Taoist Philisophy for the 21st Century

            Confucius and his disciples: talking about one’s ambition

Written by You-Sheng Li


Tzu-lu, Tsang Hsi, Zan Yu, and Kunghsi Hwa were in attendance. Confucius said to them, "Though I am a little older than you, do not think of that. You are often saying, 'We are not known.' If some ruler were to know you, what would you like to do?"

Tzu-lu hastily and lightly replied, "Suppose the case of a state of ten thousand chariots; let it be straitened between other large states; let it be suffering from invading armies; and to this let there be added a famine. If I were entrusted with the government of it, in three years' time, I could make the people bold, and able to recognize the rules of righteous conduct." Confucius smiled at him.

Turning to Yen Yu, Confucius said, "Ch'iu, what are your wishes?" Ch'iu replied, "Suppose a state of sixty or seventy li (equals half a kilometer) square, or one of fifty or sixty, and let me have control of its government. In three years' time, I could make plenty to abound among the people. As to teaching them the principles of propriety, and music, I must wait for the arrival of a superior man to do that."

"What are your wishes, Ch'ih," said Confucius next to Kung-hsi Hwa. Ch'ih replied, "I do not say that I am an able person, but I should wish to learn the following: at the services of the ancestral temple, and with an audiences of the princes and the sovereign, I should like, dressed in the dark square-made robe and the black linen cap, to act as a small master of ceremonies."

Last of all, Confucius asked Tsang Hsi, "Tien, what are your wishes?" Tien, paused as he finished playing his music the zither, which still was twanging, ad he laid the instrument aside. "My wishes," he said, "are different from the cherished purposes of these three gentlemen." "What harm is there in that?" said Confucius; "You also, as well as they, should speak out your wishes." Tien then said, "In this, the last month of spring, with the trees all in bloom, I should like to be in the company of five or six young men who have assumed the cap, and six or seven boys, as we bathe in the I River, enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and then return home singing." Confucius heaved a sigh and said, "I give my approval to Tien."

The three others having gone out, Tsang Hsi remained behind, and asked, "What do you think of the words of these three friends?" Confucius replied, "They simply told their wishes."

Hsi pursued, "Master, why did you smile at Tzu-Lu?"

Confucius answered, "The management of a state demands the rules of propriety. His words were not humble; therefore I smiled at him."

Hsi again said, "But was it not a state which Ch'iu proposed for himself?" The reply was, "Yes; did you ever see a territory of sixty or seventy li or one of fifty or sixty, which was not a state?"

Once more, Hsi inquired, "And was it not a state which Ch'ih proposed for himself?" Confucius again replied, "Yes; who but princes have to do with ancestral temples, and with audiences but the sovereign? If Ch'ih were to be a small assistant in these services, who could be a great one?   (from Analects of Confucius, Chapter 11)

Comments: Although the translation uses the word “wishes” but the original Chinese character zhi means ambition, will, aspiration. Four disciples each tell his wishes when his ability is recognized but only Tsang His’s wishes received Confucius’s approval. Unlike others’ wishes to contribute to the state affairs, Tsang His wished to enjoy a relaxing time in a favorite place in nature. In Chinese traditions, knowledge, abilities, and self life cultivation were considered to be One. Thus, one’s ambition covers spiritual pursuit and life cultivation.

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