning of the verse: ’The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colors?’”
   The Master said, “The business of laying on the colors follows the preparation of the plain ground.”
   “Ritual then is a secondary thing?” 
   The Master said, “It is Shang who can bring out my meaning! Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him.”
(3.8)

Here, the student brings out a profound implication that pleasantly surprises the teacher, who is surely grateful to be shown a hitherto undiscovered meaning in a long-familiar poem. 

   One of the greatest pleasures in life is to have friends who “share” with us a common body of beloved poetry; it is like owning a landscape in common, in which we can roam together freely and find beautiful things to show one another. Confucius is so happy to “know” a man’s heart through the poems he loves that he even bestows his niece on a student for loving the right poem:

Nan Rong frequently recited the verse of the “White Jade Table.” Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wed. (11.6, tr.A.C.Muller)

The verse in question expresses commitment to carefulness with words: “A flaw in a white jade tablet may be polished away; but nothing can be done for a flaw in one’s words.” (Odes, 256) Confucius is moved to find Nan Rong reciting this verse so often, perhaps even when he thinks he is alone. Both of them know that the steadfast care for words reveals a far deeper commitment: to truth, to troth, and to character that is built through saying what we mean, no more and no less, and through saying it well. A man with such a character would make a trustworthy husband for a beloved niece.

   An education founded on studying the Odes develops a sensibility for terse, suggestive language, and the intuitive sympathy essential for “getting” such language. The intuitive sympathy extends to keeping pace with our friends who also “get” the poems and who might see different sides to them. Thus, the Odes provide a place of congregation for an entire community, and an occasion to learn to read another human being’s words with penetration. If all moral action depends on a capacity for accurate sympathy, what better way to cultivate that than through imbibing the Odes at at early age?

   Although in most translations Confucius comes across as a tedious Polonius obsessed with correct usages, in his own language he is obviously somebody with a gift for resonant, poetic language. Throughout the entire Analects he takes conventional terms — such as junzi, ren, li — and re-animates them with new meaning. Take, for instance, the passage I presented in my previous essay:

 “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

In my first attempt at this, I read it too narrowly to refer only to slander and utterance intended to hurt. After a conversation with a friend who is more sensitive to Confucius’ language than I am, I realized that statements that shock like a flesh-wound encompasses a broad range of vicissitudes, including legal and financial catastrophes, betrayals and news of deaths, and medical upsets. The culminating adjective is literally “far” — a common word, but dense with possibilities. Disambiguating it, translators end up with something clear but flat, such as “perceptive” or “aloof.” But “far” says so much more: aloof, far away, transcendent, seeing far and wide, far-penetrating, far-reaching…Only a poet would have ended this Analect with a word so concrete and rich. 

   Unlike a language like Sanskrit, with its intricate grammatical structure that tends to over-specify the relations between the words of a sentence, Chinese tends to under-specify and leave abundant room for the intuitive intelligence that enjoys seeing all the possible connections. Confucius’ language draws on this tendency. With each sentence he gives us a corner and invites us to discover three more. But as we see, it is much more than a pedagogical ruse: Confucius’ way with words has its womb in the Odes. He keeps to this Way because all healthy social interaction depends on an ability to read freely and sympathetically between the lines, and on the cultivated tactful intelligence that can understand without needing to spell out. Without this, all social interactions descend into legalism, where every term has to be defined in order to be “used” more effectively in the justifications of argument. Lifelong immersion in the Odes may preserve us from this descent.

Dilemmas of Propriety (Li)

顏淵問仁。子曰。克己復禮、爲仁.
Yan Yuan asked about Humane Goodness (Ren). The Master said, “To subdue the ego and keep to propriety (Li)  is Humane Goodness. (Analects, 12.1)

As long as our lives are filled and surrounded by living, bristling, grudge-encrusted, confused, stinky, ordinary people — as opposed to angelic robots who unerringly do the right thing — each day will come with dilemmas of propriety, or Li. We just have to remind ourselves every now and then that we actually want people and not robots, even though the occasional smooth-functioning robot can be comforting. For a Confucian, dilemmas of li are essential to becoming more fully human, and practice involves understanding them and learning how to navigate them; indeed, the entire book of Mencius is built upon discussions of propriety, and can be read as a “course” in virtue through studying well chosen instances. But why go to Mencius? Just look at one thing that happened yesterday.

   We have a very good family friend who is a reliable confidant, always ready to help and loved by the kids — but…whenever he visits, he always overstays. Because of him the kids stay up too long and the house stays noisy till quite late, and then he will fall asleep on the couch. He doesn’t seem to grasp that we as hosts cannot go to bed if a guest is still in the living room. A situation like this may be a small thing, but Confucius would want us to consider it — because after all small things can geow into big things. Our friend somehow doesn’t notice the hosts getting restless and tidyng up in the kitchen, and also doesn’t recognize that these might be signals that it is time to leave. The failure in propriety here involves both ignorance of etiquette as well as obliviousness to what is going on. Propriety is both knowing the appropriate thing to do and doing it at the appropriate moment, which requires keeping your wits about you. Now, it could be that in the case of our friend, the confusion stems from an ambiguity in Li: is he a family friend, or close enough to be practically a family member? It would fall on us to enlighten him on the matter, but ingrained courtesy prevents us — because it would hurt his feelings and make him feel ashamed over what is in fact a little mistake. We are still wondering about the appropriate way to inform him, and whether it would be more appropriate to let it be and overlook it. However, overlooking it will have negative consequences, because his obliviousness makes us reluctant to have him around. 

   Part of the problem is cultural — that there is no explicit guidance in our social circles as to when to arrive and when to leave; and part of the problem is personal — that he doesn’t seem to ask himself if there is such a thing as a right time to leave. Since it is not an issue for him, he can’t imagine that it’s an issue for us. In itself our friend’s foible should not be a major problem, but if it is symptomatic of a more pervasive heedlessness it will unnecessarily taint all his future relationships; he will be a casualty of his own casualness. Obliviousness to these little proprieties will habituate him to a general insensitivity to other people, which is bound in turn to influence his moral choices. This is why a Confucian upbringing will insist on strict attention to proprieties from an early age; courtesy and morality are tightly wrapped around each other, because both are planted in knowledge of the human heart. Nineteenth century novelists like Austen, Balzac, and James are astoundingly perceptive about the intricate web of Li, which weaves every individual person and action into a whole: In these circles where trifles are of such importance, a gesture or a word at the outset is enough to ruin a newcomer. It is the principal merit of fine manners and the highest breeding that they produce the effect of a harmonious whole, in which every element is so blended that nothing is startling or obtrusive. Even those who break the laws of this science, either through ignorance or carried away by some impulse, must comprehend that it is with social intercourse as with music, a single discordant note is a complete negation of the art itself, for the harmony exists only when all its conditions are observed down to the least particular. (Balzac, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, 1.2). 

   It would be exhausting to think through the proprieties of every single interaction in this way. One of the beauties of Li is that if we are fairly well trained, we will behave appropriately most of the time without thinking about it. Propriety should be mostly automatic, like the autonomous processes that regulate a healthy body. In carefully observing what is “done” or “not done” from childhood on, we learn first to submit our egos to an impersonal, impartial substratum in social interactions: it’s not about us, but about the neutral space in which we exist with other people. A person who is good at Li actually derives satisfaction from participating in this neutral space, which can elevate us above petty, personal concerns. The attunement to propriety may actually be a necessary foundation for any kind of spiritual practice, because it is the first step in the control of ego. Li also allows us to move on to the next interaction, and not get stuck in paroxysms of remorse for our mistakes, which would be just as much ego as never admitting a mistake. It is like playing any kind of game: we follow the rules without emotional investment, taking them as immutable in the world of the game — and when we make an error, we fail, learn, and continue. In video games, we calmly die, and then resume the next game a little wiser.    

   

Why English Needs the Word “Dao”


English badly needs a word like “Dao.” We already have many words for “path, trail, track,” and can extend the literal sense of these words to expressions like “life’s path” or “career track” or “course of study” — to convey something that we move along stepwise, whether a progression in learning or in character development. However, “Dao” — while literally also “path” or “way” — differs from “track” or “course” in the same way that a path in a city park differs from a deer path through a forest: the former has been laid out by man for clarity and convenience, and is impossible to get lost on — while the latter winds with the devious logic of nature over inconvenient terrain, and we need to give it our full attention at all times. Many of our nost serious preoccupations can be treated  either as “courses” or as “Daos.”

   For example, in the study of Greek geometry, we could be fixated on tracing the exact sequence of Euclid’s argumentation, so that at the end of all thirteen books we could reasonably be asked to reproduce Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. This would be Euclid’s Elements as a course. To consider it a Dao, we have to penetrate the arguments given and “get” the spirit through which his insights are generated. To do this we have to master the steps he given us, but we also have to see past those steps to alternatives hidden in the depths. This is the beginning of learning how to think and imagine as geometers, not just imitate. The same distinction applies to the learning of languages. We could work through the textbook and master every rule and structure given. Since the textbook is a distillation of the conventionally correct use of the language, it is a “course” built upon the past — but can the teaching of structures and patterns lead to a “feel” for the language that is capable of generating new variations on the old? If we wanted to get the Dao of English, let’s say, we would have to immerse ourselves in the great creative masters — Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce — and absorb their ways, having understood what is inimitable about them. Our educational institutions usually limit themselves to what is teachable, but they can thereby close the doors to what is learnable.

   In the professions, we often see what has begun as a “course” of study turning into a Dao. For example, an educator is faced day after day with judgments and decisions in the classroom that his own academic preparation could not have foreseen; each week there will be new situations to expand and deepen his understanding of what it means to be an educator, and indeed of what education is. The Dao of teaching manifests only in experience and in unflagging passionate engagement with the work. The beginning teacher can have no conception what lies in store for him 30 years down the road. The same applies to all other professions — most notably those that have to navigate the full complexity of the human being, such as law and medicine. For the shallow practitioner, the careerist, there is only a collection of information and techniques for doing a job effectively and earning a decent living. But for the genuine practitioner, who enters the field with three eyes open and a raging hunger to go deeper, there is a Dao that cannot be explained to the novice. The hungry novice, however, picks it up from the master — as those of us know who have worked alongside one. 

   Looking for a word that might capture this richer, more interesting level of occupation, we might call it a “discipline” or an “art” — but those two words suggest too much agency in the practitioner. What really happens is that the Dao of learning, or law, or medicine, takes over — and we are drawn in and affected to the same degree as our engagement. The further we go, the more endless the field becomes — and this is both frightening and immensely satisfying. One of Confucius’ students, presumably contemplating the Dao of Confucius’ higher human being, expresses perfectly what it feels like to follow any true Dao:

   
顏淵喟然歎曰。仰之彌高、鑽之彌堅、瞻之在前、忽焉在後 夫子循循然善誘人:搏我以文、約我以禮。欲罷不能、旣竭吾才、如有所立、卓爾。雖欲從之、末由也已 。

Yan Yuan sighed in admiration saying: “Looking up to it, it gets higher. Boring into it, it gets harder. I see it in front, and suddenly it is behind me. My master skillfully guides his students a step at a time. He has broadened me with literature, disciplined me with propriety. I want to give up, but I can’t. I have exhausted my ability, yet it seems as if there is something rising up in front of me. I want to follow it, but there is no way.” [9.11]

A superficial student never gets this far: for such a student, pitifully, A grades are enough. 

   Besides the vocational Daos, there are primal human Daos: being a mother or father, a brother or sister, a child, a husband or wife. Each of these “paths” brings up new and unpredictable challenges every day, and we could not have predicted most of them. It takes a lifetime to learn how to be a child to one’s parents, and more than a lifetime to learn how to be a parent to one’s child. Who would have thought it would feel this way to lose a parent? Who would have thought that when our first child is born we would lose interest in most of our prior friendships and activities? Each role is a journey with distinct milestones that could not have been predicted. In giving ourselves over to these journeys, we extend ourselves by letting ourselves be shaped by the path. Of course, it is possible to be the kind of person who shuts down and does everything by dutiful rote; such a person traverses a course, but never understands anything of Dao.

   The Chinese philosophers all speak of a big, all-encompassing Dao, without necessarily agreeing on what it is. We may not have the wherewithal to assess their claims, but in each of our lives we can see that there are not only courses of study and action, but a handful of important Daos that lead us through the vast forest. We can know them only by following them, and by being fully awake and intelligent at every turn. 

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)

Corners


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.