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Learnings From A Wise Friend

This past year, I had the great fortune of meeting a wise person named Rudy, and we've become good friends. In honor of his birthday, I wanted to share some important life lessons I learned from him.

Although I learned many insightful things from Rudy, the four biggest ones that come to mind are

  1. Reliance on virtuous friends

  2. The root of filial piety

  3. Don't do things for other people's approval

  4. Seek a mentor

1: Reliance on Virtuous Friends

The first thing I learned from him is the importance of having virtuous friends that you can count on.

We met at a summer workshop about sinology, which is basically ancient Chinese philosophy on how to be a good person. Most people from the workshop were from China, and he and I were of the few people who weren't. After the workshop, he reached out to me, saying that he noticed I seem very enthusiastic about Chinese philosophy, and he wanted to connect because it is hard for those of us outside of China to find friends who share this interest.

Looking back, I realized that he reached out mainly to me to help me. He already has lots of friends who study sinology that he can talk to. So I am extremely grateful that he reached out to me. His enthusiasm and regular chats with me helped me stay on this wise and joyful path.

Rudy often tells me a common Chinese saying that goes,

"The spectators can see things more clearly than the players of the game."


The idea is that we need to ask rational observers for advice when we are lost in a problem. When others have a problem and ask us for help, we are great at giving advice because we don't have any emotional baggage towards that situation. Yet when WE have that exact same problem, we become confused and act irrationally due to our emotional baggage.

For example, I recently wrote a rejection message to someone. I checked it with Rudy, and he said, you should give the other person an alternative option since you are rejecting them. I thought, "Oh yeah! I thought maybe the alternative is obvious to this person, but I should still say it just to show my consideration." It seems obvious to a rational observer, but as the person facing the emotional burden of the situation, I neglected it.

Aside from reminding us what we might already know, virtuous friends also help us see things we don't realize. The Record of Education said:

"Learning alone without any friends leads to loneliness, shallow understanding, and lack of good sense."

(Original text: 獨學而無友,則孤陋而寡聞)

As a beginner enthusiast of Chinese philosophy, I was very eager to learn and apply those learnings in my life. But I often encountered difficulties in practice. Then I would ask Rudy, and he would help me have a deeper understanding and improve my good sense. #2 and #3 below are examples.

2: The root of filial piety

Filial piety means being respectful and loving to parents, and it is the foundation of Confucianism. It is so important because if a person cannot even treat their parents well, how can they truly treat others well?

When I was trying to practice filial piety, I was struggling with not arguing back when my mother criticized me. I felt like I was forcing myself to not speak and explain myself, which felt uncomfortable.

Rudy then asked me, what is the root of filial piety? I didn’t know.

He told me,

"The root of filial piety is gratitude towards the people that gave you the most."

For most of us, that is our parents. For orphans, their parents did not raise them. The orphanage staff raised them. Then being filial means treating those orphanage staff respectfully and lovingly because you are grateful to them. The focus is on your feeling of gratitude, not necessarily on any specific action.

He helped me realize that I was struggling to be filial to my mother because I didn't reflect enough on how much gratitude I should feel towards her. So even if she said something that wasn't completely correct, I shouldn’t use a judgmental attitude to correct her. I should yield because I don't want her to be unhappy after all the effort she has put in to make me have a happy life. When the time is right, I can explain to her in a calm and warm tone of voice. When I understood filial piety better, I was much more able to practice it.

3: Don't do things for other people's approval

There was a period of time when I got really busy, and I became very annoyed all the time.

Specifically, I signed up for a couple of classes back in autumn of last year, when I had more free time. But due to some new opportunities, I had less free time, but I still insisted on attending these classes because I felt bad for leaving those teachers before the whole course was over. I thought those teachers might think I don't like their course.

When I told Rudy about this, he told me I need to learn how to select priorities, and I should not be doing things for other people's approval. He helped me reflect:

  • Do those classes and teachers actually need me to continue? No.

  • Am I making the best use of my time by attending those classes, or would focusing on these new opportunities be better? The new opportunities.

  • Would good teachers try to hold back their students from a better opportunity? No.

After reflecting on these questions and answers, I communicated with my teachers for those two classes and told them I have new things that I need to do, so I can no longer attend their classes, but I really appreciate all these months. Those teachers told me they were happy for me and appreciated my attendance.

4: Seek a Mentor

I am a very studious person, and I spend my free time learning sinology because I enjoy it so much. As I mentioned before, when I had points of confusion, I would ask Rudy, and he would help me understand. When he replied me, he often told me that he learned a lot from his mentor.

He noticed I was studying very diligently by myself, so he asked me, "I feel like you really want to learn sinology. Why haven't you sought out a mentor or ask to learn from my mentor? After all, if you really want to learn, you need to take the initiative to ask a more experienced teacher to teach you, just like how if you want to apply for a company, you need to take initiative to network with the people working there."

I replied, "Honestly, the thought just never crossed my mind that I could ask your mentor to teach me. But also, I have so many videos to watch still. Shouldn't I finish my self-learning materials first before seeking a teacher? It's just like if I have a question, I should first google it before I bother a busy expert, right?"

He replied, "Of course it's good that you don't want to waste other people's time, but if you truly care about advancing on this path, you would take initiative to get a mentor. Plus, a mentor can guide you and tell you if what you are studying is suitable for you. You'll avoid a lot of mistakes with the guidance of a mentor. It's just like how when you teach your students, you know right away their problems are and how to fix them. They would advance so much faster with your guidance. The same is true for you if you get a mentor."

His analogy really helped me see the need to seek out a mentor, and I asked how I could learn from his mentor. He then helped me join a weekly Chinese philosophy discussion group hosted by his mentor, and I've learned so much since then. Whenever I asked questions, this teacher would give extremely insightful answers that there's no way I could've thought of myself or understood from online videos. If he hadn't guided me to seek out a mentor, I would've wasted so much more of my life feeling my way around a dark room.


Happy birthday Rudy!

Thanks for your wise teachings, and may we continue to advance our cultivation together!


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