Before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
Today is the (observed) birthday of the man whom many believe to be the greatest teacher ever, Master Kung, K’ung Fu Tzu. Or as he’s known in English: Confucius.
Compared to his legacy, the circumstances of his life were somewhat underwhelming.
He was born in 551 BC in Lu, China, into a poor, once noble family. His father died when he was three. According to the Chinese philosopher Mencius, Confucius worked as a storekeeper, and also tended to oxen and sheep in the public fields.
A large chunk of Confucius’ life is missing from the record, as can be expected from a non-royal figure who lived 2500 years ago. But these gaps have been filled in by millennia of legends. We do know that by his early fifties, Confucius was in the employ of the Duke of Lu, Ding, as Minister of Public Works and as Minister of Crime. But Confucius left Lu and the court of the Duke at age 52. Whether it was because of some moral ambiguity on the part of the Duke’s, because of a social snub toward Confucius, or because of animosity from those vying for the Duke’s power, we can’t be sure.
Confucius spent the next several years traveling through China, to the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai, and Chu.
He returned to Lu in 484 BC where he lived out his remaining years. By the time of his death he had amassed a sizable following of students, who would formalize and carry on his teachings.
Like I said, underwhelming. But by the next century, Mencius would write, “Ever since man came into this world, never has there been one greater than Confucius.” Confucius was remembered as a sage who should have been king, in a world too shortsighted to see that.
Confucius once said he was not a “maker” of knowledge, but a “transmitter” of it. “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” (Analects)
Though his teachings and philosophy were based on studies of history, they were vastly different from those that came before.
He taught that rulers who governed by example and by virtue would have more loyal subjects than those who governed by force alone. That the society governed by the former system, and the people within it, would eventually lean toward goodness. And that humans are similar by nature, but their habits and practices “carry them far apart.” (Analects)
He defined the practices of virtue as Gravity, Generosity of Soul, Sincerity, Earnestness, and Kindness.
He condoned strong attachment to family and respect toward elders and ancestors.
And he put into words the Golden Rule of reciprocity: Don’t impose upon other what you would not want for yourself.
“Ancient scholars studied for their own improvement. Modern scholars study to impress others.“
There are an estimated 6 million followers of Confucianism around the world today, but these are a small minority of those who follow the teachings laid out by Confucius over 2500 years ago. Confucianism remains a dominant philosophical system in Chinese life. His philosophy and teachings fundamentally influenced Eastern thought since his lifetime, as well as Western thought following Confucianism’s introduction into Europe by Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the 16th century.
Since the 1990s, birthday ceremonies in honor of the Great Teacher have flourished in China, after decades of repression.