Home China Confucius Taught Using the Analogy of a Warning Vessel

Confucius Taught Using the Analogy of a Warning Vessel

One day, Confucius paid a visit to the ancestral temple of Zhou and saw a vessel. Confucius asked the caretaker of the temple: “What vessel is that?”

The caretaker replied: “It is a Warning Vessel.”

Confucius said: “I have heard that when a Warning Vessel is empty it leans at an angle, when half full it stands straight, and when full it turns over. Is this true?”

The caretaker replied: “Yes, it is true.”

Confucius had disciples bring water to try it, and it was indeed so.

Confucius heaved a sigh and said: “Ah, does it ever happen that those who are full do not turn over!”

Zilu said: “Master, are you saying that when people are like the vessel when it is full of water, they tend to be self-righteous and cling to their own course, which leads to failure? I should like to ask whether there is a method for controlling fullness?”

Confucius said: “The way to control fullness is to repress and diminish it—always leave room in the heart.”

Zilu asked: “Is there a method for diminishing it?”

Confucius said: “Let those whose virtuous conduct is ample preserve it by being reverent. Let those whose territory is extensive preserve it by economy. Let those whose pay is rich and whose rank is elevated preserve them with humility. Let those whose people are many and whose weapons are strong preserve them by fear. Let those possessed of intelligence and knowledge preserve them through [an air of] stupidity. Let those with great learning and strong memories preserve them through [an air of] shallowness.

“Now, this is what I mean by repressing and diminishing. As said in the Book of Song, ‘Emperor Tang of Shang was eager to be courteous to others; therefore, people respected him even more.’”

Ancient people often used warning vessels to discipline themselves, and they were diligent, moderate, and humble.

What’s important for people? A humble character, which is true human nature. How do we be like that? Have a broad and humble mind—just like the sky covers everything and the Earth can hold everything, you should hold without overflowing.

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