Today, I had been working on writing about the works of Confucius I have been studying, when I heard of the shooting of children in Connecticut. It just so happened that Confucius has much wisdom to share with us that pertains directly to the questions I see everyone asking again–Including myself. The following paper includes some of my reflections on what his teachings have to offer us in understanding this tragedy:
In his work The Great Learning, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, gives us a model for living a virtuous life, and he also shows us why our world is full of confusion, chaos, and violence. He teaches us how to see clearly the way things are, and that who we are determines the world we live in. He also shows us how the world we live in influences who we are.
Confucius’ message in The Great Learning reveals to us that to obtain the highest personal excellence (to be good, happy people) and ultimately the highest collective ethic (to live in a good, happy world), we must begin within ourselves. We must begin with adopting a calm, tranquil disposition and become willing to carefully observe life, deliberate on it, and gain knowledge about it. Have done this, we can form thoughts based on our careful observation, and when these thoughts are agreed upon by our hearts, we can assimilate these thoughts into our personal action and behavior—they become part of our personality, part of our being. Having become embodied in our being, this knowledge can then move outside of us into the relational world. With who we are, we lead our families and those closest to us. We influence their thinking and actions, and we contribute to the collective atmosphere and environment within our culture. We impact the collective consciousness of the groups that we are apart—our local communities, institutions, government, and ultimately we contribute to the global collective consciousness. With our inner peace and calm observation of self and life, we can contribute to world peace and the uplifting of humanity through humanitarian ethics. This co-created culture, community, or world then circles back on itself to be reflected upon the hearts of the individuals within it. The collective also supports the individual
Of course we must recognize that the same process of creation holds true when creating a lack of ethic in the world. We can come to understand the origins of today’s terrible tragedy in Connecticut through this teaching. So many of us ask ‘why did this happen? What is wrong with the world?’ This is a natural question—Confucious encourages us to deeply contemplate the answer. Through his teachings, we come to see that all things have their roots and their branches, and that to be observant enough to determine the roots of a certain branch, or a branch of a certain root is the key to knowledge (and eventually the key to changing individual and collective behavior). He said, “It cannot be, when a root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered” (The Great Learning, p. 357). We can see how this plays out in our lives in many ways: When we have not cultivated our inner selves well, we are of little positive use to our community. This is the philosophy behind Ghandi’s words “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. We cannot wish our communities or our planet to be in a state that we personally have not come to embody. We are a microcosm of the universe, and the world lives inside of us—If we want it to be more peaceful, then we must cultivate peace within our selves. If we want the world to be more loving, we must express love through our own personal relationships, in our families, and in our communities. Individually, we deplore violent acts, we get angry about them, and we ask ourselves ‘what is wrong with the world?’ We demonize others as ‘terrorists’ and we wonder about what must be inherently wrong with them to have committed such acts. In American culture, we see that violence is a long-standing epidemic in our society. It has not left us, despite our general disdain for violent acts. At some point, it is time to look more deeply. It is time to observe the facts displaying themselves around us—violence like what occurred today (looking for a moment past the particular details of this specific incident) occurred because each of us has contributed to a cultural atmosphere of violence. We have created our communities in a way that often reduces others to mere concepts. We commit violent acts in our divisive thoughts, our careles words, and our inharmonious actions in small ways everyday. This cultural environment impacts everyone—it makes us feel that violence is natural. It desensitizes some of us. And sometimes, large doses of it erupt from some weak spot in our collective body and 20 little innocent children give their lives for it.
To deny our responsibility in creating the world we live in is caustic. To refuse to take action to correct what is wholly correctable with cooperation and the willingness to look honestly at oneself is unacceptable. It is, quite literally, the same as turning a blind eye to these tragedies and waiting for the next one to happen.
These kinds of responses to violence and destruction reflect an incomplete understanding of the nature of life, which Confucius is trying to point out to us. It is seeing the ‘branch’ but not the ‘root’. If we understand that these acts of violence in our communities have their roots in our very being, we can begin to understand and take the first steps toward correcting them. This requires us to have a sense of shared responsibility in our world, and an acknowledgement of our relational and interconnected reality with all other beings, a worldview that balances the communal with the individual. From this perspective, we begin to see in ourselves the places where we have not cultivated our persons to be non-violent and in harmony with others. By observing this, we are able to realign our thought systems and eventually embody more harmonious virtues. Being a harmonious being, we bring harmony into our families, our communities, our institutions, and our world as a whole. We can understand how a culture that does not teach the careful observation of life and cultivation of a loving, harmonious self comes to express so much confusion, chaos, and destructive impulses in the world. Those we once demonized as bad are seen as exemplars of a culture of incomplete knowledge about the way things are—a culture that has not yet seen the Truth about life—that we are all in this together, that if one of us suffers we all suffer, and that what we do to our brothers and sisters we do to ourselves. Stepping up to our individual responsibility is the first step in changing our current cultural landscape. We must be brave enough to venture to know ourselves more completely. We must seek the Truth. If we cannot do this, we cannot hope for the future to be any different than the past.
Our individual obligation to our community is to carefully observe the truth that is inherent in all aspects life, to gain knowledge about how to live well from these observations, and to cultivate a self that is reflective of this truth. We must cultivate a virtuous self first, then we can begin the work of cultivating a virtuous and ethical community, culture, and world with that self. The quality of the self that we bring to the world is the most important factor. When this is approached as a spiritual practice, done with devotion at a very deep level, discovering and embodying the Truth in life allows the Only Self That Is to be cultivated within one’s being and ultimately to make manifest the perfection of love, peace, joy, harmony, and beauty throughout the world.
Today, let us remember to look inside at our selves—at what we are bringing through our own being into the world. Let us identify the qualities within ourselves that we must nurture better, and let us stop feeding the negative, violent thoughts and beliefs that feed the atmosphere of our brothers and sisters. Let us come to the world in peace, so that peace will return to us in the world.