« FGC's Sweat Lodge: An Effort at Discernment | Main | *Contra Gentes*: Left and Right, The Challenge of Listening »

Confucius for Quakers:  5

Posted on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 08:00AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments2 Comments

Chan Chung asked about the spirit of community (jên). Confucius said:

  • “In public affairs, treat every person as an important guest.
  • “When employing the services of the people, proceed as if you are addressing Heaven on behalf of the community [lit., officiating at an important sacrifice].

“Never do to others what you would not want done to yourself. Then there will be no murmurings against you, either in the state at large, or in the ruling clan.”

— Confucius (Kung-fu Tzu), Analects (Lun Yü) 12.2
(shortly after 500 B.C.)                                         

Here, as in so much of his teaching, Confucius was addressing the nobility: “This is how you should behave when you are the head of a community, an enterprise, or a state. In public affairs do this; when running an enterprise do that.” And his instructions were naturally specific to Chinese society: “Behave as if you’re officiating at an important sacrifice.”

It takes a bit of thinking to see what such instructions might mean in a very different social context, such as the one we have here in the United States.



“In public affairs, treat every person as an important guest.”

We previously looked at a passage in which Confucius suggested that the spirit that draws human hearts into community — jên — arises out of the practice of five virtues, the very first of which — kung — I described as “the sort of good-natured, respectful courtesy that just naturally calls forth its mirror image from others — as, for example, when you offer your hand for a handshake, it naturally draws the other person to offer his own hand and match its motions to your own.”

I noted at the time that “a lot of peacemaking is based on this sort of mirror-inviting courtesy.”

In the passage we’re looking at now, Confucius spoke of three virtues that, in leaders, preserve the spirit of community. And the first of these — “in public affairs, treat[ing] every person as an important guest” — is clearly related to kung at some level.

Let’s put ourselves in the position of Confucius’s intended audience. We are minor authorities in the early Chinese power structure: each of us a member of the nobility in some petty rural Chinese dukedom or other. Within the bounds of our own private lands, we hold high stature and huge power; in the larger world of the dukedom, we must think carefully about how we tread.

Confucius is talking about how to live in such a world. It sounds very Machiavellian, does it not? But Confucius is not telling us, like Machiavelli, how to wield our stature and power; he is telling us how to build community.

So in this context, what does it really mean, to “treat every person as an honored guest”? The obvious answer is, it’s an instruction to get stature and our power out of the way of true community.

When it’s a local community matter (a “public affair”), let the other person have a stature, an honor and a place superior to our own! Let him be utterly protected from our power by the rules of goodness to guests.

When it is a dealing in the outer world, get considerations of relative stature and power out of the way! Do this by treating each person before us, not as an ally or rival, but as a welcome human being.

Community doesn’t begin until all divisions of superior-versus-inferior and power-versus-power are forgotten.

Actually, my ultimate boss, the store manager, at the department store where I presently work, follows this same principle. He has unrestricted power to fire anyone he pleases on a moment’s notice, but unless he is doing so (or otherwise disciplining someone) he treats everyone in the store as if that person was an equal. When he talks with them in his office, he has them sit beside him (not stand in front of him) and talks as equal-to-equal. He jokes, to set them at ease. He dresses down. He speaks with obvious consideration for people’s situations and their feelings — and, for the most part, gauges their feelings fairly skillfully, although he’s been known to stumble.

So on this first level of understanding, he’s a fairly good Confucian boss. And it pays off: even when the staff of the store has complaints about store policies, it likes and respects him personally, and most of the people there willingly put themselves out for him when he asks them to. His underlings, the department managers, liking how his policies make them feel, and seeing how effective his policies are in handling others, emulate his style. This results in a real feeling of community uniting the store and helping it function effectively.

So far, so good.

But there’s more to what Confucius was saying than just that.

What happens when we take someone in as a guest? Why, we let that person fully into our lives, past the locks on our doors, past all our defenses. We make ourselves entirely vulnerable, on the physical level, to that person.

And we share that person’s lot with her: if she hungers, we see it up close, we feel it, and we feed her and join her in eating; if she is exhausted, we give her a place to sleep, and make the house a place where sleep will be easy. If she has a story to share, we enter that story with her.

In doing this, we go further than just to get the barriers of status and power out of the way. We also take the barriers of our own territoriality and insecurity and defensiveness and put them out of the way.

Shortly before I set out on my walk across the country last spring, one of the members of my meeting suggested the name of an old friend who lived on my route, someone she hadn’t seen in some time, but who lived very near where I planned to stay one night. She suggested I stay at this friend’s house.

The friend in question, being a single mom and not knowing me, was understandably nervous about having a strange man in her house. Nevertheless she chose to take me in. And her making the choice to take me in, worked a kind of magic, which I could feel, and she could feel, and her kids could feel too. Everyone opened up wonderfully to everyone else. We talked of matters that were important to us with an openness and vulnerability that is normally quite hard to get to.

The deeper we go in opening ourselves up this way, the more profound the connection that results. And the process is vastly furthered if the guest is also open and giving — particularly if he is giving beyond the host’s expectations. Here is an account of how some ordinary people hosted a Buddhist teacher —

The Master stayed several nights at our home. Young and old became harmonious, and a peaceful atmosphere filled the house for several days after his departure. Just one evening of talking with the Master made us feel that our hearts had been purified. The Master never held forth on the scriptures or classics or the importance of ethics. Sometimes he would be in the kitchen tending the fire, sometimes in the parlor practicing meditation. In his conversation he never alluded to classical poetry or ethical teachings, and his manner was indescribably casual and relaxed. It was just his own innate goodness that naturally guided others.

— Kera Yoshishige, Ryôkan zenji kiwa (“Curious accounts
of the Zen Master Ryôkan”, 1845-46); trans. in Ryûichi  
Abé and Peter Haskel, Great Fool: Zen Master           
Ryôkan — poems, letters, and other writings
(Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 70-71, 104              

This short paragraph is suffused with Ryôkan’s contribution to jên. But, honestly, the way in which Ryôkan fulfilled his rôle as guest in this story, is better considered under the second part of this analect — for in letting these people host him, he was “employing the services of the people”, which is what we will consider below.

What’s important for us here is to bear in mind that it is the host, as the holder of power, not the guest, who bears the prime responsibility for creating community.

Even if we host a saint, a Zen master, or Christ himself, we ourselves must be mentally and emotionally disposed to receive that person with open hearts and hands, as an honored guest, or else her saintliness will be deprived of much of the leverage it needs to build community among us.

There’s a story the Sikhs tell that touches on this matter, involving Guru Nanak, the founder of their religion:

On their visit to the city of Saiyidpur, Nanak his companion Mardana guested at the house of a humble carpenter named Lalo. This brought the criticism of the respectable down on his head, because a carpenter was a member of one of the lowest castes, and surely no reputable guru would stay in a low-caste home.

After a couple of weeks had passed, Malik Bhago, the steward of the nobleman who owned the city and thus a power in his own right, gave a great feast to which Hindus of all four castes were invited. Nanak did not attend.

Naturally, Malik Bhago heard of Nanak’s absence from the feast, and, feeling insulted, he immediately summoned the guru to appear before him. On Nanak’s appearance, Bhago charged him with the crime of dining with Lalo instead of himself: an insult which he had the power to punish in just about any way he pleased.

Nanak answered Bhago by asking the steward and Lalo both for bread from their respective houses. When the bread had been produced, he took Lalo’s bread in his right hand and Malik Bhago’s bread in his left, and squeezed them both. It is said that from Lalo’s bread there issued milk, and from Malik Bhago’s, blood.

— adapted from Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh             
, Vol. I (1909; Delhi: Low Price Publications,    
1993), pp. 43-44                                                     

It would be easy to misread this story as being only about economic equity. Even Sikhs do this sometimes.

But it is not Malik Bhago’s wealth, or Lalo’s poverty, that is central here. Bhago’s exploitive and controlling attitude as city steward is more significant than his wealth, and Lalo’s humble willingness to serve more significant than his poverty. The story is in fact very truthfully read in the light of the points Confucius made — as a teaching on how a true spiritual teacher will favor those who have the openness that facilitates jên. For the milk that issued from Lalo’s bread is, quite obviously, the milk of jên, the milk of giving, the milk of life-together.

There’s a story told in Denver about the late “Father Woody” (Charles B. Woodrich), a priest at Denver’s Holy Ghost Catholic Church who died in 1991).

Woody was a New York City advertising man who met Christ in the place of heart and conscience, and gave up his former life and comforts to become a Catholic priest. He found he had a special calling to minister to the homeless.

I never had the opportunity to meet him during the years I lived in Denver. But my wife did, and she was profoundly moved by his practice.

The story to which I refer was told at “Father Woody“‘s funeral by his old friend and fellow priest Jon Anderson. Anderson spoke of having been at the Holy Ghost parish house in a snowstorm on a cold winter evening when he heard Woody’s car pull up outside. Time passed, and Woody didn’t come in, so Anderson looked out the window to see what was going on. He saw a “street person” — a vagrant — talking with Woody outside. The street person had no winter coat and was obviously cold. Woody took his own coat off and placed it on the man’s shoulders. Anderson turned away from the window. More time passed, and finally Woody came into the parish house, coatless. He never said a word about what had transpired outside.

On another bitter winter night a little later, Woody opened his whole church to the homeless, offering to let them sleep in the pews. He expected maybe a dozen people to take advantage of the opportunity. To his surprise, two hundred homeless people crowded in. That revelation drove him to take the lead in establishing Samaritan House, a huge shelter for the homeless in the heart of downtown Denver.

At Woody’s funeral, the crowd that turned out to say good-bye far exceeded the seating capacity of the church. The poor people whom he had served all his life came by the hundreds. And they wept openly. Their tears were the tears of the community he’d preserved.

I’d say that Father Woody understood about hosting.

Jesus is remembered as having guested with a Pharisee (wealthy and respectable), with a couple of tax collectors (wealthy but not respectable), with a pair of unmarried (hence poor and unrespectable) sisters and their impoverished unmarried brother (known only as “the beggar”), and with at least one woman of wealth but of questionable virtue.

What common denominator united such people? My guess would be that Christ picked them for the same reason Nanak chose Lalo — as people capable of receiving a social outsider as a wholly welcome guest. For it would be those who could thus receive him who would be most capable of advancing Christ’s own goal — the goal of reconciling humans to one another, and so enabling true worship to begin (viz., Matthew 5:23-24).

It’s important. To have the ultimate jên, which is the true Church, one has to start with people who are ready to host it:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen….
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
     and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
     when you see the naked, that you cover him,
     and not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
     your healing shall spring forth speedily,
     and your righteousness shall go before you….
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer….

— Isaiah 58:6a,7-8a,9a (“Third Isaiah”)



“When employing the services of the people, proceed as if you are addressing Heaven on behalf of the community [lit., officiating at an important sacrifice].”

Unfortunately, even the courtesy shown by a Confucian leader like my store’s manager toward his employees — and even catalytic charity like “Woody“‘s — can only go so far by itself.

Every community needs to employ the services of its members, under the direction of some leader or at least some group of coördinators, in order to convert its human energy into the utilities that keep it alive. A Chinese community in Confucius’s day needed community work gangs for road building, ditch digging, and the like. A modern community needs police, firefighting, medical services, schoolteaching, electrical power, sewers, and much more.

And for these things, the community needs more from its leaders than courtesy and charity; it needs true spiritual direction, foresight, and a corporate discipline. And if the leaders or coördinators fail in their duty to provide these things, and instead allow the community’s energy and resources to be dissipated or squandered, the community is endangered.

It seems to me that this is a problem in my own society, the United States, today.

One thing that I think is very easily seen in the U.S. is that consumption vastly exceeds production — and has done so for a very, very long time.

This excess of consumption has been reflected in the government’s chronic history of deficit spending, in the nation’s monumental trade deficit vis-à-vis other nations, in the burdensome debt loads of very many private citizens, and in the economy’s wanton plundering of its natural resources. It seems to me that all these things are happening because of a lack of community foresight and careful (and equitable) corporate discipline; and I think a great deal of the blame must fall on the people who’ve been in positions of leadership and influence, and who haven’t bothered to address these issues properly.

Another thing one can readily see is that the power of production itself is being utilized stupidly. Non-renewable resources are squandered on vanities, on consumer goods that fall apart quickly, on unchristian military build-ups and on wars. Wastes from these activities poison the globe and destabilize the entire planet’s weather. The people who work so hard producing these wasteful things have too little time left for each other, their kids, their aged and sick, and their own spiritual growth. And while all this is happening, the nation’s basic manufacturing capability is idiotically dismantled and shipped overseas.

What remains is a nation so selfish and short-sighted that it lives wholly on the patience of its creditors, frittering away its wealth and strength on a hopeless power grab in the Middle East, and earning worldwide scorn for its environmental irresponsibility.

A community cannot long be so mismanaged without its members losing faith in it. And it is thus that we’ve arrived at the present-day cynicism of so much of the U.S. public.

Here are people who see little point in sacrificing on behalf of the community, because the community is too mismanaged to benefit from such sacrifice, and so they have become people who live mainly for themselves and mainly for the moment. They are nihilists whether they recognize it or not, and in their nihilism they push their world toward annihilation.

Sacrifice is the heart of the matter, just as Confucius suggested. When people give their labor, their time and their wealth to their community, according to the requests or demands of its leaders, they are giving up a part of their lives, an irreplaceable chunk from a very finite and precious supply. They are making a sacrifice.

It is necessary, then, that what the people give up to the community be utilized in accordance with a genuine understanding of what sacrifice means.

This means, first, that their leaders understand that what is given in sacrifice must be regarded as dedicated to the God of goodness and righteousness, infinitely precious, and to be used solely for purposes that truly please such a God — purposes of love, righteousness, and farsighted nurturing. And second, it means that any leader entrusted with the use of these resources must proceed in humility, knowing how very easy it is to be mistaken about the way forward, and knowing how hard it will be to replace the resources when they’re gone.

If the leaders proceed in this way, all should be well. The community will be cared for, and the people who are a part of it will see good reason to take further care of it themselves.

But if not, the community is in trouble. And that’s the situation with the U.S. (along with many other places as well).

Now, for a community’s leaders to dedicate what the people give, to a God whom they regard as real and powerful — a God of love and righteousness and nurturing — by constantly laboring to make every part of what they do with what’s been worthy of such a God’s regard — and to do this in humility, knowing how easy it can be to make a mistake — I think this is a practice that cannot help but transform the leaders involved.

Any leader who performs her or his duties in such a manner will be mellowed, gentled, and taught consideration and kindness by the practice.

And of course, this transformation of the leader’s own person nurtures and preserves the spirit of community — indeed, nurtures it as much as the things her efforts actually accomplish. This is what Confucius was getting at.

I’m reminded of a story of Mohandas Gandhi, in the middle years of his career. His selflessness and dedication to nurturing a reborn nation in India were already well known at this time. He had been drawing the energies of literal millions of people into his cause for many years — and always as if addressing Heaven on behalf of the community. And this had generated a tremendous amount of world respect and, indeed, world reverence for his values and his character.

Thus, when Gandhi was sentenced by the British to six years in prison for sedition (read, the cause of Indian self-determination), and subsequently hospitalized with acute appendicitis, the entire British staff of the prison and the prison hospital was already disposed to regard him with reverence. But then they met his transformed personality.

One of Gandhi’s Indian followers, Mahadev Desai, described what it was like in an article:

I have had the privilege of being with Bapu [Mohandas Gandhi] these ten days, though not of serving him. That privilege is being entirely monopolized by the hospital nurses. …

There was [a young] nurse … fond of Bapu, who prided herself on having Mr. Gandhi as her first “private” patient after passing out as a trained nurse. “Nursing is not always a joy, at times it is a task,” she used to say, “but it has been a pure joy and a privilege to nurse Mr. Gandhi. The doctor comes and tells me, ‘You did not use to print your reports like this ever before,” and I tell him straightway, ‘Nor had I such a patient before.’” …

I do not know if any one attending Bapu has the slightest consciousness that he is serving a state prisoner. … A compelling love chokes all other consciousness.

… Col. Murray, the Yeravda [Prison] Superintendent, came to see Bapu the other day. “Do you think, Mr. Gandhi, I have neglected you? No. I thought I should not disturb you. … Your friends remember you. Mr. Gani especially asked me to tell you that he still gets up at four o’clock for prayers. Every one of them is happy, and misses you….” “Thank you, Col. Murray,” said Bapu, “but I assure you nothing will please me better than to be up and doing and under your kind care once again at Yeravda.” You never could tell, if you did not know him, that a jail superintendent was speaking to one of his prisoners, and you could almost visualize the atmosphere of love created by Bapu in his prison-cell….

— Desai, “After the Operation” (1924); publ. in C. F.        
Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story             
(Macmillan, 1930), pp. 358ff                                      

In such a way does “employing the people’s services as if addressing Heaven on the community’s behalf,” draw even one’s enemies into community.

But that, perhaps, is a subject for another day.

(to be continued)

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (2)

What would you recommend to a Meeting that is located in a central part of a city and has many homeless people (with all their subsequent issues) roaming about nearby?

Mar 24, 2008 at 04:20PM | Unregistered CommenterAllison

I don't think such a meeting (or any meeting) needs to listen to my recommendations; I think it needs to listen to Christ's.

And no, without knowing the meeting, I dare not guess what Christ has to say to it. Christ speaks individually to each person's condition, and I'm sure you know quite as well as I do that one person is not the same as another.

I'm not saying all this to be difficult, or to dodge your question. I respect the sincerity of your question!

But have you read my postings on my witness workshop at Baltimore Yearly Meeting? They begin in this posting and continue through this one and this one.

The witness Nathan bore to David, which I discuss in some detail in this three-part report, is the classic example of how true witness works. And it's clear that Nathan's witness worked so well in part because he knew David's situation, and knew how he could reach David's conscience. — Whereas, for my part, I don't know even know which meeting you're talking about, let alone know its members. And that is part of the problem.

There is also the fact that the situation of the homeless is only part of the overall picture. There is also the meeting's relationship with the power structure in which it is embedded. And the perilous situation of all humankind vis-à-vis the global ecosystem. And the meeting's members' relationships with each other, and with Christ. These things cannot simply be ignored, in favor of a narrow focus on the homeless. Any minister worth her or his salt will open her- or himself to that God who looks at the total picture and who speaks to us accordingly.

Mar 25, 2008 at 07:56PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>