Thoughts on How “Benevolence Begins With Oneself” Relates To The Cultivation Of Moral Character

April 27, 2011 at 6:00 am | Posted in Asia, Children's Stories, Culture, Discussion, Life Lessons, Moments from History, Reflections, Stories from China | Leave a comment
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By Zhi Zhen

(Clearwisdom.net) When asked “How can a person develop a good moral character?” Confucius replied “Benevolence begins with oneself.” When someone begins to stress the development of one’s moral character, it is the beginning of benevolence, the elevation of one’s moral standard, and the affirmation of one’s wisdom. The intrinsic beauty is the enrichment of one’s moral character, and the external manifestation is benevolence and sincerity. The difference between a person of virtue and a villain depends on whether he cultivates his moral character or not. The following are three stories on the cultivation of one’s moral character.

Value Rationality And Not Words

On one occasion, Confucius’ students were having a discussion. Some students talked agitatedly, using strong language and dramatic facial expression. Zi Zhang said, “When discussing an issue, Confucius set an example. When our teacher talks, he speaks slowly, gently, and firmly. His mannerism is firm and respectful. He listens quietly until he understands what the other person is saying, then he expresses his opinion cautiously and calmly. He puts himself in other people’s shoes, and is modest and polite. His ideas are excellent and conform to established social etiquette. He is broad-minded and tolerant of others. Because he practices what he preaches, he is able to spread his ideas on morality and justice. When discussing an issue, those with little moral character tend to be opinionated and conceited, and like to dwell on others’ mistakes. When they speak, they often stare and shoot out words rapidly and glibly. They speak with emotion and not rationality, and their attitude is stubborn. This is not the way a virtuous person speaks. We should learn from Confucius.”

Zi Xia asked Confucius, “Does a virtuous person value words?” Confucius replied, “A virtuous person has high regards for rationality. A person who possesses vast knowledge but does not understand the reasons behind it cannot meet the standard of a virtuous man who seeks true knowledge. Even though his words are elegant, rich, and plentiful, they still cannot make people listen. A person with high moral values has to be respectful of others; this is the way to preserve one’s high morality. A person who possesses intelligence and wisdom has to be open-minded and humble; this is the way to preserve one’s intelligence and wisdom. A person with vast knowledge needs to remind himself of his lack of knowledge; this is the way to preserve his true nature. By restraining oneself, one always leaves room in one’s heart.”

A Sage Is Able To Bring Teachings Everywhere

A long time ago, the farmers on Mount Li invaded the border of a farmland that belonged to someone else. Shun, one of the many ancestor’s of Chinese culture, went to the foot of Mount Li to farm the land. After one year, incidents like that did not happen again. Another time, the fishermen by the bank of the Yellow River competed with each other for the high grounds in the river. Shun went there to fish. A year later, the fishermen learned to respect the elderly. In the area of East Yi, the ceramic makers often produced low quality products. Shun went there to make ceramics. One year later, the ceramics produced in that area were of good quality.

Confucius praised, “Farming, fishing, and ceramic making were governed by Shun. Shun went to those places to teach the people to farm, fish, and produce ceramics. Shun touched the people’s heart with his honest, trustworthy, benevolent, and virtuous behavior. The people were willing to learn from him. This is how a sage enlightens people. A sage teaches virtue through his actions.”

Be Strict With Oneself But Treat Others With Tolerance

During the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States Period, the Hegemon of Jin attacked the Hegemon of Chu. Although the Chu army retreated ninety li (Chinese measure for distance), the Jin army continued their attack. Chu’s high officials pleaded with the King of Chu, “Please let us counter-attack” and King Zhuang of Chu (? – 591 BC) replied, “When the previous King of Chu was in charge, Jin did not invade Chu. However, Jin is now attacking us during my ruling of Chu. This is my fault. If I order to counter-attack Jin, Chu’s high officials will be disgraced and hurt. How can I allow that to happen?” The high officials responded, “When the previous King of Chu was around, Jin did not attack Chu. However, now that we are the high officials, Jin is attacking us. This is our fault. Please allow us to counter-attack.” King Zhuang of Chu lowered his head and sobbed for a while. Then he got up and made a gesture of respect to each high official.

Upon hearing what happened in Chu, Jin people said, “The King and the high officials of Chu can all admit their faults, and the King of Chu was humble and courteous toward the high officials. Obviously they are all united, and their troops are in top condition. Therefore, we may not be able to conquer Chu.” As a result, the Jin troops retreated overnight and went back to Jin.

Confucius made a comment about the incident, “With a few words, King Zhuang of Chu was able to keep the enemy’s army at bay. Because the King and the government officials placed importance on the cultivation of their moral character, the nation lived in peace. It is no wonder that the state of Chu eventually became a strong country. This is the principle stated in a poem from the Classic of Poetry – ‘By treating everyone near and far away with tolerance and modesty, the nation will be stable’.”

When a virtuous person encounters any situation, especially during hardships, he should remind himself with righteousness and be strict with himself. On the surface it seems that he is preserving the righteous principles, but in reality he is preserving his own conscience and instinct. He should always remember to perform his duties with a calm and peaceful heart, be strict with himself but treat others with tolerance, and treat all beings benevolently.
Chinese version available at http://minghui.ca/mh/articles/2008/8/29/184952.html

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