All of you should know this: The teachings of Confucius are likened to elementary school principles, while the Buddha’s teachings are analogous to principles taught at the college level. Therefore, the Confucian doctrines pertain to the worldly knowledge of common people and cannot be discussed in the same context as
prajna wisdom. The difference between Confucianism and Buddhism is that Confucius advocated worldly dharmas whereas the Buddha taught transcendental Dharma. Then again, transcendental Dharma does not originate independently but evolves from worldly dharmas.
People from all walks of life praised Confucius and held him in high esteem. Whether they were his own students or the common folk, all of them agreed that he was ‘an erudite scholar with an answer for everything at his fingertips’. The character ‘bo’ refers to a person with extensive knowledge who is “well acquainted with events past and present as if he had witnessed them personally”. A highly learned and capable person, he was well versed in the Hundred Schools of Thought. Generally, people praised him: “Elder Master, your knowledge is so vast and profound!” His disciple [Yan Hui] extolled him thus: “The more we revere the Master’s doctrines, the loftier they become; the more we try to fathom them, the more profound they appear. One moment, they seem to be in front of us and the next moment, they are behind.” It is apparent that they did not have the slightest inkling of his state. Since they did not understand what the Master’s doctrines were all about, they praised him as such. In response to these accolades, Confucius criticized himself and with a sigh, asked rhetorically: “Do I have any learning? Am I a learned person? I am not knowledgeable.” In this respect, his denial was an act of modesty because ‘conceit brings harm while modesty brings benefit’. He always maintained an attitude of ‘being learned and yet appearing uneducated; possessing great knowledge and yet appearing ignorant’. He claimed to be an ignorant person partly because of courtesy and partly because he felt that he was really not up to par. In this way, he could avoid being smug and giving rise to conceited thoughts such as: “I am such a remarkable fellow. You see, everyone puts me on a pedestal and heaps praises on me. I am truly great!”
The Water Moon Pure Youth came to China in the form of Confucius. He paved the way for Buddhism. His role was to reveal the seeds of the Great Vehicle, which could then be cultivated to fruition when Buddhism eventually arrived. If he had not come to China, the sudden introduction of the Buddhist teachings would not have gained acceptance among the populace. This is called ‘proceeding gradually step-by-step’. He first introduced to those individuals in China with whom he had affinities the Confucian principles of being a person, namely: ‘filiality, brotherhood, loyalty, trustworthiness, propriety, righteousness, incorruptibility and a sense of shame’. In this way, Buddhism would flourish and bear perfect fruit later on. This is why China has produced so many generations of patriarchs and spiritual teachers of great virtue. The credit for this should partly go to the Water Moon Pure Youth.
Different people view the principles expounded by Confucius differently: The wise ones see what they feel is wise and the humane ones see what they feel is humane; thinkers see profound meanings and shallow people see only the superficial aspects. He refrained from mentioning the principles of true cultivation, which are concerned with cutting off lust and desire. Instead of scaring people away by telling them to ‘get rid of lust and desire and leave home to cultivate to be a Buddha’, he merely advised: “In youth, when one’s body and spirit are not yet stable, one should not indulge in relationships.” Just as that ‘Professor Emptiness’ said, “People should all eventually leave the householder’s life.” Do you think these professors can really do that? If you ask them to leave home, you might as well take a knife and kill them first. They would rather be killed than to leave home for they think: “I’m finished this time! There is no more meaning to life. Monastic life is passive and pessimistic.” Therefore, everyone has his own way of thinking and doing things.
When Zigong said, “We have heard the Master’s lectures on ancient literature”, this is still conditioned dharmas. However, the passage “But we have never heard the Master’s expositions about human nature and the natural laws” refers to unconditioned dharmas. This is because during the Spring and Autumn period, people were generally receptive to conditioned dharmas even though they may not have observed the rules of etiquette and decorum. Were the social morals of that time similar to those in the West today? I don’t know. However, if you were to read the
Book of Songs of that period, you will get an idea. As Confucius once said, “The
Book of Songs contains more than three hundred pieces. I can summarize them in a single phrase: pure intent.” Consider these lines from one of the pieces:
“Guan! Guan!” the ospreys call out,
Standing in pairs on the river islets.
A graceful virtuous maiden,
Makes a good mate for a gentleman.
A commentary to this poem says: “King Wen of Zhou, who was endowed with the virtues of a sage at his birth, also married a virtuous lady. After she came, the courtesans observed that she possessed elegant grace and virtues, they composed this poem in praise of her.” The
Book of Songs was a compilation of popular folksongs that sang the praises of lust and immoral behavior. Everyone liked to sing them. As Confucius found the subject matter objectionable, he ‘edited the
Book of Songs and the Book of History, and compiled the
Book of Rites and the Book of Music’. In the process of compiling the folksongs, he discarded those nonsensical pieces. However, a few that are very popular, which he felt still fixable, were retained to provide a breath of vitality. The pieces that were retained could be interpreted in a positive or negative way but those that were discarded would definitely lead people astray.
Confucius was the Water Moon Pure Youth who returned to the world by means of his past vows. If he were not a Bodhisattva who had come to the world again, he could not have possessed such immense wisdom and could not possibly ‘master the rites and morals at age thirty, form his own judgments at age forty, know the laws of nature at age fifty, assess people and distinguish between right and wrong at age sixty, and do whatever he pleased without breaking the rules at age seventy’. By not breaking the rules, he had reached the stage of not violating any of the precepts. How could he have achieved this if he had no real skill? The nonviolation of precepts means ‘to refrain from all evil and practice all good’. So you see, Confucius did not pursue wealth, lust, fame, food and sleep but instead traveled to the various states to ‘make other people’s bridal costumes and till others’ fields’ (help others at the expense of oneself). He strived to impart his knowledge and skills to others so that everyone could benefit from what he himself had achieved. The job of a pioneer is extremely difficult indeed!