The All Pervading Unity

Some discussions have recently been popping up on Facebook that relate to the nature of teaching and the nature of being a student. These discussions made me think of the person usually held up to be the greatest teacher of Chinese history – Confucius.

One of the most important Confucian texts is a book called the Analects (論語), which is a record of short sayings from the Master (i.e., Confucius), or conversations between the Master and his students, or just between his students. These lines touch on all sorts of topics related to how to live life well, how to order society, and the very nature of learning, teaching and studying.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the Analects (Book 7, Line 8) related to the process of being a teacher and being a student


James Legge's translation: "The Master said: I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson."

This is an important set of ideas related to both student and teacher. The student must be eager to learn. And, the student should be able to grasp the principle well enough that the teacher shouldn't have to explain every detail. No teacher can possibly impart everything they know. But if they impart the inner principle well enough, the student should be able to understand everything. The teacher then has to assume and welcome the student understanding and interpreting. The idea that the student should only follow blindly what the teacher says means both the teacher and student have failed.

Here’s another quote from the Analects, this time from Book 15, Line 3…

子曰:賜也,女以予為多學而識之者與? 對曰:然,非與? 曰:非也,予一以貫之。

"The Master said: Ci [i.e., Zi Gong]... Do you think that I study many different things and keep it all in my memory? Ci replied, of course, isn't that the case? Confucius replied, that is not the case at all. I seek an all pervading unity." (my translation)

Here Confucius is telling us that it isn’t the details he’s remembered. Again, he focuses on principle, what the Chinese call Li (理). The Li is inherent pattern in something. It is the logic, and the reason. Confucius ultimately taught principle, not details, because this is what the best teacher does. His students needed to learn the same, because that is the job of the student. The details are just examples that illustrate larger principles. The teacher who wants the students to just do what they do, and never think for themselves or never expand the model, are failures as teachers. The students who want to just follow what the teacher does, and never think for themselves, or never expand the model are failures as students.

The best teachers are the ones that require students actually understand. Not an easy thing to do, but the thing that is most worthwhile. At the same time they inspire the student to want to understand, and not just memorize details. When I read ancient texts such as the Neijing, I am humbled by the depth of understanding the old doctors had. But the humbling makes me want to understand more, and as deeply as possible, which is hopefully why we all read and we all continue to study!