Ji Lu asked how to serve the dead. "You are yet unable to serve the living," Confucius replied. "How can you serve the dead?"
Ji Lu then asked about death. "You do not yet understand life," Confucius replied. "How can you understand death?"
--Analects （Xian Jin 12)
After Confucius refused him, Ji Lu applied himself more fully to the study of his master's teachings, until at last Confucius himself said "Ji Lu, you have learned all that I can teach. It is time for you to seek out employment."
"Master," Ji Lu replied, "If have learned all that you can teach, then surely I am able to serve the living. Will you now teach me to serve the dead?"
"Well," said Confucius, "you have learned, yes, but have you been employed in service? Have you endeavored for your family, your master, or your state? Can you truly say that you are able to serve the living?"
"I cannot," replied Ji Lu, and set out to seek employment.
Ji Lu found work with the Kong family in Wey. There, he promoted family harmony and loyalty among his employers and their subjects, prevented a brutal filicide and the accompanying coup d'etat, and promoted new agricultural methods. Through this, he revitalized the entirety of the state, and after several years all of Wey was peaceful and prosperous. Having exhausted himself in service of his employers, he returned to Confucius in Lu.
"Master," said Ji Lu, after they had exchanged greetings, "I have, through my labor and your teachings, reformed the people and the government of Wey. Surely, I am thus able to serve the living. Now will you teach me to serve the dead?"
"Well," Confucius said, "it is true that you have done admirable service for the state of Wey. But the Empire of the Zhou is still in disarray. Vassals refuse to serve their lords; lords refuse to care for their vassals. The imperial rites are reduced to drunken revelry; the emperor himself reduced to barely a figurehead. Knowing this, can you truly say that you are able to serve the living?"
"I cannot," replied Ji Lu, and set out to repair the empire.
Ji Lu travelled to Zhou, where the erstwhile emperor ruled the fragments of his court. Seeking to enter the imperial service, he was able through his personal connections to obtain appointment as a door guard. Through his wisdom, quick wit, and righteous heart, he advised and influenced the other guards, who therefrom became forthright, honest, and incorruptible where they had previously been notorious, negligent, and involved in intrigue and conspiracies.
Ji Lu did not go unnoticed by the upright or the wicked. Wicked men conspired to frame him for treason, but his friends were so many and so upright that they came to his defense, even at risk of their own executions. After Ji Lu prevailed against the false charges, the emperor took notice of his talents and promoted him to an advisory position. As an imperiual advisor, Ji Lu re-established the imperial rites, reformed the feudal hierarchy and, eventually and not without considerable strife, restored Zhou imperial power over their wayward vassal states. Having exhausted himself in service to the empire, he begged the emperor for leave and, once it was given, he returned Confucius in Lu.
"Master," said Ji Lu, after they had exchanged greetings, "I have, through my labor, restored the imperial court to rectitude and decency, recommitted the imperial family to the grand rites of state, and re-established the emperor as the master of his vassals. Surely, I am thus able to serve the living. Will you now teach me to serve the dead?"
"Well," Confucius said, "it is true that you have done admirable service in the imperial court, and for the entirety of the empire. But there are many people beyond the borders of our empire: barbarians and nomads and even, I am told, other empires. In all these places the rulers are tyrants and their vassals are kept by fear. Parents mistreat their children and children in return disrespect their parents. As long as there are people in this world crying out for justice and rectitude, can you say that you are able to serve the living?"
"I cannot," replied Ji Lu, and set out to repair the world.
Ji Lu visited every barbarian nation: Chu, Tianzhu, Daxia, even as far as Daqin. Everywhere he went, he spread his master's teachings on governance, ritual, and family. He taught local disciples and with them translated Confucius's doctrines into a thousand different tongues. He did not simply repeat Confucius's teachings, either. Rather, when he arrived in a new place, he would learn about their customs and traditions, and only then he would adapt his master's doctrines, teaching his students to reshape their societies not through war or treason or uprising, but through reform, rectitude, and recognition of mutual humanity. Finally, after decades of struggle, the entire world was at peace. His work done, Ji Lu returned to Lu with a coterie of his students.
When he returned to Lu, however, he learned that in his absence Confucius had died. Ji Lu's students tried to comfort him, speaking to him of his accomplishments, but Ji Lu was unconsolable.
"How dare you say I have accomplished anything," cried Ji Lu. "My master is dead and I have never learned how to serve him." He sat down on his master's grave and wept until he died.
After he died, Ji Lu entered the ghost world. He immediately sought out Confucius.
"Master," he said after the had exchanged greetings, "the entire world has learned your values of righteousness, rectitude, and shared humanity. Thanks to your teachings and my effort, the entire world is at peace. Surely now it can be said that I have learned to serve the living. Surely now you will teach me how to serve the dead."
When Confucius heard this, he nodded. He leaned forward and whispered to Ji Lu, teaching him how to serve the dead.
But I cannot tell you what he said. You are yet unable to serve the living. How can you serve the dead?