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. 

   

   

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.