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Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Literature Discussion Group

Selections from The Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Sunday, April 20,  6:00 - 9:00 pm
4201 Cathedral Ave NW, apt 902E
Washington, DC 
In this discussion we'll be reading from two of the classic works of ancient Chinese philosophy. The passages below are exerpts; please go through them on your own and mark those sections that are of particular interest to you. Due to time constraints we'll only be able to read and discuss selected bits, so please familiarize yourself with everything beforehand so that you'll be able to make connections between the various portions of the text.
For those who wish to have a look at the complete texts, MIT has a classics archive. Try the following links:
Additional translations of the Tao Te Ching are available at

Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
from The Analects

Jen (Humaneness) ---------------------------

Fan-ch'ih asked about jen.  The Master said, "It is to love all men." He asked about knowledge. "It is to know all men." Fan ch'ih did not immediately understand these answers. The Master said, "Employ the upright and put aside all the crooked; in this way, the crooked can be made to be upright."

The Master said, "Is humaneness a thing remote? I wish to be humane, and behold! humaneness is at hand."

Tzu-kung said, "Suppose I put the case of a man who extensively confers benefits on the people, and is able to assist everyone, what would you say about him? Might he be called perfectly humane?" The Master said, "Why speak only of humaneness in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? . . . Now the man of perfect humaneness, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nearby in ourselves, that is what we might call the art of humaneness."

Tzu-kung asked, saying, "Is there one world which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

Someone said, "What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?" The Master said, "With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness."

The Master said, "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow; I still have joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by inhumanity are to me as a floating cloud."

The Master said, "Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors."

The Master said, "The determined scholar and the man of virtue will not seek to live at the expense of humanity. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their humanity."

The Master said, "Let the will be set on the path of duty. Let every attainment in what is good be firmly grasped. Let perfect virtue be accorded with. Let relaxation and enjoyment be found in the polite arts."

The Superior Man ---------------------------

The Master said, "Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man (chün tzu)."

The Master said, "The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man."

The Master said, "The object of the superior man is truth, not food. . . . The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him."

The Master said, "The mind of the superior man is conversant with virtue; the mind of the base man is conversant with gain."

The Master said, "Riches and honors are what men desire. If they cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and baseness are what men dislike. If they cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided. . . . The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it."

The Master said, "What the superior man seeks, is in himself. What the mean man seeks, is in others. What the superior man demands is something of himself. What the petty man demands is something of others."

Ssu-ma Niu asked about the superior man. The Master said, "The superior man has neither anxiety nor fear." "Being without anxiety or fear!" said Ssu-ma, "does this constitute what we call the superior man?" The Master said, "When internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?"

The Master said, "The progress of the superior man is upwards; the progress of the mean man is downwards."

Confucius said, "There are three things of which the superior man stand in awe. He stands in awe of the ordinances of Heaven. He stands in awe of great men. He stands in awe of the words of the sages. The mean man does not know the ordinances of Heaven, and consequently does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes sport of the words of the sages."

The Master said, "The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions."

The Master said, "The superior man is distressed by his want of ability. He is not distressed by men not knowing of him."

Tzu-kung asked, "Has the superior man his hatreds also?" The Master said, "He has his hatreds. He hates those who proclaim the evil of others. He hates the man who, being in a low station, slanders his superiors. He hates those who have valor merely, and are unobservant of propriety (li ). He hates those who are forward and determined, and, at the same time, of contracted understanding."

Confucius said, "The superior man has nine things which are subjects with him of thoughtful consideration. In regard to the use of his eyes, he is anxious to see clearly. In regard to the use of his ears, he is anxious to hear distinctly. In regard to his countenance, he is anxious that it should be benign. In regard to his speech, he is anxious that it should be sincere. In regard to his doing of business, he is anxious that it should be reverently careful. In regard to what he doubts about, he is anxious to question others. When he is angry, he thinks of the difficulties his anger may involve him in. When he sees gain to be got, he thinks of righteousness."

Tzu-hsia said, "The superior man undergoes three changes. Looked at from a distance, he appears stern; when approached, he is mild; when he is heard to speak, his language is firm and decided."

The Master said, "A gentleman points out the admirable qualities of men and does not point out their bad qualities. A petty man does just the opposite."

On Ritual and Music ---------------------------

The Master said, "If a man lacks the human virtues, what has he to do with ritual? If a man lacks the human virtues, what has he to do with music?"

The Master said, "Respectfulness, without the rules of ritual becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules, becomes timidity; boldness becomes insubordination; straightforwardness becomes rudeness.

The Master said, "It is by the Odes that a man's mind is aroused, by the rules of ritual that his character is established, and by music that he is perfected [finished]. . . ."

On Education ---------------------------

The Master said, "Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to realize that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it: this is knowledge."

The Master said, [I have been] "a transmitter and not a maker, believing in and loving the ancients. . ."

There were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egotism.

The Master said, "By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart."

Confucius said, "Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn, and so readily get possession of knowledge, are the next. Those who are dull and stupid, and yet compass the learning are another class next to these. As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn--they are the lowest of the people."

The Master said, "I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson."

The Master said, "A scholar, whose mind is set on truth, and who is ashamed of bad clothes and bad food, is not fit to be discoursed with."

The Master said, "It is not easy to find a man who has learned for three years without coming to be good."

The Master said, "The course of learning may be compared to what may happen in raising a mound. If there want but one basket of earth to complete the work, and I stop, the stopping is my own work. It may be compared to throwing down the earth on the level ground. Though but one basketful is thrown at a time, the advancing with it is my own going forward."

The Master said, "In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Nowadays, men learn with a view to the approbation of others."

The Master said, "To have faults and not to reform them--this, indeed, should be pronounced having faults."

The Master said, "The wise are free from perplexities; the virtuous from anxiety; and the bold from fear."

On Government ---------------------------

The Master said, "To rule a country of a thousand chariots requires reverent attention to business, sincerity, economy in expenditures, and love for men, as well as the employment of the people only in the right seasons."

The Master said, "If the people are governed by laws and punishment is used to maintain order, they will try to avoid the punishment but have no sense of shame. If they are governed by virtue and rules of propriety [ritual] are used to maintain order, they will have a sense of shame and will become good as well."

Ji Kang Zi asked Confucius about government, saying, "What do you say to killing those who are unprincipled [i.e., the immoral] for the good of those who are principled?" Confucius replied, "Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your obvious desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass: the grass is bound to bend when the wind blows across it."

Zigong asked about government. The Master said, "The requisites of government are that there be sufficient food, sufficient military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler." Zigong said, "If one had to dispense with one of those three, which should be given up first?" "The military equipment, " said the Master. Zigong again asked, "If on had to dispense with one of the two remaining, which should be given up?" The Master answered, "Give up the food. From of old, death has always been the lot of men; but if the people have no faith in their rulers, they cannot stand."

On Religion ---------------------------

Someone asked the meaning of the great sacrifice. The Master said, "I do not know. Anyone who knew its meaning would find it as easy to govern the kingdom as to look on this," and he pointed to the palm of his hand.

Zilu asked about serving the ghosts of the dead. The Master said, "Until you are able to serve men, how can you serve their ghosts?" When Zilu ventured to ask about death, the answer was: "While you do not know life, how can you [hope to] know about death?"

Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.)
from the Tao Te Ching

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same--
When they appear they are named differently.

This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;
The door to all marvels.

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty
Only because there is ugliness.
All recognize the good as good
Only because there is evil.

Therefore being and non-being produce each other.
Difficulty and ease bring about each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low rest on each other.
Sound and voice harmonize each other.
Front and back follow each other.

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing (unattached action)
And carries out the wordless teaching.
Here, the myriad things are made, yet not separated.

Therefore the sage produces without possessing,
Acts without expectations
And accomplishes without abiding in his accomplishments.

It is precisely because she does not abide in them
That they never leave her.

Heaven and Earth last forever.
Why do Heaven and Earth last forever?
They are unborn,
Therefore they are ever living.
Hence, the sage stays behind and he is thus ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.

Through selfless action he attains perfection.

The highest goodness is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
Yet it abides in places that men hate.
Therefore it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.

 If you do not fight, there will be no blame.

The five colors blind our eyes.
The five tones deafen our ears.
The five flavors confuse our taste.
Racing and hunting madden our minds.
Possessing rare treasures brings about harmful behavior.
Therefore the sage regards his center, and not his eyes.

He lets go of that and chooses this.

Get rid of "holiness" and abandon "wisdom" and the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Get rid of "altruism" and abandon "Justice" and the people will return to filial piety and compassion.
Get rid of cleverness and abandon profit, and thieves and gangsters will not exist.
Since the above three are merely words, they are not sufficient.
Therefore there must be something to include them all.
It is more important to see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness and decrease desire.

If you understand others you are smart.
If you understand yourself you are illuminated.
If you overcome others you are powerful.
If you overcome yourself you have strength.
If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
If you can act with vigor, you have a will.
If you stay where you are you will endure
If you die but do not perish you will be eternal.

True virtue is not virtuous
Therefore it has virtue.
Superficial virtue never fails to be virtuous
Therefore it has no virtue.

True virtue does not "act"
And has no intentions.
Superficial virtue "acts"
And always has intentions.
True jen "acts"
But has no intentions.
True righteousness "acts"
But has intentions.
True propriety "acts" and if you don't respond
They will roll up their sleeves and threaten you.

Thus, when the Tao is lost there is virtue
When virtue is lost there is jen
When jen is lost there is Justice
And when Justice is lost there is propriety.

Now "propriety" is the external appearance of loyalty and sincerity
And the beginning of disorder.

Occult abilities are just flowers of the Tao
And the beginning of foolishness.

Therefore the Master dwells in the substantial
And not in the superficial.
Rests in the fruit and not in the flower.

So let go of that and grasp this.

Use fairness in governing the state.
Use surprise tactics in war.
Be unconcerned and you will have the world.
How do I know it is like this?
The more regulations there are,
The poorer people become.
The more people own lethal weapons,
The more darkened are the country and clans.
The cleverer the people are,
The more extraordinary actions they take.
The more laws there are,
The more thieves and gangsters there will be.

Therefore the sages say:
"I do not force my way and the people transform themselves.
I enjoy my serenity and the people correct themselves.
I do not interfere and the people enrich themselves.
I have no desires and the people return to the good and simple life.

When people are born they are gentle and soft.
At death they are hard and stiff.
When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.
When they die, they wither and dry up.
Therefore the stiff and unbending one is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus, if you are aggressive and stiff, you will lose.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The gentle and soft will overcome.

----- Confucius -----

Confucius' ancestors were members of the Royal State of Song. His great grandfather, fleeing the turmoil in his native Song, had moved to Lu, somewhere near the present town of Qufu in southeastern Shandong, where the family became impoverished. Confucius endured a poverty-stricken and humiliating youth and was forced, upon reaching manhood, to undertake such petty jobs as accounting and caring for livestock. One account of his life includes the tale of how Confucius was born in answer to his parents' prayers at a sacred hill (qiu) called Ni... Confucius' recorded age at death, seventy-two, is a magic number with far-reaching significance in early Chinese literature. We do not know how Confucius himself was educated, but tradition has it that he studied ritual with the Taoist Master Lao Dan, music with Chang Hong, and the lute with Music-master Xiang. In his middle age Confucius is supposed to have gathered about him a group of disciples whom he taught and also to have devoted himself to political matters in Lu. The number of Confucius' disciples has been greatly exaggerated, with some sources claiming that there were as many as three thousand of them. The 4th century BCE Mencius and some other early works give their number as seventy. Perhaps seventy or seventy-two were a maximum, though both of these numbers are suspicious given Confucius' supposed age at death.

At the age of fifty, when Duke Ding of Lu was on the throne, Confucius' talents were recognized and he was appointed Minister of Public Works and then Minister of Crime. But Confucius apparently offended members of the Lu nobility who were vying with Duke Ding for power (or was it the duke himself that Confucius had rubbed the wrong way?) and he was subsequently forced to leave office and go into exile. As in other ancient cultures, exile and suffering are common themes in the lives of the heroes of the early Chinese tradition. In the company of his disciples, Confucius left Lu and traveled in the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu, purportedly looking for a ruler who might employ him but meeting instead with indifference and, occasionally, severe hardship and danger. Several of these episodes, as preserved in the Records of the Grand Historian, appear to be little more than prose retellings of songs found in the ancient Chinese Book of Songs, Confucius' life is thus rendered a re-enactment of the suffering and alienation of the personas of the poems.

In any case, by most traditional accounts, Confucius returned to Lu in 484 BCE and spent the remainder of his life teaching, putting in order the Book of Songs, the Book of Documents, and other ancient classics, as well as editing the Spring and Autumn Annals, the court chronicle of Lu.

By the 4th century BCE, Confucius was recognized as a unique figure, a sage who was ignored but should have been recognized and become a king. At the end of the 4th century, Mencius says of Confucius: Ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius. And in two passages Mencius implies that Confucius was one of the great sage kings who, according to his reckoning, arises every five hundred years. Confucius also figures prominently as the subject of anecdotes and the teacher of wisdom in the writing of Xunzi, a third century BCE follower of Confucius' teachings. Indeed chapters twenty-eight to thirty of the Xunzi, which some have argued were not the work of Xunzi but compilations by his disciples, look like an alternative, and considerably briefer, version of the Analects.

Confucius and his followers also inspired considerable criticism from other thinkers. The authors of the Zhuangzi took particular delight in parodying Confucius and the teachings conventionally associated with him. But Confucius' reputation was so great that even the Zhuangzi appropriates him to give voice to Taoist teachings.

 ----- Lao Tzu -----

Lao Tzu meets Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate of Tibet.

Lao Tzu meets Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate of Tibet.

Although ascetics and hermits such as Shen Tao (who advocated that one 'abandon knowledge and discard self') first wrote of the 'Tao' it is with the sixth century B.C. philosopher Lao Tzu (or 'Old Sage' -- born Li Erh) that the philosophy of Taoism really began. Some scholars he believe was a slightly older contemporary of Confucius (Kung-Fu Tzu, born Chiu Chung-Ni), but others feel that the Tao Te Ching is really a compilation of paradoxical poems written by several Taoists using the pen-name Lao Tzu. There is also a close association between Lao Tzu and the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti.

According to legend, Lao Tzu was keeper of the archives at the imperial court. When he was eighty years old he set out for the western border of China, toward what is now Tibet, saddened and disillusioned that men were unwilling to follow the path to natural goodness. At the border (Hank Pass), a guard, Yin Xi (Yin Hsi), asked Lao Tsu to record his teachings before he left. He then composed in 5,000 characters the Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power).

Confucius. Confucius.

Whatever the truth, Taoism and Confucianism have to be seen side-by-side as two distinct responses to the social, political and philosophical conditions of life two and a half millennia ago in China. Whereas Confucianism is greatly concerned with social relations, conduct and human society, Taoism has a much more individualistic and mystical character, greatly influenced by nature.

The central vehicle of achieving tranquillity was the Tao, a term which has been translated as 'the way' or 'the path.' Te in this context refers to virtue and Ching refers to laws. Thus the Tao Te Ching could be translated as The Law (or Canon) of Virtue and it's Way. The Tao was the central mystical term of the Lao Tzu and the Taoists, a formless, unfathomable source of all things.

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable, they are one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
Unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
Form of the formless,
Image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it - there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the Tao, Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Lao Tzu has Yin Xi appear to the Barbarian as the Buddha.

Lao Tzu has Yin Xi appear to the Barbarian as the

Lao Tsu taught that all straining, all striving are not only vain but counterproductive. One should endeavor to do nothing (wu-wei). But what does this mean? It means not to literally do nothing, but to discern and follow the natural forces -- to follow and shape the flow of events and not to pit oneself against the natural order of things. First and foremost to be spontaneous in one's actions.

Understanding this, Taoist philosophy followed a very interesting circle. On the one hand the Taoists rejected the Confucian attempts to regulate life and society and counseled instead to turn away from it to a solitary contemplation of nature. On the other hand they believed that by doing so one could ultimately harness the powers of the universe. By "doing nothing" one could "accomplish everything."