To Love One Thing Only

Here is a beautiful sentence by Xunzi — beautiful even in translation — on the three keys to self-cultivation:

Of all the ways to order the temperament and train the mind [xin: heart-mind], none is more direct than to follow ritual [Li, propriety], none more vital than to find a teacher, none more godlike than to learn to love one thing alone.” (Hsün Tzu, “Improving Yourself,” p.26-27, tr. Watson)

In any field of action, we follow the proprieties and conventions. In the professions that would involve studying the work of colleagues and masters in their fields, watching how they do things, speaking with appropriate formality, and developing the mental habits that lead to approval and honor in the field. Proprieties and conventions, the complex codes of what’s done and not done, said and not said, are invaluable guides in all human activities, and we grow through observing them and letting them work on us. But they are not enough: we need a teacher, someone more experienced, to illuminate our way through the labyrinth of Li by virtue of their years of experience and developed skill. But even that is not enough: what sustains us through all the pitfalls and disappointments of our difficult endeavor has to be love, whether of an idea, a person, or activity. 

   So far this seems obvious. What is striking is Xunzi’s insistence on loving one thing alone — a single-minded devotion that orders our temperament by giving it direction. A human life has so many things pulling on it: the claims of livelihood and survival, of pleasure, and of a mob of people. It is easy to drown ourselves in confusion. Instead, what if we were to focus our energies on one thing only, on something that is big enough to order the many dizzying tugs on our attentions? Xunzi means something like “virtue,” or “human excellence” — in much the same way as Socrates might want us to concentrate on “justice.” Indeed, almost anything might bring order to the temperament and train the heart-mind: an athlete might dedicate himself wholly to his sport, an artist to her painting, a mother to her children. In the film “Citizen Kane,” the interviewer/reporter expresses surprise to find that Kane’s friend Bernstein is now rich. Bernstein shrugs it off: “Rich? It’s easy to get rich, if that’s ALL you want to do.” But even dedication is not enough: it needs the other two keys to temper it — Li to bring moderation and attentiveness, a teacher to give perspective and common-sense — otherwise we will have a fanatic. We may need both Li and a teacher to learn to love one thing alone, for most people are mired in distractions and do not find it natural to do that. Xunzi is always realistic about our need for guidance.

    In Halldor Laxness’ masterpiece of sardonic lyricism, Independent People, there is a small boy who is destined to be a great poet and who, at an early stage in the book, only wants to see other countries. The narrator interjects with one of his quietly oracular comments:

In the blood of some people there is bred only one wish, and they are the children of happiness, for life is exactly big enough for one wish, not for two. (Halldor Laxness, Independent People, p.333)
Some people are lucky to be born with a vocation, and they are godlike because they have it fully-fledged without having to struggle to find it; Xunzi thinks that even to learn to have it would be godlike, because it is so rare. Laxness hits upon the profound truth that indeed there is always room for one wish; the single-minded will probably be successful, and will realize who they are meant to be.  Both Laxness and Xunzi imply that the plight of most people is that we have more than one wish, which life cannot accommodate — and because of that we will not be children of happiness. We will always be wistful about what else we could have been, nagged by what else we should have chosen. This is especially poignant for modern people, who have too many things they should be — perfect parent, writer, artist, lawyer, friend, citizen — and are always rattling between all their different roles, without an overarching vision to harness them all together. It is comforting to think that life is big enough for one wish — exactly big enough, if we only knew what it was.

 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,


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:


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. 



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)


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.