It is said, "One rarely lives beyond a century" and "Human lives are ephemeral as morning dew." In the limited time that we have, we should use the difficult-to-come-by human form to pursue knowledge and practice benevolence, cultivating both blessings and wisdom. If we constantly worry about this fabricated "stinking skin bag," buzzing about in a daze for the sake of living comfortably, then our banal life will be over soon enough. The result would be a futile life devoid of accomplishments and a sullen legacy in posterity. Wouldn't that be miserable!
Then how do we cultivate both blessings and wisdom? To advance our virtue is to cultivate blessings; to advance our scholarship is to cultivate wisdom. All talk and no action is not to make progress in virtue; we must practice what we say. Reading whenever we please without commitment from beginning to end is not to make progress in scholarship. Erudition without application is as if listening to others talk about food—you don't ever become full. Implementation without scholarship is as if you are a blind person feeling an elephant—you never quite get it.
What does "One never becomes full listening to conversations about food" mean? Since we don't apply the knowledge we've learned, it's useless to have had the education. The cunning ones may become articulate con artists; the obtuse ones may become nerds who bury themselves in books, failing to realize the benefits of practicing what they've learned. Isn't this similar to hearing people talk about delectable delicacies? Even if you hear the menu of an entire imperial banquet, can you honestly curb your appetite?
Next, on taking action before a thorough understanding of the situation. The zealot turns into a ruthless brute who could care less about his or her life. The conservative becomes a stubborn mule who corners oneself. Neither of them experiences the joy of connecting one's spirit and the mind; furthermore, they don't obtain any benefits from practice. Isn't that like one blind person who reaches for the elephant's leg and claims that an elephant is like a pole while another blind person who touches the elephant's ear alleges that an elephant is like a fan? Even if these sightless individuals feel the elephant hundreds and thousands of times, they will hardly know the whole truth. Both the con artists and the nerds wanted to cultivate blessings but failed. They wanted to cultivate wisdom, but failed too. They lost on both ends! Is it really that difficult to navigate the middle way of cultivating both blessings and wisdom and operating both compassion and intelligence?
In today's world, superficiality and drama are in vogue while the language of wickedness reigns supreme because we've got more and more hippies who fail to implement what they've learned. During the latter years of the Warring States period, Zhao Gua specialized in "warfare on paper." He was proud of the fact that he was considered the ultimate champion. Zhao's father had personally combated in hundreds of battles and was the only person who patronized Zhao. As Zhao's father had expected, Zhao lost all of his battalions when he personally led the troops, dooming the nation Chao to an early death by the strong nation of Qin.
As to bookish nerds who can only study but not act, there have been more than plenty since ancient times and not too few in the present day either. These people either go insane or become sociopaths. In short, these categories of individuals who do not practice but only collect impractical knowledge portray the two extremes of our artificial world today.
On the other hand, stubborn ol' mules who only work, pull rank and never desire updated knowledge become the ball and chain of social progress. In contrast, brutes who refuse to learn yet wield a weapon and proclaim themselves heroes are also everywhere. These two types of action-takers, time bombs that threaten societal peace, blindly exercise their strength and demonstrate two radical reactions in our society. Why do we have these two extreme responses? It is because these individuals are domineering and self-righteous. The boorish ones may follow others' ideas while the obstinate ones only follow their own views. Those who follow others' ideas are obstructed by ignorance; those who follow their own ideas are obstructed by knowledge. Both types are obscured from and confused about truth. In short, delusion envelops these individuals!
Zi Lu once asked Confucius, "Could you ignore tradition and just follow the call of your heart?" Confucius answered, "No! In the past a tribal native east of China really admired the rites of China. When his son-in-law died, he taught his daughter to not remarry according to the rule that widows should not remarry. However, he clandestinely allowed his daughter to be with a man. Although the woman didn't remarry, she had already violated the principle of chastity in reality. A tribe member of Cang Wu in southern China married a beautiful wife but conceded her to his elder brother. Outwardly these brothers appear to confer generously, but in actuality, they failed to abide by the true meaning of giving. That's why I believe that if you abandon traditions and do as you please, you may do what seems correct, only to find out too late that your actions were wrong, as illustrated by my two examples."
In teaching his students, Confucius strongly emphasized humaneness as the foundation of one's character, the study of rites to demonstrate one's erudition—a scholar and a gentleman. Confucius counseled the basically wholesome Zi Lu who disliked propriety and culture, with an analogy. "An arrow made with the bamboo of Southern Mountain may be straight and beautiful, however, if one mounts a sharp metallic arrowhead and append feathers to the tail of the arrow, then the arrow will shoot even faster and farther!" He encouraged Zi Lu to study more rather than spend all his time working. Conversely, to the cultured and debonair scholar, Zi Gong, Confucius commended him on his understanding of the idea, "to devise a plan then follow suit," encouraging Zi Gong to work on the fundamentals of quality character.
All these explain the sequence of character and education. One must first develop morals and integrity before studying academically.
Mr Chu's Aphorisms on Managing a Household said, "Even if your children and grandchildren are stupid, they must read." Since people before us have compiled their wisdom for us in books, we are essentially absorbing their experiences by reading their books; thus we can avoid some wrong turns on the road.
Those who aren't so bright by nature will understand many principles if they are willing to learn. Those with promising aptitudes and study well are like tigers with wings. Reading can change people's persona. Only those with a pure and unadulterated mind can penetrate their subject of study. Once they have comprehended their studies, they will surely be visionary and embody both depth and breadth in their thinking. In opposition are individuals who use their education to help others breed errant sprouts.
The Discourses on Vegetable Roots put it well, "One can only study and learn about antiquity with a clean mind ground. Otherwise, one will see a good deed and seize that credit for oneself; one will hear compliments and attempt to disguise one's weakness. In other words, they borrow bandits to steal grain." Therefore, if one's mind is filthy and vicious, then not onlywill scholarship fail to alter one's persona, but one will actually borrow morals out of stories to feign decency and cleverly pilfer principles out of books to mend misdeeds. This is comparable to handing muggers some weapons or lending food to thieves -- danger looms at-large.