Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Graham on Confucius V: Likening-To-Oneself

Scott Bradley


There are several instances in the Analects when Confucius or one of his disciples tells us what is "the single thread" that runs throughout his teaching. It is not often that we are given such a clear summary of a philosophy and thus it behooves us to consider the implications of this one: "Tzu-Kung asked, 'Is there a single word which one could act on all one's life?' The Master said, 'Wouldn't it be likening-to-oneself (shu)? What you do not yourself desire do not do to others.'" (15/24)

This so-called negative statement of the Golden Rule (Jesus's "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") is as equally powerful as the 'positive' rendering and, from the point of view of Daoism, perhaps even more so. Rather than "doing" anything to anyone, which for Daoism is likely to be an imposition whatever the motivation, how much better to just leave them alone. Both, in any case, are easily manipulated by the justifying mind — we might just as easily tell ourselves that we would want the criticism that we so anxiously wish to dump on someone else. For this to be truly effective it would seem to require, therefore, that we first have a deep and honest understanding of ourselves.

The difference between the rule of Confucius and Jesus is that for the former it essential and for the latter incidental. Jesus might have wanted to be a moral teacher, but having been declared a savior, his moral teachings were rendered secondary. (Which is probably why most his followers seem immune to the implications of that moral teaching.) For Confucius, on the other hand, living in social harmony was the greatest value that humanity could pursue — Heaven could take care of itself. When asked about life after death, he replied that since his interlocutor had yet to learn how best to live, what business had he worrying about death? This presupposes that death and its consequences are universally and inevitably the same. I know I harp on the issue, but the absence of a belief in the need for 'salvation' (whether of the Christian-Islamic variety or of the Buddhist/Hindu variety) completely transforms our perspective on how to go about making the most of this life. At the very least, 'spiritual' pursuit becomes optional, and no "Truth" need be imposed upon others (for their own good, of course).

This "likening-to-oneself" implies an understanding that everyone else is to his- or herself as each one of us is to our own selves. I am the center of the Universe; but then there are approximately seven billion similar centers, as well. We might be One, but we are also necessarily many. This is the working-paradigm and 'larger view' of Zhuangzi — since each is a self-contained microcosm of right/wrong, and there being no known absolute Truth of the matter, then we can enjoy ours (walking one road) while allowing others to have theirs (walking a second road). The larger view, then, is an acknowledgement of the diversity of human expression, rather than an attempt to unify all expressions under the single banner of Truth.

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