Confucius: Applications

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The I Ching & the Confucians

While K’ung-tzu, i.e. Confucius, purportedly wrote commentaries on the I Ching, his philosophy was also heavily influenced by it.

10 Wings of the I Ching: Shuo Kua, Discussion of the Trigrams

The I Ching is sometimes organized into 10 Wings. These Wings include the Judgments by King Wen and the Duke of Chou on the hexagrams, commentaries by the Confucian schools upon these judgments, and then various essays upon I Ching theory. Members of the Confucian school wrote most of these essays. However the 8th Wing, “Discussion of the Trigrams”, i.e. Shuo Kua, probably is more ancient than the rest. According to Wilhelm:

“Contains material of great antiquity in explanation of the eight primary trigrams. Probably it embodies many fragments antedating Confucius and treated in commentary by him or by his school.”1

Confucius and his school undoubtedly studied the Shuo Kua in conjunction with the judgments on the hexagrams.

Chapter I, paragraph 2, in this treatise states:

“2. In ancient times the holy sages made the Book of Changes thus:

Their purpose was to follow the tao of heaven and called it the dark and the light. They determined the tao of the earth and called it the yielding and the firm. They determined the tao of man and called it love and rectitude. They combined these three fundamental powers and doubled them, therefore in the Book of Changes a sign is always formed by six lines.

The places are divided into the dark and the light. The yielding and the firm occupy these by turns. Therefore the Book of Changes has six places, which constitute the linear figures.”2

Heaven, Earth, and Man, & the trigrams

In summary of this work, which was fundamental to I Ching theory – as witnessed by its influence upon the Confucian school, there are three main elements in the Universe – Heaven, Earth and Man. Heaven is above, Earth is below, while Humans are in-between. These three elements are reflected in the trigrams. Earth is the bottom line; the middle line represents humans; while Heaven is the top line.

Hexagrams reflect polarities of Heaven, Earth, & Man

The tao of heaven is based upon positive and negative; the tao of earth is based upon soft and hard; while the tao of man is based upon love and justice. These 6 elements find correspondence in the hexagrams of the I Ching. Again the top two lines are the positive and negative of Heaven, the bottom two represent the firm and yielding, i.e. soft and hard, of the Earth, while the middle two lines correspond to the love and justice of Man.

K’ung-tzu and the Tao of Man

According to Cheng Man-ch’ing, Lao Tzu of the Taoists based his theories around the tao of Heaven and Earth, while K’ung-tzu based his around the tao of Man. Because of this distribution, Cheng Man-ch’ing felt that it is important to harmonize the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu in order to achieve totality.

“Of these three principles of Tao, Lao Tzu took the first and second to formulate his theory of the female overcoming the male, and softness overcoming hardness. Lao Tzu did not take the third principle of the I Ching, the Tao of man. He did not believe in the Tao of man because he thought that men’s actions are false. That is why he advocated Non-Action. But without the principles of benevolence and righteousness, how can we motivate the human race?

Human beings must talk about the Tao of man. Confucius, a contemporary of Lao Tzu, devoted his teaching to the Tao of man.

The difference between Lao Tzu and Confucius is that Lao Tzu emphasized long life and eternal vision while Confucius said, ‘If I can know the Tao of man, I can die the same evening without any regret.’

I, Cheng Man-ch’ing, am of the opinion that the Tao of heaven, earth and man are three treasures. Since we are men, it is nothing if we just learn the Tao of heaven and earth. Understanding and behaving in accordance with the Tao of man will enable us to make a great contribution to ourselves as well as to humanity.” 3

The Tao of Man, benevolence and righteousness, jen and yi

The descriptions of I Ching theory are based upon polarities. The polarity of heaven is based around positive and negative, while the polarity of the earth is based around hard and soft. The polarity of humans is based around benevolence and righteousness, jen and yi.  Master Kung, i.e. Confucius, especially emphasized the concept of jen, love or goodness. The word jen means to treat others with respect and consideration. He said, “Don’t do to another person what you would not have them do to you.”4

Yi, Righteousness, rectitude, justice

The concept of jen has to do with loving your fellow humans, and treating them with care and consideration. It is associated with a soft, nurturing kind of love connected with infants. The mother unselfishly nurses, cares for and protects her baby. The ideogram for jen is two men (presumably cooperating). The concept of yi concerns the consequences of justice and is associated with the hard love connected with raising children. Parents instill discipline in their children with a firm, but loving, hand.

[Cheng Man-ch’ing said] ‘The character yi means right and wrong. Not, partly right and partly wrong. It’s either one or the other.”

Both jen and yi are necessary. Discipline without love is arbitrary and cruel, while love without discipline is indulgent and ultimately detrimental to the development of a mature individual.

Yi, rectitude, to make right

Another translation of yi is rectitude, defined as ‘Uprightness in principles and conduct.’5 Rectitude is a derivative word of rectify defined as ‘To make right, correct, amend.’6 Hence yi means to both maintain and make adjustments to return to proper conduct. The child’s behavior was rectified. Yi is a very active word. Without rectification, comes dissipation. These are both aspects of the justice of yi. Interestingly yi also has to do with maintaining uprightness in body posture as well. Because his body posture was not rectified, he developed back problems. This instance reveals the two sides of yi.

Jen & Yi applied to Tai Chi Chuan

The tao of Heaven, Earth, and man are applicable to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, both the solo forms and interactive Push Hands. The yin-yang polarity of heaven and the firm and yielding of earth are fundamental to Tai Chi practice. The tao of man, consisting of jen and yi, love and discipline, are also applicable, especially to Push Hands. Practicing the solo forms requires constant rectification, yi. Solo practice also requires compassion, jen, for oneself. When making mistakes, don’t be too hard on yourself. Teaching also has a lot to do with the nurturing love of jen and the disciplined love of yi.

The jen and yi of Push Hands

In quality Push Hands, both jen and yi come into play frequently. Jen concerns caring for our opponents in the sense that we only want the best for them. Besting our partner to bolster our self-esteem is not the purpose. Ideally, the aim of Push Hands is mutual development and improvement. This is jen.

In caring for the development of our partner, it is important to test the limits of his or her balance. This is yi. If we sense our partner’s imbalance and do not exploit it, this is jen without yi. If we sense our partner’s imbalance and throw him on the ground or flailing across the room, this is yi without jen. If we sense our partner’s imbalance and gently push or pull upon it, allowing them to learn rectification on their own, this is the balance, the harmonization, of jen and yi.

Similarly, if our partner maliciously throws us across the floor, this is yi without jen. If our partner ignores our discontinuities, this is jen without yi. If our partner gently exploits our defects, pointing them out as we go or letting our body gradually learn, this is the balance of jen and yi.

Interpersonal and personal parts of Jen & Yi

The concepts of jen and yi have two parts – interpersonal and personal. The two parts of jen: 1) treating others as you would treat yourself and 2) being true to one’s nature by loving yourself. The two parts of yi: 1) the rectification of your environment and 2) the rectification of oneself. On one level, rectifying one’s environment has to do with exploiting your partner’s weaknesses so that s(he) can progress. It is necessary to exploit your partner’s weaknesses lovingly for his own good, not to win. There is a hairbreadth’s difference between the two. A good criterion is emotional investment. If one becomes mad, then one is on the wrong side of the hair.

Self-rectification through another’s assistance

Rectifying oneself has to do with strengthening one’s weak points through diligent practice. Normally one must rely on an outer source, i.e. a teacher, to illuminate one’s weaknesses. It is hard to be aware of one’s problems. Self-delusion is a powerful and unavoidable mechanism. Therefore a partner who has the ability to expose your faults is to be thanked profusely. If you resent your partner for exploiting your defects, you’re not applying yi to yourself.

Journey to the West: Rectifying Social Injustice

On another level, rectifying one’s environment has to do with working to right the wrongs of society. Another translation of yi is righteousness. The idea is very Confucian and very socially active. We see this level of yi frequently in the Journey. The goal of the Band is to reach the Western Heaven, but in many instances, instead of passing on through a kingdom, on their way to their goal, they stay and fight injustice, rectifying the external political situation. Sometimes they have no choice, because they get wrapped up in the turmoil, but other times they go out of their way to lend assistance.

Opportunity for Merit and Purifying Ordeal

Again in terms of the totality of the book, these situations allowed the pilgrims chance to earn merit to redeem their past misbehavior. On another level they act as pre-ordained opportunities for Tripitaka to experience a purifying ordeal. After he has acquired Buddha’s holy scriptures and is on his way back to China, Kuan Yin counts up his ordeals and realizes he is one short of the 81 ordeals that he needs to reach perfection. She orders one more ordeal to complete the cycle.

[Kuan Yin states] “Within our order of Buddhism, nine times nine is the crucial means by which one returns to immortality. The sage monk has undergone eighty ordeals. Since one ordeal, therefore, is still lacking, the sacred number is not yet complete. … Catch the Vajra Guardians and create one more ordeal.”7

Avoidance of necessary ordeals aborts immortality quest

Hence each of these situations when they go out of their way to assist someone in need was necessary to the totality. If they had been avoided then Tripitaka would have ended up with an insufficient number of ordeals and by extension the other members of the party would not have achieved enough merit to rectify their sins of the past. Immortality would not have been achieved.

Part of Path is fighting injustice

An interpretation of the symbolism of the story is that the ‘pure seeker’ who only moves towards his goal must not ignore social injustice in his single-minded pursuit of enlightenment. Indeed it is sometimes necessary to delay the perceived Journey, to achieve the merit and endure ordeals. In reality the ‘true’ Journey includes these situations where yi must be manifested. The trap is that the path headed straight for immortality is the side path, while the apparent side door of fighting social injustice is the real door. The vision of the author of The Journey is that sometimes one must fight against social injustice on the Way to immortality. Tripitaka could have reached the Western Heaven much sooner had he avoided confronting social injustice, but he would not have gone through the necessary number of ordeals necessary for immortality.

However, the Tripitaka’s band of pilgrims did not go out looking for injustice. They dealt with the injustice that was presented them on their Path. To Tripitaka’s credit, it was normally his compassion that forced the others to deal with social injustice. Monkey frequently urged Tripitaka to hurry on to the Western Heaven, while Piggy lazily argued that it would be too much trouble. Yet Tripitaka regularly insisted they stay and confront the situation because he hated injustice due to his compassion. Sometimes they faced the situation head on; while sometimes they came in disguise. Thus on the way to Buddhist heaven the Pilgrims must accumulate merit in Confucian social activity to achieve Taoist Immortality. The Three Doctrines harmonized.

Dealing with social injustice on your path

In mini-summary, Master Kung’s writings specialized in the tao of man, which includes the polarity of jen and yi, compassion and rectitude. This concept is included in the I Ching, and is represented by the middle lines of the hexagrams. The tao of man is applicable to both the solo forms of Tai Chi and Push Hands interaction. These concepts are applied externally and internally.

The Golden Rule

Before leaving Confucius behind, let us examine his interpretation of the seemingly universal Golden Rule.

The one word: Reciprocity:

Disciple: “‘Is there one word that will keep us on the path to the ends of our days?’ Confucius: ‘Yes. Reciprocity! What you do not wish yourself, do not unto others.”8

At first glance, this is like our Golden Rule. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Many writers have likened the two as well as Golden Rules from other cultures as well.

One slight but significant difference

However there is one slight, but significant, difference. Note that Confucius phrases his in the negative rather than positive. It seems similar, but is the hairbreadths difference that turns into a million miles, when extended. While both encourage sensitivity and caring behavior, the Golden Rule encourages people to proselytize, (‘I liked being saved, so I will save you.’) Conversely, Confucius’ encourages independence, (‘I don’t like people to restrict my behavior, so I won’t restrict yours.’). Or (‘I don’t like that done to me so I won’t do it to them.’) Our Golden Rule leads to proactive behavior, while the Confucian version encourages restraint.

The one word: shü = forgiveness

Professor Ware translates the ideogram for ‘the one word that will keep us on the path to the ends of our days’ as ‘reciprocity’. It is the Chinese word shü, which is also translated as ‘forgive, pardon or excuse’.9 Hence the type of reciprocity suggested is forgiveness. ’Forgive me for my human weakness and I will forgive you yours.’ Indeed one of the keys to long-term marriages is forgiveness. A couple was celebrating their 55th anniversary. When asked what was the key to the success of their relationship, the wife replied, “Forgiveness. You can’t always forget, but you can always forgive.”

Forgiveness can prevent war

Forgiveness prevents feuds. Forgiveness prevents wars. We can’t forget the murder of family members, (we don’t want to), but we can forgive the murderer. Only forgiveness can break the cycle of blood feuds, which memory can keep alive for centuries. Forgiveness acts like a type of closure, which, if truly given, transcends the memory based revenge.

Jesus’ life and philosophy emphasize forgiveness

 In his last words on the cross, Jesus said “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Indeed supposedly Jesus died so that God would forgive us our human frailty, our failings, our sins. In a twisted way, God could not forgive us himself, but had to be reminded of it by his half human son. Certainly the Bible is laced with stories of the Jehovah God meting out a terrible justice to those who crossed his path or who forgot about him. Jehovah of the Old Testament would only be considered forgiving in the sense that he didn’t immediately wipe out humans for their wickedness. In summary, shü, the one word that Confucius says ‘will keep us on the path to the ends of our days’ is the notion of compassionate forgiveness, which dovetails with the philosophy and life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Breaking down the ideogram for shü

The ideogram for the word shü is made up of three radicals.

{Show ideogram; Book 12; p 29}

The radical for woman is on the upper left; the symbol for heart is below and the symbol for mouth is on the upper right. The heart radical tends to suggest emotion. The heart radical combined with the woman symbol suggests compassion. The radical for mouth suggests that this compassion is expressed outwardly, perhaps verbally. “Although I hate your actions, I feel compassion for you. So I forgive you.”

‘Speaking compassionately from the heart.’

The idea behind the ideogram is deep. ‘Speaking compassionately from the heart.’ The empathy is felt and then spoken about. In other words, the individual is to speak out about injustice, where they see it. Open your heart to the pain of the world and then speak.

The symbolic idea behind the composition of the Chinese ideogram is what led the Buddha, Jesus, and Confucius to speak out. Tripitaka in the Journey could not avoid injustice but had to rectify it by speaking out. They felt the pain and then said something.

Ironically a 20th century Chinese figure also felt this pain and spoke out. He felt the pain of the Chinese peasantry and then began speaking about it. He was not supported financially or militarily by any major power, but he kept speaking out over and over. Finally after centuries of domination, the Chinese peasantry were able to seize control of government. The man we are speaking about is Mao Tse Tung. Regardless of his failures as a leader, he had the courage to speak from his heart about the pain of the peasantry. Many feel the pain, but only a few really speak out.

Shü is the word that Confucius says will keep us on the path the rest of our days. Reciprocity, forgiveness, speaking from the heart. An easy word to say or understand, while a hard word to manifest.

Confucius: sexist pig?

The prior sections make Confucius sound so noble. However, feminists view him as a sexist pig – for instance, his saying: ‘A woman should never be heard outside her own home.’

Confucius was the philosopher of a patriarchal society. He probably did not come from the peasant class, but from the disenfranchised nobility. While his ideas were more egalitarian than others in his class, his philosophy probably didn’t extend to women. For Confucius, women were included in the category of property that was to be respected.10

When Confucius was suggesting that women should not speak or go outside the home, it was for their own protection. Women unaccompanied by men were inviting abuse. Unfortunately even unto the 20th century, unaccompanied women encourage verbal abuse from sexist men.

Many of Confucius’ statements are taken out of their social context. He did suggest that women should not speak and instead stay inside. However, in the barbarous times in which he was living, he did not envision a culture where women could safely speak out. He was living in a time of incessant warfare and increasing social breakdown. These were dangerous times to be a woman.

Unfortunately, later Confucian writers interpreted Confucius literally. Confucianism, as a philosophy independent of Confucius, has certainly amplified the sexist side of these writings. Indeed the manifested philosophy of Confucianism is a blatantly sexist philosophy.


While belonging to the ju class, Confucius transcended it. While the ju were inherently aristocratic, he extended its concepts to include the masses. While the ju validated ancestor worship, Confucius extended this concept to include the idea of filial responsibility. While the ju class attempted to institutionalize the hierarchy, Confucius redirected responsibility to the leaders. Nearly simultaneous with Confucius’ death was the end of the Spring and Autumn Era. The fragmentation and social chaos that he and other philosophers were trying to prevent accelerated in the next era, appropriately called the Era of Warring States.


1 Wilhelm Baynes, I Ching p. 260

2 Wilhelm-Baynes I Ching, p. 264

3 Cheng Man-ch’ing, p 137

4 The concept of jen finds a parallel in the teachings of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

5 EB Dictionary, p1055

6 EB Dictionary, p1055

7 Journey to the West IV, p. 402

8 Confucius, p. 162

9 English Chinese Dictionary: p. 415

10 Interestingly, while Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, leading to their right to vote, he did not advocate giving women the right to vote.


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