'Jen': Having a Heart for Others

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'Jen': Having a Heart for Others

Without loving and understanding each other, people can hardly live together, as we can see in the relationship shared by a married couple -- or in friend- ship. The Chinese character jen is made up of two foundational, or etymological, meanings, a person and the number two. It is the integration of all the virtues necessary to live a life with others. The con- cept sometimes means politeness, sometimes benevolence -- even generosity or sincerity in some cases. Jen is one''s heart''s inclination to love, to seek the best for other people.

In the Analects of Confucius, the records of lessons taught by the ancient Chinese philosopher, the word jen is used 106 times. Confucius never clearly identified the meaning of the word. When his disciple Fan-chih asked him about jen, Confucius said it meant loving other people. To another disciple, Yen-yuan, Confucius said, `To completely overcome selfishness and keep to propriety is jen.` To a third follower, Chung-kung, he summarized jen as, `What you don''t want done to yourself, don''t do to others.` Confucius answered the question differently depend- ing on the person asking.

In one chapter of the Analects Confucius says that a man of strong will or virtue never damages jen to survive, but strives to save jen by sacrificing his own life. Thus, a truly righteous man sacrifices himself to preserve other people, rather than do harm to others in order to save his life shamefully. A famous expression sacrificing oneself to become a martyr to humanity originated from this lesson.

Front pages of the Korean and Japanese press have been featuring Lee Su-hyon, who became a martyr to humanity in Japan. When a 37-year-old drunken man slipped and fell onto railroad tracks, two bystanders jumped down to the track to try to rescue him. One was Mr. Lee, a Korean, aged 27. The other was a 47-year-old Japanese man, Shiro Sekine. All three died. It is understandable that the press has been highlighting the unselfish act of the young Korean, a foreigner. But the death of Mr. Sekine is equally a noble deed.

Mencius once said that jen starts from the mind understanding and feeling other people''s hardships and pains as if they were one''s own. Mr. Lee, who jumped onto the track to rescue someone in danger, made no distinction at that moment between Korean and Japanese. But it would be inappropriate to confine Mr. Lee''s death to the context of Korean-Japanese relations. Instead, we should direct our attention to the wider world and make some earnest contribution, small or large, for those in India where tens of thousands of lives were lost in the recent earthquake. That will be a sincere way to praise Mr. Lee''s spirit of sacrificing himself to become a martyr to humanity.
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