December 13, 2020
More than 2500 years has passed since the time you walked this earth. Since then, you have become known as one of history’s greatest teachers. Billions of people have been put on the path of authentic personhood because of you—first in China, and now the world.
I am deeply, deeply honored to be writing this letter to you today.
I do this as part of the larger conversation I am having with my congregation here in Cleveland, called West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church. We are in process of exploring the treasures of the great world religious traditions and I believe that you might be the one person we are studying who might best understand this, for you were not so much the author or originator of Chinese culture as its supreme editor. You too searched among the treasures of the ancients, and you took this and discarded that and so on—as all editors do—so that old wisdom might serve present need and lead people into a better future.
This is what Unitarian Universalism wants people to do also—to be spiritual editors in their own right of multiple sources of wisdom and truth.
For a Unitarian Universalist, maybe the answer is WWCD? As in, “What would Confucius do?”
But may I ask for something, right from the start? At times during this letter, what will happen is that I will say a thing that is completely obvious to you, and I ask for your indulgence, since it will not be obvious to people today. For example, you had absolutely nothing to do with fortune cookies people get at Chinese restaurants! But when your name comes up, for a lot of folks, their minds instantly go to the cookies you crack open, revealing a slip of paper with some tepid “Confucius say” statement printed on them….
Moving forward, I hope this letter changes what comes to mind when your name is mentioned.
As I have said, we are exploring the spiritual treasures of the ancients, and we are still early in that journey. One astounding fact our congregation has learned—at least I think it is astounding—is that all of today’s great world religious traditions (including yours) emerged during a relatively short period of time, between 900BC to 200BC: Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in China, the philosophy of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle in Greece, the monotheism of Judaism in the Middle East. All of these emerged during a relatively short window of opportunity, and it was because society was maturing, cities were expanding, militaries were building, individualism among the people was rising, and violence was spreading and growing. The violence of the time—the chaos of the time—was extreme. Thus the goal of the new religions which emerged: to heal the violence and to help humanity survive its growing pains. Every one of them offered a version of the Golden Rule. You stated your own version this way: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Or, more positively, “If you want to establish yourself, establish others.” It’s just that the illusion of separation loomed large over humanity, and the great religions were born to replace that illusion with the reality of our interdependence.
Dear Confucius, we are still earnestly in that fight to replace illusion with reality. We still are, here in Cleveland, Ohio, United States of America, in the ghastly year of 2020.
But there is something else we’ve learned that I should mention. It’s an idea that Hinduism, Buddhism, and your tradition of Confucianism too, all share. The great Hindu saint Ramana Maharsi put it like this: “Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.” In other words, you, together with the great saints and sages of Hinduism and Buddhism, call people to a vision of liberation that involves working inwardly on oneself rather than trying to conquer the world.
Here’s how you say just that, which we find in a book called The Analects, widely considered to be the most reliable source of your teachings: “Exemplary persons make demands on themselves, while petty people make demands on others.” Or this saying: “When things go smooth, go and benefit the entire world; when not, the worst is that you can still perfect yourself.”
Ugh, I wish I could say I was never petty and always exemplary.
On the other hand, one reason why I like you is that you never came off as full of yourself. You taught modesty and you were modest, and you spoke of yourself as a fellow traveler on the path towards becoming fully, authentically human.
That’s how I see myself, too, with my fellow Unitarian Universalists.
We are on the path towards actualizing our full humanity, and, Confucius, right here is where your spiritual perspective takes a sharp turn away from what we find in Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindus and Buddhists agree that “being human” is merely a stage in one’s spiritual development and is something to be transcended. They are at one in this. The human condition for Hindus, for example, is that people are like kings who, fallen victim to amnesia, wander their kingdom in tatters not knowing who they really are. Humanity is something to wake up from, and there are four “yogas” or disciplines by which people can arrive at liberation, which is called “moksha.” Whichever yoga a person chooses will be one best suited to their temperament. Religion needs to accommodate the diversity in humanity that simply cannot and need not be repressed and denied.
As for Buddhists, the human condition is suffering because people have human “selves” which are essentially a nexus of fear patterns and greed patterns that are a product of social conditioning. The fear patterns and greed patterns have been done unto us. We grow up believing that these patterns are essentially who we are. That is how ignorance maintains our suffering and the suffering we cause others. But the Buddhist “no-self” doctrine is like light chasing away shadows. There is nothing permanent in the human “self” that each of us thinks we have. Life does not have to be this way. This human “self” can be disassembled through spiritual practices, and the ultimate achievement of the spiritual path is direct experience of “no-self” which is called “nirvana” and by which we enter into a state of compassionate spaciousness….
That’s essentially what Hindus and Buddhists teach about the human condition, the cause of suffering, and the way to liberation.
Confucius, you taught something very different. You taught that our spiritual focus should not be on transcending the human but, instead, on becoming completely fulfilled in our humanity. Let’s do that instead. Let’s each of us learn how to become a fully authentic person, or what you called a chun tzu. It’s that saying of yours again: “Exemplary persons make demands on themselves, while petty people make demands on others.” The chun tzu is the exemplary person, humanity at its best, whereas, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have people who are woefully undeveloped, people who are petty, and that is where violence comes from. One Chinese expression puts it like this: “That person is a beast with a human skin.” Just having human skin—just looking human—is no guarantee that you are truly human.
I wonder how my congregation is receiving this idea. Perhaps it may seem very strange to them. But this is what makes your spiritual perspective so fresh and interesting. Being truly and fully human is just not a given for anyone. You have to work at it. It is an achievement that takes effort, and it can take a lifetime to accomplish.
That is what your supreme teaching is all about. The word you use to talk about this is ren. No other concept of yours has more prominence in your philosophy. Ren means “human-heartedness,” or the seed of it, which needs to be nourished and cultivated so as to achieve full flourishment. You might be pleased to know that it very much resonates with Unitarianism’s historic focus on what is called “self-culture”–and it definitely resonates with the Universalism’s historic teaching that no person does evil knowingly, that all people act so as to accomplish something positive based on their best feeling (at the time) for what “positive” means. Even people who have human skin who act like beasts. It’s because their feeling for what is positive is beastly. The habits they are caught in—their attitudes and ideas—all need improvement. But no one is broken at the core of their humanity. All people have inherent worth and dignity.
Your teaching and that of historic Unitarianism and Universalism—very resonant! They rhyme!
But what might not rhyme—what is so very interesting about your approach—stands out when a person takes a close look at the Chinese ideogram for the word ren (which, again, means human-heartedness). The ideogram is made up of two elements: an image of a person, and an image of the number two. The basic message being telegraphed is that personhood is essentially relational. People are not primarily atomic, individualistic choosers and only secondarily in relationship with others. No. You teach the reverse of that. To be a person is, first and foremost, to be in a network of relationships; take away that network of relationships and there would be no person left behind.
I’m not sure, Confucius, if you had a system of mail in your day. But you will be gratified to note how deeply your teaching about personhood has sunk into the Chinese psyche, as illustrated by the way a Chinese person writes their mailing address. First is the country name, then the province or state, then the city, then the street and number, then the family name, and last goes their “first” name. Because that “first” name which indicates individuality is made up of all the relationships that the other place names name and is nothing in itself without all those relationships.
Again, it’s such a huge contrast with the traditional Western understanding of the self as primarily individualistic. To be fair, it needs to be said that trends in much of current Western science and philosophy and theology agree with you—but the traditional Western individualistic notion continues to hold powerful sway over the imaginations of Western people through the structures and practices of capitalism and the middle-class. This is exactly why today’s Chinese government is wanting to bring your Confucianist perspective back, as a bulwark against Western influence via economic globalization.
Capitalism works to feed the fires of individualistic want (as opposed to genuine need); and feeding individualistic want takes priority over the need to be appropriately in connection with the main relationships of life, which you called the Five Constant Relationships: parent–child, husband–wife, older sibling–younger sibling, elder friend–junior friend, and ruler–subject. You also said that the former in each of the five relationships is supposed to be benevolent (the parent, the husband, the older sibling, the elder friend, the ruler) while the latter is supposed to be deferential (the child, the wife, the younger sibling, the junior friend, the subject). If people can live this way, within the network of these relationships, the result is personal fulfillment and social harmony.
It’s also important to note that you tried to make it clear that deference must be earned. It’s not a given. Your own life is a blatant example of that—you, who never succeeded as advisor to rulers in the way you’d hoped, because rulers were scared of your courage in standing up to them. Wealth beyond measure could have been yours, if you just said what rulers wanted to hear. But you—a subject—wouldn’t. Not at the expense of your integrity.
You remind me of someone else I love: the Greek philosopher Socrates. Oh, how I would love to hear you two exemplary human beings (chun tzu) converse together. What a scene that would be!
I really want to emphasize this because, over time, your vision of the Five Constant Relationships and the benevolence-deference dynamic that’s supposed to be at play has been distorted. Over time, people made it sound like you advocated for the absolute and rigid authority of parents, husbands, older siblings, elder friend, and rulers, whether they merited respect or not. That a person had to show respect even if the relationship was abusive. One glaring example of this is the Chinese Communist Party, which has invoked this distorted interpretation to strengthen their grip upon the people.
Well, you are not the first religious leader in history to be made into a tool of oppression.
I know that that can’t feel good for you.
I do need to acknowledge one thing though: how a person’s brilliance cannot defend them from taking on some or even many of the prejudices of their time. No one can be exempt—even exemplary you, Confucius. I am speaking of patriarchy—the rule of men over women. This was the cultural sea you swam in, and, reflecting it, you once said, “A woman without knowledge is a woman of virtue.” You also said that “It is the law of nature that woman should be held under the dominance of man.” Yeesh. Yet another conversation that would be fascinating to behold would be between you and Susan B. Anthony, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg…
There’s just a lot of people who are excluded by your Five Constant Relationships. The “husband as the benevolent one and wife as the deferential one” arrangement just excludes a lot of people. Well. While you are certainly one of the ancient masters of spirituality, this aspect of your vision is profoundly hurtful. And so, just as in your own day, as the master editor of Chinese culture, you strove to separate good views and traditions and rituals from bad ones, so too today, we do the same. Patriarchy is not something to carry forward, and we Unitarian Universalists strive to not do so.
But now I want to tell you a personal story. When I was a boy, I remember times taking the bus downtown. This was in Edmonton, Alberta, and I would be with my Baba, and our plan was to go to the museum, or to the library, or to the park. Our seat was the kind that would face the aisle, and, with legs tucked neatly underneath so we wouldn’t trip anyone walking past, we people-watched. We watched humanity surrounding us, humanity with a diversity of aims and ends, humanity on the go, humanity that didn’t need transcending so much as fulfilling.
Confucius, in times when all the bus seats happened to be occupied and an elderly person came close, Baba would say to me under her breath, “Tony, please give your seat to your elders,” and I would stand up and politely invite the person to take my seat. Baba, also my elder, despite being one the elders she was talking about, would stand up with me. I have never forgotten this. The ren in her—the human-heartedness—was demonstrated through this ritual of politeness towards elders; and, through this very same ritual, the ren in the young boy I was was being developed and actualized.
This is the last thing I want to be sure to thank you for: your vision around the role of rituals in human life. Social rituals, you said, are how we come to learn and to express the goodness that is in our hearts. Becoming fully human, within the network of our Constant Relationships, requires practice. You just can’t become an exemplary person—a chun tzu—by reading about it in a book, or just talking about it. It is a Way—a Dao—that ultimately transcends words.
I don’t mean to be mystical here. Really, it reminds me of what it takes to learn how to figure skate (which is a thing I love to do). You can talk all day long about sit spins or axel jumps, but I don’t care how fine your talk is: pulling on your skates and getting on the ice and actually doing a sit spin or an axel jump is another thing entirely. You have to fall again and again, before you learn how to get up and stay up. And that’s only the very beginning. Hard practice is the only way forward. The Dao or way of being an exemplary human being—a chun tzu—is just like this: a frequency of practicing the rituals of humanity to the point that they become completely effortless.
For example, consider the ritual of shaking hands. Did you have this ritual in your day? I see you, I smile, I walk towards you, I put out my hand to shake yours. And behold—you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile, raise your hand towards mine. We shake. We’ve had to learn how to do that, and now it just happens effortlessly. But notice something in particular: in none of this are we treating each other like things. No commands, stratagems, force, special tricks or tools, are involved. I’m not pulling your hand up and down. You’re not pulling mine. Rather, in this minor ritual of shaking hands, something amazing is happening. A truly holy moment us unfolding. We are coming together harmoniously as free persons, as human beings, and we are acknowledging each other’s humanity. This is what the ritual makes possible. It allows us to meet each other not as objects to be pushed around but as human beings to be respected.
Confucius, your hope was that human society could become humane and effortless just like this. Rituals of humaneness practiced in the home, which prepare a person to practice rituals of harmony in the larger community and nation.
That was your hope.
Having said all this—in light of all this—it will make perfect sense to you when I say that I am just not feeling like myself these days. I’m just not. So many rituals of humaneness have been taken away, because the year I write in is a plague year, a COVID-19 year. These days are among the deadliest days in American history, and we are dying in record numbers. Handshakes are not safe these days. Neither are hugs.
But I miss those sweet rituals of connection. I especially miss my church’s ritual called “For All That Is Our Lives,” where people come to the front of the sanctuary to share from the heart: to express a hope, a prayer, an intention in writing on a card, or by placing a stone on the altar. It is a way to give voice to the sorrows and joys of our hearts. The line is always long, and for all who wish it, a big hug from me comes next. And then, together, we all sing
For all that is our life we sing our thanks and praise;
for all life is a gift which we are called to use
to build the common good and make our own days glad.
Confucius, I wish you could be a part of that. That sweetness. That humanity. How, together, connected by this ritual, all the pettiness in our hearts is drained away, and we: we become chun tzu.
Of all people, you would understand.
But I fear I am wearing out my welcome with an overlong letter. So I will close.
We are separated by a distance of 2500 years, you and I. But I will say that perhaps, through my Baba, I came into direct contact with your spirit, when she taught me not just that my elders are to be respected, but also how to respect them.
So I was a Confucian without knowing it.
And now I know it.
And I am grateful.
I am yours, sincerely,