Confucius and the Two Recluses

Recently, among other things, I’ve been enjoying a read of Tsai Chih-Chung’s comic rendition of the Analects of Confucius. For those not familiar, he is a very famous Taiwanese comic artist who is best known for making Chinese classics in modern comic form while retaining their ancient beauty. The book above is a collection of better known sayings from the Analects including this story below, translated by Prof. Charles Muller:2

[18:6] Zhangzuo and Jieni were working together in the fields when Confucius was passing by. He sent Zilu to ask them where he could ford the river. Zhangzuo said, “Who is that holding the carriage?”

Zilu said, “It is Confucius”

Zhang said, “The Confucius of Lu?”


“Well, if that’s the case, then he knows the ford.”

Zilu then asked Jieni who said, “Who are you?”

“I am Zilu.”

“The follower of this Confucius of Lu?”


Jie said, “Disorder, disorder throughout the realm! And who can change it? Rather than following a shi [士 master?] who avoids people, you should follow one who escapes from the world!” With that, he went back to his hoeing and wouldn’t stop.

Zilu went back and reported this to Confucius. Confucius sighing, said, “I can’t form associations with the birds and beasts. So if I don’t associate with people, then who will I associate with? If the Way prevailed in the realm, I would not try to change anything.”

I guess what intrigues me about this story is Confucius’s refutation of the recluse life. For those of us interested in Asian Religion, we often carry in our minds a kind of romanticized ideal of the quiet recluse, not just in Taoism, but also to some degree in Buddhism, but this can be misleading.

Buddhism is a complex religion, and even in the Buddha’s time, there were a variety of disciples, and even a variety of bhikkhus (monks): forest monks who mastered renunciation, city monks who specialized in education, etc, etc. So, Buddhism is not simply a reclusive religion, but has that aspect for those who wish to pursue for legitimate reasons.

As with Buddhism, there is a strain of reclusive thought as well in Taoism, though Zhuangzi in his writings takes recluses to task as well. Nevertheless, the image persists of the mysterious Taoist sage in the mountains, both in the West and in Asian culture, nevermind that Zhuangzi had a wife, kids and a home, and the fact that he was clearly a well-read and literate person. ;)

But, somehow I find that Confucius’s practical statement about “forming associations with people, not birds and beasts” is a good point. As much as we like to decry society for its ills, and no matter how the reclusive life seems tempting, the fact of the matter is is that we need one another and we can’t all be recluses. Instead of selfishly withdrawing from the world just because we don’t like it,1 we can first change ourselves and how we react to it (i.e. self-cultivation) and then help make the world a better place.

I am also reminded of something Rev. Tagawa wrote, covered in the Fall 2009 Ohigan post about the minor recluse living in the woods, and the superior recluse living among people. Life cannot be escaped, no matter how much we try, so instead, we simply have to change how we deal with it, like it or not.

P.S. I also like the character of Confucian disciple Zilu, as portrayed by Tsai Chih-Chung, due to his background as a hot-headed military person not much younger than Confucius, but he gradually transforms into a noble guardian and able governor.

1 Temporary retreats and training notwithstanding, of course.

2 A quick note on pronunciations. The name “Zhangzuo” sounds like Jahng-zwo, while the name “Jieni” almost sounds like Jenny. Confucius’s disciple Zilu sounds Tsih-loo. :-)

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Confucius, Philosophy, Religion, Taoism. Bookmark the permalink.

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