A short 30 mins read to understand Mencius's ideas
Today, the book we are discussing is called "The Foundational Strength of Life," and Fan Deng is the author of this book. Why is talking about Mencius so important to me? Because Mencius is a person with great confidence and foundational strength, we say "I am good at nurturing my noble spirit." He has a strong sense of righteousness that no one can replace, so he can provide me with great support and strength.
We spent a year broadcasting on the entire "Mencius" recorded by Fan Deng, but very few people were able to listen to the complete course of "Mencius" So, the publisher suggested that to extract the most important elements from "Mencius" and publish a thin book, allowing everyone to more easily understand Mencius's core concepts. What Mencius says may not always be correct, and his ideas about the King's Way and Benevolent Governance may not necessarily be achievable. However, Mencius's life is especially worthy of our admiration and envy, as he managed to turn the tide and put Confucianism back on track, earning him the title of "Sub-saint." This is also the reason why Mencius can bring strength to our lives.
In this book, I have divided the "Foundational Strength of Life" into seven keywords, and for each keyword, I have chosen three sentences. So today, I will share twenty-one sentences from "Mencius" with you all.
The first keyword is "original intention." Whether it's in pursuing a career, building a family, or walking the path of one's life, our original intention is one of the sources of our foundation. So, the first sentence is Mencius's most famous quote: "Life, is what I desire; righteousness, is what I desire. If I cannot have both, I would rather give up life and choose righteousness." We all memorized this passage in high school, "One cannot have both fish and bear's paw." The phrase "give up life for righteousness" comes from this quote, which is from "Mencius · Gaozi I."
What does this quote mean for us today? Some people say that we don't have many opportunities to experience the feeling of "giving up life for righteousness." But you can try to replace "giving up life for righteousness" with the choice between "righteousness and profit" in our work. For example, is your entrepreneurship ultimately for making money quickly or for creating value for society? We've discussed a book called "The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness" In it, it says, "What is money? Money is an IOU that the world gives you." Actually, this is not Naval's invention; it is a concept from finance. So, if you want to make more money in this world, the most important thing you should do is to contribute more to society. This is the meaning of "giving up life for righteousness" in today's context.
We don't necessarily have to become a revolutionary to experience the power of Mencius's words. Every day of our lives, we may be facing the questioning of the meaning of life and the value of work: Is what we are doing in line with righteousness? Is it in accordance with propriety? So, when life and righteousness conflict, if you know how to make choices, your heart must be full of courage and strength. If we are greedy for life and fear death, anything may make us hesitate. This is the first quote I am sharing today.
The second quote is even more interesting: "If one were to speak of what is profitable, then bending a Chi (ancient Chinese unit of length 1/3 of a meter) to straighten a Xun (Chinese unit of length, eight Chi in a Xun) would be possible, right?" This quote is from "Mencius · Teng Wen Gong II" Mencius says that if we only talk about profit, we can even "bending a Xun to straighten a Chi", meaning I can go back further and then only move forward a little bit, if we can do such things. What does "bending a Xun to straighten a Chi" mean? It means how much cost we should pay to achieve our goals.
Let me give you an example. I often advise many people that doing business and making money are important, and it's not shameful to do business and support a family. But at what cost? Some people say, "I have to drink with people every night." As a result, they develop liver cirrhosis. I ask, "What do you make this money for? You lose your life for making this money, why do it?" They say there's no other way. This "no other way" is "bending a Xun to straighten a Chi," meaning that for just a little bit of money, they are willing to pay the price with their life. Some people, in order to secure a deal, are willing to lose their morals or trample on the bottom line of the law, which is also "bending a Xun to straighten a Chi." If everything is considered only from the perspective of final interests, then these methods may seem understandable. However, Mencius believes that many things in life are not about interests; they are about righteousness and benevolence. So, you cannot "bend a Chi to straighten a Xun," let alone "bend a Xun to straighten a Chi." Therefore, the relationship between goals and means is not simply equivalent or interchangeable.
Especially when we are cultivating a person, be it in a company, training employees, or managing a family and raising children, can we really use any means as long as the goal is legitimate? This is the second hint Mencius gives us. Do not do things that "bend a Chi to straighten a Xun," let alone "bend a Xun to straighten a Chi."
The third quote: "When Shun lived among the mountains, he dwelt with the trees and stones, and roamed with the deer and pigs. The difference between him and the uncivilized people of the deep mountains was very slight. Upon hearing a single good word or seeing a single good deed, it was like a river bursting its banks, and nothing could stop the overflowing of goodness." This quote is also very poetic, like a poem. It comes from "Mencius · Jin Xin I."
Mencius says that Shun used to live in the deep mountains, spending his days with wood and stones, traveling with deer and wild pigs. The difference between him and the uncivilized people in the deep mountains was very small, perhaps just a little bit. That little bit might be what we call humanity. "Upon hearing a single good word or seeing a single good deed," someone like Shun, with such strong vitality, would be awakened by it. Then, "like a river bursting its banks, nothing could stop the overflowing of goodness," meaning that goodness could not be contained, and it filled his life in an instant, with nothing able to block the abundance of good deeds.
Who was inspired by this quote? Wang Yangming. He always talked about "achieving innate knowledge." What is "achieving innate knowledge"? Each of us has innate knowledge in our hearts, perhaps just a little bit. What is the difference between a sage and an ordinary person? An ordinary person limits that little bit of innate knowledge in their heart, and it won't be invoked until the right moment. But a sage, given just a little opportunity, will expand that innate knowledge throughout their body and their entire life, which is "nothing can stop the overflowing of goodness." This "like a river bursting its banks" power is a kind of magnifying and spreading force.
In fact, each of us doesn't need to be too self-deprecating, as we are all humans just like Yao and Shun, with no significant difference. What they can achieve, we can achieve too. The difference lies in whether you can "like a river bursting its banks" magnify the goodness in your heart. This is the first keyword we're discussing - initial aspiration. By holding onto the initial aspiration of our lives without wavering, we can have confidence.
The second keyword is rhythm; life has a rhythm. The first quote: "For those who have the four beginnings within themselves, let them know to expand and fill them, like the kindling of a fire or the rising of a spring. If they can fill them, they will be enough to protect the four seas; if they do not fill them, they will not be enough to serve their parents." This quote is from "Mencius · Gongsun Chou I."
In Mencius's theory, there is a crucial starting concept called the "four beginnings" (the heart of compassion, the beginning of benevolence; the heart of shame and hatred, the beginning of righteousness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, the beginning of propriety; and the heart of right and wrong, the beginning of wisdom).
"The heart of compassion is the beginning of benevolence." When you see a child crawling towards the edge of a well, even if the child has no connection to you, and you don't know their parents, you would not please anyone by stopping them. Still, you will definitely go over to hold them back, pick them up, and prevent them from falling into the well. Why? Because everyone has a heart of compassion within them. Therefore, the heart of compassion is the beginning of benevolence.
Each of us has a heart of shame and hatred. Someone asked Wang Yangming if a thief has a heart of shame and hatred. Wang Yangming said, "If you call him a thief, will he be angry? If you call him a thief, and he gets angry, it means he knows that stealing is wrong." This is the most basic heart of shame and hatred. "The heart of shame and hatred is the beginning of righteousness."
Then, "the heart of courtesy and modesty is the beginning of propriety." When we eat with our parents and siblings at home, we don't rush to eat; this is the beginning of propriety. Then, "the heart of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom." We can examine the most basic right and wrong, which is the beginning of wisdom.
Why did Mencius emphasize these four beginnings? Because when we know in our hearts that human nature is fundamentally good and that this goodness is a small sprout, the implementation of benevolent governance becomes possible and has a foundation. The premise of benevolent governance is that everyone has the opportunity to become better. Therefore, Mencius did not like the Legalist approach - using laws to confine society entirely. Mencius hoped that everyone's human nature could be developed, and through education, everyone could expand the four beginnings in all aspects of life. This is a fundamental aspect of Mencius's theory. Thus, each of us should also know that we have these four beginnings. If we know how to expand and fill them, what is it like? It's like "the kindling of a fire or the rising of a spring." Once the fire is lit, it rises with a "bang"; when the spring water flows from the upstream, the abundant and lively feeling appears.
The last sentence is vital: "If they can fill them, they will be enough to protect the four seas." If you can fully manifest benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, you can protect the whole world. For example, sages and heroes have used an individual's power to make a transformative change in history. However, you will also find that some people can't even take care of their own wives, children, and elderly. Why? "If they do not fill them, they will not be enough to serve their parents." If your four beginnings are entirely obscured and suppressed, and you even doubt whether you are a good person, you cannot serve your parents at this time.
The second quote: "Does the king know about the seedlings? Between July and August, if there is drought, the seedlings will wither. If the sky suddenly forms clouds and pours down rain, the seedlings will flourish. In such a case, who can control them?" This quote is from "Mencius · Liang Hui Wang I." After King Liang Xiang ascended the throne, he suddenly asked Mencius, "When will the world be settled?" Mencius replied, "It will be settled in unity." King Liang Xiang asked again, "Who can unify it?" Mencius said, "Those who do not delight in killing can unify it."
This dialogue was very strange at the time because Mencius was already in the Warring States Period. The essential difference between the Warring States Period and the Spring and Autumn Period lies in the way wars were fought. In the Spring and Autumn Period, wars were not aimed at killing people but at negotiation. So wars during the Spring and Autumn Period were more polite, and fewer people died. In the Warring States Period, wars were aimed at killing and injuring the enemy, often killing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people.
So, people like King Liang Xiang couldn't understand; he thought there was so much killing, how could someone who doesn't delight in killing unify the world? Then, Mencius said this passage. He asked, have you seen the seedlings in the fields? In July and August, when there is a drought, they wilt because there is no water. Then, "the sky suddenly forms clouds, and the rain pours down," and suddenly there is thunder and heavy rain. Those "seedlings flourish," and they immediately stand up and regain their strength. What does this mean? The people of the world are suffering from war and from the tyranny of some individuals. At this time, if someone can implement benevolent governance and allow the people to live well, the hearts of the people can be seen immediately. This is the rhythm we need to grasp when doing something right.
What does this have to do with us? Have you seen many entrepreneurial projects? Once the project starts, it develops very quickly. Why? Because the people have been yearning for it for a long time. If we find a real social pain point, many people in society are troubled by this issue but don't know how to solve it. Then, if you can come up with a solution that makes it less difficult and allows everyone to receive support easily, the project will suddenly flourish like the seedlings in July and August, seeing the sky forming clouds and the rain pouring down. Therefore, if we truly think about problems from the perspective of creating value for others, we can experience the feeling that Mencius described as "Who can control it?" So, the rhythm of life is not a uniform diagonal line. The rhythm of life may involve long periods of inaction, stagnation, or even decline, but suddenly it rises again, and we must grasp this exponential curve.
The third quote: "The victory of benevolence over unkindness is like the victory of water over fire. Those who practice benevolence today are like using a cup of water to save a cartload of firewood on fire; if it does not extinguish the fire, they say that water cannot overcome fire." This quote is fascinating, and later it evolved into an idiom called "a drop in the bucket."
Mencius said that the most effective way to deal with unkind things and wrongdoings is to do good deeds. To triumph over unkindness with benevolence is a matter of course for Mencius. It's like using water to put out a fire; when there's a fire, we definitely use water to extinguish it. However, many people see a cartload of firewood burning with raging flames, throw a cup of water at it, and then say, "See, it's useless, the water doesn't work." So, they come to a wrong conclusion: water cannot put out the fire.
This is what resonates with me the most because I encourage people to read every day during my live streams. I say we should read good books, difficult books. People say, "It's useless; I've tried, but there's no change after reading, and I forget what I've read. You can remember, but we can't, so there's no way." I've heard this too many times, and the best explanation is right here—"a drop in the bucket."
If we want our lives and careers to change, there is a crucial physics term called "breakthrough threshold." What is a threshold? If you don't reach that value, you can't experience a phase change. To extinguish a cartload of fire, you must use enough water. So, if we're determined to be a good person or a valuable company, the only thing we can do is keep striving towards that threshold. But people will ask, where is the threshold? Who can tell me where the threshold is? Unfortunately, it's not as simple as boiling water. We know when water boils at 100°C, and we can measure the specific temperature for oil.
However, the thresholds in our lives are challenging to explore because it is a complex system. If you don't know where the threshold is in this complex system, what should you do? According to Mencius' or Confucius' answers, just keep going. So, you see, Confucius said, "To learn the Way in the morning and die in the evening is enough." I'm not striving to enjoy life after breaking through the threshold; I enjoy the journey towards it and the continued happiness after surpassing it. So, if we can find value and joy in what we do, that's the meaning of our existence. We can see that those who are pure-hearted are more likely to break through the threshold.
The third keyword is choice; life is full of choices. The first quote: "What can be taken but need not be taken injures integrity; what can be given but need not be given injures generosity; what can be faced with death but need not face death injures courage." This quote comes from "Mencius·Li Lou II."
The character "伤" (harm) in this sentence is interesting. Integrity, generosity, and courage are three nouns; how can they be harmed? How can integrity, generosity, and courage be harmed? My personal understanding is that this "harm" means damage and ambiguity. When you do something for someone, and you can take or not take something, not taking it is integrity. But if you take it, you make the concept of integrity ambiguous. Then, "可以与，可以无与" (can give, can not give) means to give. When you ask someone for a favor, you can either pay them or not. If you give money at this time, it will harm generosity. We have talked about "What Money Can't Buy," a famous book by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, which discusses the limitations of money. For example, if your friends help you move and are tired after a long day, you can either give them 200 yuan each or not and just have dinner together. According to Mencius, if you give money at this time, it will damage the relationship instead. Money can blur the beautiful relationship between us. This generosity becomes blurred and tainted.
Finally, "可以死，可以无死，死伤勇" (can die, can not die, death harms courage). In Mencius' time, there were indeed many situations where one had to choose between life and righteousness. After an incident occurs, you can either live or die. If you easily give up your life at this time, you blur the concept of courage and make us believe that courage is about sacrifice, which is not always the case. Nietzsche said that when a person knows why they live, they can endure everything that life imposes on them. Sometimes, death seems courageous; other times, continuing to live with scars is even more courageous.
The second quote: "人有不为也，而后可以有为" (Only by knowing what not to do can one then act). This famous saying comes from "Mencius·Li Lou II." I have four interpretations of this sentence. The first interpretation is that people must not fall into the trap of opportunities. During the entrepreneurial process, people will always come and tell you to do this or that... When you haven't started, everything sounds wonderful. That's why many people always feel they have too many unfinished tasks. But once you're involved, you'll find it consumes a lot of your resources and time, and it may be entirely different from what you imagined, eventually becoming a trap. So, the first meaning is easy to understand: be careful of opportunity traps, and don't try to do everything you see. As the saying goes, "A general on the march does not chase rabbits."
The second meaning of this sentence is that our lives need some principles and bottom lines. Only by knowing what not to do can we act. If you do things without any bottom line or principles, no one will dare to cooperate with you, and you may create significant trouble. This is another angle and direction to understand this sentence.
The third perspective comes from the concept of strategic concentration mentioned in "The Art of War." The resources you have are limited, so you must mobilize these resources in a relatively narrow battlefield to achieve a strategic advantage. I will not fight in some markets, and I will not use some channels. I will try to occupy as much as possible in these limited channels and markets, or we will create a hit product. Many large internet companies nowadays actually rely on hit products to drive their growth. They may produce many products in a year, but only one becomes a bestseller. This one best-selling product can drive many other products. That's the meaning of strategic concentration.
The last interpretation is delayed gratification. The marshmallow experiment conducted by Stanford University shows that a person's ultimate life achievement may be related to their ability to delay gratification. Some people cannot delay gratification; they want to get paid immediately after doing a task, so they can only work as hourly workers. Hourly workers get paid by the hour, which comes quickly. But if you want to be a white-collar worker, you may have to wait for a month to get paid. If you want to be an executive, you may need to receive an annual salary. Suppose you want to be an entrepreneur; you may need to wait for many years. If you want to be an investor, you need to wait even longer. So, delayed gratification is also an aspect of understanding "Only by knowing what not to do can one then act." Therefore, with so many perspectives confirming Mencius's words, we must know how to choose.
The third quote: "我无官守，我无言责也，则吾进退，岂不绰绰然有余裕哉?" (I have no official position, and I have no responsibility for my words; then, won't my advances and retreats be unhindered and at ease?) Mencius was always an outsider. Interestingly, he actually had the opportunity to become a high-ranking official, whether in the State of Qi or the State of Wei. But he never took those positions; he wanted to be a teacher to the emperors. He was always admonishing emperors, giving them lessons, discussing higher-level, metaphysical issues, and trying to inspire their inner self-esteem. So, some people criticized Mencius, saying, "You didn't say what you should have said, and you don't have to take responsibility. The official who listened to your advice has already resigned; why haven't you resigned?" Mencius replied, "What does this have to do with me? I have no official position, and I have no responsibility for my words. I am here purely for education, so I can 'advance and retreat with ease.'"
Mencius was playing an infinite game. If he had really followed Chun Yu Kun's advice, saying "you should become an official, you should come out and support the world with your own hands, and quickly save the world by personally taking part in it," that would be a finite game. A finite game requires qualifications for entry, and the participants need to win the game to ultimately receive a trophy or a title. Players of infinite games don't need qualifications to enter, so anyone can participate. Moreover, players of infinite games play with the boundaries of the game, trying to keep the game going indefinitely.
Take Su Dongpo and his political rival Zhang Dun as examples to understand these two concepts more easily. Zhang Dun played a finite game - how to defeat you all, how to become prime minister, and how to exile you all to Hainan Island. In the end, Zhang Dun became a high-ranking official and exiled all his political enemies. However, looking back at history, many people don't know who Zhang Dun is, but they all know Su Dongpo. Su Dongpo played an infinite game, always exploring the boundaries of life - can I make the food taste better, can I invent a new way of eating, can I write better poems and articles, and can I comprehend deeper and more profound Buddhist principles. So, players of infinite games explore the boundaries of the game. For someone like Mencius, obtaining an official position and responsibility would be a constraint; what he should do is to broaden the boundaries of human thought. Therefore, this quote is about Mencius's life choices. These are the three quotes about choices.
The fourth keyword is friendship. Life requires making friends, and Mencius also attached great importance to socializing. Regarding friendship, the first quote is: "诐辞知其所蔽，淫辞知其所陷，邪辞知其所离，遁辞知其所穷." (From evasive words, know what one hides; from licentious words, know what one ensnares; from twisted words, know what one strays from; from elusive words, know what one exhausts.) This comes from "Mencius·Gongsun Chou I." Both Confucius and Mencius have talked about "knowing words" - "不知言，无以知人也" (Without knowing words, there is no way to know people) in the Analects. If you can't understand what others are saying, you cannot discern the truth and falsehood or right and wrong in their words, and you cannot understand them. Without understanding others, how can you cooperate with them?
In this quote, Mencius mentioned four types of words. The first is evasive words, which are biased statements. In our daily lives, we often hear many biased words from others. When you hear them, you know that the person is somewhat emotional or angry, speaking with some strange words while carrying their own emotions. When we hear such biased statements, we need to be able to discern what they are hiding.
The second type is licentious words. Licentious words are exaggerated words, indicating that the person speaks in an exaggerated and excessive manner. When someone likes to use exaggerated language, you need to know what they are fixated on, what they are trapped in, and what surrounds them. They think about these things every day, making it easy for them to become exaggerated. Sometimes we see motivational speeches, I don't know if you've seen them, with a large audience, loud music, and applause. They tend to be quite exaggerated. Why? Because they are immersed in the illusion of making money every day, thinking about how to make money and how to make everyone a millionaire.
The third type is twisted words, which are strange and deviant arguments that deviate from the right path. We need to know where they went wrong. The last type is elusive words, which are excuses, evasive responses, and random replies. Faced with such elusive words, we need to know what they are at a loss for and why they can't speak up. These four problematic expressions are what we often encounter in our daily lives. Here we recommend Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow." After reading this masterpiece, you will know how easily our brains can be influenced by language. There is also critical thinking, which we mentioned when discussing "debate and standpoint." The core of critical thinking is not criticizing others' thinking every day, but the highest level of critical thinking is criticizing our own ideas, such as the language in our minds that is carried away by anger or fear. Excessively biased things are not trustworthy.
The second quote: "不挟长，不挟贵，不挟兄弟而友。友也者，友其德也，不可以有挟也." (Do not rely on seniority, wealth, or connections with siblings when making friends. Friendship is based on virtues and should not involve reliance.) This is called the "three no's principle." What is reliance? It means depending on something. When making friends, we cannot rely on being older, having more money, having a better background, or having powerful relatives. Why do we make friends? It's for their virtues. In the process of choosing friends, we should also ask ourselves: why do we become friends with this person, is it because they can bring us benefits and advantages? Or is it because their morality is worth admiring? When making friends with others, if we are constantly calculating their status, identity, and resources, and what they can bring to us, it is likely to waste a lot of our time.
The third quote, "万章问曰：‘敢问交际何心也？’孟子曰：‘恭也。’" (Wan Zhang asked, "What should be the attitude in social interactions?" Mencius replied, "Respect.") Why do I put these two quotes together? The previous one talks about making friends, and this one talks about social interactions. What is the difference between making friends and social interactions? In social interactions, we have laws, contracts, and constraints; we can live our lives by following the rules. But in making friends, we should value virtues, looking at whether a person's character and integrity are worth admiring.
Wan Zhang asked Mencius what attitude we should maintain when interacting with others. "Respect," Mencius said, which means to be respectful and polite. There is an idiom called "却之不恭" (refusing would be impolite), which means that it is impolite to refuse something. Wan Zhang, Mencius' student, faced some moral dilemmas. For example, when people like Qi Xuan Wang and Liang Hui Wang offered him gifts, should he accept them? Wan Zhang believed he should not. Why? Because these gifts were obtained through looting, and accepting them would be like accepting a thief's belongings. However, refusing the gifts would be awkward in social situations, since it would be considered impolite to refuse a gift from a lord or king. Mencius was skilled at striking a balance in such situations.
The fifth keyword is reflection. Mencius was a person who was good at reflecting. He believed that the core of Confucius' teachings in the Analects was self-reflection. Therefore, the first quote: "仁者如射，射者正己而后发；发而不中，不怨胜己者，反求诸己而已矣." (The benevolent person is like an archer, who corrects himself before shooting; if he misses the target, he doesn't blame others but seeks the cause within himself.) This quote is from "Mencius · Gongsun Chou I."
Both Confucius and Mencius liked to use archery as a metaphor because, at that time, scholars were expected to be skilled in archery. Archery was a sport and a social activity. Mencius said, "The benevolent person is like an archer" because, like an archer, one should adjust oneself before taking action. If the arrow misses the target, don't blame others. Instead, seek the cause within oneself and make adjustments before shooting the next arrow.
In our lives, we often encounter situations where we need to adjust our circle of influence and circle of concern. If we put too much effort into our circle of concern, focusing on things we cannot control, we may become angry and resentful. This can make life difficult, as we will come to hate everyone who has caused us trouble. However, if we can focus on our circle of influence, i.e., what we can do, what we can adjust, and whether we can find the root of the problem within ourselves, then we can correct our course and hit the target with the next arrow. Thus, the idioms "仁者如射" (the benevolent person is like an archer) and "反求诸己" (seek the cause within oneself) both stem from this idea.
The second quote: "‘四境之内不治，则如之何？’王顾左右而言他。” ("If the four corners of the kingdom are not governed, then what should be done?" The king looked around and changed the subject.) I've only chosen this part, but there is a longer story before it. Qi Xuan Wang was an interesting person, and his most famous quote was, "I have a problem, I am fond of women. I have a problem, I am fond of wealth. I have a problem, I am fond of bravery." Qi Xuan Wang was very polite to Mencius and always engaged in harsh self-criticism. However, Mencius believed that these self-criticisms were not important. Fondness for women or wealth was not a problem; if you wanted your people to marry and live good lives, it would be beneficial for everyone. Qi Xuan Wang only engaged in shallow reflection, focusing on his own flaws and thinking he had no choice, which led to low self-esteem. It is difficult for someone with low self-esteem to change.
Mencius asked Qi Xuan Wang, if he entrusted his wife and children to a friend, and upon returning found that the friend had not taken care of them, leaving them hungry and cold, what should he do? Qi Xuan Wang said he would cut ties with the friend because what use would such a friend be? Mencius then asked, if there was an official who governed a region where the common people were struggling, what should be done? Qi Xuan Wang said he would replace the official.
Next, Mencius said: "四境之内不治，则如之何？” (If the four corners of the kingdom are not governed, then what should be done?) Based on Qi Xuan Wang's previous answers, he should resign and let someone else be king. "王顾左右而言他。” (The king looked around and changed the subject.) Qi Xuan Wang said: "Has dinner been served yet?" This is a well-known, vivid scene filled with comedic effect, called "王顾左右而言他" (the king looks around and changes the subject). Many people in life use this method to avoid problems, so this phrase is still very relevant today. There are too many people in life who avoid conflicts and only engage in shallow reflection without deep thinking. Don't be like Qi Xuan Wang.
The third quote: "不揣其本而齐其末，方寸之木可使高于岑楼。” (If you don't measure the base but only align the tips, even a small piece of wood can be made to appear taller than a tall building.) What is a tall building? It is a building with a pointed top. Mencius said that if we only align the tips without measuring the base, a small piece of wood can appear taller than a tall building. How to compare? If I take a piece of wood about 20 centimeters long and say it's taller than Yueyang Tower, how can that be? If I put it on top of Yueyang Tower, it would be taller than Yueyang Tower. However, this height is false and not based on the actual height. Therefore, we should not only look at the appearance or results but also consider the starting point and where it began to grow. This is also a part of our life's reflection.
The sixth keyword is "benevolent thoughts." Life needs benevolent thoughts to have confidence. Here, I have chosen three quotes. The first one is, "君子之于禽兽也，见其生，不忍见其死；闻其声，不忍食其肉。是以君子远庖厨也。” ("A gentleman, when it comes to animals, cannot bear to see them alive and then dead; he cannot bear to hear their cries and eat their meat. Therefore, a gentleman stays away from the kitchen.") The story of "a gentleman stays away from the kitchen" comes from this. This story is also about Qi Xuan Wang. Mencius always tried to find opportunities to inspire Qi Xuan Wang's inner self-esteem.
One day, Qi Xuan Wang saw someone leading a cow, and as the cow was being led away, it shivered. Cows know when they are about to die, and they shiver. Qi Xuan Wang asked, "What are you doing with the cow?" They said, "We're using it to consecrate the bell." A large bell had been made, and they planned to kill the cow and sprinkle its blood on the bell to consecrate it. Qi Xuan Wang said, "It's too pitiful, let the cow go and use a sheep instead."
When the common people heard about this, they said that Qi Xuan Wang was indeed fond of wealth and too stingy to use a cow, so he used a sheep instead. When Mencius learned of this, he said to Qi Xuan Wang, "How could you not bear to part with a cow?" Qi Xuan Wang said, "Exactly! I'm so rich, how could I not bear to part with a cow? It's a joke!" Mencius said, "No, I know you couldn't bear it in your heart. You saw the cow shivering, and you felt sad." Why replace it with a sheep? Because he didn't see the sheep. When you don't see the sheep, you don't have that feeling, so you switch to a sheep. The sheep is imaginary, unseen, which is what Mencius meant by "见其生，不忍见其死；闻其声，不忍食其肉。” ("Seeing them alive, one cannot bear to see them dead; hearing their cries, one cannot bear to eat their meat.") When you see it, you will have a feeling of compassion in your heart.
What does this have to do with Qi Xuan Wang's benevolent governance? Mencius extended the idea a bit, saying never underestimate even a little bit of kindness in your heart. A little bit of kindness, when extended, can go from a cow to a person, from one person to millions of people, and you can even imagine the feelings of those who die on the battlefield. If we can't bear to see a cow shivering as it is led to slaughter, how can we bear to let hundreds of thousands of people go to the battlefield and die? Therefore, the small spark of kindness in our hearts is crucial. Never simply regard it as pretentiousness; the difference in life lies in this little bit of kindness. The meaning of "a gentleman stays away from the kitchen" is reflected here.
The second quote is: "万物皆备于我矣。反身而诚，乐莫大焉。强恕而行，求仁莫近焉。” ("Everything is prepared for me. Reflect on oneself and be sincere; there is no greater joy. Strive to practice empathy and act accordingly; there is no closer way to seek benevolence.") This is from Mencius' "Jin Xin I." The character "诚" (sincerity) is very difficult to explain. Song Dynasty Confucian scholars developed it to the extreme, calling it "一字记之曰‘诚’" ("a single character to remember it: 'sincerity'"). The difference in one's life lies in being sincere or insincere. We have discussed "Sweeping the Way." The old gentleman in the book "Sweeping the Way" cleaned for more than seventy years. As an entrepreneur, he personally cleaned the company's toilets and floors every day. What does this story teach? It is the character "诚" (sincerity) that Song Confucian scholars discussed. We say "a hundred techniques are not as good as one sincerity"; if you can be sincere in anything, if you can wholeheartedly do something to the extreme, it is close to the direction of enlightenment. So, "万物皆备于我矣。反身而诚，乐莫大焉" ("Everything is prepared for me. Reflect on oneself and be sincere; there is no greater joy"), when you can have such sincerity and sincerity to do anything, there is nothing happier than this.
"强恕而行，求仁莫近" ("Strive to practice empathy and act accordingly; there is no closer way to seek benevolence"), Confucius talked about benevolence, and we also want to become benevolent. But how can one become benevolent? Confucius said, "我欲仁，斯仁至矣" ("I desire benevolence, and benevolence is here."). If you want to become benevolent, benevolence will come. As long as you have this idea and are willing to be benevolent, benevolence is not far away. However, in life, there seem to be few people who seek and attain benevolence. Mencius's shortcut is "强恕而行" ("strive to practice empathy and act accordingly"), which means we should diligently promote the principle of empathy, which means being tolerant of others. If you really want to reach the realm of benevolence, you must properly promote the principle of empathy.
Confucius said, "其恕乎" ("Is it empathy?") (子贡问曰：“有一言而可以终身行之者乎？”子曰：“其恕乎！己所不欲，勿施于人。”出自《论语·卫灵公篇》) (Zigong asked, "Is there one word that can be practiced for a lifetime?" Confucius said, "It is empathy! Do not impose on others what you do not want for yourself." from "Lun Yu: Wei Ling Gong"). Mencius inherited Confucius's teachings here.
The third quote is: "人之所以异于禽兽者几希，庶民去之，君子存之。舜明于庶物，察于人伦，由仁义行，非行仁义也。” ("The difference between humans and animals is only a tiny bit, which ordinary people neglect, while the noble ones preserve. Shun was wise in mundane matters and discerning in human relations, acting out of benevolence and righteousness, not just performing benevolence and righteousness.") The meaning is that the difference between us and animals is so small, and it is often overlooked by ordinary people. The difference between a noble person and an ordinary person lies in "preserving" this small goodness within their hearts. Shun is Mencius' idol. "舜明于庶物，察于人伦" ("Shun was wise in mundane matters and discerning in human relations") means that whether it is material problems to be solved in daily life, or theoretical and ethical difficulties to be faced, Shun can understand them. Why is Shun such an extraordinary person? Because he "由仁义行，非行仁义也" ("acts out of benevolence and righteousness, not just performing benevolence and righteousness"), which means that his heart naturally possesses benevolence and righteousness. Therefore, he does everything naturally, freely, and relaxedly, without any attachment to appearances (a Buddhist term meaning attachment to external appearances, illusions, or individual consciousness that deviates from the essence).
Many of us engage in charitable work and join charitable organizations, always feeling that we have done many good deeds. If we have this idea, it may be wrong. Sometimes when we participate in these activities, you may feel that the person being helped may be of even greater help to you. They can make you feel happy, joyful, and delighted throughout the day, and this happiness can even last a long time. This is called "acting out of benevolence and righteousness." You are just doing what your heart tells you to do, called "由仁义行，非行仁义也" ("acting out of benevolence and righteousness, not just performing benevolence and righteousness"). We are not doing it for others to see; we are doing it from the inside out, and this behavior of doing good deeds naturally arises from within and does not require any rewards, rather than from the outside in, using these deeds to dress ourselves up.
However, having said that, I often reflect on Mencius' words. It is not bad for a person to truly practice benevolence and righteousness. We cannot expect everyone to be like Shun. If a person can persist in practicing benevolence and righteousness, over time, it may gradually become "acting out of benevolence and righteousness." This is a different approach to cultivation, similar to the gradual and sudden schools in Zen Buddhism. People like Shun belong to the sudden school; they understand and grasp the core of benevolence and righteousness all at once. For us ordinary people, it is difficult to find the core of benevolence and righteousness all at once. We need to start doing it, gradually work on it, and slowly it will become natural, no longer feeling like a "performance." It is very likely to become a part of our lives.
The seventh keyword is growth. We need growth to have confidence. I have chosen three quotes for this. The first quote is: "我知言，我善养吾浩然之气" ("I know speech, and I am good at nourishing my noble and upright spirit."). This quote is a must-choose. For Mencius, the noble and upright spirit is a very important thing. So, what is this noble and upright spirit? It is not easy to explain. I wrote in this book:
"The noble and upright spirit is such an existence that you cannot see or touch it, but you know it is a supreme and unyielding force. When a person possesses this 'spirit,' they can stand tall with their backbone, living and working with dignity and integrity. If this spirit is lost, people will become as weak and exhausted as if they are without food. Feelings of oppression and depression will catch up, and you will feel powerless, uninterested, and meaningless in everything you do."
Let me give you an example. If you have read "White Deer Plain," you will know that there is a character named Heiwa in the book. What does Heiwa particularly dislike about Bai Jiaxuan? Bai Jiaxuan's waist is always straight and upright. So, in the end, Heiwa wants to break his waist. This upright feeling has a bit of the noble and upright spirit. His heart is full of moral and righteous feelings.
How to cultivate this noble and upright spirit? Mencius said: "持其志，无暴其气" ("Hold on to your aspirations and do not expose your spirit recklessly."). You should have an aspiration in your heart, always uphold this aspiration, but do not expose this force all the time. A truly persistent person does not need to shout slogans every day; holding onto one's aspiration is enough. If you have aspirations in your heart and know the meaning behind them, you can maintain the noble and upright spirit in your heart.
The second quote is: "自暴者，不可与有言也；自弃者，不可与有为也" ("Those who harm themselves cannot have words; those who abandon themselves cannot have actions."). This is where the concept of self-harm and self-abandonment comes from. What does self-harm and self-abandonment mean? Mencius' definition of self-harm and self-abandonment is actually quite strict. If we are not careful, we may be classified as self-harming and self-abandoning according to Mencius' definition. He said: "言非礼义，谓之自暴也" ("Speaking against propriety and righteousness is called self-harm."). If you do not speak in accordance with propriety and righteousness, you are harming yourself. And then, "若身不能居仁由义，谓之自弃也" ("If the body cannot dwell in benevolence and follow righteousness, it is called self-abandonment."). Mencius compares "benevolence" to a big house, and we should live in such a big house called "benevolence." What is righteousness? Righteousness is the great way. Walking out of the house and following this spacious path is called dwelling in benevolence and following righteousness. If you cannot dwell in benevolence and follow righteousness, it is called self-abandonment, meaning you have given up on yourself.
"Facing those who hurt themselves, do not discuss matters with them, because such people often speak in ways that undermine propriety and seek security in danger, seeing disasters as opportunities. Facing those who give up on themselves, do not work with them, because such people do not know how to improve, indulge in degradation, and may even become increasingly trapped on the wrong path. Everyone should be cautious."
This is the meaning of Mencius' quote, "Those who harm themselves cannot have words; those who abandon themselves cannot have actions." I think it's a bit too strict. To moderate it a bit, I believe what Mencius refers to as self-harm and self-abandonment is when a person has a low level of self-esteem. The manifestation of low self-esteem is that they feel they cannot achieve anything. What you say is good, but it's for others, it's legendary, and only a few individuals can achieve it. I cannot, and that's called self-harm and self-abandonment. Mencius said that when you encounter someone who is self-harming and self-abandoning, you should not discuss matters or work with them, because they are not prepared and have not reached a high level of self-esteem.
However, based on our understanding of Mencius, I don't think Mencius meant that you should give up on those who self-harm and self-abandon. In fact, were King Hui of Liang and King Xuan of Qi considered self-harming and self-abandoning? According to Mencius' definition, they definitely were. But what did Mencius tell them? Not how to get things done, but how to raise their self-esteem, telling them, "You can do it." King Wen of Zhou had such a small piece of land back then, but in the end, he was able to implement benevolent governance and establish the Zhou dynasty. You have such good conditions now, and you can do it too. Moreover, you have a kind heart, and you can't even bear to kill a cow. You particularly wish to implement benevolent governance. What Mencius did was to raise their self-esteem first.
Sometimes in life, we encounter many employees or children who are in this state of self-harm and self-abandonment, which is inevitable. Why? The external environment's pressure and influence on people are actually quite significant. We cannot expect everyone to be like Shun, a sage wherever he is; that would be too difficult to achieve. Most people, when faced with immense external pressure, will become demoralized and feel that life has lost hope, including ourselves. At this time, what we need to do is find ways to help them raise their self-esteem. Just like Wang Yangming said, "You are inherently complete," the light within your heart is already enough, and a sage resides in your heart, but you don't know it. What is the significance of this sentence? The significance lies in knowing that you are precious, that you have abilities and many possibilities.
We talked about the book "Decoding Adolescence," which discusses how difficult-to-handle teenagers during puberty can be turned around. There was a foster father, not even a biological father, who said to the teenager, "You see yourself as a problem, but we see you as an opportunity." It was this sentence that made the child begin to realize his mistakes. What he realized was not on the level of doing things, but on the level of self-esteem. When a person's self-esteem is raised, their potential can be unleashed, which is the core of education and leadership. So self-harm and self-abandonment are inevitable states in life. How we can help them get out of this low self-esteem situation is the best help that others can provide.
The last quote we chose for this book is: "The original spring is turbid, never resting day and night, filling the ditches and then advancing, spreading to the four seas. Those who have a source are like this, and this is how you get it." This comes from "Mencius·Li Lou II."
Someone asked Mencius why everyone thinks that the virtue of water is good. Mencius explained to him, saying, "The original spring is turbid." Look at the water from the source, rolling and coming, like rushing down from the Yarlung Zangbo River. First, it "does not rest day and night," constantly flowing. Then, it "fills the ditches and advances." What does it mean to fill the ditches and advance? The ground has pits and hollows, and the water fills them all, filling every small pit and hollow, then moving forward. Why? Because it has a source, so it can "spread to the four seas." "Those who have a source are like this," you need to learn the virtue of water, learn from the water with a source, which can flow endlessly.
What is the other situation? In July and August, there is a "bang" of thunder in the sky, followed by heavy rain. After this rain, the ditches and ravines on the ground can also be filled. But after just two or three days, the water is gone. Why? Because this water has no source; it comes down suddenly.
Why did I choose this quote for the keyword "growth"? In our lives, we will have good luck and bad luck. The only thing we can control is our source, not our performance. When we have good luck, it may be like a heavy rain in July and August. It seems that we are also wealthy, and what we do is not much different from others. But we lack that source, the motivation to create, the core values, and we haven't established the differentiation and barriers to compete with others. At this time, you will find that it is just a flash in the pan.
However, many people mistake luck for ability. So why do we say that the likelihood of failure in the second venture is much greater? The first successful venture is mostly due to good luck for the majority of people. But they think it is their own ability, so their ego begins to inflate, and they go all-in for the second venture. "Money earned by luck is lost by skill," this saying is not a joke, it is a fact. Many practical situations in life are like this, because many people who succeed in their first venture don't realize that their success is like "a heavy rain in July and August," just good luck. What we can ultimately grasp and pursue is to dig our own well, find that turbid source feeling, then fill the ditches and advance, allowing every pit and hollow in our path to be filled. In fact, the "Analects" also mention this, called "establish the foundation and the way is born." Only when we establish the foundation can we generate our own way. So, we should be like water with a source.
Mastering these three points may help our growth.
The content written in the book "The Foundation of Life" is much more than the twenty-one quotes I have selected here, but our time is limited and we cannot cover everything. If it can serve as a lead, everyone can first understand these twenty-one quotes and then become interested in "Mencius." If we can read the entire "Mencius," it may bring some different inspirations to our lives. You will find that Mencius and Confucius are completely different people. Confucius is much more relaxed and happy, while Mencius is much more vigorous and proactive. So, these two people form a very good complement to each other, one is the Sage and the other is the Second Sage.
In conclusion, let's talk about what it means to have a solid foundation. Life will go through many changes, and whether we can get through them is actually a test of whether we have a solid foundation. I particularly like a saying, which states that if we can "face sudden situations without fear and accept unprovoked attacks without anger," our lives may have reached a certain level and realm. This requires us to be determined in our hearts, have ideals, goals, and choices, knowing what we should and should not do. Changes in the external environment cannot prevent us from continuing to work and live calmly, optimistically, and kindly. Thank you, everyone, and see you in the next book.