Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bit by Bit - Chapter 13, Part 16

Trey Smith

Confucius went west to deposit his works with the royal house of Chou. Tzu-lu advised him, saying, "I have heard that the Keeper of the Royal Archives is one Lao Tan, now retired and living at home. If you wish to deposit your works, you might try going to see him about it."

"Excellent!" said Confucius, and went to see Lao Tan, but Lao Tan would not give permission. Thereupon Confucius unwrapped his Twelve Classics and began expounding them. Halfway through the exposition, Lao Tan said, "This will take forever! Just let me hear the gist of the thing"

"The gist of it," said Confucius, "is benevolence and righteousness."

"May I ask if benevolence and righteousness belong to the inborn nature of man?" said Lao Tan.

"Of course," said Confucius. "If the gentleman lacks benevolence, he will get nowhere; if he lacks righteousness, he cannot even stay alive. Benevolence and righteousness are truly the inborn nature of man. What else could they be?"

Lao Tan said, "May I ask your definition of benevolence and righteousness?"

Confucius said, "To be glad and joyful in mind; to embrace universal love and be without partisanship - this is the true form of benevolence and righteousness."

Lao Tan said, "Hmm - close - except for the last part. `Universal love' - that's a rather nebulous ideal, isn't it? And to be without partisanship is already a kind of partisanship. Do you want to keep the world from losing its simplicity?

Heaven and earth hold fast to their constant ways, the sun and moon to their brightness, the stars and planets to their ranks, the birds and beasts to their flocks, the trees and shrubs to their stands. You have only to go along with Virtue in your actions, to follow the Way in your journey, and already you will be there. Why these flags of benevolence and righteousness so bravely upraised, as though you were beating a drum and searching for a lost child? Ah, you will bring confusion to the nature of man!"

~ Burton Watson translation ~
As I have written of before, the main problem with trying to live a benevolent, righteous or virtuous life is that it involves a degree of calculation and this calculus partially or completely negates the goal sought. It seems to be a propensity of humankind to try to discern the smallest amount of action or thought necessary to be awarded the distinction of being benevolent, righteous or virtuous by others or ourselves. We desire to to do just enough -- certainly no more -- to edge ourselves over the bar to claim our title.

To view the Index page for this series, go here.

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