Divinely Inspired Culture: The Ideals of Being an Upright Person

February 5, 2012 at 9:00 am | Posted in Asia, Children's Stories, Culture, Discussion, Good Advice, Reflections, Stories from China | 4 Comments
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By Zhizhen

(Clearwisdom.net) Since ancient times in China, people have attached significant importance to a person’s moral cultivation. The Confucian school holds that the key to determining if a a person is acting like a human lies in his or her moral standards, since virtue is a man’s foundation of existence. It is the first rule in Great Learning (one of the four books selected by a Song Dynasty scholar which consists of a main text attributed to Confucius, 551 BC – 479 BC, as well as the commentary chapters accredited to one of his disciples). This writing states that a person has to cultivate his virtue. In addition, he has to cultivate his own virtue before influencing others. It is stated in Great Learning, “When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized. When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed. When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land. From the king down to the common people, all must regard self-cultivation as the most essential thing.” The Confucian school’s theory of managing the world and benefiting the people is part of the treasured traditional Chinese culture. It established itself as the moral ideals and value system which laid the foundation for Chinese society. It helped hold the social moral standards at a relatively high level.

One of the major festival songs in Classic of Poetry goes like this,

“Heaven, in giving birth to the multitudes of the people,
To every faculty and relationship annexed its law.
The people possess this normal nature,
And they [consequently] love its normal virtue.”

Confucius emphasized paying great attention to adjust the relations between heaven and man, man and man, and relations among various ideologies, in order to establish an all-encompassing, stable, and harmonious social order. Confucius also said, “One cultivates oneself so as to maintain a respectful attitude, one cultivates oneself to bring people around him peace and security, one cultivates oneself further to bring all people in the land peace and security.” To rule with virtue and a policy of kindness takes self-cultivation as a prerequisite. Establishing virtue and self-cultivation precedes everything else. Establishing virtue is the goal, while self-cultivation is the approach. Establishing virtue and self-cultivation are an important path that leads to the practice of moral cultivation and the perfection of ethics and behavior.

Mencius, 372 BC – 289 BC, proposed that one’s virtue is heaven’s gift. It is a person’s inborn nature and is connected to heaven. Everyone is equipped with an innate nature of kindness and virtue, and if one retains his virtue and enhances his self-cultivation, he can become like the fabled Yao and Shun emperors. Mencius pointed out that to be an upright person, one needs to maintain four virtues, “Sense of sympathy, which brings about benevolence; sense of shame, which brings about justice; sense of modesty and yielding, which brings about politeness; and sense of discerning right and wrong, which brings about wisdom.” (From the First Volume of Gongsun Chou of the Works of Mencius) These four characteristics of humanity and their corresponding acts turn out to be the foundation of building the four virtues of benevolence, justice, politeness, and wisdom. It is what differentiates a man from an animal. It comes with the long history of humankind, in which lies the fundamental value of humanity. An upright person’s self-cultivation is the only path that will lead to his or her knowing heavenly rules, respecting heavenly will, and reaching a higher realm with a mind of benevolence and generosity. Mencius preferred cultivating one’s inner self instead of seeking outwardly, and adhering to one’s conscience, true nature, treating others and handling issues with principles, and upholding righteousness. In so doing, a person can become “fulfilled” and achieve “splendidness,” which will in turn motivate others to carry out good deeds, reaching the realm of ultimate kindness.

In a society that overly emphasizes material gains, some people have become lost and have forgotten their own nature. An upright person needs to reflect upon his or her words and deeds daily, and judge his or her private thoughts with higher principles. Without cultivating oneself, one is easily taken over by greed and tends to fall as a result of losing sight of one’s own good nature. So the ancient sages attached great importance to rediscovering, through continued study, the virtuous nature one has lost. Each person is composed of both good and evil factors. In order to suppress the evil while promoting the good, one has to impose strict discipline on oneself, and not simply drift along with the tide. Through education, one can restore his or her good nature. As a result, the responsibility of an upright person lies in helping others to rediscover their kindness and conscience that are part of their true nature, and helping them return to the righteous path. Establishing virtue and cultivating ourselves requires being honest, keep our word, maintain righteous and kind thoughts, and acting modestly and politely. So we should advocate reading books left to us by ancient sages and eliminate our selfish motives and devious factors. The higher values embodied in the Confucian school’s adherence to cultivating mind and body serve the goal of generously helping all others by sharing what you have as well as proper governance with the goal of benefiting all people.

Throughout history, sages and people of great virtue were all great examples of self-cultivation. Ancient saints were people of lofty moral standards achieved through highly disciplined cultivation. At the same time, their practice fulfilled the great cause to, “generously give to the population and benefit the public.” They helped establish cherished traditions of honesty and left a legacy to voluntarily carry out good deeds while aspiring to kindness.

Confucius and his students paid close attention to self-reflection. Confucius said, “At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty I established my stand. At forty I had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the mandate of Heaven. At sixty my ear was attuned. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.” Confucius cultivated all his life. In the end he was able, in his own words, to “follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.” He advised not only learning from those with high moral standards but also reflecting on ourselves when seeing others doing something wrong. He advocated “correcting one’s mistakes promptly, without reluctance or fear,” and “following the example of other people who carry out kind deeds and improving ourselves even when we see other peoples’ shortcomings.” He welcomed others to point out his own drawbacks. He took it as his privilege that his mistakes were widely observed by others, so that they could point the mistakes out to him for immediate correction. He noticed and appreciated his disciple, Yan Hui, for “not getting mad at others when they pointed out his mistake, and not making the same mistake twice.” A concrete foundation laid by cultivation is the key reason why Confucius and his disciples were able to persevere in their practice and promote their ideals despite adverse changes in their living environment.

Posting date: 8/21/2009
Category: Traditional Culture
Chinese version available at http://minghui.ca/mh/articles/2009/7/27/205354.html

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