Focusing on Key Issues
One day Duke Ai (508 – 468 BC) of the Lu Kingdom asked Confucius, “In ancient times, what type of hat did Emperor Shun (2294 – 2184 BC) wear?” Confucius did not reply. The Duke asked again, “I am trying to learn from you. Why do you not reply?” Confucius bowed and replied, “Because the question Your Majesty raised was not focused on key issues. That is why I was thinking about how to reply.” The Duke became curious and asked, “What are the key issues?” Confucius replied, “During Emperor Shun’s reign, he loved his people as his own children. He promoted the virtuous and appointed the capable. His virtue overflowed across the land. Yet he remained modest and humble. He changed things gently, just like the four seasons change living beings in nature. He encouraged the growth of people’s character. His kindness spread to other living beings as well. That is why his teachings reached far and wide. Even the legendary phoenix and mythical kirin showed up in the land that he ruled, testifying to his mighty virtue. All this occurred because of Emperor Shun’s encouragement of life and growth. Your Majesty was asking about the type of hat that Emperor Shun wore rather than these issues of primary importance, and that was why I did not reply right away.”
The virtuous rule of Emperor Shun inspired heaven and earth. There have not been any rulers since who did not admire his virtue and ability to govern the nation. As the head of a kingdom, Duke Ai only asked Confucius about Emperor Shun’s wardrobe. This showed that he did not place the welfare of his people and his kingdom as the most important issues. Confucius did not respond right away because he wanted to help Duke Ai with the peace and prosperity of his nation. The quality of learning is more important than the format.
Living with Kind People Is Like Entering a Room of Orchids
Confucius once told one of his students, Zeng Can, “Zixia will improve quickly because he enjoys spending time with those who are more virtuous than he. To stay with kind people is like living in a house with orchids blossoming. One assimilates to the environment. So a gentleman has to be careful in choosing who he associates with.” It is also stated in the Standards to Students, “It is immensely beneficial if one stays close to those with kind hearts. With the passing of each day, one’s virtue increases, and one’s mistakes are reduced. To stay away from kind people is harmful. One is drawn to sly men, which ruin everything.”
This tells us that by remaining close with people of kindness and virtue and taking them as friends and teachers, a person can expand his knowledge as well as improve his integrity. A gentleman sets a good example. Others around him will learn to look at themselves for their shortcomings and constantly set higher standards for themselves. “To frequently look for one’s own shortfalls, rather than blame others” requires one to be transparent in his words and acts. Applying strict standards for oneself, yet being tolerant of others reflects a character of generosity. Confucius said, “A gentleman learns the Tao and loves other people.” He was pointing out that a gentleman needs to care about others if he studies the Tao, applying the principles he has learned from the Tao to his daily interaction with others. The supreme kindness is like water. It facilitates everything while contending nothing.
The virtuous character of a gentleman brings about harmony and peace. It helps to remind everyone to exercise self-discipline and to not act against conscience. In today’s material world, where too many people are driven by greed in pursuit of fame and fortune, it is all the more important to adhere to one’s inner ethics and aspirations.