Harmonization Without Uniformity – My Encounter with the Analects.
My name is Don Buchwalter. I am a 45 year old freelance photographer. I did not graduate from college, and am not an academic. So, I am a regular person that was fortunate to find a career which is rewarding, and which gives me ample time to be devoted to study. The texts I study the most are those from the Ru tradition, and the basic text of Ruism is the Lunyu (Analects), the sayings of Kongzi (Confucius) that were recorded by his students. My first encounter with the Analects was when I was fairly young, around 13 or 14 years old. At the time, I did not read much of it, but it planted a seed which never stopped growing.
I was born in the days before the internet, when the library was the main source of knowledge, and I spent a lot of time with books as a boy. Being a military brat, I often found solace in the comfort of books, and would read almost any I came across. One day, I saw a book on a table, bound in yellow, with an image of a sagely Chinese man on the cover. I began to read a little of the difficult, old-fashioned, English. The translation was actually done by James Legge. His version is still considered worthy of use today, but it is done in a stilted fashion, with language akin to the King James version of the Bible. But I put it aside when something else came into my mind. However, the name of the text, though, “The Analects of Confucius” was so unique, so “exotic,” that I never forgot it.
Fast forward to high school. I was finally able to obtain a translation that was accurate, and easy to read: The version done by D.C. Lau for Penguin. By that time, I had become interested in Buddhism, and approached the Analects as a political text. The more I studied Buddhist texts, however, the more I began to think back to what Kongzi had said about the very same issues. Many people have claimed that Buddhism is based on reason, but a very large percentage of it is mired in superstition, expecting us to believe in re-birth as animals or ghosts or “hell beings”; concepts of emptiness that even Buddhist scholars cannot adequately explain; and savior figures. The complex ideas of Buddhism, while possibly intellectually stimulating, could not provide me a guide to life because so many of them are speculative and impossible to realize in everyday life.
Kongzi, on the other hand, presented a spiritual path based on reason, and a holistic view of the universe that I think is unique. No other system has shown us that there is no reason to fear the retributions of capricious gods living in the sky, or worry about being re-born in a “lower state,” concepts that are common in most other schools of thought. Kongzi, and the later thinkers of the Ru tradition, showed us that the only genuine spirituality is what comes from the interactions of humans with EACH OTHER, and also from all of us interacting with the world and culminating eventually in Datong (大同), the Great Harmony. Like Buddhism, the ideas of Ru thought can certainly be complex, and do require some thought to fully comprehend, but unlike Buddhism, once they are grasped, they can be immediately put into effect and bring immediate benefit.
This was the spiritual message that I had been looking for. The spiritual element may not be immediately visible in the Analects and a casual reading will not be enough to find the deeper meaning. But if we approach it as a spiritual text, and then put the text into practice, the text will open up to us.
At the time, I knew that Ruism had a profound influence on Asia, but I did not think Ruism had been a widespread idea in the West yet. Most people associated Confucius with fortune cookies, and it was therefore difficult to find others to discuss Ruist ideas with (I have to digress here a bit to say that I am now quite happy to have found that Ruist thought is slowly but surely spreading in the West, and is no longer an historical curiosity known only to academics. Through the efforts of a number of committed individuals, such as Dr. Bin Song, Ruism is finally coming into its own here in the US). There were very few books available in English, and even fewer that could be easily obtained, and with the bare-bones internet that had just recently become available, there were no online book shops. Fortunately, however, I came across a text written by Tu Weiming: Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. This text is a commentary on the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean, another foundational text), and it gives a very good outline of Ruist spirituality. With the knowledge I gained from that text, I was able to approach the Analects in a completely different way.
Today, we are fortunate that many quality English translations of Ruist texts have been done, and the Analects has been by far the most rendered, which has literally dozens of translations. If I may make a small recommendation, Understanding the Analects of Confucius, by Peimin Ni, is an excellent translation, and I think it would be a very good text for beginners as well as for advanced students. Certainly, there are many, many more that have not been translated yet, although it looks as if the situation is finally changing. The various eras of Ruist thought are represented in these translations, making it possible to form a relatively well-rounded view of Ruism as a whole. Also, since there is no orthodox interpretation today, we are able to use our own reasoning powers to find the interpretation that we personally think is most compatible with li (理. The pattern, or rational principle of the world).
Compatibility with li is my own personal guide to understanding Ruist thought, even when, at times, my understanding of li changes. I have certainly made my own interpretations over the years. They may not always be in keeping with the majority, but this illustrates one of the most magnificent aspects of Ruism: its allowability for people to have differing opinions, and still be able to get along. This has been one of the most important lessons I have learned from Ruism, in fact, and is one of the key points in the concept of datong.
It is important to understand that the Analects, although it is the foundational text of Ruist thought, and has guided Ru thinkers from the earliest days, is not a book of self-contained admonishments, or commandments written in stone, but are rather a guide, showing us the way. There are no hard and fast rules in the Analects, and we need to rely upon reason to help us understand what Kongzi was teaching. It is difficult to justify, at least in a convincing way, how the commandments of an omnipotent deity can be changed to fit the times. However, when there are no commandments to obey, but only a pattern to follow, we can, for example, support science fully without contradicting what we believe spiritually. If science changes or expands, we are not stuck with an outdated system because we can change to accept the new.
My studies over the years have taught me one thing: a full understanding of Kongzi’s teachings requires a deep commitment. As I have aged, and matured (both physically and emotionally), I have found new layers in what he said, and new ways of understanding things that I thought I already understood! Even those few verses which seem inapplicable to life today take on fresh meaning when contemplated in the right way, again, as guides rather than rules. Discussing these various Analects’ verses with others has shown me that several interpretations are possible. Even at times when those interpretations seem contradictory on the surface and spawn therefore some very deep discussions, a careful study has shown me that, in most cases, the heart of the idea is very much the same.
Today, my dream is to see Ruism become a viable path in the Western world. The West has been aware of “Confucianism” for a very long time. Unfortunately, though, despite the Analects and its related Ruist thought did deeply influence European thought during the Enlightenment, the influence stopped at certain point of history, and Ruism has not become a major influence in the modern West today, unlike Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. I think today’s situation may be due to the erroneous impression that I myself once held: that Ruism is simply a political philosophy from ancient China. How could it be relevant today? We can see the relevance in Ruist thought if we approach it with the right frame of mind. The divisive, adversarial, nature of Western society cries out for a unifying system to bring a satisfying sense of stability that Western religions have been unable to provide. I believe The Analects can provide this.
(Manuscript received in November 2018, with 1500 words)