CHIN 241

Introduction to Chinese Civilization Scott Inglis 484432

Describe core values and teachings of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, and compare and contrast their views of life and death.

Throughout Chinese history, there have been three principal schools of thought that have had an influence on the lives of Chinese people. They are Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. I refrain from using the term ‘religions’ to describe these three schools of thought (although Daoism developed into a religion and Buddhism is usually thought of as a religion) because they do not profess belief in a deity or deities. Although these three schools of thought existed together in China, their core values are very different from each other, as are their views on life and death. In this essay I will explain the core views of each school of thought, and then compare and contrast their views on life and death.

Confucianism (rújiā) was founded over 2,500 years ago in China. The founder of Confucianism is reported to be a man named Kǒngzǐ, who was later called Kǒng Fūzi, meaning ‘Master Kong’, on account of his teachings. His name was Latinised to Confucius by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, and the system of ethics associated with him was called Confucianism. From the sources available, it is unclear if Confucius was the founder of Confucianism or if he was merely a transmitter of earlier ideas. Confucius never wrote anything down, so it is through his disciples, and later, Mencius, that we know his teachings.1

Daoism (dàojiā), also known as Taoism because of Wade-Giles Romanisation, is a native Chinese philosophical school, which is based on the teachings of Lǎozǐ, which are written down in a book called the Dào Dé Jīng which roughly translates to ‘Classic of the Way’. This book, along with the writings of the later Daoist philosopher Zhuǎngzǐ, is the primary text of Daoism. According to legend, Lǎozǐ was a minor official for an emperor in the Zhōu Dynasty, and he was one day asked by a guard to write down his philosophy. What resulted was the Dào Dé Jīng.2

Buddhism is not native to China. It was founded in India in the 6th century B.C. by Prince
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Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a sheltered life of luxury inside his father’s palace until he was 29. When he finally ventured outside, he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man and a wandering ascetic. Shocked by these sights, Gautama became a holy man himself, wandering the countryside and seeking instruction from various religious groups, all of which he was dissatisfied with. He sat under a bodhi tree, making a vow not to move until he had “obtained true liberation”3 He looked up on the seventh day and at that moment he obtained enlightenment. Gautama then spent the rest of his life bringing enlightenment to others around him, and was thus called the Buddha (Sanskrit: ‘enlightend one’)

Confucius was concerned primarily with relationships between people. His aim was to create a harmonious society where people would be able to get along with each other. Harmony was the ‘ideal state’ for Confucius.4 He said that filial piety or filial devotion (xiào) was the greatest of virtues. When elders were respected and obeyed, then harmony could reign. Originally referring to the obedience of a child to his or her parents, xiào was extended into a system of Five Relationships (wǔlún) 1. Ruler and subject 2. Father and son 3. Husband and wife 4. Older brother and younger brother 5. Friends With the exception of the last one (friends) these relationships are all unequal, with the second member of the relationship being submissive to the first. (xiào). When all people play their parts properly in these relationships, harmony would prevail.5 These Five Relationships formed a significant part of Confucius’ ethical system.

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Apart from the Five Relationships themselves, Confucius was concerned with conduct inside and outside of the Relationships. Therefore he developed the system of lǐ, meaning ‘rites of conduct’ or ‘propriety’. However, the meaning of lǐ is actually that of a complex set of rites that is difficult to translate into English. The original meaning of the character was ‘to sacrifice to a god’ (禮 is made up of the character 示, meaning ‘altar’ ; to the right 曲 is placed over 豆, representing a vase full of flowers which is offered to the gods)6 The complexity of the character shows the complexity of the system of lǐ, which is a complex code of etiquette of how to act around other people. Confucius states “the principles of lǐ and righteousness serve as the principles of social discipline”7

Confucius wanted people to live good, virtuous lives. In order to do this, he created a system of Five Virtues (wǔdé). The Five Virtues are: 1. rén – humanity 2. yì – righteousness 3. lǐ – propriety 4. zhì – wisdom 5. xìn – trustworthiness The most important of these virtues is rén. Usually translated as ‘humanity’, rén has a wider meaning to Confucius. To him it means ‘perfect humanity’ or ‘the essential quality of being humane or good or doing good without any motive, even the motive of doing good.”8 The This rule of rén is best expressed in Confucius’ Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you”. According to the Mencius, rén has three qualities: yì (righteousness; acting without self interest), lǐ (integrity; correct behaviour towards other people) and zhì (wisdom, which enables one to form sound judgement). Later commentators added the virtue of xìn, keeping one’s promise to follow the three qualities of rén.

Confucianism. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Inglis 2004 8 Zhao 2006
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According to Confucius, the perfect goal for a human being was that of jūnzǐ, or gentleman. The word jūnzǐ literally means ‘the son of a ruler’ but to Confucius it represented the perfect man, one who had humanity (rén), filial piety (xiào) and who acted with propriety (lǐ). The best example of a gentleman was Confucius himself, and it was a great tragedy that he never took up any official position. It was very important for a ruler to be a jūnzǐ, as his subjects will follow him because of his benevolence and virtue. A just ruler would receive the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (tiānmìng) and should be obeyed by his subjects. The relationship between ruler and minister was likened to that of father and son, and can be expressed in just one character: 忠 (zhōng), meaning ‘loyalty’

The main texts of Confucianism are the Confucian Classics. These are: • • • • • • Shī Jīng – Classic of Poems Shu Jīng – Classic of History Lǐ Ji – Classic of Rites Yuè Jīng – Classic of Music Yí Jīng – Classic of Changes Chūnqiū – Annals of Spring and Autumn

It is uncertain if these books contained Confucius’ original ideas, or if they were “anthologies of wisdom from pre-Confucian times.”9 However, the main Confucian text the Analects (lùnyǔ). The Analects are a collection of 500 sayings of Confucius and dialogues he had with major disciples. They cover a wide range of subjects, from government, rites and law, to poetry, nature and music. The Analects have been of the utmost importance to scholars throughout Chinese history.10

As its name suggests, Daoism is concerned with the Dào. Meaning literally ‘way’, it has caused scholars and translators to develop many different interpretations. It can be interpreted as a transcendental force, similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism or God in Christianity. Lǎozǐ
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said about the Dào: The Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way. The name that can be named is not the constant name. The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth The named is the mother of all things. 11

So from this passage we see that it is impossible to define the Dào. It is an unchanging, eternal cycle, embodying the harmony of opposites.12 It is sometimes described as ‘nothing’ or ‘something that existed before the universe. “The myriad creatures in the world are borne from Something, and Something from Nothing. The Way begets one, (the life force) One begets Two, (yīn and yáng) Two begets Three, Three begets the myriad creatures. 13

The Daoist philosophy is concerned with nature, and advocates a return to nature. Lǎozǐ’s goal of human life was “to live the longest possible natural life by living in harmony with one’s social and natural environment”14 He essentially taught the practice of wúwéi which meant ‘doing nothing; taking no action’. He wrote in the Dào Dé Jīng: By doing nothing, nothing is left undone.15 Spontaneous action is therefore better than planned action, because goal-directed action ultimately defeats itself. 16 Lǎozǐ described wúwéi as going with the flow of nature rather than against it.

Another important teaching of Daoism, one which is familiar to the modern world, is that of yīn and yáng. Yīn represents the darkness, and Yáng represents the light. Although being complete
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opposites, yīn and yáng are not contradictory, but complementary. Yīn cannot exist without yáng, just as day cannot exist without night. The concept of yīn and yáng are very important to Daoist thought.

The main scriptures of philosophical Daoism are the Dào Dé Jīng, and the Zhuǎngzǐ. Zhuǎngzǐ was a Daoist philosopher and follower of Lǎozǐ who lived in the 4th century BC, about two hundred years after Lǎozǐ. The Zhuǎngzǐ contains “a series of original insights into human nature and the nature of the cosmos.”17 However, unlike the Dào Dé Jīng, the Zhuǎngzǐ often talks about the Dào through poetry and narratives.18 Together with the lesser Lièzǐ, these texts form the basis of philosophical Daoism

Daoism as a religion (dàojiào) was first established in the Han Dynasty.19 Religious Daoism is polytheistic, where gods, including the deified Lǎozǐ, are arranged in a hierarchy, mirroring that of imperial China.20 It includes various practices such as astrology, divination, alchemy, breathing exercises and other practices designed to help them achieve the state of immortality. Ironically, instead of returning to nature as Lǎozǐ called for, Daoist religious practitioners actually violate the laws of nature in their search for immortality.21

The chief doctrines of Buddhism are called the Four Noble Truths (sìshèngdì). According to Buddhist legend, these were revealed to Gautama as he meditated under the bodhi tree, and his first discourse after his enlightenment concerned the Four Noble Truths. These Truths are: 1. Kǔdì - Life is suffering. Human nature is inherently painful and unpleasant. 2. Yīndì - Suffering is caused by desire. Craving, pleasure and lust are the causes of suffering in this world.
Roth Roth 19 Huang and Ao 389 20 Taoism. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 21 Zhao 2006
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Mièdì - Suffering can be overcome. By renouncing craving and desire, one can enter the state of nirvana, and be free from suffering.


Dàodì - The way to overcome suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path, which was the Buddha’s basic teaching on Buddhist lifestyle.22

Gautama’s Eightfold Path (bāzhèngdào) is as follows: 1. Right understanding (one must know the Four Noble Truths) 2. Right attitude (one must have a peaceful attitude and renounce worldly things) 3. Right speech (one must avoid lies, gossip, slander, deceit and all wrong and harmful speech)23 4. Right action (one must show kindness and avoid self-gain in all actions)24 Gautama expanded this concept to include his Five Precepts (wǔjiè), which are: • • • • • Do not kill Do not steal Do not be unchaste Do not lie Do not drink intoxicants

5. Right livelihood (one’s occupation must not directly or indirectly harm living beings) 6. Right effort (one must prevent evil thoughts so that good ones can develop) 7. Right mindfulness (one must keep one’s mind alert and not give in to desire) 8. Right concentration (the advanced state of right mindfulness25; both are concerned with Buddhist meditation) Buddha taught that everything is an illusion – matter, consciousness, even yourself. Every part of the universe is subject to change and decay. Everything that has been created must perish –

Beaver et al. 232 Noble Eightfold Path. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 24 Zhao 2006 25 Rausch and Voss 74
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therefore the universe is in a constant state of flux.26 However, things do not just change at random. Karma (Sanskrit: ‘action’) determines the nature of an individual’s rebirth. However, once one has gotten rid of desire and no longer craves life, he will be rid of his karma and will cease to be reborn.

Once a person has gotten rid of their karma, they will then enter the state of nirvana (nièpán). Nirvana is the ultimate reality27 – a state of bliss where suffering is no more. Nirvana is not a place, like heaven in Christianity, but a state – ultimately a state of non-self, as the self is an illusion according to Gautama. It is the complete cessation of desire. Gautama Buddha himself described nirvana as “the highest happiness”. He also said “Where there is nothing; where naught is grasped, there is the Isle of No-Beyond. Nirvana do I call it -- the utter extinction of aging and dying”. This state is the ultimate goal of every Buddhist, which, according to Buddhist teaching, it may take many lifetimes to attain.

Confucius placed great emphasis on life. It is unknown whether he had a belief in the afterlife, but whether he did or not, he placed no importance on it. While it is most likely that he believed in gods and spirits, he placed no importance on serving them. The following passages from the Analects illustrate his views on death, and serving gods and spirits: “Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served. The Master said, 'You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?' 'May I ask about death?' 'You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?'”28 “Fan Ch'ih asked about wisdom. The Master said, 'To work for the things the common people have a fight to and to keep one's distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom.'”29

Beaver et al. 230 Toropov and Buckles 142 28 Lau 11:12 29 Lau 6:24
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So Confucius obviously recognized that gods and spirits existed, because there was not enough evidence to disprove their existence, but he was more concerned with how people treated each other. He recognized that death existed, but he did not believe that one could understand it unless one understood life.

Confucius taught that a well-ordered social system was necessary for a harmonious society. In order to do this, he realized that there must be an authority, and that authority must be followed with loyalty (zhōng). He exhorted his followers to be virtuous, and he taught that the way to virtue was to achieve rén. 30 This could only happen when people worked together in a well-ordered society and properly played their parts within the Five Relationships.

Lǎozǐ taught a naturalistic approach to life. His model of life was that of nature. However, unlike Confucius, Lǎozǐ was concerned with the unseen and intangible.31 There are several supernatural beings mentioned in the Zhuǎngzǐ, and a mysterious woman mentioned in chapter 6 of the Dào Dé Jīng, but none of them have ever been widely worshipped. Daoist philosophers are more concerned with the Dào itself than supernatural beings or gods.

The Daoist approach to life is almost the opposite to that of Confucius. Confucius taught a complex system of ritual conduct and ethics, whereas Lǎozǐ was in favour of letting nature take its course and not interfering in human life. Lǎozǐ rejected Confucius’ theory of rén as being artificial (wěi). He taught:32 When the great Way declined, there were humaneness and rightness. When intelligence and wisdom emerged, there was great artifice. 34

There are two differing views of death in Daoism. According to the Zhuǎngzǐ, death is simply a part
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of nature. Zhuǎngzǐ taught that no differences exist between opposites, so therefore right equals wrong, and life equals death. He “welcomes death as merely one more stage in a process of ongoing transformation that affects all and is directed by the Tao.”33 However, Lǎozǐ taught that death was an ominous event that should be avoided. His teaching is much closer to ancient, pre-Daoist, Chinese views on death than that of Zhuǎngzǐ is. There is apparently life after death, but it is not joyful. It is this teaching that has led religious Daoist practitioners to seek out various methods of attaining immortality. With the rise of religious Daoism in the second century A.D, ordained Daoists would receive heavenly ranks that would carry over to the next world. Various concepts of hell and punishment after death also developed in religious Daoism. So the concept of death differs widely from philosophical Daoism to religious Daoism.

The Buddhist view on life is that life is suffering. This life is filled with things like illness, worry, misery, pain, distress and despair, all of which are suffering.34 By following the Eightfold Path and doing good things, then people can ultimately reach the state of nirvana, which can take many lifetimes. Unlike Confucianism and Daoism, both of which place importance on this life, Buddhism does not see this life as the only life that one has. Rather, it teaches that until one has paid for all one’s karma, one will be reincarnated in various forms.

Death is important in Buddhism, because a dead man was one of the four sights that Siddhartha Gautama saw that made him want to renounce his life and become a wandering ascetic. Unlike Confucianism and Daoism, however, Buddhism comes closer to the Christian view on salvation, which is being saved from death and spending eternity in bliss. Therefore, Buddhism gives its followers hope for life after death by telling them that if they can free themselves from all desire, then they will enter the state of nirvana and be free from all suffering.

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Encyclopedia of Death and Dying Beaver et al. 231

In conclusion, the three schools of thought that are Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism have existed side-by-side in China for nearly 2,000 years. This is remarkable because their teachings and their views on life and death are so very different from each other. Confucianism places emphasis on people’s interactions with each other, and Confucius made rules to facilitate this. Confucius believed that one could only understand death after they had understood life. Daoism believes that humans should return to nature, and use nature as their example. Any interference in nature is discouraged, and Daoists believe one should just ‘go with the flow’. Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, and suffering is caused by desire. Buddhists work to eliminate desire from their lives, so that eventually, when they die, they can reach the state of nirvana. These three schools of thought have flourished in China, even at times borrowing practices from each other. Many Chinese follow aspects of two, or even all three philosophies in their daily lives.

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