Friday, April 12, 2013

Confucius says...

China Forbidden City Dragon
The required, abridged and tailored text briefly highlights the work of Confucius.  When I saw he was required reading I replayed in my mind all the things I knew about him: He is a revered leader from ancient China; He created well-defined rules of etiquette (it's rude to have guests slice their own food--hence everything should be served in bite-size portions) and frankly that's all I knew about him.  I lived a year in Japan and spent two months in Korea. I loved  both places and the people in them. But I've never been interested in China. No wonder I knew so little. After my glimpse into the teachings of Lao Tzu which I could relate to a little more because of a basic familiarity with Daoism, I realized I had a lot to learn about China's leaders.

I decided to start with a biography on Confucius.  As it turns out the words of the Master in Confucius' Analects ring in bitter irony and parallel what he and every other spurned but noble leader should apply to their life: "Don't worry if people don't recognize your merits; worry that you may not recognize theirs."  Interestingly enough Confucius was (most likely) born to a concubine mother and geriatric father.  At a young age his father died and he and his mother were on their own. He grew up in extreme poverty but what set him apart from others "was an incredible curiosity for learning." His mother encouraged this in hopes that he would one day hold a high government position.  His mother died when he was young and he had an even rougher road ahead of him.

His descendent (75th generation), XiangLin Kong says: "Confucius was driven to achieve the goals he set for himself. He was relentless in the improvement of his character. He said there is no time to stop learning. Only  after you have closed the lid on the coffin can you say you have stopped learning." Despite ardent learning and continuous self-improvement he spent the bulk of his life without a prominent position other than as a teacher and for a brief time as a leader of the state of Lu. He was forced into exile by conspirators, never to regain a leadership position. His vision was for a just and peaceful China. He wandered for 13 years looking for a prince, a leader worthy of him. He did not find one.  During his travels he received feedback from Lao Tzu (as related by Roger Ames):
 "The problem with you sir is that your intelligence enables you to evaluate people critically and when you evaluate people critically you bring danger upon yourself"
At the end of his life Confucius saw himself as a failure with limited influence to make China a place of peace and justice.

So much of his story and desire to lead (and succeed when he gets the slightest opportunity) resonates with me. In my own life and times in organizations I've come to one irrefutable truth in trying times like these: It's not the outcome but the style and grace of leadership which will be remembered.  Nothing about Confucius' life was easy. The narrator sums it up nicely: "He had suffered blows that might've broken a sensitive young man, the terrors of desperate poverty, the heartache of callous rejection. But Confucius would transform life's bitter assaults into powerful, unforgettable lessons."  I can relate to this even more after the course in Leadership and Hardiness. Finally Confucius concluded that despite his desire to end suffering and misery, he was one man and he chose to live amongst humans therefore he resigned himself to the limits of human power.

Taoist Hermit

I remember reading a snippet on Lao Tzu once and it said he grew so fed up with the war and strife of China that he opted to leave human society forever.  He was stopped at the outskirts of town and asked to write down his wisdom. He did, handed it over and was never seen or heard from again.

Papyrus roll from about 1000 B.C.After wandering Confucius settled down again in Lu for the last few years of his life still seeking to transform China. He remained amongst humanity but isolated himself in a library. It is interesting to note how these great leaders both were fed up with humanity and chose to live their lives in isolation rather than conform to the lifestyle China had chosen for its people. 

What have I discovered in all of this? Confucianism plays a prominent role in today's China. Confucius is a name world-renowned. When the Confucius of my life shows up...I am going to listen deeply.  Although I am not sure which choice I will make when I can no longer advocate for humanity. I will have to discover more about what Confucius says.

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