The Cultivation of Self

“…all must regard the cultivation of self as the most essential thing.”
The Great Learning

Hello, readers! My name is Ben Butina. I’m a middle-aged husband and father of four from the United States and an industrial/organizational psychologist. And I have a confession to make. I’m a bit of a Toad. If you’ve read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, you probably remember Toad of Toad Hall. He would take up an obsessive interest in some passing craze and then, without warning, drop it entirely and transfer his enthusiasm to the next big thing. Mr. Toad was mainly interested in vehicles—boats, carriages, and cars—but my own Toadishness tends toward self-improvement.

I’ve gulped down more self-help books, diet plans, “spiritual teachings,” and inspirational blog posts than I can count. They’ve all left their bootprints on my character—mostly for the better, I hope—but, like Mr. Toad, I’ve always moved quickly on to the next big thing.

I’m embarrassed to admit all this in print, but at least I know I’m in good company. Back in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on just these characteristics in Democracy in America. There is something peculiarly American about this spirit of restless self-improvement, it seems.

The pioneer impulse has led me to some interesting places, but none more interesting than Ruism. In the pages of old books and the words of new friends, I’ve found people who share my passion for self-improvement. Rather than allowing that passion to push them from one by-way to the next, though, they’ve managed to channel their efforts down a single path. With their help and encouragement, I’ve taken a few steps on this path myself.

In addition to a drive for self-improvement and a tendency toward restlessness, de Tocqueville made another observation about Americans that is relevant here:

          Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.

In this regard, at least, I am not typically American. I’m not a joiner—and when I do join, I usually find an excuse to bail at the first opportunity. So imagine my surprise as I report to you that I have not only joined an association of Ru in the West, but actually founded one. Back in 2015, along with my friend Bin Song, I created a Facebook group called “Friends from Afar”. We now have more than 700 members, including some of the most prominent academics in Confucian studies. Even more importantly, in my opinion, we also have a great number of ordinary people from all over the world who want to learn and apply Ruism in their daily lives.

Here is a little of what I’ve learned over the past few years. I hope you find it useful.

      Confucius said, “I won’t give anyone a boost if they’re not at least struggling to make sense of an idea and get it into words. If I give someone one corner of a lesson and they can’t come back with the other three, I’m done teaching them.” – Analects, 7.8

Even in translation, Ruism isn’t easy for Westerners. We’re used to books and essays that walk us through an argument or idea in a systematic, step-by-step fashion. Ruist writers, on the other hand, tend to offer us a prompt and then stand back and let us think through the implications ourselves. Commentaries and knowledgeable friends can help, but be prepared to do a lot of intellectual heavy-lifting on your own. This isn’t some cultural quirk—it’s an essential part of the process.

      “The learning of the [noble person] enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions.” -Xunzi, Burton Watson Translation

Understanding what you’ve read is just the first step in Ruist learning. For a Ru, learning always implies application. When we say that someone has learned to fly an airplane, we don’t just mean that she’s read a flight manual and understands its contents. What we mean is that she can fly the plane. For a Ru, all learning is “fly the plane” learning. Learning a text doesn’t just mean that we’ve read it and understood it–it means that we’ve internalized it and we’re applying it in our daily lives.

      Confucius said, “I wasn’t born with knowledge. I just love the old ways and I work hard to learn about them.” – Analects, 7.20

“Confucianism” isn’t all about Confucius. Ruism began long before Confucius was born and continues to develop more than 2,500 years after his death. If you limit yourself to The Analects—as so many Westerners are tempted to do—you’ll get a very limited and distorted view of the tradition.
Reading the right books in the right order is important for gaining a good understanding of the tradition and avoiding some common errors. I recommend starting with a general overview intended for Western readers. Confucianism: A Short Introduction by John and Evelyn Berthrong is an excellent choice. It will give you a 10,000-foot view of the entire tradition and just enough background on Chinese culture and history to start making sense of the primary texts.

       Confucianism has been and still is a vast, interconnected system of philosophies, ideas, rituals, practices, and habits of the heart…[Confucianism] encompassed all the possible domains of human concern…Confucians paid attention to art, morality, religion, family life, science, philosophy, government, and the economy. In short, Confucians were concerned with all aspects of human life…The Confucians have always had a complex, holistic, and organized view of human life, nature, character, thought, and conduct…” -Confucianism: A Short Introduction, John Berthrong & Evelyn Berthrong

No matter how hard we may try to build fences around it, Ruism just won’t stay put in any Western category of thought. It spills over into every conceivable aspect of human life. It’s possible to approach Ruism like a Chinese buffet (excuse the comparison), picking and choosing the bits you like, but the full-strength version is a complete way of life and won’t be reduced to anything less.

      “If you truly pile up effort over a long period of time, you will enter into the highest realm. Learning continues until death and only then does it cease”. – Xunzi, Burton Watson Translation

      Zengzi said, “…the burden is heavy and the road is long. Humaneness is the burden—isn’t that heavy? Only at death may it be laid down—isn’t that a long road?” – Analects, 8.7

Finally, I share Xunzi and Zengzi’s advice with you, because it’s the advice I most need to hear: Ruism is not for the Mr. Toads of the world. Ruism offers no lifehacks or shortcuts and it advises you to stay off the by-ways. Self-cultivation is for the long haul, so stick to the path.

See you on the road!

By the way, the quotes from The Analects in this article are my own translation, which can be found at

(Manuscript submitted at July 2017, with 1200 words)