Confucius at Laoshan Park, photo by Francis Chin, Nov 10, 2015
I set my heart on learning

Confucius, seen in Laoshan forest park in Qingdao. The superimposed text (reading vertically right to left) sums up the Master’s life milestones: 

The Master says, "At 15 I set my heart on learning, at 30 I knew where I stood, at 40 I have no more doubts, at 50 I knew the will of Heaven (life’s purpose), at 60 my ears were attuned (i.e. my moral sense was developed), and at 70 I followed my heart’s desire without crossing the line."

The text is from Analects 2.4, a much-quoted passage summing-up of Confucius’s developmental milestones from his teen years to old age (Confucius died at age 72).

Confucius started young to acquire a serious education – not classroom study but active real-life learning based on a systematic reading of the ancient texts. The insights that he gleaned he applied to his interaction with his pupils, fellow philosophers, officials and even the rulers of the various petty states that he visited.

With a solid education as his intellectual foundation, he was able, by age 30, to say that he had formed his character and knew where he stood in the affairs of the world.

By early middle-age (age 40),  he could say confidently, “I have no more doubts.” 

Self-confidence in one’s morals and beliefs was important because in his days the empire was fragmented into dozens of warring states, each with its own political and moral system. In this chaotic situation, anyone who had read a few old books and possessed a glib tongue, could hire himself out as an expert on state and military affairs. So as not to be duped by these snake-oil gurus, one needed a thorough grounding in philosophy, history, the Classics and spiritual values.

When he was 50, Confucius was appointed Minister of Public Security in his home state. The phrase, “know the will of Heaven” would therefore mean knowing the correct way (according to Heaven’s mandate) to govern or supervise. “Heaven’s mandate” is a common political concept that refers to the will of the people. A dynasty that had lost the mandate should and would be overthrown by popular revolution and a new one installed.

For ordinary folks, the will of Heaven could also be understood as Destiny or Life’s Purpose that Heaven has mandated to each of us. After having gone through the long gestation of learning and self-development, we should be able to say confidently that we know what our life’s purpose is.

What can you do to clarify your understanding of life’s purpose, and strengthen your spiritual resolve?

The obvious solution is to study the Master’s own thoughts, as expressed in the Analects 論 語, a slim anthology of memorable epigrams that summarise Confucius’s core practice of cultivating and regulating the AUTHENTIC life, i.e. the life led by the chun-tzi 君 子 or authentic individual.

Because every line is a jewel of thought, the Analects cannot be skimmed over at one go. A reviewer on suggests we read the pages the way we examine a set of carvings:
I took each paragraph out of the box, examined it, and turned it over. Some parts entranced me. Other bits I want to reconsider more later. Still other sections feel as though they will speak to a different me at a different point in my life.

The humanist ideas and ideals that the Master discussed in the book are applicable today in our relationship with friends, co-workers, superiors, family members, and society at large. So, let us find out from the Analects how to develop a set of principles that can sustain a virtuous cycle of blameless behaviour (as opposed to a vicious cycle of lies, thievery and corruption).

Four life goals

MOST readers would not experience the same rate of self-development and learning as Confucius himself. But even if you are already 50 or 60 when you first heard of Confucius, it is not too late to adopt the Master’s milestones in Analects 2.4 as developmental goals that you want to achieve:

Goal 1 Education

Your first step is to acquire a purposeful education. If you have only high school or diploma qualification, you must get a university degree, even if it means borrowing money for the expensive course fees and burning the midnight oil studying and doing assignments through 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 better-paying job or a promotion, your employer prefers that you possess tertiary qualifications. And among degree holders competing in the same profession or trade, the individual with additional certified trade skill sets is likely to be considered more valuable to the company or institution.

Note the difference between a profession and a trade: A profession is one where a government-registered licence is required to practise, such as lawyering, accounting, civil engineering or doctoring; a trade is also a professional skill but it doesn’t need a licence, such as handphone repair, data analytics, plumbing, wood-carving or minding your own business.

How does one learn? 

Just memorising stuff from the textbook and handing in your assignment is not enough to master a subject. According to Confucius, real understanding comes from steering 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” (Analects 2.15). 

子 曰: 「學 而 不 思 則 罔, 思 而 不 學 則 殆。」

True learning is a lifelong process of observation of the subject matter, whether it be in books, things or people’s behaviour, followed by reflection and discussion that transforms the learner’s perception and attitude. 

Confucius did not believe any one person was the sole possessor of the truth. He believed that through analysis and 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.

Confucius himself was willing to teach anyone, whatever their social standing, as long as they were eager and tireless. He taught his students moral conduct, proper speech (today we would include the art of presentation and making an elevator pitch to sell your idea) and government administration, and trained them in the Six Arts – rituals and ceremony, music, archery, chariot-riding, calligraphy and literary editing. This range of skills produced a well-balanced man who was at once a scholar, a warrior and an artist.

The Master’s teaching methods were interactive and effective. He did not give long stand-up lectures on a subject. 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.” (Analects 7.8). 

子曰: 「不 憤 不 啟,不 悱 不 發,舉 一 隅 不 以 三 隅 反,則 不 復 也。」

Confucius’s own accomplishments were vast and varied. He was skilled in archery, playing musical instruments, divination and government administration. 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.

Goal 2 Social Engagement

Keep yourself well-versed in social, political, economic and global issues, trends and developments, through constant reading and participation in study workshops, seminars and forums. Such active engagement in civil society will help you develop and articulate your position in a world of conflicting interests, opinions and ideologies.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Confucius was constantly engaged with other philosophers, diplomats, ministers and rulers in discussion, debate and deliberation over key issues and concerns of the day. He travelled widely (sometimes in dangerous environments) and participated in national and international conferences, and he was not afraid to put 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 thought. Many of his students went on to assume important roles in government.

Goal 3  Moral Development

With education and experience in social life, you should reach a moral stage where you can do anything you desire, and yet never be guilty of misconduct, hurting others or hurting yourself.

Goal 4 Spiritual Destiny

This is what Heaven has decreed for you. Many people spent their entire life wandering aimlessly from one mindless unsatisfactory job to another. And life outside the workplace cage is filled with distractions, disruptions and mindless activities. They do not know nor are they bothered to find out their life’s true purpose (the will of Heaven). 

But you are different. You are aware of the Master’s injunction not to live a life of oblivion, but to strive to realise your spiritual destiny. 

And you know that it can only be attained through careful disciplined study, contemplation, and mindful noting of circumstances and changes around you.

Divining the future

For Confucius and the ancient seekers of truth, the important text to help develop the spiritual life is the Book of Change 易 經 (pronounced “yii ching” but commonly written in English as I Ching). The book was already in circulation since the dawn of Chinese civilisation and was consulted often as part of military planning and political decision-making. It was re-compiled by the Duke of Zhou (founder of the Zhou Dynasty 800 years before Confucius was born) to make it more accessible to common folks to use for personal guidance.

The I Ching gives spiritual and psychological advice to help you understand your present circumstances. It then offers suggestions for one or more courses of action that you could undertake, each with a different moral outcome. There is usually an exhortation or encouragement to be prudent and do the right thing, in order to follow Heaven’s will. The right thing may not be what you desired initially but ultimately through mindful study and reflection, you will realise this is indeed the path that is most beneficial to you.

Let me give a real-life example. Many years ago, a former classmate asked me to help him consult the I Ching on a career move he was planning. I told him not to tell me his question but to focus on it mentally while throwing the three copper coins (a quick process to seek out the hexagram with the appropriate answer). When he had thrown the coins, I opened the text to the section where a possible answer might be found. What it said was blunt: my friend would face a lawsuit if he pursued that line of action.

He was taken aback but admitted finally that he was the sales manager working for a certain Japanese marine engine dealer. He intended to resign and set up his own dealership and poach the existing customers. I told him in no uncertain terms that the I Ching should never be used for such unethical purposes.

Confucius said he consulted his own copy of the I Ching so frequently that he had to rebind it three times (in his days, books were made of bamboo strips bound in leather thongs and rolled up). And if he had 50 more years to spare, he would devote them entirely to the study of this book. He wrote 10 commentaries to clarify many of the core passages of the hexagrams that have become obscure through the long passage of time.

Individuals like Confucius who have studied and internalised the teachings of the I Ching are masters of 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.

Divining the future also includes attuning your inner “ears” so that you become alert and sensitive to the ebb and flow of life and events around you, and adjust and adapt accordingly. The surest way to train your inner ears is to practise constant mindfulness in your daily action, speech and conduct.

Authentic individual

Confucius’s teaching methods were informal, and tailored to the individual. He did not use structured classroom lessons 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 their strengths, and improved their weaknesses. To this end, he sometimes answered the same question quite differently to two different students. 

One student asked whether he should put a particular teaching immediately put into practice. Confucius 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. 

Confucius’s ultimate goal for his disciples was to create the Authentic Individual who carries himself with grace and courage, speaks correctly and appropriately, and demonstrates integrity in all things.

Confucius strongly disliked the “small” men, whose clever talk and pretentious manner won them an audience. Confucius found himself in an age similar to today in which moral values are out of joint, where fake becomes genuine, and lies are official truths. 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).

– Francis Chin, March 2017, photo taken during a visit to Laoshan on November 10, 2015

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