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Confucians on the cultivation of the heart

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My amateur translation of Cheng Yi’s Four Admonitions:


When Yan Yuan asked about the process of conquering oneself and returning to ritual, the Master replied, "Not looking at what is against ritual, not hearing what is against ritual, not speaking what is against ritual, not doing what is against ritual"- these four are one's methods. If one follows them within and accords with them without, one is ordered on the outside and therefore nurtured within. Yan Yuan is therefore speaking about the entrance to sagehood. Those who study sagehood should hold this close and not neglect it, so I caution myself with these admonitions:


Admonition on Looking 


The heart, its root in emptiness,
responds to things without a trace.
What you must have to hold it well
can be shown in the case of looking.
Clouded by outward contact,
one is thereby changed within.
Ordered on the outside,
one thus has inner peace.
Conquer yourself and return to ritual,
then in time you shall be sincere.


Admonition on Hearing


Humans have a standard
rooted in their heavenly nature.
Knowledge is tempted by the changes of things,
finally losing its rightness.
Brilliant is the one with foresight,
whose knowledge is not trapped.
Guard from evil, keep sincere,
hearing nothing against the rites.


Admonition on Speaking 


The movements of the human heart
are declared by means of speech.
Refusing to send forth peevish rashness,
one's inside is thus still and focused.
Moreover speech is the pivot
by which war springs or peace goes forth;
fortune or misfortunate, honor or disgrace
only there do they convene.
Speaking too easily leads to boasting,
speaking too freely leads to triteness.
If one is unruly, others are disordered,
send out contention and quarreling comes.
Speak no lawlessness!-
Respect this instruction.


Admonition on Movement


The wise know the source,
and are sincere to it in thought;
the resolute are firm in action,
and guarded in their doings.
Following the pattern, one is enriched,
but obeying desires, one is imperiled.
When hurried, be able to reflect;
in turmoil, maintain yourself.
Whether by study or by nature formed,
the sages arrive at the same place.

Edited by SirPalomides
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Fan Jun’s Heart Admonition 


Vast, vast are heaven and earth-
searched up and down they are boundless.
Humans in their midst-
so tiny is their body!
A small fraction of this body,
like a grain in a great storehouse,
is placed among the Three Powers-
I speak of nothing other than the heart.
From ancient times to now,
who has lacked this heart?
The heart in servitude to forms
is then like beasts and birds-
all because the mouth, ears and eyes,
hands and feet, motion and stillness,
invade its calm and press through the cracks
to make the heart unsettled.
A single heart's smallness,
assailed by numerous desires-
how much can it hold to?
Alas! Precious little.
The nobles keep sincerity,
remaining attentive and reverent.
Heavenly lords are tranquil,
and the hundred organs obey them.


范浚《心箴》: 茫茫堪舆,俯仰无垠。人于其间,眇然有身。是身之微,太仓稊米。 参为三才,曰惟心耳! 往古来今,孰无此心。心为形役,乃禽乃兽。 惟口耳目,手足动静。投闲抵隙,为厥心病。一心之微,众欲攻之。其与存者,呜呼几希。 君子存诚,克念克敬。天君泰然,百体从令。

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Hello SirPalomedes,


These are good, readable translations, but they embody the old saying about something being lost in translation.  This is not your fault, the translation of Li as "ritual" is acceptable, but the connotation of Ritual in most English speaking countries starts with "empty ritual", and goes downhill from there.


I don't have time to comment in detail, but without some context to give a deeper meaning to the notion of "ritual" it will be very much misunderstood by the average reader of Dao Bums, so I will endeavor to give at least a little context for the Confucian concept of "ritual" by citing two quotes from the Li Yun the "Origin and Development of the Rites" chapter of the Liji, the "Classic of the Rites" gives some idea of the deep cosmological root of the concept of "Li":




禮運: 言偃復問曰:「如此乎禮之急也?」孔子曰:「夫禮,先王以承天之道,以治人之情。故失之者死,得之者生。《詩》曰:『相鼠有體,人而無禮;人而無禮,胡不遄死?』是故夫禮,必本於天,殽於地,列於鬼神,達於喪祭、射御、冠昏、朝聘。故聖人以禮示之,故天下國家可得而正也。」


Li Yun: Yan Yan again asked, 'Are the rules of Propriety indeed of such urgent importance?' Confucius said, 'It was by those rules that the ancient kings sought to represent the ways of Heaven, and to regulate the feelings of men. Therefore he who neglects or violates them may be (spoken of) as dead, and he who observes them, as alive. It is said in the Book of Poetry, "Look at a rat-how small its limbs and fine! Then mark the course that scorns the proper line. Propriety's neglect may well provoke; A wish the man would quickly court death's stroke." Therefore those rules are rooted in heaven, have their correspondencies in earth, and are applicable to spiritual beings. They extend to funeral rites, sacrifices, archery, chariot-driving, capping, marriage, audiences, and friendly missions. Thus the sages made known these rules, and it became possible for the kingdom, with its states and clans, to reach its correct condition.' (Li Yun section 3, Emphasis mine, ZYD)


First of all note the use of "propriety" for Li instead of "ritual", this is the core meaning on which I focused in my thinking about Li.  Propriety is "proper action" and this "proper action" is not merely the proper performance of arbitrary social conventions, but rather it is the proper enactment of the "ways of Heaven".


Later we find a common aspect of Confucion Dao, the notion that the Sage forms a "ternion" or "triad" with "Heaven, Earth and Mankind", making clear that it includes the "spiritual beings" the "rites" are then devised by Sages according to their Heavenly Principles:


禮運: 故聖人參於天地,并於鬼神,以治政也。處其所存,禮之序也;玩其所樂,民之治也。故天生時而地生財,人其父生而師教之:四者,君以正用之,故君者立於無過之地也。


Li Yun: Hence the sage forms a ternion with Heaven and Earth, and stands side by side with spiritual beings, in order to the right ordering of government. Taking his place on the ground of the principles inherent in them, he devised ceremonies in their order; calling them to the happy exercise of that in which they find pleasure, he secured the success of the government of the people. Heaven produces the seasons. Earth produces all the sources of wealth. Man is begotten by his father, and instructed by his teacher. The ruler correctly uses these four agencies, and therefore he stands in the place where there is no error. (Li Yun section 14, Emphasis mine, ZYD)


With the result of what should be the "happy exercise of that in which they (the people, ZYD) find pleasure", the rites should not be stultifying conventions which impose a purely artificial order, but rather enactments of the creative power of Heaven, which should resonate with and help awaken people's "heaven conferred" True Nature and elicit spontaneous assent while at the same time developing the true  potential of human beings to realize their Heavenly Nature.


This is the Confucian context in which the whole notion of "ritual" should be contemplated, and seen from that perspective it become clear why:


On 4/2/2020 at 6:19 PM, SirPalomides said:

When Yan Yuan asked about the process of conquering oneself and returning to ritual, the Master replied, "Not looking at what is against ritual, not hearing what is against ritual, not speaking what is against ritual, not doing what is against ritual"- these four are one's methods. If one follows them within and accords with them without, one is ordered on the outside and therefore nurtured within. Yan Yuan is therefore speaking about the entrance to sagehood. Those who study sagehood should hold this close and not neglect it, so I caution myself with these admonitions:

Can be followed with the profound "spiritual" instruction that follows, which most people would see as anathema to the notion of "ritual".


I don't know if you needed this information, you seem to have a good understanding of these matters, but in general your readers would not have such an understanding and I hope this helps them to see the deeper level at which "ritual" is conceptualized by the Confucian Dao.


I wrote this before your second post and it only considers "ritual" which is the focus of the first.  Similar unintended distortions occur in relation to your second post, but they are unavoidable because univocal translations of these terms fail to convey their deeper meaning.  For example the concept translated as "sincerity", 诚 ( chéng ) is so profound that, as wonderful a personal quality as sincerity is, even in its usual mundane meaning, hardly even approaches its wider meaning in Confucian thought, any more than "Benevolence", does justice to the notion of rén ().



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Thank you ZYD. Yes, I was aware that “ritual” for Li and “sincerity” for cheng are both inadequate; as a writer I also appreciate how words take new dimensions in new contexts and I hope the context of these admonitions helps to point beyond their immediate apparent connotation. Likewise “heart” for xin is tricky- some scholars have chosen to translate it as heart-mind to clarify that it is the seat of consciousness. However the notion of the heart as seat of consciousness is not entirely foreign to western thinking and I think the context of these texts makes clear that it is not merely talking about the heart as an organ or an affective center. For this and for poetic reasons I choose to just render it “heart.”

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Oh and I case it wasn’t clear, when Fan Jun says the heart takes its place among “the three powers” he is referring to this principle ZYD quoted from the Liji: “Hence the sage forms a ternion with Heaven and Earth”

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The translations aren't bad as they capture a spirit of De, though it comes across more like a Hallmark greeting card inspiration or something from the Shambhala pocket library to make it more digestible.


Still, pretty good work there, so don't be too modest calling yourself an amateur, it's a translation I'm sharing now with a few friends and family who will appreciate it better as it speaks to them much better outside of its original context as the original context wouldn't resonate as much with them as they have no background or interest in classics, but enjoy a few nice quotes here and there. 

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Mengzi says:  How could the fletcher be less humane than the armor maker? The fletcher is afraid lest anyone not be injured; the armor maker is afraid lest anyone be injured. So too with the healer and the undertaker. So one must not be careless about one’s trade. Kongzi said, 'A humane village is beautiful- if you choose to not dwell in humaneness, how can you achieve wisdom?' Humaneness is the glory bestowed by heaven and a person's peaceful dwelling. No one can forbid humaneness, only lack of wisdom hinders it. Who is inhumane is unwise, who lacks ritual lacks righteousness, and is a servant of others. To be others' servant and be ashamed of it, is akin to a bowyer ashamed of making bows, or a fletcher ashamed of making arrows. If this is shameful, it is better to be humane. The humane are like archers- archers first correct themselves, then shoot. Shooting and missing the mark, they blame not those who surpass them but turn and search within themselves and nowhere else.


Zhu Xi's comment: Humaneness, righteousness, ritual, and wisdom are all treasures bestowed by heaven. And one who is humane is the heart of heaven and earth and all that lives- who attains humaneness first at the same time gathers all four, and this is called the extension of the primal virtue. Hence it is called "glory." When it is in a person then it is like the entirety of the root-heart's virtue, having the natural peace of heaven's pattern, without peril of sinking and drowning in human desires. Someone who ever acts within it, and does not part from it for a moment, may thus be said to dwell in peace.

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Dr. Bin Song has made available for free online his anthology of Confucian (or, as he prefers, Ruist) literature, Ru Literature: Enjoying the Rain on a Spring Night. Here is his translation of some of Zhu Xi's discourses on quiet sitting:


Yi Zhi asked: In order to preserve and nourish (the living-substance of human

life), do we need to be still most of the time?


Zhu Xi answered: Not necessarily. Kongzi always taught people to cultivate

themselves in situations that are of direct relevance to one’s life. Now, although

some Ru master taught that self-cultivation should focus upon being quiet  this

does not mean that one should give up affairs and things in order to pursue

quietude. Since we are humans, it entails that we shall serve parents, assist

governors, communicate with friends, foster our children, comfort our spouses, and

supervise house servants. It is implausible that we could give up all of these, and

then, close the door and sit quietly. If things and affairs come, can we just say: “No!

Please wait! I am now preserving and nourishing myself”? Nevertheless, we cannot

follow these things and affairs with an indifferent or confused mind either. Between

these two poles, we should think and have an appropriate judgement (about the

correct method to preserve and nourish our human life).


After a while, Master Zhu continues: “Whenever moving, quietude is there. The

state of movement has its due measure of quietude. If we can respond to affairs

according to the concerned pattern-principles, even if we move, we can still be quiet.

Therefore, the Greater Learning says: Knowing where to dwell in, and then,

one can become settled. Becoming settled, and then, one can be quiet.When

things and affairs come, if we cannot respond to them according to the concerned

pattern-principles, our mind-heart cannot achieve quietude. This is the case even if

we isolate ourselves from those things and thus intentionally search for quietude.

Only under the condition that we follow the concerned pattern-principles during

our movement, can we become quiet when no human affairs arrive. On the other

hand, if we can preserve (the living-substance of our life) during our stillness, we

shall be more functional during our movement.


Hence, we must intentionally cultivate ourselves whenever we are moving or still. In

other words, we must make our cultivating efforts continual, and thus, do not

segregate our life into its still moments and its moving ones. If we can make these

continuous efforts, we are quiet when we are still, and furthermore, we can also

become unperturbed even when we are moving. This implies that we can be quiet

even when we are moving. If we do not continually exert our cultivating effort, we

are perturbed when we are moving, and even if we long for quietude when we are

still, we cannot achieve that quietude. This means we can be perturbed even when

we are still. Our physical movement and stillness is like a boat floating on the river.

Tides come, and then the boat moves. Tides retreat, and then the boat stills. In the

same way, we move when affairs come. We still when affairs get settled.(This part

of conversation is recorded by Xu Jufu)


One day after finishing this conversation, Master Zhu met Xu, and said: “We move

when affairs come. We are still when affairs get settled. This is like a boat on the

river. Tides high, then the boat is also high. Tides down, then the boat is also down.

Nevertheless, because ‘The alternation of movement and stillness is all-pervasive’

there is no reason for us to separate the pattern-principle for our movement and

the one for our stillness. For example, we are still when we finish one round of

inhale, but we become moving again when we exhale. For questions and answers

between teachers and students, we move when we answer questions, while we are

still when we finish the answer. All things ought to be understood as such.

Hence, as for the cultivating effort of ‘moistening and nourishing’ and ‘attaining

one’s lucid awareness,’  where should we start? I think scholars should start

from one place and extend it. Master Cheng said: “Nothing is prior to ‘attaining

one’s lucid awareness’ for one’s learning.” He also taught: “No effort of ‘attaining

one’s lucid awareness’ does not rely upon reverence”. Therefore, being reverent, is

the priority for all our cultivating effort. From here, we can extend our learning

without any obstacle.” (Recorded by Di)

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