This week I’ve been reflecting on a passage from Mencius (the latinized way of referring to Mengzi 孟子), an important person in the early development of Confucian philosophy:

“Benevolence (仁 ren) is like archery. An archer corrects himself and only then shoots. If he shoots but does not hit the mark, he does not resent the one who defeats him but simply simply turns and seeks for it in himself.”

Mengzi 2A7, Van Norden translation

If I speak and unintentionally offend someone, I’m still obligated to adjust myself and find the better words.

If I act and I fail to achieve what I set out to do, I’m still obligated to do the work and do it correctly.

In my job, in my relationships with others, in my personal development, etc. this advice is useful because I am reminded of where my agency lies and how I can maximize the opportunities for excellence among us. Mengzi’s advice is given to those who would take up the Confucian path for becoming a consummate person (仁道 rendao).

In the collected sayings of Confucius (the Analects, “Confucius” is the latinized way of referring to Kongzi 孔子) we hear from the Master that the path he advocates cannot only be followed, it must be maintained and extended by those who seek it:

The Master said, “It is the person who is able to broaden the way (dao 道), not the way that broadens the person.”

The Master said, “Having gone astray, to fail to get right back on track is to stray indeed.”

Analects 15.29 & 15.30, Ames and Rosemont, Jr. translation

The path that Kongzi and Mengzi are inviting us to take up was established before they were born, however, theirs is more than only a path to follow, it is a heading that we take. We “head out” on a path to righteousness, to excellence, to consummate crafting. We have our bearings from our teachers, from our colleagues, from our parents and our friends; and now it is time for the rubber to meet the road. That road is rendao (仁道) and if we are true in our aims and steadfast in our commitments to improvement, then we may extend this path further.

In Analects 12.1 Kongzi’s most-excellent student, Yan Hui, asks his master to clarify the term ren (仁, authoritative action, benevolence, humaneness, etc.) This term, ren 仁, that Kongzi created describes a kind of person who is rarely seen among humanity, an exemplar of what a cultured person ought to be. I often think the Yiddish accolade Mensch (“that guy is a real Mensch“) is a close analogue. Both Mensch and ren sound like the word for “person” (German, Mensch; Mandarin ren 人).

To Yan Hui’s question Kongzi replies, “Becoming authoritative in one’s conduct is self-originating.”

At first glance it sounds like Kongzi is telling us that within us we already have the moral and physical excellence. If I believe that, I might start to believe then that I don’t need a teacher, and I might even come to believe that I’m always already excellent and morally upright. Of course this isn’t the case.

Let’s consider again the passage from Mengzi above. The archer must shift their posture, their approach, their actions, to hit the mark or to meet their goal. If our goal is to become authoritative in our conduct and embody ren, then in this sense the archer’s self-correction is a kind of “self-originating.” It is self-originating because the archer is focusing on how they meet their mark, not in changing their target because they missed it the first time.

We see this in the Analects as well when Kongzi tells us:

In strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.”

Analects 7.22, Ames & Rosemont, Jr. translation

and also:

“When you meet persons of exceptional character think to stand shoulder to shoulder with them; meeting persons of little character, look inward and examine yourself.”

Analects 4.17, Ames & Rosemont, Jr. translation

Another of Kongzi’s disciples, Zigong, asks about demonstrating and cultivating ren 仁, asking if a person who is broadly generous would be considered authoritative in their conduct. To this Kongzi advises us that:

“Authoritative persons establish others in seeking to establish themselves and promote others in seeking to get there themselves. Correlating one’s conduct with those near at hand can be said to be the method of becoming an authoritative person [ren (仁)].”

Analects 6.30, Ames and Rosemont, Jr. translation

Confucius’ grandson, Zisizi, is said to be the author of the Confucian classic Zhongyong (中庸, variously translated as The Doctrine of the Mean, Centrality and Commonality, even The Unwobbling Pivot, and more) in which we read:

Confucius said, “Exemplary persons (junzi 君子) focus (zhong 中) the familiar affairs of the day; petty persons distort them. Exemplary persons are able to focus the affairs of the day because, being exemplary, they themselves constantly abide in equilibrium (zhong 中). Petty persons are a source of distortion in the affairs of the day because, being petty persons, they lack the requisite caution and concern.”

Ames and Hall, Focusing the Familiar: A Philosophical Translation of the Zhongyong, page 90

Let’s consider the multiple ways that zhong 中 is being intended in the passage above.

First there is the meaning “focus” as opposed to distort; so an exemplary person, one who acts in the manner consistent with ren 仁, is the person who clarifies what is happening by prioritizing the appropriate matters to be addressed in the moment.

Then there is zhong 中 meaning “equilibrium.” I’d argue that this is not precisely a resting state but likely is a dynamic one like when we find our balance. Our balance is achieved through the flexing of stabilizing muscles and calming our chattering minds. This equilibrium is not without movement, but there is no wasted movement, a principle I strive to embody in my own gongfu 功夫 training.

We read further along in Zhongyong 13 another mention of what Kongzi’s method for rendao 仁道 entails:

[T]he exemplary person (junzi 君子) uses one person to mold others properly, and having thus improved them, goes no further.

Putting oneself in the place of others (shu 恕) and doing one’s best on their behalf (zhong 忠) does not stray far from the proper way.

Ames and Hall, Focusing the Familiar: A Philosophical Translation of the Zhongyong

Zisizi then quotes his grandfather’s sometimes-called Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you yourself would not wish to be treated.” (also found in Analects 12.2 and 15.24)

So, the path (rendao 仁道) toward becoming an exemplary person, a junzi 君子, the kind of person who is consummate in their actions with others (ren 仁) is self-originating in the sense that:

  1. We each must take care to understand what is excellent in those around us and model ourselves to them.
  2. We must correct in ourselves what we find lacking in others.
  3. We must also think and feel from the perspective of others (shu 恕) and then do our utmost on their behalf (zhong 忠),

If we can do these three things, then the “self-” of the phrase self-originating is a person who has extended themselves by investing their abilities to focus, to clarify, and to prioritize what is most appropriate for the context. This investing on the part of the person who would want to demonstrate ren 仁 simultaneously is an act of appreciating the differences among us (appreciation in the sense of aesthetic sense-making) and growing the value of our collective efforts (appreciation in the sense that an investments value grows over time).