Comparison of Moral Codes in Kenkō’s Essays of Idleness and Confucius’ Analects

Updated January 13, 2022

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Comparison of Moral Codes in Kenkō’s Essays of Idleness and Confucius’ Analects essay

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In Essays of Idleness, Kenkō uses several statements and short stories to discuss his Buddhist ideology and how meditation can be used to better oneself and society. In a similar format, Confucius’ Analects uses short stories and statements from “The Master” to convey Confucian ideology, in which tradition and exemplars are highly valued. Although both Confucius and Kenkō value education as an important part of fostering “good” in a person, Confucius’ ideology presents a moral code which is focused in following the ideas of the past, and thus is more rigid, while Kenkō’s ideology focuses on the present resulting in a much more lenient moral code. Although Kenkō and Confucius support education and studying works of the past they differ in the manner in which education should be utilized.

Education, in the eyes of both Confucius and Kenkō, is one of the most important factors in creating a functioning society and self. Master Zeng in Confucius’ writings comments “to learn something and then put it to practice at the right time: is this not a joy?” and continues on to describe how he examines himself every day, and asks the question “Have I practiced what has been taught?”. Throughout Meditations, Confucius explains that by following this cycle of learning, and then practicing the values that are taught, one can become educated and thus be a better citizen and contributor to society. Similarly, Kenkō values the importance of study, saying “a knowledge of the classics, the martial arts and medicine is absolutely essential, and no one who studies these can be accused of a useless life”.

Both Kenkō and Confucius support education, however, Confucius’ focus on the past reflects in the way in which one’s studies are applied. Confucius believes that the teachings of the works of the past should be followed exactly as they are, and that these are the teachings which determine the moral code. He encourages people to “draw inspiration from the Poems; steady your course with the ritual; find fulfillment in music”, thus by studying these ancient poems and music, one can learn how to behave. Under Confucius’ ideology, a moral code that all men should follow should be formed by following these exact teachings.

Kenkō too sees the importance of studying the works of the past, however, instead of following their exact teachings, he suggests that they should be used to help spur one’s own thinking. He notes that “Skill in the art of poetry and music” are an “unrealistic” means to governing a society in the present. He quotes The Great Cessation and Insight, saying that “We must ‘break all ties with everyday life, human affairs, the arts and scholarship’”, as these are distractions from understanding the “True Way”, or the Buddhist idea of “The Way”. Instead of taking the teachings of ancient works and directly following them, Kenkō argues that they should instead be used to stimulate one’s own thinking and meditative skills.

For example, his reasoning behind the emphasis he places on “learning how to write with a fine hand”, is to use this as an “aid in learning”, rather than being able to copy what was taught exactly. One key element of Confucius’ stringent moral code is tradition. Confucius stresses that traditions should be followed exactly as they are described, and that by doing so, it is expected that people will be good. A tradition which Confucius finds especially important is filial piety, and he notes this saying “When the father is alive, watch the son’s aspirations.

When the father is dead, watch the son’s actions. If three years later, the son has not veered from the father’s way, he may be called a dutiful son indeed”. A good teacher, by Confucius’ standards, is one who understands these ancient traditions and is able to relay them, as he notes, “He who by revising the old knows the new, is fit to be a teacher”. He highlights that to follow the moral code people must “uphold the faith” and “defend the good Way with [their] live[s]”, and to “hide when the world loses the Way”. The “faith” which he describes is tradition, and thus when the world does not follow traditions, he suggests that people should shelter themselves or “hide”. Due to Confucius’ fixation on the past, another part of his strict moral code is the emphasis he places on following the “leaders” of society, as well as having virtuous leaders for citizens to follow.

Unlike Kenkō, who encourages individuality and focus on the self, Confucius believes that for people to be morally apt, they must have a leader to show them how to behave correctly and must directly follow this leader’s teachings. His moral code centers around having virtuous exemplars for citizens to follow, he states that “He who rules by virtue is like the polestar, which remains unmoving in its mansion while all the other stars revolve respectfully around it”. Thus, if a ruler is virtuous, the followers of will be virtuous as well. Trust also plays into this idea of “ruling by example”, as the people must be able to trust that the leaders, they are following are righteous.

In a conversation between The Master and Zigong, Zingong asks if “sufficient food, sufficient weapons, or the trust of the people” is most important to the government, to which The Master replies the trust of the people, because “without the trust of the people, no government can stand”. The Master’s response demonstrates the importance of trust in this exemplar-based society where people are expected to follow their rulers without question. This strict exemplar system stems from Confucius’ focus on the past, as he often mentions his affection of emperors of the past. For example, he mentions a past emperor Peng stating “I transmit, I invent nothing. I trust and love the past. In this, I dare to compare myself to our venerable Peng”.

In contrast to Confucius, Kenkō’s time orientation is much more directed towards the present, and thus, much more leniant. The moral code presented in Essays of Idleness reflects this, as Kenkō stresses that trusting in oneself is key to having a good moral standing. Kenkō emphasizes the importance acting without doubt and not hesitating to improve oneself in the present. He notes “In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should”.

To explain this, Kenkō then provides the example of a man fleeing a fire, and that he would not be hesitant to start running. Similarly, a man should not hesitate to follow something which he believes will improve himself. Instead dwelling on the past, Kenkō insists that to be satisfied with a person’s quality of life, one must constantly move forward, even though it may be a risk. “Dwadl[ing] over preperations, or concentrating on planning rather than doing, prevents people from achieving their goals, and as such, analyzing the past is an ineffective method to finding the solutions to issues of the present.

While Confucius stresses that the only way to follow the moral code is to follow one’s leaders and traditions, Kenkō’s ideology is much more relaxed, as he encourages people to trust themselves, and act without fear. Another value which Kenkō presents in Essays of Idleness that creates a more flexible moral code is meditation. Meditating and focusing on oneself are keys to acting morally under Kenkō’s ideology. He encourages people to remove themselves from outside influences, as the outside world is only a distraction, corrupting someone from being able to see the “True Way”, or the moral way. He states that “Now is the time to cast off all worldly ties. Turn your back on loyalty.

Think no more of propriety”, and thus by doing so, one can focus inward. This emphasis on meditation fosters a moral code which is much more individualized, and in turn more flexible in the idea of what being morally good actually entails. One could challenge the idea that Kenkō’s moral code is much more lenient than Confucius’ on the basis that one value which he insists that people must have is humbleness. He advises that people should “be sincere in whatever you do, polite to all, and speak little”. Unlike, the rest of his ideology, where he encourages meditation and focusing inward to follow one’s own moral code, here he gives a concrete and specific ideal which he believes all people should adopt.

However, his idea of acting politely and formally is still much more flexible than Confucius’ idea of the “gentlemen”. Confucius’ gentlemen must follow a strict set of rules based on the ideas of past emperors and shcolars, as well as act as an exemplar to the common people, as he states, “The moral power of the gentlemen is wind, the moral power of the common man is grass. Under the win, the grass must bend”. Unlike Kenkō’s value of formality, Confucius also restricts this position of the gentlemen to those who are in the upper classes. The Master describes his youth saying “I was poor; therefore, I had to become adept at a variety of lowly skills. Does such versatility benefit a gentleman? No, it does not”. Thus, a gentleman must develop skills which are outside of what the common man can achieve, which makes for a very strict idea of formality under Confucius’ ideology.

Although both Confucius and Kenkō discuss the importance of education as key parts of their moral codes, the similarities end there. Confucius’ moral code is stringent, restricting morality to those who follow the traditions of the past exactly as they are, and are completely devoted to their ruler. Kenkō, conversely, encourages each person to develop their individual moral code through a focus on one’s present self.

Comparison of Moral Codes in Kenkō’s Essays of Idleness and Confucius’ Analects essay

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Comparison of Moral Codes in Kenkō’s Essays of Idleness and Confucius’ Analects. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/comparison-of-moral-codes-in-kenkos-essays-of-idleness-and-confucius-analects/


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