The Great Learning — Book Summary
The Great Learning was considered one of the four must-read books for scholars in ancient China who wished to become “Great People”, such as government leaders. If you want to be a “Great Person” too, then this is the book for you!
The core teachings from this book are from Confucius, who lived 2500 years ago in ancient China. His student, Zengzi, compiled the book and added explanatory notes. Today, Confucius’s teachings have spread all over the world, and for good reason!
If you are like me, you might be wondering if a 2500-year old book has any relevance to our modern life. Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down because the logic and ideas in the book are not just insightful, they are also highly practical. If self-help books were analogous to orange juice, then most self-help books are like cheap diluted orange juice, while The Great Learning is like freshly-squeezed-organic-super-concentrated orange juice.
The book teaches us a proper life goal that is inspiring and truly beneficial: seeking the greatest excellence. The book also teaches us to find the root of everything rather than being lost in the leaves and branches. Finally, the book offers a step-by-step instruction guide for how we can achieve the greatest excellence in ourselves and for the world.
In this article, I will summarize eight big lessons from the book:
- Seek the Greatest Excellence
- Find the root cause
- Follow the natural sequence
- How to purify your thoughts
- How to straighten your mind
- How to cultivate your actions
- How to organize a family (or lead a small group)
- How to govern a country (or lead a large group)
The end of the article will give a practical starting point.
(Note: The original book is in classical Chinese and can be found here. Even modern Chinese people have trouble understanding classical Chinese, and I consulted this lecture series to inform my translation and understanding. If you have suggestions to improve these translations, I would be happy to hear them in the comments.)
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
Lesson 1: Seek the Greatest Excellence
The path of the Great Learning is at enlightening one’s bright virtues, at influencing the people, and ending at the greatest excellence.
(Original Text: 大學之道，在明明德，在親民，在止於至善。)
The Great Learning is a path to walk in life, and this path leads to “the greatest excellence”.
The greatest excellence involves two things: first, enlightening our bright virtues; second, influencing the people. Influencing the people means helping others enlighten their bright virtues. When we have enlightened our bright virtues and we have helped others enlighten their bright virtues, then we have arrived at the greatest excellence.
What does “enlightening one’s bright virtues” mean?
“Enlightening” means to understand and to use very proficiently. For example, Confucius was described as harmonious, honest, respectful, conserving, and yielding. He not only understood these five virtues, but his actions always accorded with them. Some people can explain what it means to be virtuous, but their actions are not virtuous. Some people are sometimes virtuous, other times not. When we can do virtues consistently and naturally, then we have enlightened our virtues.
Virtues are bright because they are like sunlight: they make our lives warm and happy, and they grow good things.
The ancient Chinese were very wise, which is why they emphasized virtuous education from a young age with books like Guide to A Happy Life. That book explains five foundational virtues: filial piety, carefulness, trustworthiness, loving-kindness, and humility. It is thanks to virtuous teachings like these that society was so peaceful in ancient China and the Chinese race has survived for 5000 years!
Vices, on the other hand, are dark: they make our lives muddled and cold and kill all things. Examples of vices include, anger, arrogance, greed, wastefulness, laziness, and stubbornness. These vices will lead to suffering, unhappiness, conflict, and harm to both ourselves and the people around us.
We all have seeds of virtue and seeds of vice inside of us. Whichever seeds get watered will be the ones that grow. If we receive good teachings, then our virtue seeds grow. If we receive bad teachings, then our vice seeds grow. That’s why the ancient Chinese emphasized virtuous education starting from childhood. If a child establishes firm roots in virtue from a young age, then they will have a bright future. But if a child learns vice from a young age, it will be very hard to change those bad habits, and their future will be dim.
At this point, you might be reflecting on your own past and realizing that a lot of your vice seeds got watered. Indeed, modern media tends to role model vices such as indulgence, arrogance, selfishness, deceit, and wastefulness. When we watch this kind of media growing up, we get influenced. But the good news is that we can change. Starting today, we can choose to walk the path of The Great Learning and enlighten our bright virtues, which will bring light and joy to our lives and the lives of all those around us.
Lesson 2: Find The Root Cause
Every result has a root cause. Ordinary people focus on the easy-to-see result, while “Great People” (people who studied the Great Learning) find the hard-to-see root cause.
To give an analogy, imagine an obese person just got told by the doctor that he is at dangerous risk of heart disease, and he needs to lose weight or else he might die soon. He really wants to lose weight quickly, so his doctor tells him he can get surgery to cut off all that fat.
It should be easy to understand that cutting away the fat does not solve the root of the problem. The root cause of his obesity is the food that he eats and his lack of physical activity. Cutting away the fat only creates a temporary solution, and it has negative side effects too. If he does not change his diet and lifestyle, he will gain all that weight back later.
Now, let’s look at what The Great Learning says about finding the root cause of “The Greatest Excellence”.
Our ancestors, who wished for all people on Earth to enlighten their bright virtues, first governed their countries well. Wishing to govern their countries well, they first organized their households well. Wishing to organize their households, they first cultivated their actions. Wishing to cultivate their actions, they first straightened their minds. Wishing to straighten their minds, they first purified their thoughts. Wishing to purify their thoughts, they first detected their intentions. The goal to detecting intentions is to eliminate selfish desire.
By eliminating selfish desire, intentions become perfected. By perfecting intentions, thoughts become purified. By purifying thoughts, the mind becomes straightened. By straightening the mind, actions become cultivated. By cultivating actions, the household becomes well-organized. By organizing the household, the country becomes well-governed. By governing the country well, world peace is accomplished.
(Original text: 古之欲明明德於天下者，先治其國；欲治其國者，先齊其家；欲齊其家者，先修其身；欲修其身者，先正其心；欲正其心者，先誠其意；欲誠其意者，先致其知，致知在格物。物格而後知至，知至而後意誠，意誠而後心正，心正而後身修，身修而後家齊，家齊而後國治，國治而後天下平。)
In order to achieve the greatest excellence, which can also be called “world peace”, we should all start by eliminating selfish desire. This might seem surprising, but the logic and wisdom here is undeniable.
To attain world peace, we must first have peace within our country. That requires us to lead our country well, to bring out the virtues of everyone in our country.
If we want to lead a large group like a country, we first must be able to lead a small group like our family. If we cannot even influence our own family members to support us, how can we influence strangers? Moreover, if we have conflict at home, how can have a clear mind and abundant energy to do our work?
In order to influence a small group, we need to first cultivate our actions, which means doing virtuous deeds and helping others. People who do good things gain the support of others, while people who do bad things are shunned by the group.
In order to act virtuously, we need to straighten our mind. Just like how if we always hunch our back, the body will take on that shape, making it hard to change. Similarly, the mind also gets shaped by our thoughts. If we always have negative thoughts and watch negative teachings, then our mind will become crooked and dirty.
In order to straighten the mind, we need to purify our dirty thoughts. Imagine you constantly filled a bucket (your mind) with dirty water (dirty thoughts). Now, you want to clean it. You need to spend time using clean water (virtuous thoughts) to wash away all that dirt stuck on the bucket.
In order to purify our thoughts, we need to detect our intentions. Intentions are smaller than thoughts. Two people can have the same thought but have different intentions. For example, two people both have the thought, “I should work hard.” Working hard is a good thought, right? Well, it depends on your intention. One person’s intention is to make lots of money so he can enjoy himself. That is a selfish intention, which is considered harmful and negative. Another person’s intention is to make lots of money so he can repay gratitude to his parents and teachers and also help those in need. That is a selfless intention, which is considered virtuous and positive.
The goal of detecting our intentions is to eliminate selfish desire. That’s because the root of all conflict is selfish desire. At a small scale, two children want the same toy and fight over it. At a big level, it’s two country leaders with nuclear bombs fighting over who is right and who should yield to who. If they succumb to anger and arrogance, they could destroy the world. Therefore, the root cause of world peace is everyone having selfless love for each other.
What is selfless love?
Selfless love means we want the best for others without any selfish desire in return. It’s just like how a parent loves an infant without wanting anything in return from that infant.
Furthermore, if a mother sees her child in a burning house, she will run into that burning house to rescue her child. If she cannot bring the child out, she will stay in that burning house and hug and comfort the child. In that state of love for her child, she forgets about herself. She has no thought of “I”; her only thought is to help her child.
In an everyday context, selfless love is about having good faith towards all people. Good faith means I want the best for others, and I wouldn’t harm others no matter how much benefit I could get for myself. For example, parents naturally want the best for their children, and children should naturally be filial in return. A leader should naturally want his group to prosper, and the followers will naturally want the best for the leader in return. Friends should naturally want the best for each other as well.
When relationships are based on good faith, they are happy and long-lasting. If relationships are based on self-interest, then they are doomed once a conflict of interest occurs. An over-focus on self-interest is what leads to unhappy relationships, high divorce rates, and high crime rates in society. Hence we see the importance of selfless love.
But without desire, how could I be successful? How could society advance?
The Great Learning did not say eliminate desire. It said eliminate selfish desire. The Great Learning actually tells us to desire! Desire what? The greatest excellence! That means desiring virtues and world peace.
If others think you are a selfish person and don’t care about them, they won’t trust you or help you. If no one helps you, how could you be successful? On the other hand, the more people selflessly you help, the more people who will want to help you back. It’s natural human sentient to repay kindness.
Societal advancement also is not due to selfish desire. How could society advance if everyone only cared for themselves? Society advances because of people who want to better the world. All great leaders who left a lasting impact of the world cared for the whole world.
For example, Confucius didn’t risk his life traveling through warring countries for his own selfish gain, he did it for the good of all people, to urge the country leaders to enlighten their bright virtues. Similarly, Elon Musk doesn’t work 100-hour weeks because he wants to be rich and famous, he is doing it to save the human race from climate disaster and asteroid disaster. He got rich and famous because so many people appreciate him and want to support his mission. It thanks to people with such big hearts that society advances.
Broaden Your Heart
Most people only think about themselves. The Great Learning teaches us to broaden our hearts. Instead of only thinking about what is best for me, widen that to “What is best for my family?” Then widen that to “What is best for all people in my country?” Then widen that to “What is best for all people on Earth?”
To serve others is the greatest joy. That’s why Gandhi said,
“You find yourself when you lose yourself in the service of others.”
The more people you are living for, the more motivation you have, and the more successful you will be.
The problem isn’t wealth, fame, or power. The problem is the small selfish intention.
Many people think the more they want something, the more likely they will succeed. In reality, selfish desire just adds stress, and stress lowers our performance. We can want the same goals of wealth and fame but have different intentions.
If we want wealth and fame for our ego and indulgences, then we will easily give up when things get too hard. A selfish person would rather relax than work tirelessly towards a difficult task. Even if a selfish person attains wealth and fame, he will quickly squander them and lose them. He will spend on that money on personal indulgences, his fame will magnify his vices, and he will crash and burn. It’s not real success if you can’t keep it long-term.
On the other hand, we can want fame and wealth to use as tools for enlightening our bright virtues and to do the same for others. We can use our power to educate others and bring world peace. That is what a “Great Person” would do.
Lesson 3: Follow the Sequence
When we do anything in life, there is a natural sequence to follow. If you want to bake bread, you have to first mix the flour with yeast, then knead the dough, then let the dough rise, then bake it, then eat it. You cannot skip from mixing flour straight to eating bread, or skip the yeast and expect the dough to rise, or not bake it and expect it to be edible.
From the text above the text above, we see there is a natural sequence that links the Greatest Excellence (world peace) all the way down to eliminating selfish desire. First work on yourself, then extend out to the people around you (your family), then to the larger group (country).
If someone skips from being selfish all the time to suddenly caring about the whole world, that’s probably a false act. A virtuous person first takes care of the surrounding family because we owe the most gratitude towards them. If you are busy trying to “help the world” but you neglect your own family, then you are probably chasing fame and power with selfish intentions. Therefore, first take care of the people around you before trying to “save the world.”
To give another example, a business should first take care of its employees before taking care of its customers. The employees are like the family, and the business owner owes most gratitude to the employees, more so than to the customers. If a business says they want the best for their customers, but they treat their employees poorly, then it’s all a lie. They only care for the customer’s money, not the person. They would be willing to hurt their customers and do unethical things if it means they can get more money. Therefore, first take care of the people closest to you before taking care of the people farther away. It is natural human sentiment.
Lesson 4: How to Purify Your Thoughts
Earlier, we already said that in order to purify your thoughts, you need to detect your intentions and then eliminate any selfish intentions. Replace those selfish intentions with good faith. Widen your heart, step-by-step, from your family to your country to all people in the world. The Great Learning gives some more guidance on purifying one’s thoughts:
What is meant by purifying one’s thoughts? It means to not deceive oneself, just like one instinctively dislikes a bad odor or enjoys a beautiful sight. This is what’s called “having a clear conscience.” Therefore, a virtuous person must be cautious when alone.
A petty person will do unethical things when alone. When he sees a virtuous person, he tries to hide his vices and display his goodness. But it is of no use; The virtuous person sees through the pretense. This is what’s called “The inside manifests on the outside.” Therefore, the virtuous person must be cautious when alone.
Zengzi said, “Act as if ten pairs of eyes are watching you and ten hands are pointing at you.”
Just as wealth adorns a room, virtues adorn the body. Widen your heart, then your body will be at ease. Therefore, a virtuous person must purify one’s thoughts.
(Original Text: 所謂誠其意者，毋自欺也，如惡惡臭，如好好色，此之謂自謙，故君子必慎其獨也！小人閑居為不善，無所不至，見君子而後厭然，掩其不善，而著其善。人之視己，如見其肺肝然，則何益矣！此謂誠於中，形於外，故君子必慎其獨也。曾子曰：「十目所視，十手所指，其嚴乎！」富潤屋，德潤身，心廣體胖，故君子必誠其意。)
From the passage above, we can see that purifying our thoughts requires us to not deceive ourselves. Often times, we know what is right and wrong, good or bad, but we will make excuses for ourselves.
Everyone has bad habits that they know they shouldn’t do, but they still keep doing it. Why? They lie to themselves, saying “it’s not a big deal…I can fix it later…what’s the point of life if I can’t enjoy myself?” These are all excuses, and the root of these excuses is selfish desire. Deep in our mind, we know it is not good to do this, but we ignore that feeling of guilt. That is called “turning a blind eye” to our selfish intention rather than detecting our selfish intention.
If we truly want to be successful, to enlighten our bright virtues, then we must not make excuses for our bad habits, and we must not turn a blind eye to our selfish intentions. Only when we can be 100% honest with ourselves, then we can truly improve our virtues and our lives.
Lesson 5: How to Straighten Your Mind
We’ve already talked about the prerequisites to straightening the mind: purify your thoughts, detect your intentions, and eliminate selfish desire. The Great Learning gives some more guidance on straightening the mind:
What is meant by “cultivating actions lies in straightening the mind”? If the body has anger, then the mind is not straight; Fear, then the mind is not straight; Excitement, then the mind is not straight; Worry, then the mind is not straight. When one is absent-minded, one looks but does not see, hears but does not listen, eats but does not taste the flavors. This is what’s called “cultivating actions lies in straightening the mind.”
(Original Text: 所謂修身在正其心者：身有所忿懥，則不得其正；有所恐懼，則不得其正；有所好樂，則不得其正；有所憂患，則不得其正。心不在焉，視而不見，聽而不聞，食而不知其味。此謂修身在正其心。)
You might be wondering why the text says “if the body has…” instead of “if the mind has…”. The reason is actually explained in the previous section, which said, “The inside manifests on the outside.” We can’t see someone’s mind, but we can see their body, and their body will reflect their mind and emotions.
From this passage, we can see that strong emotions make the mind crooked, and when the mind is crooked, the intention is not purely selfless. If someone gets angry, it is because other people or the world did not fulfill their selfish desire. If someone feels fear or worry, it is because they are afraid their desire won’t be obtained, or they worry that they will lose what they obtained. The root of all these negative emotions is selfish desire.
Now, you might be wondering, why is excitement a bad thing? The cultivated person seeks a long-lasting and stable sense of peace and happiness. Excitement is a very intense emotion, and it results in an emotional low afterwards. Excitement also makes us lose our logical thinking ability.
For example, imagine a new couple who are very excited and passionate in their relationship. Their parents see that these two people are not ready to get married yet, but the two lovers are so excited and passionate that they don’t listen to logic. Clearly, their mind is not straight and their intentions are not selfless.
A virtuous person will always have a calm and pleasant demeanor. Their emotional energy will make you feel very comfortable and peaceful. On the other hand, a person with strong emotions will have an overpowering energy that makes others feel uncomfortable.
Finally, straightening the mind requires our mind to be present and focused on whatever is in front of us. If we are absent-minded, then we are probably obsessing about the past for worrying about the future. If our mind is like that, then we won’t act in a virtuous way.
That is why so many spiritual practices teach people to focus on the present moment, let go of the past, and not worry about the future. When our mind is able to focus in the moment, then we can think clearly and act virtuously.
Lesson 6: How to Cultivate Actions
We already explained that cultivating actions require us to first straighten the mind by eliminating strong emotions, purifying our intentions, and eliminating selfish desire. The Great Learning gives more guidance on cultivating actions:
What is meant by “organizing the family lies in cultivating one’s actions?”. What one fawns on, one is partial to; What one despises, one is partial to; What one reveres, one is partial to; What one pities, one is partial to; What one disdains, one is partial to.
Therefore, it is most rare to see a person to like something while knowing its bad qualities. Therefore, as the proverb says, “People do not know their children’s faults, do not know their crop’s peak.” This is what is meant by “People who do not cultivate their actions cannot organize their family.”
(Original text: 所謂齊其家在修其身者：人之其所親愛而辟焉，之其所賤惡而辟焉，之其所畏敬而辟焉，之其所哀矜而辟焉，之其所敖惰而辟焉。故好而知其惡，惡而知其美者，天下鮮矣！故諺有之曰：「人莫知其子之惡，莫知其苗之碩。」此謂身不修不可以齊其家。)
Cultivating our actions is about treating everybody with equality and fairness. We should understand that everyone has different personalities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. A virtuous person loves people for all that they are, both strengths AND weaknesses. A petty person only likes you when you behave the way they want you to behave, and they dislike you for your weaknesses. As the text says, virtuous people are rare, but it is our aspiration as students of The Great Learning.
Although the text uses the word “family”, we can interpret “family” to mean any small group. There is a Chinese proverb that says,
“When the family is harmonious, all things will be prosperous.”
That’s because a harmonious family will give us peace of mind and moral support.
If we want our small group to be harmonious and prosperous, we must treat all people in the group with equal love and respect. If we treat some people better than others, then those who we treat less well will get upset and create conflict. Then the group will not be prosperous. That is why “People who do not cultivate their actions cannot organize their family.”
Lesson 7: How to Organize A Family (or Lead a Small Group)
Although the text says “organizing the family”, in reality, it is the same principles as leading a small group. The Great Learning has a long section on how to organize the family. For the sake of concision, let’s just look at a few selected lines:
What is meant by “governing the country lies in organizing the family?” It has never been the case that one could not influence his family but could influence other people….
The Announcement to Kang said, “As if protecting an infant.” When one is sincere, even if one does not meet the needs of the infant right on, one will not be far from it…
Emperors Yao and Shun led the kingdom with benevolence, and the people learned. Jie and Zhou ruled the kingdom with violence, and the people learned. If what one says does not match what one does, the people will not listen.
Therefore, a leader must first posses those good qualities himself before expecting them from others, and he must first eliminate those bad qualities in himself before expecting others to do so. There has never been an inconsiderate person who could influence others. Thus, governing the country lies in organizing the family.
(Original text: 所謂治國必先齊其家者，其家不可教而能教人者，無之…《康誥》曰：「如保赤子」，心誠求之，雖不中不遠矣。… 堯、舜率天下以仁，而民從之；桀、紂率天下以暴，而民從之。其所令反其所好，而民不從。是故君子有諸己而後求諸人，無諸己而後非諸人。所藏乎身不恕，而能喻諸人者，未之有也。故治國在齊其家。)
This section teaches us that leading a small group requires us to have sincere good faith towards the followers, just like a mother protecting an infant. It also requires us to lead by example and to be considerate towards followers.
This section has 4 key points:
- First lead the people near you before the people far away
- Be sincere
- Lead by example
- Be considerate and forgiving
1. First lead the people near you before the people far away
Recall earlier we said that a person first needs to ensure his family is harmonious and prosperous before trying to save the world. Here, the Great Learning emphasis this point by saying that if you can’t even bring harmony to your family, the closet people around you, how can you possibly bring harmony to the country?
To give another example, let’s say you are a department leader in a company. If you can’t even bring harmony and prosperity to your own department, how can you possibly lead the whole company? Therefore, we must first inspire and better the people around us before we have the credibility to inspire and lead the larger group.
2. Be sincere
The Great Learning also teaches us to be sincere in treating the people around us. The text gives an analogy of how a mother treats her infant. Sincerity here has the same meaning as selfless love. When we only have their good faith in mind, and we forget about selfish desire, then even if we don’t meet their needs exactly, we won’t be far from it. When people feel our deep sincerity to help them, they will be moved and they will trust us.
3. Lead by Example
The Great Learning emphasizes the importance of leading by example. When the country has virtuous leaders like Yao and Shun, the people will be virtuous. When the country has evil leaders like Jie and Zhou, the people will be evil too.
A petty person tells other people to listen to his advice, but he himself does not follow his advice. A virtuous and influential leader first role models the behavior he expects others to have, then he tells them to do it.
4. Be Considerate and Forgiving
A good leader also is very considerate, just like a mother is very kind to an infant. She can empathize with others and understand that they are trying their best, so she won’t harshly criticize others.
When people feel understood by you, and they feel that you care for them, then they will trust you and listen to you. When people see you kindly forgiving them for their mistake, they will be inspired to improve. If people feel you are inconsiderate and don’t understand them, then they won’t listen to you. That’s why inconsiderate people can’t influence others.
(Side note: When it comes to leadership, Confucius taught three leadership traits: leading by example, showing genuine care, and teaching followers. We can see that the first two traits are from the Great Learning.)
Lesson 8: How to Govern a Country (or Lead a Large Group)
After we can effectively lead a small group, such as our family, then we can lead a large group, such as a country. In a large group, you cannot personally interact with each follower, and your every word and action is scrutinized by all. Therefore, the leader of a large group must first cultivate strong virtues, otherwise their fame and power will be their downfall.
This section about leading a country is the longest, so for the sake of concision, I picked out some key lines:
What is meant by “world peace lies in governing the country”? When leaders behave as leaders should, the people will behave as good children. When elders behave as elders should, the people will behave as good siblings. When leaders are compassionate towards the misfortunate, the people will not rebel.
Thus, a ruler should follow the way of the measuring square: What you dislike in those above, do not impose on those below; What you dislike in the those below, do not impose on those above; What you dislike in those before you, do not impose on those after you; What you dislike in those after you, do not impose on those in front of you. What you dislike in the person on your right, do not impose to the person on your left; What you dislike in the person on your left, do not impose to the person on your right. This is what’s called “the way of the measuring square.”
The Book of Poetry said, “How joyful the ruler is to be the parent of the people.” To love what is good for the people and to hate what is bad for the people, this is what’s called “the parent of the people”…
To win the people’s hearts is the way to obtain the country. To lose the people’s hearts is the way to lose the country. Therefore, a ruler first pays attention to virtues. Having virtues will give him people. Having people will give him land. Having land will give him wealth. Having wealth will bring him usefulness. Virtues are the root, wealth is the result. If the ruler neglects the root and only chases the result, then his people will dispute with him and seize his property. Therefore, hoarding wealth is the way to lose the people, and investing wealth in the people is the way to gain the people…
The Book of Chu said, “The Kingdom of Chu does not value treasure but instead treasures virtuous people.”
A virtuous leader uses wealth for cultivation. A non-virtuous leader uses his life to chase wealth. Never has there been a benevolent leader whose followers were not dutiful. Never has there been dutiful followers who did not complete their tasks fully…
When the ruler focuses on wealth, that ruler is influenced by non-virtuous advisors. He thinks those advisors are good, but non-virtuous advisors will bring disaster to the country. Even if good people take their place later, it will be too late to remedy the situation. This illustrates the principle, “A country does not view profit as benefit but instead views duty as benefit.”
(Original Text: 所謂平天下在治其國者：上老老而民興孝，上長長而民興弟，上恤孤而民不倍，是以君子有絜矩之道也。所惡於上，毋以使下；所惡於下，毋以事上；所惡於前，毋以先後；所惡於後，毋以從前；所惡於右，毋以交於左；所惡於左，毋以交於右。此之謂絜矩之道。《詩》云：「樂只君子，民之父母。」民之所好好之，民之所惡惡之，此之謂民之父母…得眾則得國，失眾則失國。是故君子先慎乎德。有德此有人，有人此有土，有土此有財，有財此有用。德者本也，財者末也，外本內末，爭民施奪。是故財聚則民散，財散則民聚…楚書曰：「楚國無以為寶，惟善以為寶。」…仁者以財發身，不仁者以身發財。未有上好仁而下不好義者也，未有好義其事不終者也，未有府庫財非其財者也…長國家而務財用者，必自小人矣。彼為善之，小人之使為國家，災害并至。雖有善者，亦無如之何矣！此謂國不以利為利，以義為利也。)
From this section, we can see that the virtues of a country leader must be extremely high. The text says that leaders need to behave as leaders should. As mentioned in the previous section, leaders need to lead by example and show consideration to their followers.
This section talks about five main points:
- The Way of the Measuring Square
- Leader = Parent
- Re-Emphasizing The Importance of Virtues
- How to Properly Use Wealth
- Seek Virtuous Influences
1. The Way of The Measuring Square = The Golden Rule
This section further explains that leaders always treat other people well, even when others don’t treat them well. This is what Confucius meant when he said,
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
When others treat us in a way that makes us feel bad, we should not treat others in the same way. This is called “the way of the measuring square.”
The Guide to Happy Life gives the same teaching when it said, “When I see other people’s bad points, I will reflect on myself. If I have the same bad point, I will fix it. If not, then I will guard against it.” It also says, “When I see other people’s good points, I will learn from them. Even if I am far from their abilities now, I can gradually catch up.”
2. Leader = Parent
Leaders play the role of a parent, loving what is good for their children and hating what is bad for their children. When leaders do this for their people, then the people will behave as filial children and do the same for the leader.
The filial piety chapter of The Guide to Happy Life says, “What is good for my parents, I will provide. What is bad for my parents, I will remove.” Children (followers) learn this behavior from their parents’ (leaders’) role modeling.
Moreover, being a parent or leader is a happy thing because you take pleasure in the joy of others. When you have lots of followers being virtuous and people, get are happy too. Selfless love brings long-lasting happiness, while selfish desire brings brings.
3. Re-Emphasizing The Importance of Virtues
The Great Learning keeps emphasizing that virtues is the root and wealth is the result. Many people chase wealth, thinking that if they work hard, they can obtain it. Or worse, they even do unethical things in pursuit of wealth. But The Great Learning explains that if we want wealth, we must first cultivate our virtues, then people will help us, and then we will obtain wealth. That’s why the Kingdom of Chu does not treasure wealth but rather sees virtuous people as its treasure.
4. How to Properly Use Wealth
The Great Learning also warns us that after we obtain wealth, we mustn’t hoard wealth and ignore those in need. If we selfishly hoard our wealth and are unwilling to help others who need it, then other people will fight with us and even seize our property. In the case of a greedy country ruler, the citizens will overthrow that ruler.
A virtuous person uses wealth to help others, thereby improving his virtues and reducing his selfishness.
A non-virtuous person just chases wealth for his own self-benefit. As mentioned before, wealth itself is not good or bad, it is simply an amplifier of our character. If we have good intentions and virtues, then wealth will amplify our goodness. If we have bad virtues, then wealth will amplify our faults and make us crash and burn.
When a leader is virtuous and benevolent, then the followers will naturally be dutiful and loyal, and they will do their tasks with utmost effort to support their leader. Hence, we see again and again the important of cultivate virtues.
5. Seek Virtuous Influences
Finally, The Great Learning ends by warning us to surround ourselves with virtuous influences and eliminate bad influences. This is extra important for country leaders since their decisions impact so many people. As The Guide to Happy Life says, “If I can get close to virtuous people, the benefits are limitless. If I get close to non-virtuous people, the harm is limitless.”
A Practical Starting Point
In summary, The Great Learning taught us to seek “the greatest excellence” by enlightening our bright virtues and by influencing the people around us to do the same. The book also gave 8 steps from eliminating selfish desire all the way to world peace. But in these 8 steps, where should we start?
Initially, we might expect that we should start from eliminating selfish desire, but actually, The Great Learning says :
“From the ruler of the world to the common person, all must consider cultivating actions to be the root.”
(Original text: 自天子以至於庶人，壹是皆以修身為本。)
If you’re like me, you might be wondering why the text says cultivating actions should be the root instead of eliminating selfish desire. To answer this question, let’s draw out the 8 tasks visually:
From the right side of the picture, we can see that cultivating actions is the root (first step) for Influencing the People, and it is visible to the outside world. On the left side, we also see that eliminating selfish desires is the first step to enlightening our bright virtues, but this happens on the inside so it is not visible to others. Therefore, one explanation is that this line is referring to the root of Influencing the People.
But a more practical reason is that it is quite hard for us to eliminate selfish desire completely right away or to control our thoughts. For example, you see something you like, and you want it. It is hard to stop that thought from arising, so if we told the common person to start by eliminating those starts, people would give up and say it’s not practical. But if we tell people to focus on doing virtuous actions, like helping others and not making others unhappy, then everyone would agree this is very doable.
Furthermore, by changing our actions, we can naturally change our mind. When we do good deeds, we naturally feel good for helping others. That positive thought will wash away selfish dirt in our minds, making it easier to do good deeds in the future. Doing virtuous deeds like like giving our mind a bath. Over time, the mind will be purified.
A Role Model: Liao Fan
A great example of someone who purified his mind through cultivating action is a man named Liao Fan. In his book, Liao Fan’s Four Lessons, he talked about how he spent many years practicing good deeds to change his bad habits and selfish intentions.
When he had learned how his bad behavior were responsible for his bad life, he vowed to do 3000 virtuous deeds to change his life for the better. He struggled a lot in the beginning, saying,
“Sometimes, I forced myself to act kindly, but my speech was still untamed and offensive…Although I often practiced kind deeds and accumulated merits, my faults and offenses were so numerous they seemed to outnumber my good deeds…It took me more than ten ears to complete the 3000 good deeds I had vowed to do.”
After the first 3000 deeds were complete, his mind was a lot more purified. He then vowed to do another 3000 good deeds. This time, he wrote,
“Every time I performed a kind deed, I would record it in a book…Every day we practiced like this, and in four years, the 3000 deeds were completed.”
After 14 years of cultivating action, his mind and intentions became purified, and he went from a rather poor life to attaining great wealth and prestige. Therefore, we can all learn from Liao Fan’s example and start our cultivation by correcting our bad behavior.
For example, let’s say it is very hard to not get angry if someone offends you. That thought of anger arises before you even realize it. But once you realize it, you can stop yourself from arguing, remind yourself that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and people who get angry at others probably are very unhappy themselves. Therefore, I should not argue with them. This is cultivating our actions, and doing this over and over again will straighten the mind, purify the intention, and eliminate selfish desire.
Another example is complaining. When things don’t go the way we selfishly want, it is easy to get annoyed and complain. Although we can’t prevent the thought of complaining from arising, we can notice every time we complain and then stop ourselves. Then we can say one thing we appreciate about the situation. As we do this over and over again, our mind will eventually become less complaining and more appreciation. These two examples both show why cultivating actions is the most practical way to start on the path of The Great Learning.
A great tool I’ve used to fix my bad behavior is the To-Be List. Essentially, you write down a list of virtues you want to do in your daily life. Then at the end of the day, you reflect on whether you lived according to those virtues or against them. Give yourself a +1 for each virtuous deed and a -1 for each vice, and see your score at the end of the day. You can track this score over time and try to increase it.
I use Excel to track my To-Be list, and I like it because I can add a comment to each box explaining why I got that +1 or -1. And if I got a negative point, I always write down how I can prevent that mistake in the future.
At the beginning, I found many problems, and I worked on them 1 by 1. After a few months, my problems got less and less, and I become noticeable more happy and clear-headed in my daily life. My mother noticed my improvement in character and she was inspired to use the To-Be List too!
If you don’t want to use the computer for your daily self-reflection, you can also use a journal. The most important thing is to have virtues that you are working on and to reflect on them every day. This daily self-reflection is a very useful daily ritual that will help us stay on the path of The Great Learning.
Let’s all do our part to enlighten our virtues and influence others to do the same!