A Pan of Water

A clear-sighted psychologist, Xunzi may have been the first writer to pick out the tendency to mental fixation (蔽, ) a crucial factor in political life, and one that cannot be ignored if leadership is ever to become an art or science. Since most of us are confused and driven by obsessions we are barely conscious of, in the form of desires, aversions, fears, and anxieties, we accept as normal the consequent roiling agitation produced by our obsessions and are surprised when a calmer person points out our inner turbulence to us; and even if we were capable of noticing our own subliminal agitations, it would be difficult for many to see beyond the tumult to a state of obsessionless lucidity, which we can barely imagine. Like any good Confucian, Xunzi uses something familiar to describe something very unusual:

The mind may be compared to a pan of water. If you place the pan on a level and do not jar it, then the heavy sediment will settle to the bottom and the clear water will collect on top, so that you can see your beard and eyebrows in it and examine the lines of your face. But if a faint wind passes over the top of the water, the heavy sediment will be stirred up from the bottom and the clear water will become mingled with it, so that you can no longer get a clear reflection of even a large object. The mind is the same way. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. But if you allow petty external objects to pull it about, so that its proper form becomes altered and its inner balance is upset, then it will not be capable of making even gross distinctions.  (Tr. Hsün Tzu, Watson, 131-2)

Mind — if by “mind” we mean the conscious ratiocinative and deliberative faculty –is a mistranslation of 心 (xīn), which literally means heart. But heart is also a mistranslation, because for the last four hundred years in the West it has been taken to express the merely emotional faculties, which are often at war with the merely ratiocinative. Modern translators will sometimes fall back on the phrase heart-mind, because thoughts and feelings emerge from the same center. We might say that all emotions stem from thoughts on some level, but it is not true to say that first we have a thought that then produces the emotion. Instead, all thought has some affective coloring, and in our experience thoughts and emotions emerge simultaneously or intertwined — and it always feels as if they emerge from the center of our beings, deep inside our bosoms, and not from beneath our skullcaps. 

   Thus by heart-mind the Chinese thinker fuses together all of our mental and emotional faculties. If we are terrified of death, it affects our whole being — our thoughts, our desires, our actions. If we find someone beautiful and are moved by desire, our entire spirit and body are stirred towards one end. When we are moved by opposing things — for example, desire for sex and love of virtue — our entire life, psychological as well as physical, is tormented by the opposition. Some people might say that when we are possessed by a desire or an error, our whole self is distorted by the possession, and it is really impossible for us to recognize it, since the mind has also been corrupted. However, Xunzi is both a pessimist about human nature and an optimist about human possibilities: he insists that it is possible for us to see and correct ourselves. Through reason and cultivated skills in self-reflection, we can notice when we are confused, and can actually step outside our own fixations and watch them in action. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t even notice that there is such a thing as fixation.

   To Xunzi, a well educated person is able to discern and evaluate accurately the people and situations in front of him at any given moment. This is not possible for a human being whose heart-mind is confused. Xunzi does not mean just intellectually confused, for a person might have intellectual clarity but be deeply confused in his heart — for example, the man who has carefully studied Thucydides and all the great theorists of war but whose every impulse is dominated by insecurity about his own manhood as well as fear of death. Such a man has a turbid heart-mind and will not judge clearly in the moment. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. For most of us this will obviously need work, as well as good teachers and friends. 

   The use of the image of still water as opposed to muddied water to express states of soul has become something of a cliché in later Asian teachings, but Xunzi was the originator. I have heard other teachers talk about a “muddy pond,” but Xunzi in his literary brilliance settles upon a pan of water: so homely, so ordinary, that it passes beneath our notice — just like the agitation of our heart-mind.

Demanding Much of Yourself

Thinking generally about Confucius’ resonant way with words and more particularly about his use of 遠 (“far, distant”), I remembered this piece of valuable advice:


The Master said, “Demand much of yourself but ask little of others, and you will keep resentment at a distance.” (Analects, 15.15, tr.Slingerland)

The translator here is trying to keep the ambiguity of the last sentence: stay far from being resented by others as well as keep feelings of resentment far from your own heart. If you ask too much of others and too little of yourself, everyone will hate you — and because such unrealistic expectations of others are doomed to disappointment, you will begin to hate them too. The superior person stays far, aloof, from this two-directional blame-game not by adopting a posture of no resentment, but by cutting off the problem at the roots — that is, by adjusting demands and expectations. It is good medicine for restoring ourselves to sanity.

   The Annals of Lü Buwei (c.239 BC), the great Qin Dynasty encyclopedia of all things Chinese, has a passage amplifying on this:

Therefore, the [superior person’s] demands upon others are determined by the other’s abilities, whereas his demands upon himself are determined by the standard of rightness. If your demands upon others are determined by their abilities, they will be easy to satisfy, and if your demands are easy to satisfy, you will win over people. If your demands upon yourself are determned by rightness then it will be difficult for you to do wrong, and if it is difficult for you to do wrong then your conduct will be refined. In this way you can easily take responsibility for the whole world and still have energy to spare. Unworthy people are not this way: they demand rightness from others, and demand from themselves what anyone can attain. When you demand rightness from others, your demands are difficult to meet, and when your demands are difficult to meet you alienate others. When you demand from yourself what anyone can attain, it is easy to do as you wish, and when it is easy to do as you wish, conduct becomes careless. (Annals of Lü Buwei, ch.19.8, tr. Knoblock and Riegel)
   Savored cold, this advice seems like good common sense — but on the hotplate of daily living, it is easy to lose track of this and lapse into our usual cycles of grumbling, blame, and disappointment. It is always everyone else who is at fault, indeed the whole world: only our own farts never smell bad.

   The Qing Dynasty Confucian scholar Wu Tingdong pointedly asks: Learning [self-cultivation] is carried on with regard to yourelf only — if you are sincere and strict in regulating yourself, when would you have the time to make demands upon others?

[I am grateful to Edward Slingerland for pointing out both of these quotations in his note to this Analect.]

“May I Ask About Death?”

Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” (11.12)

Confucius’ answer is exquisitely wry. Just as Lu’s question probably made him smile, this answer probably made Lu smile with a glimmer of satori. Why is it that we like to ask this kind of speculative question? — after all, the living being we ask it of has had no direct experience of death, and even if he could give an answer how could we begin to understand it? It is like someone who has never experienced love asking a person in love to explain it to him: how could he know whether or not he has understood the explanation? With one brief sentence, Confucius sweeps away the speculative fascination with death. 

   It must have come as a flash to Lu that to understand life takes at least a lifetime. All of Confucius’ teachings push us to examine our own hearts and the web of relationships that we find ourselves in: parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, servants, superiors, teachers, students. The way to become a full human being takes us through the arduous complexities of all these relationships, which consume our attentions every day, and which change constantly. It is a characteristic of our fundamental relationships that each time we think we have mastered something, it shifts onto new ground. With so much work to do — right here, right now, with our aging parents, our anxious spouses, our adolescent children with their hearts boiling in tumult — why should we distract ourselves with theoretical questions beyond the reach of experience?

   Montaigne, who meditated on death throughout his life, realized in one of his later essays that the people he knew who died with simple dignity tended to be ordinary people who also lived with simple dignity. Because they lived well, they died well:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly; don’t bother your head about it…We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life…Philosophy orders us to have death ever before our eyes, to foresee and consider it before the time comes, and afterward gives us the rules and precautions to provide against our being wounded by this foresight and this thought. That is what those doctors do who make us ill so that they may have sonething on which to employ their drugs and their art. If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way. (Montaigne, “On Physiognomy,” tr. Frame)

Studying Mistakes


The Master said, “People’s mistakes run true to type. By studying [their] mistakes, we can know [their] ren/Goodness.” (Analects, 4.17)

This Analect has a simple, compact power that tends to be softened and dulled in the conventional interpretations, which go something like: “People err according to their own level. It is by observing a person’s mistakes that you can know his/her goodness.” (A.C.Muller) Or:  “The faults of men are characteristic of the class to which they belong. By observing a man’s faults, it may be known that he is virtuous.” (Legge) This kind of interpretation rightly enphasizes the value of noticing and understanding a person’s mistakes — not the grand crimes and depravities, but their everyday slips and oversights. This is why books like Plutarch’s Lives are wondrous caves full of treasure for those of us who love to study people; in Plutarch we can gaze upon the achievements, disasters, and day-to-day foibles and errors of ancient statesmen, and we wonder at how little personal misdirections inform the twists and turns of history. Strangely, however, the conventional interpretation takes this Analect to be about assessing other people‘s level of ren, or humane goodness. This seems superficial to me, and a lessening of the aphorism.

   The original Chinese, in its terseness, has no pronouns or articles. It could just as well mean, “By studying our own mistakes, we can know our own level of ren.” This is more in alignment with the Confucian program of self-reflection and also cuts closer to the bone personally. In general, reviewing our words and actions at the end of the day, it is possible for us to notice where we goofed. The practice of self-reflection requires us to being our attention steadily and calmly to these mistakes, and to understand them. It does not necessarily involve lamentation and convulsions of remorse, although those might come naturally with understanding. In examining even our small mistakes, we can understand better who we are and, more particularly, where we are in our cultivation of ren. The original words of this Analect go even further: By studying mistakes, we can know Ren. This raw, succinct translation carries a profound truth: how often, in realizing that we have inadvertently hurt someone, do we not then find that we have understood a little better what it might mean to be a good person? The realization of error brings with it a reminder of the right thing that could have been said or done. Of course, the heedless, shameless person doesn’t care and will plough on — but such a person tends not to reflect anyway. For the person who cares enough to reflect and to right the wrongs they have done, the book of mistakes is wonderfully large and painfully fascinating to read — and it contains, to those who want to find it, the book of ren

Home Truths

“How fortunate I am! If I should make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.” (Analects, 7.31, tr.Slingerland)

Whenever I am having one of those “bad days” when everyone around me seems determined to unload painful home-truths in my face, I deliberately bring to mind this sentence of Confucius as balm for my cuts. As deliciously ironic as it is, such that I have wanted it embossed on my office door as daily warning and therapy, it also reminds me that deep in my heart I actually want to be surrounded by eagle-eyed critics who will point out if I am performing beneath my own standards.

   The core of the Confucian way is daily self-reflection: clear resolutions, assiduously put into practice, and then reviewed. The extremely earnest student Zeng puts it like this:

“Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (1.4)

Carefully following each of these three criteria will result in the cultivation of an impressive human being — one that you would want as a colleague, boss, subordinate, governor, and even family member. While Zeng himself often seems to lack the warmth of heart necessary to balance and animate these principles of behavior, what he is giving us here are three standards according to which we can pragmatically evaluate our performance and articulate what we need to do next. Becoming a better human being involves practice, not just aspiration.

   But it is very hard to evaluate ourselves. Can we really see our own faults? It is remarkable how even good human beings can be unaware of serious problems in their behavior towards others — flaws of ego that can grate on their loved ones, and make their colleagues hate them. Even Confucius occasionally despairs of the possibility of self-reflection:

The Master said, “I should just give up! I have yet to meet someone who is able to perceive his own faults and then take himself to task inwardly.” (5.31)
   This is why it is a wonderful thing that we have an abundance of people who can see all our errors and faults, and who will inevitably point them out to us. It is just as wonderful as the fact that “nothing in the universe is hidden,” that our virtues and vices are all manifest, and that sooner or later people pick up everything about us. Confucius remarks elsewhere, Where can we hide, where can we hide? Life may leave us feeling raw and vulnerable, but in the end we should be grateful for all those critics and enemies — because they reveal to us what we cannot see for ourselves.