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The difficulty in discussing time in relation to the human spirit stems from, what Paul Ricoeur calls " a fundamental feature of our experience of time, namely that time is never lived directly, never a mute, immediate lived experience, but always structured by symbolic systems of varying complexity. This "varying complexity"1 is even more apparent in Chinese culture with the seemingly opposing orientations of Confucianism and Taoism, as well as of Buddhism if one were to make it part of Chinese culture. The difficulty is aggravated by the character of the Chinese mind whose primary interest is ethical. Metaphysical problems such as that of space and time, matter and spirit, are rarelly discussed, and if they are it is for the sake of ethics.2 Hence, the intent of this chapter is an explication of the Chinese concept of time3 with a view to how we can live a good life and make society and the world a better abode for the human spirit.|
Confucius, standing by a stream, said, " It passes on like this, never ceasing day or night!"4 The passage indicates Confucius’s view of time: time is the ceaseless passing of things and events, and of human nature. Like the stream, time has a definite past, but an indefinite future. Travelling forward, it invites the human being to participate in this movement, to take an active part in the drama of life so the person can achieve the ideal of Jen, humanity in its fullness.
Jen is the supreme virtue of the Confucian sage. Translated in various ways as "benevolence," "kindness," "humanheartedness," Jen is composed of the character Jen, meaning "man," and the character "erh", meaning "two," thus signifying the virtue that governs interpersonal relationships. For Confucius, "It is to love men."5 The Doctrine of the Mean makes a pun by saying, "Jen is Jen":6 to become a man of Jen is to be human.
Such an ideal is part of the Confucian Tao, the moral way, This is not divorced from the Master’s objective in teaching, namely, to train students to become a Chun Tze, a gentleman who will take the responsibility of being of service to the government and to the county, and to like it.
This program is briefly outlined in the Confucian classic, The Great Learning: One begins by cultivating the personal life through rectifying the mind-heart, making the will sincere, extending knowledge and investigating things; then one rules the family, next brings order to the state, and finally maintains peace in the world.7
What of the spirits and the after life? Confucius said," If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings? If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?"8 Once when Confucius was very ill, his disciple asked that a prayer be offered. Confucius said, "Is there such a thing?" His disciple replied, "There is an eulogy which says, "Pray to the spiritual beings above and below." Confucius said, "My prayer has been for a long time that what counts is the life that one leads."9
The life that one leads in time takes on a gradual progression of mastering oneself. Confucius said,
At fifteen my mind was set on learning. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven T’ien-ming. At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.10
For the Confucian, time never simply repeats itself. In the process of production, something new evolves which does not destroy the past, but recuperates it. A good teacher is one "who reviews the old so as to find out the new".11 The inscription on the bathtub of King T’ang read, "If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day."12
This self-renovation is natural in the sense that it is in keeping with our human nature, for after all, it is man that can make the way great, and not the way that can make man great.13 The development of oneself is also natural in the sense that it takes time, and no artificial effort must be exerted to make the self grow. Mencius told a story of a man of Sung who was so eager to make his corn grow that he pulled it up only to be told by his son that the corn had already withered.14
The full development of the self, however, entails sincerity. Mencius said, "One who is sincere with himself is called a true man,"15 and the Doctrine of the Mean said, "Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature," and only those who can fully develop their nature can develop the nature of others, and developing the nature of others can then develop the nature of things and assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth.16 Sincerity is having no division in oneself, just like Nature (Heaven and Earth) which has no dalliances and thus can produce things in an unfathomable way.17 Sincerity is the completion of the self,18 thus the task of self-realization is to integrate oneself, to make oneself whole. But "sincerity is not only the completion of the self, it is that by which all things are completed. The completion of all things means wisdom. These are the characters of nature, and they are the way in which the internal and external are united."19
Being the completion of the self and of all things sincerity is "the beginning and end of things.20 Because the integration of self entails the development of the nature of things,
Therefore absolute sincerity is ceaseless. Being ceaseless, it is lasting. Being lasting, it is evident. Being evident, it is infinite. Being infinite, it is extensive and deep. Being extensive and deep, it is high and brilliant. It is because it is extensive and deep that it contains all things. It is because it is high and brilliant that it overshadows all things. It is because it is infinite and lasting that it can complete all things. In being high and brilliant, it is a counterpart of Heaven. In being infinite and lasting, it is unlimited.21
Confucius was a sincere man "who conformed with the natural order governing the revolution of the seasons in heaven above, and followed the principle governing land and water below. He may be compared to earth in its supporting and containing all things, and to heaven in its overshadowing and embracing all things."22 It is possible then for man in time through sincerity to achieve harmony with nature.