Apologizing to Confucius


There's a famous anecdote about the sixth Zen patriarch. Once the fifth patriarch held a poetry contest so that his students could demonstrate their understanding and prove their worth to succeed him. The senior disciple Shenxiu wrote this stanza on the corridor wall:

The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror's stand.
At all times we must strive to polish it
and must not let dust collect.

Ten days later, the illiterate disciple Huineng heard of this contest and asked an attendant to write this second stanza:

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The mirror has no stand.
The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure.
Where is there room for dust?

In the dark of night, the fifth patriarch visited Huineng and gave him his robe and bowl, the symbols of his monkhood. ("You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.")

Huineng's answer is beautiful. And though I can't claim what the roots of this divide are, I feel a similar dynamic between the Confucians and the Taoists.

It's no secret that I love the Taoists, love their beauty and poetry and irreverence for rule and doctrine. And through (my reading of) that lens I've taken on an anti-Confucian bias that is incomplete.

The more sophisticated reading of the Huineng story above is that both stanzas are necessary and complementary. And in that spirit, some lines from the Confucian Analects that I find inspiring.

On nature and nurture:

By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.

On love:

To rank the effort above the prize may be called love.

On worth:

Only after Winter comes do we know that the pine and the cypress are the last to fade.

So simple to say, so hard to do. Over, and over, and over again:

A young man should serve his parents at home and be respectful to elders outside his home. He should be earnest and truthful, loving all, but become intimate with humaneness. After doing this, if he has energy to spare, he can study literature and the arts.

On change:

There are only the wise of the highest class, and the stupid of the lowest class, who cannot be changed.

The outward posture:

I am not bothered by the fact that I am not understood. I am bothered when I do not know others.

The opening of the work:

Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?