Zengzi said, “Zizhang is imposing. It’s not easy to develop humaneness side-by-side with him.”Analects, 19.16
There are a few ways to interpret Zengzi’s comment. On one hand, he could be paying Zizhang a backhanded compliment. Perhaps Zengzi is saying that Zizhang has the outward appearance of someone who has great virtue, but his actual attainment doesn’t match up. This is the opinion of Zhu Xi, one of Ruist’s greatest minds.
Others, however, believe that Zengzi is sincerely praising Zizhang. In other words, he might be saying something like this: “Zizhang is so advanced in his learning, it’s difficult for others to develop alongside him.”
Imagine showing up for a class on the basics of football, for example, and one of your classmates is Tom Brady. If you could get past the sense of intimidation, you could probably learn a great deal from him, but you wouldn’t consider yourself his equal. You would not feel a sense of companionship with him.
If you spend a lot time reading great Ruist thinkers like Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), or Zunxi, you might experience a similar feeling. These teachers seem to have things figured out. You can learn from them, but not with them. And, if you lack close relationships with other real-life Ru at your own level, you can feel lonely and isolated.
Fortunately, there is at least one book you can turn to for comfort: The Journal of Wu Yubi. Born in 1392 CE, Wu Yubi spent much of his adult life struggling along the path and we are fortunate to have his personal journal and many of his letters documenting that struggle. Here’s a passage:
For the past ten days, I have been neglecting my studies and moral cultivation. Even in my sleep, I let out frequent sighs of frustration. While teaching my daughters The Analects today, I was moved by the subtle and profound words the Sage (Kongzi). Frightened, I found myself moved to step up my efforts. Now where can I find a good friend to help me realize this ambition of mine to reach Sagehood?Wu Yubi