At 50 I know the will of Heaven

Setting goals in lifelong learning

MOST PEOPLE would not have experienced the same rate of self-development and learning as Confucius. Still, even if you are already 50 or 60, it is not too late to emulate the Master’s milestones (Analects 2.4) as developmental goals that you want to achieve.

Goal 1 Acquiring a serious education

If you have only a secondary or diploma qualification, you must proceed to get a university degree, even if it means borrowing money for the course fees and burning the midnight oil in studying and doing assignments for four years or more.

Let’s face facts – the social and working world is unreasonable in its expectations, and one such expectation is that if you want a promotion or a better-paying job, you are expected to have at least a Bachelor.

And among degree holders in the same profession or trade, the individual with additional certifications (e.g. a post-graduation advanced diploma) is likely to be considered more valuable to the employer.

(Note the difference between a profession and a trade: A profession is one where a registered licence is required to practise, such as lawyering, accounting, civil engineering, arcihtecture or doctoring; a trade is also a professional skill but it doesn’t need a licence, such as computing, politicking, plumbing, marketing, economics research, or minding your own business.)

How does one go about learning and acquiring knowledge? According to Confucius, real understanding of a subject comes from long and careful study. But one should not have excessive book learning; instead one steers a middle course between studying and reflecting on what one has learned.

“He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger” 子曰: 學而不思則罔, 思而不學則殆。
(Analects 2.15)

Learning is a lifelong process of observation (which includes close reading) of the subject matter, whether it be in books, things or people’s behaviour, followed by reflection, discussion and practice, that transform the learner’s perception and attitude.

Confucius did not believe any one person was the sole possessor of the truth. He believed that through rational discussion, the truth could be worked out between two or more people, and that the truth often was found somewhere between two or more positions. Hence, learning should not be done in isolation.

Goal 2  Be informed and engaged

Read widely and critically on social, political, economic and global issues, and trends and developments in science and technology. Attend workshops and seminars. Participate in online discussion forums. Enrol in online courses (most of them are free). Your intellectual involvement helps you develop and articulate your position in a world of conflicting interests, opinions and ideologies.

Volunteer in social and community programmes and projects, so you know firsthand about what's going on among your fellow humans.

In his time when the empire was fragmented into dozens of independent warring states Confucius was constantly engaged with ministers, diplomats and rulers, and other political advisers in debate and deliberation over issues and concerns of the day. He travelled widely and took part in national and international conferences and he was not afraid to set forth his own views forcefully and persuasively. Gradually his reputation spread and he soon gathered around him a large body of young people who wanted to learn and adopt his way of life. Many of his students eventually went on to hold senior posts in the various states.

Goal 3 Discover your destiny

Many people spend their whole life day-dreaming, filled with distractions and mindless activities; not knowing their purpose in life. You are different: you are a committed individual who care about your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your fellow humans. You want to know what your role is in the scheme of things, so that you can contribute productively.

In other words, you want to discover your personal Mandate from Heaven 天命

Confucius believed Heaven has a purpose for you the committed individual, and it is your responsibility to determine what it is. There’s nothing mystical or religious about this belief (unlike the “will of God”, fate and other mumbo-jumbo). Through careful, critical study of the great Classics of old China, through honest self-appraisal, and through conscientious observation of human conduct and affairs, you can discover your own destiny.

Goal 4  Develop your moral senses

Attune your “ears” (as the Master put it) so that you become alert and sensitive to the ebb and flow of life and events around you, and conduct yourself correctly and safely.

Your ultimate goal is to reach the high moral state where you can do anything you desire, and yet never be guilty of misconduct, hurting others or hurting yourself.

Teaching methods

Confucius himself was willing to teach anyone, whatever their social standing, as long as they are eager and tireless. He taught his students moral conduct, proper speech, and government administration, and trained them in the Six Arts – rituals and ceremony, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy and literary editing.

He did not lecture. Instead he posed questions, cited passages from the Classics, used apt analogies, and waited for his students to arrive at the right answers.

He remarked: I only instruct the eager and enlighten the enthusiastic individual. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson. 子曰: 憤不啟, 不悱不發, 舉一隅不以三隅反, 則不復也。 (Analects 7.8)

Hence, we can see that Confucius’s methods of instruction were informal, interactive and tailored to the individual. He did not use structured classes or examinations. Instead he suggested to each student what they should study, and then discussed it with them and sometimes just listened. He first assessed each student, and then encouraged them to develop their strengths, and correct their weaknesses. To this end, he sometimes answered the same question quite differently to different students.

One student asked whether he should put a particular teaching immediately into practice. The Master said the student was over-zealous and recommended that he first consult his father and older brothers. To another student, whom he thought was lacking in enthusiasm, he said yes, put what you know into practice right away.

Divining the future

The Master’s accomplishments were vast and varied. He was skilled in archery, playing musical instruments, divination and government administration, skills essential in his days. He was also an archivist and editor of ancient texts. For instance, he re-compiled the Shi Ching 詩經 (Book of Songs), selecting 300 out of 3,000 songs. His edition is the current one in use today.

An important Classic for Confucius was the I Ching 易經 (the Book of Change, pronounced yee-jing) that gives spiritual, cognitive and moral advice and hints to help the reader evaluate present circumstances and make decisions, whether to switch jobs, get married, enter into a business partnership, buy a house, go on a trip or even to attend an event.

Regular consultation of the I Ching helps you to decide on a course of action that is moral and right, and that leads to beneficial consequences. This art of divining the future can be applied on both a personal and institutional level.

Confucius said he consulted his copy of the I Ching so frequently he had to rebind it three times (in his days, book pages were made of bamboo strips bound in leather thongs). And if he had 50 more years to spare, he would devote them entirely to the study of the I Ching. He wrote 10 commentaries to clarify many of the obscure passages in the core text on the hexagrams.

Individuals like Confucius who have studied and applied the teachings of the Book of Change are masters of changing circumstances. They are said to have internalised the will of Heaven and so are able to align their conduct, speech, behaviour and life’s strategy accordingly. They are also men of great personal courage because they are confident that no matter what danger they find themselves in, as long as it is not Heaven’s will, they will not be harmed. According to traditional beliefs, the knowledge of the I Ching and your moral conduct will even protect you from punishment in the Underworld.

Authentic Man

Confucius’s ultimate goal for his disciples is to create the Authentic Man who carries himself with grace and courage, speaks correctly and appropriately, and demonstrates integrity in all things. The authentic man is also trained in character and wisdom to serve in government and institutions that control human affairs.

Confucius strongly disliked the “small” men, whose clever talk and pretentious manner win them an audience. Confucius found himself in an age in which moral values were out of joint. Actions and behaviour no longer corresponded to the labels originally attached to them. “Rulers do not rule and subjects do not serve,” he observed (Analects 12.11; also 13.3). Hence, he set for himself the goal of putting things right, and teaching a younger generation to do likewise. For more than two millennia, there indeed have been such a corps of authentic, committed individuals following the way the Master has shown.

– Francis Chin, June 11, 2016

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Know the will of Heaven