The Confucian Art of Living Well (2): Caring for the Essence


In the Book of Mencius, there is an especially rich and beautiful story:

When Master Zeng was caring for his father, he always served wine and meat. When he cleared the table, he always asked who the food should be given to. And when his father asked if there were leftovers, he always said there were. His father died, and eventually Master Zeng was cared for by his son, Zeng Yuan. Zeng Yuan also served wine and meat, but when he cleared the table he never asked who the food should be given to. And when his father asked if there were leftovers, he always said there were none so that he could serve the food again. This is called caring for mouth and body alone. But Master Zeng’s way is called caring for the essence. (Hinton, p.135)

The story has a terseness characteristic of Mencius: he gives you one corner and you have to find the other three. Now it is possible to read the paragraphs and anecdotes in Confucius and Mencius as simply a succession of sayings, and the historical figures who occur in them are props in a moral fable. But the more we read these authors, the more we notice that there are about a dozen students, friends, and interlocutors who pop up frequently throughout the books and who all have different personalities, tendencies and intellectual abilities — and the sage takes these differences into account when he speaks to them, just as Socrates and the Buddha do. Watching Confucius and Mencius address different kinds of people is itself a lesson in upaya or what we might call “practical people-skills.”Thus, while the books can be read fruitfully as a string of sayings or a collection of sutras, the sayings themselves make more sense if we read Confucius and Mencius in the same way we would read a modern novel written in a fragmentary, non-linear style in which multiple characters weave in and out; and where what people say, as well as how they say it, depend on who they are speaking to. When we read the books paying attention to the multiple voices in it, and the individual preoccupations they reflect, we find that they are no longer an assemblage of pronouncements from one authority, but a resonating, polyphonic experience. The Analects of Confucius read in light of the perfect student Yan Hui is not the same book as the Analects read with the headstrong and passionate Zi Lu in mind.

The story of the three generations of Zengs acquires depth and density when we look at who these people are in the Confucian world; indeed, we cannot really understand what “caring for the essence” means if we fail to inquire what it might mean to them.

The main figure in this story, Master Zeng, appears many times in the Analects as one of the most perceptive students of Confucius — not necessarily the best loved or the closest emotionally, but possibly the most respected. The quality of his mind is shown in Analects 4.15, where Confucius remarks cryptically that his entire teaching consists of a single thread, and then he leaves. His perplexed disciples discuss it among themselves, but it is Master Zeng who illuminates their darkness: “It is nothing more than zhongshu” — or “dutifulness (zhong) tempered by understanding (shu).” (Slingerland translation) To a reader of Confucius this might be somewhat startling, because one might expect Ren (Goodness/Humaneness), De (Virtue/Integrity/Excellence), or Li (Ritual/Ceremony/Propriety) – concepts that occur many times in the Analects (whereas zhongshu only occurs once), and that would therefore seem obvious candidates for the “single thread.” If Zhong and Shu are not two threads (A and B) but one, Zhongshu 忠恕, a compound virtue the elements of which are fused together, how are we to understand this as the one thing Confucius has to teach?

Both characters have the Heart radical underneath, so we are dealing with an internal quality, a disposition, rather than mere actions. Zhong is the Center, the arrow hitting the mark, the spear piercing the shield, and it has been explained as “dutifulness” as well as something like “exhausting one’s emotions.” The idea is more like “going to the limit, being wholly present in whatever task one is undertaking, going to the utmost in a given role” – dutifulness as complete fulfillment of a role. It can’t be the narrower dutifulness of diligently satisfying one’s obligations as if by rote, because with a human being’s most important roles these obligations are not laid out at the outset as clear formulae. Rather, it must involve the presence of mind and heart to be able to engage with all the multifarious, particular situations and decisions that arise with respect to roles. For instance, a mother cannot at the outset imagine what is in store for her with her child, but each moment of motherhood can bring new discoveries and deepen maternal engagement in such a way as to be incomprehensible to a non-mother or to a new mother. Similarly, a teacher has not learned everything about teaching in his teacher-training program, but rather, the dedicated effort from day to day, over decades, inside and outside the classroom, will continually show him new things about what it means to be a teacher – but he will never be able to explain this fully to a non-teacher. To the extent that each human being is a kind of mother or a kind of teacher, or has a path that is in some way analogous to these paths, we can go some way towards imagining what it must be like for these people – but essentially we might be on our own, because paths always lead through particulars.

Heroically dedicated, a zhong person can have the flaw of becoming too absorbed in the task or the role. Zhong itself can be blind and narrow-minded, especially with regard to ends, unless complemented by the ability to empathize with other people, to take the perspectives of others, and implicitly to hold others as at least as good as oneself. Considerateness comes from respect, and respect from a genuine understanding that other people are equal to oneself or better; it cannot be just a posture of deference. Hence, Shu: As-Heart, Similarity-Heart –- the part of you that can step outside your own self-interest and identify with others. The Heart-part of both notions suggests spontaneity and natural tendency; we can do zhongshu naturally. Shu itself contains not only emotional sympathy, but intelligence regarding other people and oneself: only because I know what I don’t want, do I know what you don’t want. It has imagination, a reaching out of oneself, which may be lacking in zhong, which might require a narrower kind of imagination with regard to the demands of the role.

To see that both cannot be separated is easy if we consider, for example, how a good conversation functions. We understand our roles as equal interlocutors, and because of this no one gets to dominate; we also know how much or how little to say, and we involve ourselves in the ritual of asking questions, for example. Yet this cannot happen by formula; we need to have actual empathic understanding of other people in order to be able to respond to their comments accurately and to do things such as gauge where the conversation might be headed and what to steer away from. When things are going well, both notions are inseparable. Shu without zhong lacks the energy, the active and vigorous participation in making something happen that is bigger than the individual people; shu is about the individual people, the ability to use likeness to enter into difference.

Thus the commitment to duty, zhong, pursued with heart, takes us out of our imagined selves, even sets us against those selves in so far as we are often called upon to do things that we don’t like to do. Duty is not about being comfortable; indeed, the passional life may be more comfortable, because it is usually going with one’s grain. It is clear moreover that the practice of shu will often take one away from comfort, since nothing is more challenging than viewing the other person through her own eyes, than truly seeing other people as equal to oneself. Together, zhongshu pushes us further than we could have conceived, and this “thread” constituted by human commitment will open up the universe for us in hitherto inconceivable ways. As Confucius says elsewhere, “it is not the Dao that makes human beings great but human beings that make the Dao great.”

This is the insight that underlies Master Zeng’s serving of his father. When we think about what it takes to look after the sick and dying,  zhongshu makes more sense: there is the devoted dutifulness in doing everything right for the infirm old person — not just the preparing and serving of the food, the clearing away of the dishes, but also the cleaning of someone who can no longer clean himself, the washing of bedclothes, the constant attendance in case of emergency or other needs. Taking care of someone who is terminally ill and in pain involves tremendous patience and dedication: they might not eat the food you painstakingly cook, they may be constantly complaining or ill-tempered, and with parent-child relationships all the old issues may reappear in more intense form. This takes zhong. But shu has to come in, as considerateness: you put a glass of water by the bedside, but can they reach it? Will they be warm enough when they fall asleep? It is the shu aspect of our intelligence that recognizes that no one likes to be dependent and helpless, and that a person unable to take care of themselves is utterly reliant on other people to maintain their sense of self-respect. This is why, after all is done, Master Zeng tells his father that there are leftovers, which can be given to the needy; he understands that his father needs to know that he is still in a position to help others. Dignity is more important than mere survival, and it is the “essence” that Master Zeng cares for.

The story becomes yet more poignant when we notice that his father also appears elsewhere in Confucius, in perhaps the most lyrically appealing passage in the Analects. Confucius asks his main disciples what each one of them would do if he were made prime minister, and each one in turn gives the kind of stereotypical statement that a young man would make as part of his dream to save the world: strengthen the state, feed the poor and homeless, reform the judicial system, and so on. Confucius then turns to Zeng Dian, who has been quietly playing the zither in the background:

Last of all, the Master asked Zeng Xi, “Dian, what are your wishes?” Dian, pausing as he was playing on his lute, while it was yet twanging, laid the instrument aside, and said, “My wishes are different from the cherished purposes of these three gentlemen.” Said the Master, “What harm is there in that? Do you also, as well as they, speak out your wishes.” Dian then said, “In this, the last month of spring, with the dress of the season all complete, along with five or six young men who have assumed the cap, and six or seven boys, I would wash in the Yi, enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and return home singing.” The Master heaved a sigh and said, “I give my approval to Dian.” (Analects, 11.26)

Zeng Dian was known for his lack of pretension and his honesty. Here we see him too as relaxed in his own skin, a man capable of enjoying the gifts of life and of treating ritual as one with the turns of nature. This is the old man who is sick in bed and being cared for by his son Master Zeng. It is quite possible that the elder Zeng would ask his son if there were leftovers while knowing the actual tightened state of the Zeng family economy, but nonetheless would give his child the opportunity to render an answer that nurtures dignity: thus both father and son are, as it were, gracing each other with respect. We recall, too, that in fact the students of Confucius were usually poor and living in precarious circumstances.

It is all the sadder then that Master Zeng’s own son, Zeng Yuan, when asked the same of his own father, would reply that there was nothing left over to give — thus rubbing his father’s nose in his own poverty. Clearly the virtues have not been transmitted osmotically from father to so; indeed, Mencius is always aware that the relation of father and son is perilous. Even the sage emperors Yao and Shun did not end up with sons who were worthy of them. It is also possible that Zeng Yuan’s behavior was not only lacking in loving shu towards his father but might even have been spiteful: “See where all your virtue gets you.” In another classic text it is said that when Master Zeng died his body was washed in the kitchen — a grievous violation of propriety that would have caused him to spin in his grave. What could have happened between the generations to cause this miserable decline? Mencius in his wisdom gives us three generations. There is wondrous beauty of character in the relationship between father and grandfather, but the relationship of son to father is a cautionary tale: this is what it looks like to feed only body and mouth. A human being is more than that.

“To feed people without showing them love — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without showing them reverence — that is to keep them like pets.” (Mencius, tr. Hinton, 13.37)








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