Reframing tenants of Confucianism for a new era


Reframing the tenants of Confucianism for a new era

Neo-Confucianism arose as a synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism in China. Although there is often a tendency to elide the ideological orientations of all the so-called ‘Eastern’ religions together in Western thinking, the fact that such a fusion occurred is quite surprising in retrospect. Buddhism initially faced a campaign of official persecution and only gradually became an accepted part of the Chinese belief schema. This paper will compare the Tang era Emperor Wuzong’s suppression of Buddhism and his edict banning Buddhism with later attempts in the Song and Han period to synthesize these increasingly popular religions into the traditional Confucian ideology of the Chinese state. Gradually, it will suggest that over time, from the Tang to the Song to finally the Ming era, Confucian use of Buddhist ideas became more confident and ultimately there was less and less anxiety about the ‘foreign’ religion and incorporating Buddhist notions into Confucianism, although Neo-Confucians were always careful to state that the Buddhist ideas they were adopting could actually be found in the original Confucian texts they were analyzing that predated Buddhism.

The Emperor Wuzong’s rejection of Buddhism was schematic and categorical. Both in policy and in rhetoric he denounced it as a foreign religion not commensurate with Chinese ideals. In contrast, the Song era scholar Zhu Xi stressed the positive benefits of Buddhism and Taoism, although he attempted to reintegrate them into a Neo-Confucian system which was supposed to unite the best aspects of Taoist ‘way’ and Buddhist ethics with the practical and familial emphasis of original Confucian thought. Finally, Wang Yaming during a later era attempted to synthesize Zhu into his own doctrine and because of the less antagonistic attitude towards Buddhism during that era, offered a more flexible and expansive view of Buddhist ideals.

According to Emperor Wuzong’s suppression of Buddhism entitled Edict of the Eight-Month (845), Buddhist monks and nuns engaged in false and ostentatious practices. Regarding their practice of begging for alms rather than working:

Now if even one man fails to work the fields, someone must go hungry; if one woman does not tend her silkworms, someone will be cold. At present there are an inestimable number of monks and nuns in the empire, each of them waiting for the farmers to feed him and the silkworms to clothe him (De Bary 306).

Rather than honoring their obligations according the Confucian tradition, the monks and nuns attempt to ‘opt out’ of such social bonds. Instead of creating a real, viable society they instead act as parasites upon the peasantry, according to the Emperor. Of course, a Buddhist would protest that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the religion, given that Buddhism places a great deal of emphasis upon ending the forces of negative karma by not engaging in worldly activity such as engaging in agriculture. Wuzong only saw the worldly trappings of Buddhism “all with soaring towers and elegant ornamentation sufficient to outshine the imperial palace itself” (De Bary 307). Interestingly, the Emperor’s rhetoric establishes the “imperial palace” as worthy of such elaborate and apparently useless displays of wealth, but that is because such displays are validated in the Confucian hierarchy, according to the Emperor’s rank and station. The Buddhist monks and nuns are in violation of this, which is why Wuzong condemns them, given that they are of a different, original class than himself (Buddhism does not accept social hierarchy and distinctions). The Emperor states: “[It is] Our mind that this evil should be eradicated…Presented with an opportunity to suppress this source of age-old evil and fulfill the laws and institutions of the ancient kinds, to aid mankind and bring profit to the multitude, how could We forebear to act?” (De Bary 307). Under Wuzong’s regime, “idle and unproductive” monks and nuns were forcibly required to return to their lives as laypersons so as to ensure “a unification of customs so that the multitudes of all realms will find their destination in Our august rule” (De Bary 307).

Wuzong’s condemnation of Buddhism was thus complete and absolute, without any shade or nuance. (As well as somewhat self-interested and backed by imperial force). Given this resentment, the scholar Zhu Xi’s attempt to synthesize Buddhism and Confucianism during the Song dynasty is particularly impressive. This can be seen in one of his most notable works The Mean by Chapter and Phrase:

The ancients, wishing clearly to manifest virtue under all-Heaven, first put in order their own states. Wishing to govern their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to cultivate their families they first regulated [disciplined] their own persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their minds-and-hearts. Wishing to rectify their minds and hearts, they first made their intentions sincere. Wishing to make their intentions sincere, they first extended their knowing. The investigating of knowing lies in investigating things and affairs (De Bary 366).

Zhu stresses that cultivation of the self on an internal level, in the manner lionized by Wuzong, is not necessarily a bad thing and does not demand a complete rejection of the world along the lines of a Buddhist monk or nun. Zhu approves of the Confucian sense of obligation to “things and affairs” but suggests that contemplation of minds-and-hearts (which suggests the ‘meditation’ and inward-looking-ness exemplified in Buddhism) can be a path to moralism in the exterior world. It should be noted that, respectful of the criticisms of Buddhism as a foreign religion, Zhu always grounds his ideas in ancient Confucian texts. Zhu did not present his ideas as valuable because they were new or ‘cutting edge’ — in Confucianism, having roots in the past, specifically the native tradition of China, was what made the notions he was advocating valid. All of his positions were backed with references to previous texts, rather than as evolving from his own ideas, clearly showing that the Neo-Confucian concepts he was advancing were not incorporated from Buddhism wholesale, but showed a reflection of what were now termed Buddhist ideas in such ancient doctrines.

The language of Neo-Confucianism in Zhu Xi’s commentary on such ancient texts to the reader is significant given its stress upon conscious cultivation of the self as a prerequisite for heavenly virtue. The institutions of the family and government are not viewed as contrary to such cultivation as a Buddhist might advocate but the internal cultivation of the self away from the pressures of the world results in better and more effective actions in the world.

In many of Zhu’s writings, such as The Mean by Chapter and Phrase, the language of Buddhism is evident such as when he notes that a man, upon engaging in such reflection “after exerting himself for a long time, he will one day experience a breakthrough to integral comprehension,” a concept that sounds very much like the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment (De Bary 377). Study and learning was an integral part of Confucianism, just like the studying of sacred texts is important in virtually all religious traditions. In Buddhism, such study involves attention to the sutras. Neo-Confucianism placed a distinct emphasis upon learning as a kind of sacred yet social activity because it was vitally important in the system of taking examinations to enter into and be promoted through the civil service. To participate in the state apparatus and to do one’s duty required learning, thus to be a good person in the Confucian system required intense intellectual study. Zhu yoked this to what he saw as the ultimate purpose of human existence, namely a coming-together of all things through a mode of conscious and complete awareness. Although intellectualization was important, so was a kind of understanding that was beyond the conscious mind and beyond the immediate, material rewards of scholarship.

The kind of drawing-together of connections of all elements to which Zhu also makes rhetorical gestures suggests bending to the ‘way’ of Taoism as well as the process of meditative contemplation of Buddhism. Self-cultivation in Taoism stressed the honing of the character so without effort and intellectual exertion one would naturally bow to the ‘way.’ In original Confucianism, while the creation of such a character was important, it was clearly an intellectual exercise at heart, a product of self-will and mastery very different from Taoism. Zhu suggests that the ‘way’ and seeking Enlightenment is not necessarily antithetical to the ancient ideals of improving the self.

Zhu was not fundamentally a mystical philosopher: he believed that without social engagement, the full purpose of human life would not be achieved and there would be no harmony in the world. Rather than contemplation and seeking ‘the way’ as practices taking one out of the world, as suggested by Wuzong, such actions made one both more effective in the world and more moral. Seeking of unity within and trying to perceive it in the external world did not automatically transfer a man into the parasitic monk in Wuzong’s caricature of Buddhist life. One could still be industrious, and, in fact, that industry and morality would be improved through right mindfulness, an idea reflected also in the Confucian ideal of moral actions stemming from a moral person. This idea is reflected in this passage which details how morality in the form of sincerity was another cornerstone of Zhu’s thought:

“Making one’s intentions sincere” is the first thing in self-cultivation…”self-deception” means that, even though one knows the good to be done and the bad to be avoided, yet what issues from the mind-and-heart does not beat this out…If one wishes to cultivate oneself, then, knowing the good to be done and the evil to be avoided, one devotes his efforts to accomplishing this… (De Bary 368).

To be insincere to others was to act badly to the self and caused a fissure in the fabric of the self’s moral goodness and thus the social world’s moral goodness. In Zhu’s eyes, rather than focusing on ephemeral ideas or creating a fundamental split between what is of heaven and earth, ultimately doing internal ‘work’ resulted in good external works. This fusion of internal spirituality and materialism can be seen how for Zhu, morality is explicitly analogized to sensory experience. As Zhu states of the righteous man: “his detesting of evil is like his [immediate] detesting of bad odors and his attention to the good is like his [immediate] attraction to what is pleasing to the sight” (De Bary 368). Rather than suggesting the senses could be false and deceitful, morality was examined using a metaphor for the instinctive physical sensations in the exterior world, even though self-cultivation was not an instinctive process. The idea of the physically active peasant vs. The idle monk is thus a false binary, given that one can be active in the sensory world and good at the same time. This differentiation is explicitly rendered as follows in The Mean by Chapter and Phrase:

Human beings, each following in their daily life and activities what is natural to their own nature have their own path for what they should do is what we call the way….Although the Way of the [the common] human nature is the same for all, their psycho-physical endowments may differ, so there cannot be differences in going too far or not far enough.” (De Bary 372).

Zhu embraces the democracy of the Taoist way and the Buddhist accessibility of some form of Enlightenment for all human beings (as all human beings may follow it) even though he does suggests that certain aspects of the social hierarchy may create differentiation in terms of how that way is followed.

Zhu’s Neo-Confucianism was later expanded upon by Wang Yaming during the Ming era rule as can be seen in Yaming’s “The Identification of Mind and Principle” from his Great Learning (434-439). Much like Zhu, Wang agreed that “naturally, how can anyone who does not watch over himself carefully when alone, and who lacks refined discrimination and unity, attain to such a state of perfection? Later generations fail to realize that the utmost good is inherent in their own minds” (De Bary 434). Ming concurred with Zhu that goodness through deeds was not mutually exclusive of a contemplative lifestyle, and, farther removed from the most extreme hostility to Buddhism, was able to use Buddhist concepts such as right mindfulness and the mind changing one’s actions with even greater confidence than previous writers.

Writing in relation to Zhu Xi, Ming notes:

What Zhu Xi meant by the investigation of things is “to investigate the principle in things to the utmost as we come into contact with them.” To investigate the principle in things to the utmost…the principle in each individual thing is to be sought with the mind…If the principle of fidelity is to be sought in parents, then is it actually in my own mind or is it in the person of my parents? If it is actually in the person of my parents, is it true that as soon as parents pass away the mind will then lack the principle of filiality? When I see a child about to fall into a well [and have a feeling of commiseration] there must be the principle of commiseration (De Bary 434).

Much like Zhu Xi invoked ancient Confucian philosophers in his work, Wang invokes Zhu. However, Wang’s later Neo-Confucianism has a much more metaphysical characteristic than Zhu’s practical stress on the need to cultivate the self because understanding of the self and the way produced moral actions. Wang is attempting to determine what is real and eternal itself: does the concept of filial piety exist separate from one’s immediate demands to one’s parents? In contrast to earlier Confucian notions which stressed the permanence of certain material things, specifically one’s ancestors and one’s filial obligations, Wang makes specific use of the concept of ancestral homage to de-center one’s perspective and the emphasis on the material world: the idea of filial piety has an existence outside of the material sphere of the specific, otherwise we would not be able to empathize with others in a general fashion: the concept of filial piety does not die within us, merely because our own parents die.

Above all, Wang stressed the oneness of things, commensurate with Buddhist ideals:

While the specification of tasks can be expressed in terms of a graded sequence of priorities, in substance they constitute a single unity and in reality there is no distinction of a graded sequence to be made….This is why the [Great Learning’s] doctrine of investigation, extension, being sincere, and rectifying can be taken as a correct exposition of the transmission from Yao and Shun and as evincing the mind of Confucius (De Bary 434).

Wang’s concept of ‘oneness’ seems even more fundamentally radical than Zhu’s linking of self-cultivation and the perception of the interconnected nature of all things: this idea of oneness and non-differentiation was a critical component of Buddhism, although Wang traces it back to Confucianism. However, if one ‘reads between the lines,’ he seems to be saying that the hierarchical concepts of Confucianism are merely external trappings and true Enlightenment is seeing that there is no distinction between these social divisions. This seems to imply that spiritual oneness is the same for everyone, given that so long as one can perceive such harmony, one has achieved the highest ideal.

Thus, by the Ming era, much of the anxiety of being ostentatiously ‘not Buddhist’ in one’s philosophy seems to have eroded. However, the initial persecutions faced by Buddhism clearly affected the way the religion was framed in China, in a manner far less open and ostentatious than in other countries where Buddhism was accepted. Buddhism became woven into the intellectual fabric of the nation in a more subtle way, as manifested in the writings of Neo-Confucians and even the most radical exponents of oneness such as Ming were careful to frame their concepts as tracing back to Confucius, not merely based in the ideology of Buddhism. Chinese intellectual history is thus fundamentally multifaceted in its nature, thanks to the efforts of Neo-Confucianism and their hybridization of the various intellectual tenants that had gained intellectual currency over the decades. The Neo-Confucians created a new ideology, even while they insisted it was grounded in the past.

Works Cited

De Bary, William Theodore. Sources of East Asian Tradition: Premodern Asia, Volume 1. New

York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

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