Generations of scholars have attempted to put this great Chinese teacher and reformer under the magnifying glass to try to separate the man from the myth. Confucius, who lived from 551-479 BC, was himself a magnifying glass. Because he loved the ancients, scholars since his day have been permitted glimpses of ancient China that go back 6,000 years before his time (The Wisdom of Confucius, edited by Miles Menander Dawson). He was able, like the magnifying glass, to receive the rays of the divine sun, pass them through his great heart and leave a light that has lighted the pathway of ordinary men for 2,400 years. We cannot separate the man from the myth nor would we want to do so.
Who is wise enough to make the separation? Confucius said, "There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute" (The Doctrine of the Mean, I: 3). He also said, "How abundantly do spiritual beings display the powers that belong to them! We look for them, but do not see them; we listen to, but do not hear them; yet they enter into all things, and there is nothing without them" (16: 1-2). Confucius was far more than a disappointed seeker for political office who considered his life a failure. He was a superior man of long evolution — far ahead of the pack — who loved the ancients and humanity and who had a spiritual message so simple and direct, its words can still work magic.
Confucius was a native of the state of Lu, a part of modern Shantung. Shuh-liang Heih, the father of Confucius, was commandant of the district of Tsow [Zow]. The man had been desperate for a son after his first wife presented him with nine daughters. Later, at age 70, he married a peasant girl, still hoping for a son. During her pregnancy, she sought the blessing of Mount Ni, promising that if her child were a male, she would name him Chung-ni which means little hillock. The baby was born with a bump on his head that never went away.
The child was named K'ung, and his disciples named him K'ung Fu-tse or Master Kung, which Jesuit missionaries Latinized into Confucius. When Master K'ung was born, we are told strange music came from a mysterious source, and a voice from the sky announced the event. It was said also that two dragons patrolled the sky for the purpose of warding off evil influences, while five old men, representing the spirits of the five planets, came down from Heaven (cf. The Story of Confucius, Carl Cross, p. 47).
Young K'ung dedicated himself to learning at age fifteen, becoming what we would call a "universal man." He restored and edited the works of the Chinese ancients — no mean feat. At age twenty-one he began to attract pupils, teaching them ethics, philosophy, and government.
It was the daily life of the sage that gave meaning to his words. He sought to restore China to the condition it had enjoyed under its first kings who were virtuous and ruled wisely, whose people knew peace and harmony. He felt his duty was to hand on the knowledge and methods of the ancients, not to create or innovate. Undoubtedly he drank from the well of the eternal wisdom-religion, the origin and goal of man's best and highest experiences on earth and beyond. In the light of this, Master K'ung's Family of Man is the brotherhood of humanity against a universal backdrop.
Four major works -- the Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and the Works of Mencius — furnish the foundation of the Ju (roo) philosophy, the name given to the teachings of Confucius. Some nineteen works in all are credited to him as author or editor. After two millennia the teachings have come down to us by many routes, subject to the interpretations of the teacher's disciples and their followers.
China has had at least five teachers in historical times, three of whom have helped to form the Chinese character: Lao-tse, Confucius, and Buddha-Gautama. Confucius enjoined virtue and respect for law and order; Lao-tse taught the Tao (dow) — the Way — a mysticism embodying highest principles which could not but lead the soul upward. The essence of the Buddha doctrine was universal love and compassion and spiritualized intellectuality, by which man can build bridges of understanding rather than walls of separation. These three never claimed originality, seeking only to restore to man the knowledge that he is an immortal soul, rooted in spirit or goodness and destined for godhood.
Confucius came at a critical time for China. The fifteen million people who lived along the banks of the Hwang Ho or Yellow River called themselves "we who live under heaven" or the Middle Kingdom. Later they adopted the name of the first strong dynasty (207 BC - 220 AD) and called themselves the "sons of Han," a name they still retain. The longest dynasty, lasting almost a millennium (1122-256 BC), was the Chou (joe), which originated in western China. As conquerors they had taken over much of the culture of the previous Shag dynasty (c. 1400-1300 BC), and in time other peoples were absorbed by and melded into the Chinese character.
To restore China to its Golden Age, Confucius gave the formula for restoring harmony to the family of man. The teacher on one occasion told his students, "My doctrine is that of an all-pervading unity." (Analects, Bk. IV, xv-xvi., Legge trans.) K'ung Fu-tse maintained that what the Great Learning teaches is
to illustrate illustrious virtue, to renovate the people, and to rest in the highest excellence. . . .
Things have their root and their completion. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.
From the emperor down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of every thing besides. — The Great Learning, II: 130-2 (Loomis trans.)
The Book of Chungyung is usually translated as "The Doctrine of the Mean" or "The Golden Mean." In itself it forms a fairly adequate and complete basis for the philosophy of Confucianism or Ju. The opening sentence explains the statement "things have their root and their completion." From it we learn, "What Heaven has conferred is called THE NATURE; an accordance with this nature is called the PATH OF DUTY; the regulation of this path is called INSTRUCTION" (Loomis trans., p. 142). This is to say every living thing is a seed of divinity at its heart — a divine monad. From purity and innocence it must enter into the worlds of matter and learn all the lessons that life has to offer. By the light of intelligence and self-consciousness it must rise again to the divine state.
Confucius observes that men commonly miss the mark in their strivings:
I know now why the moral law is not practiced. The wise mistake moral law for something higher than what it really is; and the foolish do not know enough what moral law really is. I know now why the moral law is not understood. The noble natures want to live too high, high above their moral ordinary self; and ignoble natures do not live high enough. - Doctrine of the Mean, IV
K'ung Fu-tse tells us what we already know. The integrity of the family rests upon:
The superior man [or woman — the soul is sexless] commences with respect as the basis of love. To omit respect is to leave no foundation for affection. Without love there can be no union; without respect the love will be ignoble. — Li Ki, xxiv:9
The female alone cannot procreate; the male alone cannot propagate; and Heaven alone cannot produce a man. The three collaborating, man is born. Hence anyone may be called the son of his mother or the son of Heaven. — Ku-hang's Commentary
Today there is much talk of looking for one's guru or seeking a chela path. Confucius said, "The path is not far from man. When men try to pursue a course which is far from the common indications of consciousness, this course cannot be considered the path" (Doctrine of the Mean, xiii, v. i).
We need to be reminded by repetition of these simple truths that seem so apparent and which have engraved themselves on our hearts indelibly through many lives.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)