The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
10. TAOISM: THE WAY OF NATURALNESS AND NONCOERCION
For as long as we can remember, the news about China has been news about changes in the way of life of the people. Civil wars, international wars, revolutions, new political developments. Always changes such as these take their toll in the whole life of all the people affected. In China, as elsewhere, religions have been forced to change. Many of the old traditions and ceremonies and ideas are no longer respected or observed or understood by today’s Chinese.
The ancient country of China was relatively untouched by modern scientific and educational advancements until the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, centuries ago, there lived a Chinese sage named Lao-tse, who believed and taught that the world moved according to a divine pattern, which is reflected in the rhythmic and orderly movements of nature. The sum of wisdom and of happiness for man, said Lao-tse, is that he adjusts himself to this order and himself reflect the way the world moves.
Lao-tse’s life and thought have added depth to Chinese life and thought. The world would be the poorer without him. His teachings, together with those of later followers who believed as he did, make up the thoughtful basis of Taoism. Yet, when we look back carefully into the past of China -- to about 600 B.C. -- we see only a faint, shadowy outline of this sage, humorist, philosopher, and prophet. The figure of Lao-tse comes close to being legendary. However, many scholars claim that such a person did live. Stories tell us that he was visited by Confucius and that the two philosophers conversed together. Lao-tse is mentioned in books written in the generation just after his own. According to tradition, Lao-tse himself is supposed to have written the Tao-Teh-Ching, the fascinating little book on which much of Taoism is based.
Lao-tse was first moved to speak because he saw around him many people who were perplexed by unanswered questions about their lives. The questions were not very different from the ones you and I ask even today. Like all basic human questions, they have been repeated by generations. "What am I? What is my life? Am I living the best life I can? What could I be? How can I do better? What are the results of trying to do better?"
The Chinese looked upon their world in an optimistic way, and when they asked, they asked hopefully and confidently. The world, they observed, was a good place for a man. It could be depended upon. All their experience in daily contacts with the world had shown them that it was orderly and dependable. Nature did not operate by whim. The Chinese seemed to sense that they ‘belonged" to nature.
Yet Lao-tse looked at the people around him and saw some of them struggling for happiness without remembering what their traditions taught them. He saw people trying to change what life offered, instead of accepting it. And he said: "You seek wisdom, goodness, and contentment. In the ways you arc trying to attain them, you are blind and foolish. Can you not see that wisdom is trust, goodness is acceptance, and contentment is simplicity? This is the way of the world."
THE WAY OF THE WORLD
In days earlier even than Lao-tse’s, the way of the world had been given a name, the Tao (pronounced Dow), which means simply "way" or "way to go." It has been translated as "nature" or "the way of nature." It is the way the universe moves and has its being. Man is a part of the universe. When men are most natural, they move according to the laws of interdependence and interaction of all parts of the world. If Tao were allowed freely to operate within men, then everything would be at its best, for the Tao is the way of perfection: perfect balance, perfect harmony. It is the way -- there is no other.
The Tao is the source of all created things. It is responsible for bringing all things into existence, even the Chinese gods. The Tao itself has never been considered as a god. The Tao is reality. It existed before there was any universe. It created all existence and continues to keep it in operation through the release of its energy. Rise and fall, flow and ebb, existence and decay -- through such an alternation of the Tao’s energy, existence began and will continue. Even so, the Tao never forces a person to act in a certain way. The Tao simply operates. That is all.
Taoism was so named because Lao-tse and his followers were insistent upon the Tao as the way of life. "Getting back to nature" was their goal -- "nature’ being understood to mean the natural and proper way of all things. So completely did the early Taoists follow this line of belief that they went about China calling for the end of human ceremonies and customs and even civilization itself, because these were the result of interfering with nature.
THE WAY OF MEN
The early Taoists frequently referred to a past "Golden Age," when men had lived in peace and harmony because they were natural, free from artificiality, simple -- in short, men of Tao. The good things that all men seek had been lost when that age had passed. Men would find them only when they returned to the simplicity and utter naturalness that had characterized the Golden Age.
"Nature" is the key to all the Taoists’ answers to the questions life makes us ask. A person’s highest good and his sincere happiness is to be found through conforming to the way of all nature, the Tao. When one is natural, he is relaxed within and able to accept what life offers. When one is ambitious or aggressive, he contradicts his true nature. In the ensuing civil war within himself, he strikes his possible happiness a fatal blow.
While Lao-tse was calmly suggesting that men must relax and accept the world as it is, instead of trying to change it, there were many others who loudly voiced their disagreement. Reformers and philosophers, Confucius among them, walked the land, telling all who would listen that the only way to regain happiness and prosperity was for all people to become virtuous. When every person learned to do his duty and to fulfill all of his responsibilities, then the land and all its people would be blessed. They, too, spoke of a past golden age, when happiness was the rule rather than the exception. But, they said, its values could be realized again when the people learned how to behave toward each other.
"Not so, not so!" cried the early Taoists. Virtue, duty -- these are achieved by those who let themselves go and do what comes naturally. Why should a man strive for goodness? Goodness comes of itself when all rules are forgotten and effort ceases. Virtue is never gained by seeking it. Duty is performed only when you are not trying to perform it.
Lao-tse had little sympathy for the typical reformer who wished to add rule after rule for proper living. It is after people have lost their way, said he, that the reformer cries, ‘be good, be righteous! I will tell you how." When a family is no longer getting along very well, the parents start telling the children to be respectful and obedient. This applies to nations, too, for only in times of national confusion are people anxious about patriotism.
Nature never argues the way persons do. Nature just goes on being natural. And what argument can change the way of the world? Gravity does not debate with us or insist; it just operates. In such ways, nature shows us the Tao. Lao-tse pointed out that the Tao is never forceful, yet there is nothing that it does not accomplish. Precisely because of its unceasing, unstriving, uncoercing operation, the Tao is the only power.
The man who lives by Tao will not use force, for force defeats his higher aims. The man who tries to shape the world into what he wants it to be damages himself and others in the attempt. He who insists or strives for something gets involved in his own efforts and merely loses the value of the thing he seeks. Thus he damages his ideal, defeats his purpose, and fails miserably.
Men should learn from a pond of muddy water. No amount of stirring can clear it. But when it is left alone, it becomes clear by itself. So it is with men and with nations. Rulers particularly must understand this. Lao-tse once said that one should govern people as he would cook a small fish -- gently. Too much cooking, too much handling makes it fall to pieces or destroy its flavor. As for the people who presume to teach others, they must also grasp this idea. He who thinks he knows a lot about others may think he is wise. But only he who knows himself has hold upon the true and the important.
THE MAN OF TAO
Lao-tse and Chuang-tse, the best-known later Taoist (around 350-275 B.C.), must have spoken reluctantly, for the real Tao is not the Tao that can be expressed in words. It is impossible to describe literally the man of Tao. Yet these two men were pressed for definitions. And so Lao-tse drew a word picture:
Taoists feel that such descriptions of the poised and serene person are true, not because Lao-tse or anyone else has said them -- but because they reflect the nature of things, the Tao.
Chuang-tse was fishing one day when some high officials of the government of his province came to visit him. As he continued to fish, they flattered him, by speaking of his wisdom and offered him a high governmental post, which would bring him recognition and respect from many people. Without interrupting his fishing, Chuang-tse asked the gentlemen if they knew of the sacred tortoise, dead over three thousand years, which the prince kept safely enclosed in a chest on the altar of his ancestors. Then he asked them, "Do you think this tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains revered, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud of its pond?"
"It would rather be alive," they replied, "wagging its tail in the mud."
"You may be on your way," said Chuang-tse. "I too prefer to wag my tail in the mud in my own pond."
WHAT IS WORTHWHILE? THE THREE TREASURES
Then what is of value? And for what should a person spend his efforts? A person cannot simply sit and fold his hands and wait. Since he lives in a group of people, he has to think of others. The early Taoists faced the problem of living in an everyday world. They knew that they must live their philosophy, as well as think it. They decided that there were three things -- three treasures, they called them -- that is the supreme guide of the man to Tao. These three are love, moderation, and humility. How do these three qualities help the man of Tao to live in the world? "Being loving, one can be brave; being moderate, one can be ample; not venturing to go ahead of the world, one can be the chief of all officials."
One who sees the Tao within himself sees the Tao in others and in the entire world. It is this person who sees that his true welfare is good for all men. The good for all men is his rood, too. This is what- Lao-tse meant by being loving. The man of Tao will act with goodness toward all men, to the so-called good people as well as to the so-called bad, even returning love for great hatred. If this is not done, regardless of bow justly one deals with the hatred, some of the hatred or its results will remain. "Being loving, one can be brave." The man of Tao trusts the world, and the world can be entrusted to him.
In all his thoughts and actions, the man of Tao is moderate. Excesses in any direction are blocks to contentment. The man of Tao would not decide in advance exactly what course of action he would take in a given situation. Neither would he decide in advance that lie would not conduct himself in a certain way. He would remember always that whatever presents itself as the simplest and most natural way to act or to think is the way to follow. In this way, his actions are always sufficient and always right. "Being moderate, one can be ample."
Lao-tse and his followers never sought high places in governmental offices, for this was against their convictions. One cannot help people by trying to direct their actions. And they pointed out how one could better achieve his purposes by holding himself in a humble place. In our world there is no place for sonic to be ahead of others. There is room only for all to live naturally and in mutually helpful ways. Let no one seek private gain or personal success.
These qualities are treasures that do not lie buried somewhere so deeply that a teacher or friend or philosopher is needed to dig them out for us. They are found when we become aware of those things, which we ordinarily ignore, in our deepest nature. Simply by peeling back through the layers of our fears and habits and superficial aspirations, we find such treasures. A lack of these qualities shows us a person who is forced, unnatural, and unhappy.
WHAT MUST I DO?
Duty is to be performed, not because a man feels obligated to do it, but more because he does not feel that he must not do it. The man of Tao would conform to the world to the extent required to cause him least difficulty in living in harmony with the Tao. It is clear that he could not live harmoniously if he were constantly plotting to get out of responsibility and to overthrow governments and institutions. It is clear also that he would not live harmoniously if he were constantly planning to take over larger shares of responsibility and to reform or strengthen the things about him. The world is like a broth that too many cooks are about to spoil. The wise man will not refuse to add any ingredients, nor will he stir. He prefers to wait for a proper and natural blend.
But how can we just sit back and let things happen without doing anything to help or hinder. It is difficult to do, but it is simple. It is as simple and as difficult as relaxing. Chuang-tse gave this advice:
A man feels a pleasurable sensation before he smiles, and smiles before he thinks how he ought to smile. Resign yourself to the proper sequence of things.
The world is not ours to take by the horns and steer. The world is ours to live in and to understand. Harmony is not born of aggressive notes, striking out on their own. It is born of humble notes, yielding confidently and quietly in accord.
Chuang-tse once told a story about a man who struck out on his own, instead of yielding in confidence to the Tao. This man was so afraid of his shadow and he so disliked his own footsteps that he determined to get away from them. However, the more he moved, the more footsteps he made. And despite his fast running, he never left his shadow far behind. So lie decided that he was going too slowly. He ran his fastest, without pausing for rest. As a result, he weakened and finally died. He did not know that he could have lost his shadow in the shade and put an end to his footsteps by keeping still. Foolish indeed was he. Woe to the reformers and the moralists who come preaching of purity and goodness, says Chuang-tse -- they run from their own shadows.
WHAT IS RIGHT? WHAT IS TRUE?
When one really stops to analyze it, says the Taoist, how can one claim to offer rules for good living? How can one ever feel confident enough in his own knowledge to do such a thing? The cocksure person who pretends to know so much is probably pretending just for the sake of his own ego. The person who is truly wise is the one who does not know that he is wise. Thinking that we know, when actually we do not, is a special sickness to which all men are prone. Only when we become sick of such conceit and fraud can we cure ourselves of the sickness.
In his desire to help people do this, Chuang-tse often used the light touch of humor. He tells the story of how he once dreamed that he was a butterfly, fluttering around gaily here and there. He was completely unaware of being a man any longer. Then suddenly, he awoke and found himself lying in bed, still a human being. However, Chuang-tse then had to ask himself: "Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"
What is truth? How do I know that I know? These are questions which cannot he answered definitely by the true wise man, though many self-styled sages offer answers. All answers depend upon a time and a place and a situation. The man of Tao forgets lists of answers; he ignores codes of behavior; he rises above morals and ethics. The man of Tao does not submit to external authorities of any sort. He merely listens keenly to his own deepest nature. In doing so, he not only finds truth but also lives truth. For in his deepest nature, there is the Tao, operating clearly and strongly; without going out of his door, the man of Tao can know the whole world.
Such were the words of the pioneers of Taoism, who would have preferred not to talk at all. They knew that their impressions of life could not best be conveyed in words. Their impressions would be fully understood only by those who shared them as a result of their own experiences. Each of us has at some time failed in the attempt to put his deepest feelings or intuitions into words. In such moments, we may express ourselves in poetry, or music, or some other art form. It is just so with the Taoists. If we are to understand them, we must realize that we arc dealing with the poetry of their impressions. Words are not meant to be taken literally, since words cannot convey impressions adequately. But the words of Taoism are meant to be taken seriously.
TAOISM IS A RELIGIOUS CULT
The Taoists’ reluctance to use words as a vehicle for their feelings was not misplaced. Hardly were the words uttered or the symbols drawn on the paper. when the weakness of words betrayed the speakers and the writers. People took the words literally, and they followed them to the letter, like the codes that the earlier Taoists so ridiculed. In clinging to the descriptions of the man of Tao, people forgot the inward harmony that had first been described. In memorizing the "three treasures," people neglected to find them buried within themselves. In trying to follow Lao-tse and Chuang-tse exactly, people lost their way to understanding the Tao.
This is not at all surprising. The people of Lao-tse’s time were never really lifted from their superstitious ways by his utterances, or those of any other teacher. Their worlds were filled with daily concerns for work and friends and families. It was easy and reassuring to placate the ever-present "spirits" who were everywhere about them. These people did not have the time, the education, or the desire to think searchingly about their lives. Most people, everywhere, and in every age, live their lives without thinking deeply about them.
Even so, most people have a high respect for those who do think deeply, and especially for those few famous thinkers whose ideas appeal to them as being an important part of what is universally true. Often, out of their respect, they turn to veneration and then, almost imperceptibly, to worship. Thus it was with Lao-tse. Later generations regarded him as a god. They forgot that the happiness of which he spoke had to be reached by the process he had followed -- conforming to the way of all things -- the Tao. They seemed to think that there were short cuts to the contentment that Lao-tse had experienced.
Gradually through the years, the self-knowledge and life-knowledge that had been the goals of Taoism got left behind. Newer Taoists sprang up, whose major concerns lay in the banishing of cares and sorrows. True, the earlier Taoists had wanted this, too, but as a by-product of harmony with the nature of things. Now the Taoists wished to make happiness an easier thing. And they began to offer pills and potions and magical rituals to help in achieving it.
Taoism became a search for the magical elixir, a cure for all ills, and a prolonged of carefree life. The early Taoists had at first retreated from the artificial and unnatural in order to know reality. They were followed, centuries later, by Taoists who retreated from reality in order to follow superstitious customs they hoped would bring escape from unhappiness. The earlier Taoists had prize the knowledge and understanding of the Tao, seeking to fit in with the nature of things. The later Taoists tried to interfere with natural processes, in order to gain immortality and freedom from care.
Other Taoists, despairing of this life, have become hermits and live merely for death, following what they believe to be the correct interpretation of Lao-tse’s teaching to "do nothing." They are few in number, for the masses of the people cling to the more popular expression of Taoism -- the superstitious and magical. The Taoists accept their religion for the comfort they receive now and for the hope it gives them for their future after death.
Lao-tse taught that men should neither worry about nor serve the spirits, which many thought to be all about them. Instead, they should study to learn the ways of the world. Nothing could come from their ignorant and fearful worship of such spirits. The man of Tao was not troubled by spirits, either good or bad. Those who worked magic tried to force nature to do their wills. And force was never successful. Nature could teach them this.
Lao-tse, looking on the present scene, would doubtless be distressed that this had come to pass from what he had taught. He would be filled with the sense of futility that would come to any prophet who could look upon what had developed out of his labors. The religion, which to Lao-tse as founder, is full of all the things he considered least worthwhile.
This new Taoism could not survive as an effective religion, even as the old Taoism had not lasted. Gradually, the people who had been attracted to the thoughtfulness of Taoism became discouraged. The people who had sought the betterment of human society turned to Confucianism, which offered more direct and practical help in that problem. Those who had liked the meditative aspects of Taoism began to investigate Buddhism. And classical Taoism, as Lao-tse taught it, practically ceased to exist.
The religion of the average Chinese person today is a blend of different religious traditions. Taoism’s role in that blend has been a light-hearted and playful facet in the national life. Most of the religious holidays, with their gay ceremonies, had their origin in the past of Taoism. These include ceremonies for certain significant birthdays -- especially those of boys -- ceremonies for marriage, for the birth of children, and for sonic seasons of the year. There is now a group of trained priests who minister to those who call themselves Taoists.
Lao-tse’s and Chuang-tse’s Taoism lives on mostly in the things it offered to other stronger and longer-lived religions. Confucianism added the Taoist belief in the basic goodness of people. Buddhism in China, with its already strong emphasis on the importance of knowing the inner self, was strengthened and changed somewhat by this native religion. As a religious philosophy, Taoism faded, but it did send many away with the understanding that the inner life of the self was the life that was important.
11. CONFUCIANISM: THE WAY OF HARMONY AND PROPRIETY
Legends say that when Lao-tse was very old he was visited by a scholarly young man from a nearby province. The young man, who spent most of his days in study, had come to ask some questions. Like Lao-tse, he was concerned with the quality of life in China. He, too, believed that back in the ‘good old days" of the Golden Age people had lived better lives and the country as a whole was more prosperous.
This young man was Confucius, and he had arrived at those beliefs via the route of much study and research into the ancient literature of China. As he collected and translated the literary Classics, he found what he considered to be clues to the happier life of the earlier days. For a real understanding of Confucian philosophy, we still turn to his comments upon those Classics. The Analects, stories about Confucius and his comments upon life situations, also tell of his proposals for the good of his countrymen.
Both Lao-tse and Confucius were concerned with the social and moral weaknesses of their generation. Lao-tse met the challenge of life with the radical view that the institutions and customs of his day were unnatural and thus to be avoided. Confucius, a true conservative, taught that the best from the past should be kept and properly improved. In the past lay the key to the present and the future. He did not seek to start either a new religion or a new system of ethics.
Confucius was facing the same basic questions that concerned Lao-tse. "What is life all about? How can I get along best in the world? How can I live a happy life? What am I?" For part of the answer, Confucius turned to nature and the Tao, as Lao-tse had done. All parts of nature, he observed, operate in harmony with one another. He decided that men might learn from nature. By following the way of nature and harmony, men would do the best thing they could in the world.
Harmony, then, was Confucius’ ideal, just as it was Lao-tse’s. Wherein lay the difference between the two men? For one thing, their personalities were very different. In all the problems they faced, the dissimilarity of their outlooks determined the differences in the solutions they gave. While Lao-tse tended to be an "individualist," Confucius believed that man’s entire responsibility was social. Man was not man apart from his fellows. Harmony for man, therefore, meant harmony with other men. Lao-tse believed that man’s responsibility was to understand himself and to get himself directly in harmony with the Tao. But Confucius believed that man’s responsibility was to cooperate with others and to perform the duties society expected of him. Such co-operation was rooted, of course, in the Tao, but the human level of experience was the medium through which human beings expressed their belonging to the universe. When a person developed his capacity for harmony with his fellow human beings, then he could understand universal harmony.
THE NEED FOR RULES FOR LIVING
Confucius saw that not all men were conducting themselves in such co-operative, mutually helpful ways. This, to Confucius’ practical mind, meant simply that they needed some definite standards. In his writings, Confucius emphasized such standards, repeating and interpreting the ancient, traditional rules of Chinese society. He saw no need to add new rules. His duty as he saw it was to compile and transmit to posterity the literature describing the old customs and manners of Chinese society. He wrote no new things, for he believed and loved the ancients.
Why was it that rules were needed? All the rules arose originally out of human needs. This is the way all good laws come about. There are problems in living together, and rules are designed to solve the problems. Wherever there are many people living together, there are more problems than where there are few. The government of a large city is much more complex than the government of a tiny village. China already had many people. And thanks mainly to Confucius, she has accumulated many rules. All these rules are attempts to make life go more smoothly. They are not to be enforced like traffic regulations. They are more like rules of etiquette.
Rules have more meaning when they are specific. People who like to live in an ordered society feel more comfortable when the rules for society are available in definite order and when they designate times and places. So it was that, through the years, Confucianists placed great value on numerous lists of specific rules covering everything from passing the time of day with a friend to worshiping the ancestors. Dress and conversation were prescribed. Even posture and steps were listed, so that no one who was sincere in his efforts could fail to do the right thing. Following the rules showed a person’s real desire to cooperate with his fellow men.
HOW TO GET ALONG WITH OTHER PEOPLE: THE SUPERIOR MAN
In order that people might know how they. ought to live, Confucius describe a "Superior Man," or a noble or princely man. Confucius called him a "princely" or superior man because of his belief that the rulers were teachers. However, anyone at any time can live as a Superior Man.
The Superior Man has developed within his personality Five Constant Virtues, which he has practiced until they are as natural as breathing. Doing the right thing is an inseparable part of him. When Confucius said of himself that not until he was seventy years of age could he follow the promptings of his heart without overstepping the boundaries of right, perhaps he was being overly modest or very humble. Nevertheless, a good Confucianist spends as long as it takes to make the right way of living so habitual that he will not have to stop to think about doing the right thing.
(1) Right Attitude. The first of the Five Constant Virtues concerns attitude. The Superior Man desires to be in harmony with other men. He knows that he cannot fulfill his role in life unless he is co-operative and accommodating. The right attitude is revealed through conduct. People have the seed of such an attitude within them, but it must be helped to develop. This virtuous attitude is sometimes thought of as an inner law of self-control.
(2) Right Procedure. The second Constant Virtue is proper procedure. The man of noble mind has made a study of the rules of conduct. He has learned how to apply them to every incident he faces. He knows all the rules for etiquette, which set forth what each social situation requires of the completely humanized person. He knows all the ceremonies and rituals centering around ancestor reverence. He knows how to sit, how to stand, bow to converse, how to walk, and how to control his facial expressions on all occasions. Yet all these rituals and procedures are without value if a man does not have the proper attitude. "A man without charity in his heart, what has he to do with ceremonies?"
(3) Right Knowledge. The third Constant Virtue is knowledge. The Superior Man is a knowing man, for a person must be educated in order to respond in the exact way. The Confucianists’ goal is to grow gradually from memorized rules to habits. The subjects that teach a person correct moral habits are the history, literature, and civics that make up the Chinese Classics. The Superior Man plans his education to include all such essentials. For centuries, the Classics were the bases of education in China. Modern times have substituted other subjects, but the Confucianist still holds the Classics in respect.
When Confucius stressed the importance of education, he was not suggesting a new idea. He was repeating and emphasizing what the ancients had said. The social order depends upon fundamental morality -- the morality of proper words and actions. Also like the ancients, Confucius believed that morality was to be applied in all levels of life, but in a very significant way to the ruling level. For the rulers were the teachers of all. They taught the needed morality most effectively when they set a good moral example and when they governed kindly. Only through such a process would the new Golden Age finally arrive, when all men would deal with each other in kindness and consideration.
(4) Right Moral Courage. According to the fourth Constant Virtue, the Superior Man should develop the moral courage necessary to remain loyal to himself and charitable toward his neighbors. His character is such that everything he does makes a worthwhile contribution to society. Through his every deed, human relationships are improved.
(5) Right Persistence. The last of the Five Constant Virtues was an emphasis of their title -- constancy. The Superior Man has achieved the other four virtues, and he persists in his achievement. He is unfailingly kind and helpful. He knows what his duty is on each occasion, and he always knows how to do that duty. Because he has developed the seeds of virtue within his nature, he is in harmony with everything in the universe. Because he has harmony within himself, he is part of cosmic harmony. That is why he is able to do the right thing at the right time always.
Confucianists often speak of "perfect humanity." It can be achieved by a person because of something the Confucianists believe to be present within each person, even at birth. This is a native goodness or kindly love that can be developed through feelings of helpfulness toward others. It was Mencius, the best-known Confucianist of a later period, who emphasized the native goodness of men. When he and Confucius spoke of man s goodness, they meant that he was fit to live with other people -- in the long run. There was quite a course of preparation first, as we have seen. Behavior, habits, thought patterns, and judgments had to be improved.
When a man has educated himself to be a Superior Man, he can be kind, helpful, and good. The "seed" of goodness within him makes these qualities possible. So many good acts are possible that the Chinese despaired of ever listing them all one by one. Their "Golden Rule" is stated in negative terms. Nevertheless, it is full of concern for others. "Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you."
As part of their effort to make right living easy for everyone, Confucianists have stressed five important personal relationships that require kindness and tact. These were once taught to every schoolboy. but that system of education was discontinued early in this century. Still, many Confucianists think that if everyone used the Five Constant Virtues in these five relationships, a true golden age would begin. If happiness or harmony is to exist, the ten people involved in these contacts must use virtuous attitudes and conduct toward each other:
Notice that something is expected of both parties to the relationship. Each is responsible for acting and speaking and thinking in kind and helpful ways.
Some may say that this does not go far enough. What about other people of their own and other lands? Confucianists do hold to the ideal of charity and kindness to all one’s neighbors and to all other persons on earth. But one individual does not come in contact with all other persons. His circle of acquaintances is limited. It is for this reason that the five personal relationships are listed. It is much better for a person to act with kindness and regard for the few persons he contacts frequently than to mouth words about "loving" all men.
He will never know all men. A good life consists of acting properly toward the persons one meets daily in everyday experiences.
FAMILY LOVE AND DEVOTION
Long before the point where history books begin, the Chinese believed that one of the first duties a person has is to his parents. In the large families of the Chinese custom, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are looked upon as very wise, much beloved, and greatly revered. Their deaths do not lessen the respect that is paid to them. Reverence for ancestors is a way of extending the "family feeling" beyond death. Confucius and Confucianists have played a major part in keeping loyal devotion to parents uppermost in the ideals of China.
Children in China have never been allowed the freedom of choice and behavior that we know in the West. They are disciplined kindly but firmly from the start, in order that their attitudes and behavior may be proper. Disobedience has been very rare, and disrespect even rarer. Children carry their devotion to parents to the point of accepting parents’ decisions for them, including the choice of a husband or a wife. The Chinese believe that in such matters the parents are far wiser than their children.
Naturally, family loyalty has changed rapidly with the other changes of the twentieth century. New political developments have already caused some breakdowns of the old family traditions and may cause greater changes yet. However, filial piety has been a part of Chinese life for so long a time that it is still an influence in China.
Confucius encouraged ancestor reverence or worship because he believed that it helped a person to develop proper attitudes and conduct. When a person offers gifts before a plaque in memory of a departed ancestor, he remembers his origin and his love. This experience draws from him feelings of respect and loyalty. For a person to carry filial piety beyond death shows an even greater degree of devotion than simply to honor living parents.
Many Confucianists offered gifts and sacrifices in honor of the dead without ever believing that the spirits of the dead were present. Confucianists found it worthwhile because it helped them to build good habits of respect for others. At the same time, this adds strength to society. For these two reasons, Confucianism includes ancestor reverence among the important aspects of human behavior.
WAYS OF WORSHIP
Confucius did not seek to change or even to say much about the religious beliefs and practices of his day. He simply accepted them as they were -- in so far as they served society. He was not in the least interested in popular religious ideas or customs that ignored common experiences and knowledge. He did not like to speak of the spirits that so many people worshiped out of superstition and fear. Once Confucius said to a student who asked about spirits, while you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?" To him, it was a waste of time to concern yourself with anything you could not definitely know. Life after death was another example. "While you do not know life, how can you know about death?" One had no time for things he could not know, since knowing even his neighbors required a lifetime.
Confucius was not concerned with ideas about God and other problems in theology. But he had a real devotion to the ancient religious ceremonies, because he believed that they helped to build the habits and attitudes necessary to proper conduct. His personal religion was limited to reverence of ancestors, the moral life of the Five Constant Virtues, and recognition and reverence of a just Heaven above. For the most part, Confucius passed on the ancient Chinese religion, which was a blend of reverence for nature gods and ancestors.
Large numbers of the Chinese people worship Heaven as a supreme god or as one of many gods, with interpretations as varied as those given to any other god. The worship of the Heaven-god has been an imperial worship, administered throughout Chinese history by the Emperor with seasonal ceremonies. Very few Confucianists, along with other educated Chinese, actively joined in worshiping Heaven. However, they tended to support the imperial ceremonies as being worthwhile because they might help people to remember their origin.
Many people have asked: Is Confucianism a religion? Confucius himself did not claim that what he was teaching was religion. He did not expect a revelation from Heaven as authority for what he taught. He told his followers that it was good to be in awe of Heaven because it was an intelligent, creating force that moved in a perfectly natural way, through the Tao. Heaven was impartial and just. Later Confucianists added the belief that Heaven was a personal god, but one who exerted no influence on men or on the world he created. Still the major focus of Confucianism has always been on humanity. Mencius described the will of Heaven in terms of what it means to men by saying that being true to its nature is Heaven’s way. Trying to be true to his nature should also be the way of men.
Confucius considered himself to be a social reformer, rather than a religious leader. He dreamed of and worked for a society in which men would live in perfect harmony. If what he taught was not religion, it was at least religious. Confucius taught his beliefs because he believed they were backed by the nature of things. His teaching was an attempt to get man in line with reality.
THE PLACE OF CONFUCIUS IN CHINESE HISTORY
In his lifetime, Confucius was a respected teacher, but he was one teacher among many. While he lived, his fame and popularity were never sufficient to result in the adoption of his teachings in government. On the contrary, he spent long years in trying to persuade one ruler after another to adopt his ideas, all in vain. He had some loyal students who were convinced of the superiority of his ideas, but other people did not wholly agree in this opinion. It was not until several hundred years after his death that Confucius’ teachings on morality began to gain an important place in the life of the Chinese.
The Chinese Classics, in which he had invested so much time and thought, were made the basis of civil-service examinations for governmental positions. This marked the time when the whole pattern of Chinese life began to be Confucian. For over two thousand years, Confucian thought dominated education, government, and culture. This officially was brought to an end shortly after the beginning of this century, but people move more slowly than institutions. All the people have not abruptly forgotten the old traditions.
Confucius’ personal ideals never reached fullest flowering, even though they helped to shape the course of Chinese civilization. Sometimes rulers and politicians seemed to be more sincere than they actually were in following his teachings of morality, hoping that their apparent loyalty to Confucius would gain favor from the people. Sometimes they heaped titles and honors upon him posthumously or upon his descendants.
Immediately following his death, Confucius was worshiped as an ancestor by members of his family. Others joined in the reverence, because in China a great teacher is given the same respect as a parent. It was always his teachings that interested his admirers, never any magical deeds or superhuman qualities. Confucius has been worshiped as a god, but this was the worship of the unschooled people, who believe that the important thing is to worship plentifully, not thoughtfully. Perhaps this kind of worship could be described as a special hero worship. In general, Confucius has been to China -- and to a lesser extent to Japan -- the great teacher. He has been honored far above any other man in the whole of his country’s history.
CONFUCIANISM AS A RELIGIOUS CULT
At times strong attempts have been made to establish Confucianism as a state religion, with Confucius as a sort of savior. These efforts have failed for several reasons. First of all, the Chinese have always been accustomed to religious freedom, and the idea of a single state religion offended them. Secondly, they seemed unwilling to turn Confucianism into a religion like Taoism and Buddhism. Perhaps it had been with them too long as the broad base of their lives for them to limit it to an organized religion.
New political movements in China have sometimes blamed Confucianism and Confucius for many of the ills of Chinese society. This is partly due to their attempt to discredit old traditions and beliefs, in order to bring in new ideas of government and education. Today, Confucius does not hold the same respected place in the memories and the history of his people.
WHAT DOES LIFE REQUIRE OF MEN?
Though his teachings were never to achieve the success Confucius wished for them, some of his important ideas survived his death and the intervening centuries. These ideas have made a distinctive contribution to China and to its neighbor nation, Japan, which has so often found China’s thoughts and art worth borrowing. In fact, the life and thought of the kindly philosopher have contributed to the knowledge of the whole world.
Above all, Confucianism calls for an intense concern for humanity. Confucianists’ main argument with both Buddhists and Taoists has been that they turned their backs on their fellow men to go seeking after what was best for them personally. Never, never, should self come before society. A person finds his fulfillment in the very act of helping and knowing others.
Confucianism demands of rulers and leaders a special accounting to the people they rule. The only reason rulers exist is to help people to be better. If this idea could ever be accepted seriously by the leaders of nations, statesmanship would attain new heights, and life for all would be improved. Finally, say Confucianists, even world peace would he achieved.
Who can say all the good that might result if families would accept the charge Confucius gave them? Confucianism places before the family the importance of the family’s job in moral education. It points out how natural and cheerful the moral approach to life is.
"What does life ask of mc?" China has traditionally said: "It asks kind attitudes and conduct. It asks that you live with the interests of your fellow men uppermost in your concerns. In so living with others, you will gain the greatest good -- you will find your place in the world. You will find yourself."
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004