How To Garden Your Goodness

How little things can make you a better person, according to Mengzi (300 BC)

First Steps, after Millet, by Vincent van Gogh

“Does Your Majesty know about sprouts?” the sage Mengzi asked the king. Strange question, but an excellent one. The king was not good, but he had goodness in him. Mengzi could see it.

One day the king spared a sacrificial ox and Mengzi came to see him. This was a most promising sprout.

Mengzi said, “This heart is sufficient to become King.”

Thinking about it, the king laughed, saying, “What was this feeling, actually?”

And so they went into it.

“There is no harm,” Mengzi said. “What you did was just a technique for cultivating your benevolence.”

The king was pleased and quoted from “The Odes”, the meme generator of the day.

Another person had the heart,
I measured it

“This describes you, Master [Mengzi]. I was the one who did it. I examined myself and sought to find my heart but failed to understand it. But when you discussed it, my heart was moved. So in what way does this heart accord with becoming King?”

1,500 years later Zhu Xi wrote about this encounter.

Because of Mengzi's words, the king's heart from the previous day sprouts again. Consequently, he understands that this heart does not come from outside, but he still does not understand how to examine its root and extend it.

This is the literal root of Mengzi’s philosophy, and it’s accessible to anyone, commoner or king. In this way, Confucianism is an extremely practical philosophy, because it starts not in the academy but in your home.

If you’re nice to your parents, or your children, or to animals, then you have ethics in you. It’s not some esoteric thing. Mengzi simply calls us to see our daily decencies and extend them. As he told the king,

“Treat your elders as elders, and extend it to the elders of others; treat your young ones as young ones, and extend it to the young ones of others, and you can turn the world in the palm of your hand. The Odes say,

He set an example for his little woman,
It extended to his brothers,
And so he controlled his clan and state

“That in which the ancients greatly exceeded others was no other than this. They were simply good at extending what they did.”

In this way, Mengzi was a constant gardener. He did not present ethics as a fully-formed fruit of his own mind, for people to just learn and follow. He simply encouraged us to tend to our own households, find small sprouts of kindness, prune the weeds, and allow our own natural goodness to grow. It is very much a philosophy of the home and heart, as relevant now as it was 2,300 years ago.

If people lose their chickens or dogs, they know to seek for them. But if they lose their hearts, they do not know to seek for them. The Way of learning and inquiry is no other than to seek for one’s lost heart. (Mengzi, 11.1)

How To Garden Your Goodness

And yet, Mengzi ultimately failed with King Hui. Mengzi exhorted him, “In the present case your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the effects do not reach the commoners.” And they never did. The King had goodness in him, but he never became good.

When his disciples asked what went wrong, Mengzi told them the tale of Ox Mountain.

Mengzi said, "The trees of Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But because it bordered on a large state, hatches and axes besieged it. Could it remain verdant? Due to the respite it got during the day or night, and the moisture of rain and dew, there were sprouts and shoots growing there. But oxen and sheep came and grazed on them. Hence it was as if it were barren.
"When we consider what is present in people, could they truly lack the hearts of benevolence and righteousness? The way that they discard their genuine hearts is like the hatchets and axes in relation to the trees. With them besieging it day by day, can it remain beautiful?

In this sense, Mengzi’s audience with the king was as brief and powerless as a morning rain. By afternoon other advisers were upon him, with hatchets and axes.

Mengzi said, "Do not be surprised at the king's failure to be wise. Even though it may be the easiest growing thing in the world, if it gets one day of warmth and ten days of frost, there has never been anything that is capable of growing. It is seldom that I have an audience with the king, and when I withdraw, those who 'freeze' him come. What can I do with the sprouts that are there?

Such is the way of the world. We all have our daily kindnesses, but they get run over by the rest of the day. We’re bound by profit, by greed, and by simple need. We don’t observe out sprouts, we don’t extend them, and so they don’t grow. As Kongzi also said, we don’t surround ourselves with people who are gardeners too.

And yet this lesson is still incredibly hopeful, because what Mengzi ultimately asks from us is so small. He says goodness is the easiest growing thing in the world. We just have to find it — like a momentary kindness to an animal — observe it, water it, and day-by-day, almost invisibly, your heart will grow.

Literally anyone can keep this sort of home garden. All you need is a heart.

The Power Of Confucianism

This, to me, is the great power of Confucianism. It’s so incredibly practical. You can start now, exactly where you are. Kongzi (Confucius) would say that the Way is hard, very hard, but it is ultimately just many small steps, one after another. Asked to describe himself Kongzi said he wouldn’t even call himself a sage, or good:

What can be said about me is no more than this: I work at it without growing tired and encourage others without growing weary. (The Analects, 7.34)

Four generations later, Mengzi expanded on this thought through much work of his own, but the result is timeless and simple. We are good. We have goodness in us. We just need to put one foot in front of the other. Even the worst person can practice some tiny goodness in their own home. A king can make someone a cup of coffee. A beggar can feed a dog.

The art of goodness is not some grand project, requiring years of learning to find the answer. You have the answer. It is just a matter of patiently tilling the land, clearing weeds, and watering the tender sprouts of kindness every day.

I kill every plant I’m given, but this is still an incredibly hopeful philosophy. What Mengzi teaches is that goodness is just a home garden. It’s already growing in your heart and hearth.

Please read:
Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett Classics), by Mengzi (Author), Bryan W. Van Norden (Translator)

This is an excellent, riveting translation with ancient commentaries that I found vital for understanding the text. I highly recommend reading Mengzi (Mencius) directly as you get a whole experience that a Medium article cannot possibly provide.