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Confucius teaches about the line not to cross

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When Confucius was asked about the meaning of the word (ren), he explained that is to have a universal humane love. In the analects the word also represents a moral attitude which approaches the ultimate level of goodness embracing the eight virtues discussed in the cornerstone series.

Confucius emphasized the importance of possessing a fraternal love, embracing the eight virtues discussed in earlier posts. In order to do that, he added, we have to exercise restraint and return to the principles of propriety and righteousness.

His student Yan Hui asked the sage how these principles can be adopted. Confucius replied that we should look not at what is contrary to propriety, listen not to what is contrary to propriety, speak not what is contrary to propriety and do not do anything which is contrary to propriety. Therefore, those who put into practice these four pointers should always exercise discernment in what they see, hear, speak or do and they will then be free from anxieties. His assurance to his disciples was that they had nothing to fear if they were upright and are virtuous as their conscience will always be clear.

In order that they are not deemed hypocrites, Confucius exhorted his students to check themselves that they are consistent in their pursuit of the principle of (ren). He refers to consistency in applying the virtues (such as trust, loyalty, respect, honesty) at every level of interaction whether it is 父子 father-son ,夫妇 husband-wife, 兄弟 between sibings, 君臣 employer-employee or 朋友 between friends. One may be loyal to one’s employer but not to one’s spouse, resulting in adultery. One may be honest with one’s friends but not one’s employer, opening the door to greed and corruption. One may respect one’s friends but not one’s own parents, the outcome is unfilial conduct.

仁 is therefore the application of the eight virtues at all levels of our interactions. Confucius’ response to his student Zi Zhang when he asked how to be imbued with , was to behave with gravity, generosity, trustworthiness, sincerity and kindness. The master’s advice to his student Zi Gong was to seek service with a principled master and surround himself with people who are virtuous. When another student Zhong Gong asked the same question, the master’s reply was that we should never impose upon others what we ourselves dislike.

In summary, Confucius taught that setting one’s heart on putting into practice will free us from evil and malicious thoughts and practices. This is the line in which a virtuous person must never cross.