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The Wisdom of Confucius and His Disciples

Talk by John van Abbema. Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton

June 16, 2013

Good morning. It is appropriate that we should be talking about Confucius today, on Fathers' Day.

The starting point of Confucius' philosophy on how people should behave towards each other is the relationship between father and son in a family setting. In his view, they should show respect for each other: the son has an obligation to honour his father and the father must teach his son the ways of getting along in this world. In Confucius' mind, this basic premise would then expand into one's relationships with one's neighbours, one's community and, indeed, a country's ability to get along with other countries.

Let me tell you about an epiphany I had. This happened 13 years ago, in the year 2000, when Sharon and I travelled in Japan for three weeks. Michael, our son, was working there. What a wonderful opportunity! My eyes were opened to the ancient history of Japan and the orient.

We were in the Japanese Alps, visiting an historic museum that depicted the history of ancient Japan. We learned about the Japanese culture dating way back to prehistoric times. Theirs, like that of China, was a cultured state while our European ancestors were still running around in animal skins.

The religions of oriental cultures are not well known to the average Westerner.

Adherents of Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism and Buddhism all seemed to live in harmony and, in fact, some people adhered to more than one religion, choosing the rituals of one for happy ceremonies, and the rites of another, for sad ceremonies.

In March of this year, my interest in Confucius grew immensely, when we listened to a Harvard graduate of theology who came to do a presentation at the Unitarian Church we attended in S. Carolina. Her talk centred on the state of gentility in the USA. She referred to Confucius and his philosophy on human relationships. I then made it a personal objective to study Confucius more closely to see if I could glean some useful directives in promoting a more effective gentility in our own congregation in Fredericton.

There are many similarities between the life and times of Confucius and Jesus of Nazareth. Confucius was born 550 years before Christ. Few direct records remain from their times on earth and most of what has been written about them and their philosophies were gathered and recorded years after their deaths. Both men had a following of strong and charismatic disciples who kept the flame alive and helped lay the foundation of their respective religions, Confucianism and Christianity.

The philosophy of Jesus was to help the poor and the disadvantaged. He came from humble beginnings, working as a carpenter. Confucius was born into aristocracy and earned his living as an administrator in various governments. He observed his fellow man and taught his students how to act in social situations. Both men were despised by the elite in their own countries, as their teachings ran counter to the norm.

Confucius was in born in about 551 B.C. and lived to the ripe old age of 73. His philosophy emphasized morality, sincerity and being mindful of the proper way of conducting oneself in all matters. He lived in Shandong China. He came from a poor but noble warrior family in the intermediate social class, called SHI, which was situated between the nobility and the common class. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his mother.

Confucius married at 19. He was employed as a shepherd, a book keeper and a clerk. When he reached the age of 53, he worked his way into becoming a Justice Minister in the province of LU. Later, fearing persecution, he travelled to at least nine neighbouring kingdoms, explaining his core political beliefs and giving presentations in their royal courts. Then, at the lofty age of 68, he returned home to LU, to continue teaching his teaching there.

Confucius and Jesus were both considered to be anarchists by those in power in their times. Jesus was persecuted and put to death in his thirties. Jesus was educated from the ancient Judaic teachings. Confucius gained his education from the philosophies of ancient Chinese culture well before his time.

Confucianism promotes the idea that only through exemplary ethics, based on personal cultivation, could a rationalized social order come about. He sought political harmony by trying to achieve moral harmony in man himself. This was a humanist approach, with a positive point of view and a keen sense of responsibility towards one another. He posits that man could seek political harmony by trying to achieve moral harmony within himself. This was a humanist approach, with a positive point of view, and a keen sense of responsibility towards one another.

The Analects of Confucius are the collected sayings of Confucius and his disciples. They are an anthology of brief passages collected into 20 books of quotes compiled by his disciples after his death.

The recurring core concepts in the 'Analects are:

  1. The Tao or The Way
    ..A literal path or road, i.e. the manner by which anything is done
    ..The Tao under Heaven means a good way or path to achieve morally superior ends, as in self conduct or how a kingdom is ruled
  2. JEN means 'goodness' or 'humanity' and is also defined as other positive human qualities, such as 'altruistic' or 'humane'
  3. TE is another attribute desirable in a human being, such as showing virtue and having character
  4. CHUN TZU meaning `The Gentleman' is a central theme in the analects, the sayings of Confucius. This concept of The Gentleman, Gentlewoman, is that this kind of person acts according to a system of morals and beliefs that are not that common among other individuals, such as the idea of our times: Taking the high Road..

Practicing what might be called good manners and conducting oneself in a moral and fair way, was considered a characteristic of a gentle person. Appropriate attitudes were expected such as reverence and respect for one's elders; and, respect for the rites and cultural norms that had been handed down by past generations.

Much of the texts were written by the students of Confucius after his death and over a period of fifty years. This was a similar happening in the time of Jesus when, after his death, different authors wrote their versions of the gospels. These letters form the New Testament as we now know it today.

The Analects, the collected sayings of Confucius, have greatly influenced the moral and philosophical values of China and the Orient. For more than 2,000 years, Chinese scholars used them as their fundamental course of study. Some sayings of Confucius for discussion follow:

A Sampling of the Analects of Confucius

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others. (The Golden Rule)

Without an acquaintance with the rules of propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established.

When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.

The man of wisdom is never of two minds; the man of benevolence never worries; the man of courage is never afraid.

Silence is a true friend who never betrays.

Attack the evil that is within yourself, rather than attacking the evil that is in others.

Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.

Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.

Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles

To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage. The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.