Be not so worldly
that transcending the worldly
out of wisdom
is totally neglected.
[to be continued…]
When Confucius’ disciples asked if he thought they will be rewarded after death for their good done for others, he was said to have replied that, ‘[Since] you do not yet understand life, how can you understand death?’ He was not proposing that there is no afterlife, though it was indirect admittance of his uncertainty, with it not being his focus of expertise (and perhaps interest). His answer is also interpreted as suggesting to concentrate on what we do here and now within this life, to be better humans, to hopefully inspire others to be better too. He also famously remarked that we should ‘respect ghosts and gods, yet stay far apart’, which flavours his heavily human-centric teachings. While Confucius’ outlook, that seems to cement itself to be thoroughly secular seems sensible at first sight, its worldly nature and thus short-sightedness has practical spiritual limitations.
For those who live ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ lives, who are not few, inspirational proof of good being sooner or later karmically rewardable is uplifting. This the Buddha offered in his teaching of the Four Assurances for doing good. As paraphrased, ‘First, if there is afterlife with karma, I’ll have good rebirth if I do good. Second, if there is no afterlife or karma, I’ll live happily now if without ill will. Third, if evil befalls the evil, it will not harm me if I do no evil. Fourth, if evil does not befall the evil, if I do no evil, and do good instead, I’m pure both ways.’ As these solaces make sense even to the non-religious skeptic, the Buddha was indeed very kind and wise in offering them to all! Unfortunately, Confucius did not seem to know of the Buddha’s teachings, though the Buddha predated his time. Many today, however, try to ‘augment’ Confucian thought with the Buddha’s.
That said, there are no crucial worldly teachings amiss in Buddhism, that is not found better represented, while seamlessly leading to transcendence of worldly betterment, towards spiritual liberation and perfection. This is possible as the Buddha, being fully enlightened, realised that life AND death are intertwined, as the two cyclically spinning sides of the one same coin, as governed by the karmic workings of rebirth — across various realms of existence, including that of humans, ghosts and gods. The Buddha was most compassionately concerned about all sentient beings’ lives and deaths. As the Zen saying goes, ‘To learn to live, learn to die. To learn to die, learn to live.’ The Buddha was not in the least uncertain of what he taught, as exemplified by him confidently being open to debate while giving detailed replies to queries, which offered clear paths for everyone.
Describing himself, Confucius said, ‘He is one so impassioned that he forgets to eat, so joyous that he forgets to worry, who grows into old age without noticing time passing by.’ This seems poetically carefree at first, but it also expresses lack of mindfulness of self-care due to indulgence in that immersed in, while neglecting the sobering reality of ongoing ageing and impending death, that can strike at any time. These are literally grave and rightly ‘worrisome’ reminders for all, who have yet to figure out the deepest worth and meaning of life, death and everything. Perhaps, it was with these truths on existential impermanence and dissatisfaction missed, that Confucius’ last words were bitter – ‘Will no ruler come forth to take me as his master?’ We should do our best to live well now, but we should choose the best path to do so, for the here and now, AND for the hereafter and later too.
Be not so unworldly
that entering the worldly
out of compassion
is totally neglected.
[… as continued]
Can Buddhists Not Believe In Rebirth?