By Alan Jay Levinovitz/Psyche
When I first read Confucius, I was disappointed. He seemed like a stick-in-the-mud, obsessed with enforcing the status quo. ‘As for music,’ he grumped to his disciples, ‘listen only to Shao and Wu. Prohibit the tunes of Zheng.’
This was the great sage of ancient China, who wandered the country lecturing disciples and rulers on how to live? Maybe his approach worked 2,500 years ago. But for me, in the 21st century? I preferred living freely like the iconoclastic Daoist sages who mocked Confucius.
Central to Confucius’s teachings was submission to li (禮), typically translated as ‘ritual’. I wrote it off as more stale traditionalism. But then, while preparing a course on classical Chinese thought, I re-read the foundational collection of Confucius’s teachings known as the Analects.
It was a revelation. Cherry-picked passages such as the one about music were deeply misleading. Li wasn’t about fastidiously obeying fusty old rules.
No, this was a different kind of ritual. My default understanding of the word had misled me. What Confucius taught was life-as-ritual, the transformation of everyday actions into sacred activity. ‘When we say “the rites, the rites”, are we speaking merely of jade and silk?’ he asks rhetorically. The answer is no. Confucian ritual goes beyond formalised activities that require the proper use of jade and silk. Ritual is – or can be – part of all human activity. It governs greetings and conservations. It’s how you harmonise your life with the rhythms of the world. And if you take ritual seriously, submit to it and practise it, then transforming your life for the better will go from difficult to effortless.
Ritual Is About Reverence
One of the first things I transformed with Confucian ritual was my relationship to my phone. Like so many of us, I was constantly tempted to check it. While driving, while bored by a story my nine-year-old daughter was telling, while out on a hike, anywhere. I knew I shouldn’t, but I did anyway, with terrible results: a near-miss of a pedestrian; a daughter who saw I wasn’t paying attention; a lousy hike.
And yet, in certain contexts, keeping my phone where it belonged was easy. I have never taken it out while teaching a class and scrolled through Twitter. Why? Because doing so is ritually inappropriate, and I took that seriously.
To embrace Confucian ritual is to treat all contexts the way I treat my classroom, as sacred spaces with their own rhythms and patterns. Driving a car is not a time to check my phone. Likewise for talking with my daughter and for hiking. As soon as I began treating those contexts with the reverence they deserved – as soon as I submitted to ritual – resisting the pull of my phone became effortless.
Confucius cared deeply about the practical application of his teachings. ‘To learn and then have occasion to practise what you have learned – is this not satisfying?’ he asks in the first line of the Analects. The real test of li is to see whether it works in your life. It has passed my test, and I think that’s because, more than 2 millennia ago, Confucius discovered universal principles that – unlike his taste in music! – still apply today.
Will submitting to ritual work for you? The Confucian way to find out is by learning and then having occasion to practise.
Everything Is Ritual
The Analects describes many practices that fit a generic understanding of ritual, like proper mourning and how to respect guests. Guidance is often specific: ‘When attending village drinking ceremonies, [Confucius] would leave only after the elderly people had left.’
But other passages describe a more expansive version of ritual: ‘Do not look unless it is in accordance with ritual; do not listen unless it is in accordance with ritual; do not speak unless it is in accordance with ritual; do not move unless it is in accordance with ritual.’
What might seem like recipe for neuroticism is in fact a revolutionary statement about the all-encompassing range of ritual. Consider proper timing, essential for standard rituals. You sing in church only at the right time. Though, as Confucius points out, timing is an essential element of all activities. ‘To speak when it is not yet time to speak – this is called being rash. To not speak when it is time to speak – this is called being secretive.’ Sometimes you rush to say something instead of waiting for your friend to finish. You haven’t treated the rhythm of the conversation as sacred. You violated Confucian ritual. And what happens? Your friend gets pissed off because you interrupted them.
Rhythms and patterns are everywhere, and so is the possibility of harmonising with them. In a remarkable passage, Confucius and his disciples startle a pheasant, which takes flight and then alights in a tree. ‘How timely it is! How timely it is!’ he cries.
It’s a puzzling response. How can a bird be timely? Why does this anecdote conclude a chapter otherwise dedicated to generic rituals, such as receiving guests?
The puzzle is resolved by recognising that everything is shot through with rhythms.
What does Heaven ever say?’ muses Confucius. ‘Yet the four seasons go round and find their impetus there.’ In the words of Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time for everything: a time to be silent and a time to speak, a season for every activity under the heavens.
Like skillful musicians improvising harmoniously with each other, we can play along with the world. There is room for freedom in this play. There are infinite ways to have a good conversation, infinite features of nature to focus on while hiking. But, as any musician will tell you, creating beautiful music also requires submitting to constraints. Harmony is cooperative, and cooperation means respecting your partners, the pattern of their desires and contributions.
To follow Confucian ritual means partnering with the world in the sacred activity of living … and that means taking constraints seriously, instead of resenting them or ignoring them. Doing so is joyful, not burdensome, just like playing with fellow musicians is better than trying to play over them. Practise enough, and proper ritual comes automatically. The harmony is effortless. And ‘when it comes to the practise of ritual, it is harmonious ease [he ( 和)] that is to be valued.’
Ritual Is Even Better Than Good Habits
Ritual as effortless action – the Chinese term is wu-wei (無為) – might make ritual seem like habit. Good habits (and bad ones) are effortless, reflexive actions cultivated through repetition.
But there’s a serious problem with this analogy. Habits are difficult to change. They are inflexible. If you are in the habit of, say, greeting people by shaking their hand, then not shaking hands during the COVID-19 pandemic might initially take effort. You must change the habit.
In this sense, ritual is more like improvised music or athletic performance. Jazz soloists do not play according to rigid habits. They adjust to their bandmates, the mood of the evening. The same is true of good athletes, who adjust to different opponents and conditions. Playing exactly the same way according to habit would be the equivalent of greeting every person you meet, from strangers to your spouse, in exactly the same way.
Confucian ritual is similarly flexible. It depends on awareness of the relevant factors in any given situation. Someone who submits to ritual does not shake hands out of habit. She shakes hands because in that context shaking hands is the proper thing to do. When a pandemic hits, shaking hands may no longer be the right way to greet someone. If your actions are habituated, changing them will take effort. But if your actions are a function of ritual, you shift away from handshaking and adjust your greeting style to the relevant factors of the new context. And if you are a master of ritual, adjustment comes effortlessly, like an athlete or musician who’s ‘in the zone’.
We already make these effortless adjustments in traditional ritual contexts. If you are in the habit of wearing shoes in your place of worship, it takes no effort to remove them during a visit to a Buddhist temple. It’s easy, not because you’ve outsourced your will to habit, but because you understand the ritual importance of taking off your shoes in this context despite your habit of leaving them on. Confucian ritual simply makes the world your temple.
In fact, embracing Confucian ritual has helped me break all kinds of bad habits, like plucking my beard nervously or tossing clothes on the bed instead of hanging them up. How? I acknowledge the patterns of the world and treat them as sacred. Beards are not for plucking; the bed is not a place to store my clothes. Violating those patterns is like walking into the temple with my shoes on.
But all this talk of patterns raises an important question. In some cases – clothes on the bed, texting while driving – the pattern is clear. But what if the pattern isn’t clear? What if you find yourself floundering, the musicians around you playing a melody you’ve never heard?
Never Stop Studying
Throughout the Analects, Confucius stresses the importance of studying. Since he cites frequently from classics such as the Book of Odes, I originally thought Confucian ritual was little more than mindless obedience of whatever those classics described.
But that’s not what Confucius teaches. To begin with, he acknowledges that some rare people might not need to learn from the classics at all. When it comes to living an ideal life, ‘those who are born understanding it are the best; those who come to understand it through learning are second.’ Those who are born understanding it. All of us have met someone like this – a virtuoso who intuits the complicated dynamics of a social gathering without knowing a thing about the attendees. In the musician analogy, this is the genius who can sit down and jam in any style. However, even if you aren’t like that, you can learn a bit about the event and the people so you don’t blunder by walking into a private conversation or bringing up a taboo topic.
Since ritual governs all behaviour in all contexts, studying classics is uniquely helpful in two key ways. First, classics contain time-tested life wisdom that non-virtuosos such as myself might come to only through laborious trial and error. Common norms that emerge when you study them – Confucius, like Jesus, advocates a version of the Golden Rule – suggest certain foundational patterns in reality with which the norms are meant to harmonise.
Second, if you have never studied the classics, you’ll have more difficulty understanding the dynamics that govern everything from language to basic social interactions. Sacred texts, folk tales and fairy tales, nursery rhymes and proverbs – these are woven into the fabric of our lives and the organisation of our communities. How can you expect to live harmoniously if you do not understand the reasons why you and those around you act as you do, why institutions are structured as they are?
Notably, Confucius doesn’t require rigid adherence to the norms described in the classics. ‘If you merely stick rigidly to ritual in all matters, great and small, there will remain that which you cannot accomplish.’ Sticking rigidly to a specific ritual is not ritual at all; it’s habit.
That means it’s consistent with Confucius’s approval of flexibility for us to study classics that relates to our own culture. (Instead of the music of Shao, I prefer Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’.) And not just our own culture: in a globalised world, ‘our culture’ is frequently many cultures, all with their own rhythms and patterns. Studying broadly helps us harmonise with whatever style of music we happen to encounter. If you know that in India nods and head shakes mean something different than in most other countries, you won’t be needlessly offended the first time you’re surprised by a vigorous head shake.
While classics are very useful, they are far from the only object of study. Confucius constantly sought out information about new contexts. While visiting a temple, for example, he ‘asked questions about everything that took place’. Seeing this, someone mocked him: ‘Who said that this son of a man from Zou understands ritual? When he went into the Great Ancestral Temple, he had to ask questions about everything.’
Confucius has a reply for the ages: ‘This asking is, in fact, part of ritual.’
Not only does his response underscore the broad scope of Confucian ritual, it also shows how ritual differs from habit. Habits leave no room for asking questions. Confucius, by contrast, does not act reflexively. When he is missing relevant knowledge, the right ritual is to learn through asking questions. Only then can he proceed to act in accordance with ritual – and, beautifully, merely by asking questions, he was already doing so.
You Can’t Fake it Until You Make It
Although study is important to Confucius, it is secondary to cultivating virtue. A virtuous person without book learning still possesses the ‘qualities that make one worthy of being called “learned”’. Even more importantly, virtues like sincerity and kindness are essential to ritual. ‘A man who is not Good,’ asks Confucius, ‘what has he to do with ritual?’
This cuts against the common adage of ‘fake it until you make it’, which suggests that performing the right action will eventually lead to the right mindset or intentions. The underlying assumption is that the rightness of an action can be separated from the character of the person performing it.
Confucius disagrees. ‘If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all.’ A ritual is not a ritual if it is performed insincerely. Pretending to love another human being won’t work, because ‘loving’ entails doing it for real. There is no such thing as a ‘loving action’ independent of sincerity. The same is true for living in accordance with Confucian ritual. You must sincerely believe the world is a sacred place, and you must be genuine in your desire to harmonise with it.
My favourite example of this in the Analects is a man named Gongming Jia who is singled out for enthusiastic praise by Confucius. For what? Nothing special: ‘He only laughed when he was genuinely full of joy, and so people never tired of hearing him laugh.’
This seemingly banal example highlights the necessary relationship in ritual between character and action. You may know when laughter is appropriate but, if you fake it, the ritual will fail. We are habituated to laugh insincerely, to fit in or demonstrate how relaxed we are. Breaking that habit, resisting the temptation – it’s effortless when you recognise fake laughter is as sacrilegious as laughing during a funeral. How do you know the right time to laugh? When it’s appropriate, yes, but also only when you’re feeling it. Follow that ritual, and people will never tire of your laughter, just like they never did of Gongming Jia’s.
How To Set Yourself Free With Ritual
Ritual is not about stale traditionalism. The teachings of Confucius’s Analects are about submission to life-as-ritual, not about enforcing the status quo or obeying fusty old rules.
Ritual is about reverence. Treat the world around you seriously, with respect for its rhythms and patterns.
Everything is ritual. We shouldn’t restrict the scope of ritual to activities such as weddings and funerals. The world is a sacred space with its own patterns, and we can ritually harmonise with it at all times.
Ritual is even better than good habits. Habits are inflexible, and that’s a liability. Confucian ritual is flexible, and performing it properly entails willingness to adjust yourself to different contexts.
Never stop studying. Except for a few geniuses, seeing the patterns of the world can be tough. Reading widely and asking questions when you’re confused is, itself, part of ritual.
You can’t fake it until you make it. Without cultivating sincerity and kindness, your rituals will be hollow. A fake ritual is not a ritual at all, no matter how much it looks like one.
Despite Confucius’s praise of flexibility, he can still be quite traditional. Zigong, one of his students, wanted to end the ritual sacrifice of a lamb that marks the beginning of each month. Confucius responds: ‘Zigong! You regret the loss of the lamb, whereas I regret the loss of the rite.’
This desire to keep a seemingly wasteful and cruel ritual is of a piece with Confucius’s desire to ‘transmit rather than innovate’. He trusts in the ancient ways and loves them. And it’s not just generic rituals. Women are described, along with servants, as ‘particularly hard to manage’. Is sexism an ancient way that we should love and trust?
Modern suspicion of ritual is bound up with broader concerns about freedom and resistance to change. Submission to ritual can feel like giving up on the possibility of changing bad rituals.
But that’s not what Confucius wanted. Throughout the Analects, there are examples of his departing from tradition. ‘In education, there are no differences in kind,’ he asserts, a striking departure from prevalent class-based education norms.
We can learn from Confucius but also reject the specifics of what he gets wrong. Doing so, like asking questions, is part of ritual. As he says himself: ‘When it comes to being Good, defer to no one, not even your teacher.’ Ultimately, Confucian ritual isn’t a set of practices, but rather a call to harmonise one’s actions with the patterns of the world. The ideal remains constant, even if the actions themselves must change depending on the context.
The author is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Virginia. His most recent books are The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat (2015) and Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science (2020).