A question was posed to me once whether cultivation means that the cultivator tries to emulate a sage. Ha, the answer remains that one tries to emulate Heaven and Earth instead. For the knowledge of ancient sages is so profound and their contemplation so deep, that it may take a few lifetimes to try to emulate them; unless we think of New Age definitions of sages. The extent of their contemplation and how an ancient sage learns something can be best seen in this event in the Records of the Historian (Shiji).
‘One day Confucius was playing the chimes when a man with a wicker crate passed the door and said, “Poor fellow, playing the chimes! He is self-willed but he does not know himself. It is useless to talk with him.”
Confucius practiced playing the lute for ten days without attempting anything new. Shih Hsiang, his tutor, said, “You can go ahead now.”
“I have learned the tune but not the technique,” said Confucius.
After some time Shih Hsiang said, “You have mastered the measure now, you can go on.”
But Confucius replied, “I have not yet caught the spirit.”
Sometime later the other said, “Now you have caught the spirit, you can go on.”
“I cannot yet visualize the man behind it,” answered Confucius. Later he observed, “This is the work of a man who thought deeply and seriously, one who saw far ahead and had a calm, lofty outlook.” He continued, “I see him now. He is dark and tall, with far-seeing eyes that seem to command all the kingdoms around. No one but King Wen could have composed this music.”
Shih Hsiang rose from his seat and bowed as he rejoined, “Yes, this is the Lute-song of King Wen.”’ [Records of the Historian – HY Yang and Gladys Yang]
If this was how an ancient sage learned his lute playing, one wonders how many cultivators can emulate him. Amongst the many wise students of Confucius, perhaps only his favorite student, Yen Hui could have reached this level if he had not passed away early. And for posterity, Confucius compiled his following thoughts in ‘The Great Learning’:
“Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, the ancients first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.” [The Text of Confucius 4 & 5 –Legge]
With his profound knowledge and sincerity, Confucius had emulated the ancients and became a sage. Since one cannot be as learned as his students or their students, it would be easier for me to try to emulate Heaven and Earth instead and perhaps reach the Center, that way?