The Harmony Project

by Peter Occhiogrosso

Tzu-Kung asked: “Is there one principle upon which one's whole life may proceed?” The Master replied, “Is not Reciprocity such a principle? — what you do not yourself desire, do not put before others.”

"Confucianism has been stereotyped as rigid, authoritarian, and anti-individualistic. Nonetheless, aspects of Confucianism have found their way into our own culture, notably into our educational system, in the use of examinations to place civil servants, and in the use of bureaucratic systems as controlling structures in business as well as government."

In China, as in much of the known world, the sixth century BCE was a time of widespread social upheaval. War, vendettas, rampant violence, and moral laxity were the rule, precipitating a search for more reliable standards of behavior and a social order on which to predicate that behavior. Like Buddhism and Taoism, what became known, as the Confucian religion was in large part a response to social chaos and human suffering on the physical plane. Although the other Asian religions are thought of as more purely metaphysical, more “spiritual” than Confucianism, they share with it a concern for living a good life in the material world based on higher principles of morality and ethical conduct. In some ways, although Confucianism has fallen out of favor in China and parts of East Asia where it has long had a huge impact, it nonetheless exhibits some of the same values that today's spiritual practitioners have sought in other Eastern religions, as well as in many New Age sects in the West. That may be in large part because Confucius himself was more concerned with promoting the decent, ethical treatment of others than with specific laws, dogma, or other attributes that many of us now find unappealing about institutional or traditional religion. He did not consider himself a religious teacher or founder, but a compiler of wisdom from the past for use in the present. Confucianism teaches no belief in God, has no priesthood or monastic orders, and does not view Confucius as a divine figure. And yet it has had a greater influence on Chinese life than any single philosophy until the onset of communism.

Confucius — a Latinization by Jesuit missionaries of K'ung Fu-tzu, or “K'ung the Master” — lived from 551 to 479 BCE, but many of the facts of his life are unclear. He is said to have met or even studied under Lao-tzu, although some authorities believe that Lao-tzu lived after Confucius. Despite starting young in a life of study, Confucius failed at his goal of becoming a public servant or finding a state leader who would hire him as a counselor. He wound up instead teaching his revolutionary principles to a small but loyal band of followers outside the mainstream of Chinese political life. Although K'ung's teachings did not attract a large following in his day, they began to exert a tremendous influence on the moral and philosophical thought of all China in the centuries after his death.

The acceptance of Confucianism took place gradually over many years and many different kinds of official proclamations. But when the Han emperor Wu, who ruled from 141 to 87 BCE, eliminated from his court the canonical scholars who taught non-Confucian books, in effect Confucianism became the only available teaching of the imperial court. In essence, this made Confucianism the state ideology, although some scholars now believe that the teachings that were enshrined in this fashion and that eventually became the source of learning to be a public official were actually a distortion of Confucius's own beliefs. In any event, these principles ultimately formed the basis of civil service exams, and remained so with a few interruptions until the revolution of 1911 overthrew the monarchy. In a country that models its heavenly hierarchy after the structure of government bureaucracy, this may have been the ultimate tribute.

Although Confucius was deeply concerned about the constant disorder and warfare among the clans, he took a vastly different path to a solution than either the Buddha or Lao-tzu, both of whom were his near contemporaries. Rather than seeking insights in deep meditative trance, K'ung searched through the ancient rituals and writings of China for ethical human guidelines and moral principles to help see people through that turbulent era. He no doubt felt that by adopting such a universal set of humane principles and ideas, the people themselves could be united and pacified. In the process, he founded the first recorded Chinese wisdom tradition. (Although Taoism is said to be as old as Chinese culture itself, it did not begin to take on written form until at least the time of Confucius or later, and Confucianism spread more quickly.) In doing so, K'ung was building on the work of an ancient class of shamans, sorcerers, and scholars who were experts in li, a Chinese term that can refer to rituals, rites, or ceremonies, as well as to moral laws, rules, principles, and propriety. Confucius systematized and taught much of the accumulated social wisdom and ideals of these ancients, referring to himself as a “transmitter” rather than a creator. “In me, knowledge is not innate,” he said. “I am one who loves antiquity and is earnest in the study of it.” Like the ancient philosophers who had come before him, Confucius realized that the only way to establish a harmonious society was to inculcate ethical conduct in individuals, and he sought out a systematized way to do just that. In one sense, he was the consummate conservative, falling back on the proven wisdom of the past and stressing the social rituals of li, which was also the name for ancient chivalric codes of conduct. And yet K'ung was a radical teacher of compassion, which he called “humaneness,” or jen (pronounced “ren”). The Chinese character for “jen” is composed of two persons, implying the ability to live together humanely rather than focusing only on one's own needs. This concept echoes the compassion teachings of the great Jewish master Hillel, as well as Jesus and the Buddha. As Confucius used the term, li meant a reverence for and loyalty to others that includes knowing the right thing to do and doing it appropriately under any and all circumstances; that is also the primary way of expressing jen. At its best, Confucianism balanced conformity and acceptance of defined social roles--such as father, wife, child, prince, and subject--with the cultivation of an ethical conscience and compassion for others.

Confucius proclaimed that one must follow certain cardinal virtues, such as love, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, in a social context of duties and obligations, voicing his highest principle in what is probably the earliest formulation we have of the Golden Rule, some five centuries before Christ and Rabbi Hillel: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.” For Confucius, this applied especially to what he termed the Five Relationships, or Wu-lun: between ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder and younger brothers, and older and younger friends. This equation called for the respect and obedience of subjects, wives, sons, and younger brothers in return for benevolence and support on the part of rulers, husbands, fathers, and elders. Despite the male dominant language, K'ung's formula was radical for its day in that it called for an unprecedented reciprocal kindness and benevolence on the part of the more socially empowered group. Over time, however, Confucianism became mired in an artificial construct of rituals, standards of conduct, and hierarchies of precedence. As in almost all other religions, reformers arose along the way who attempted to free up the tradition and return it to its underlying vision of freedom and fairness.

In the past, Confucius had been credited with editing and/or writing parts of several classics of Chinese history and culture, including the Ch'un Ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), Shi Ching (Book of Songs), Shu Ching (Book of History), and commentaries to the I Ching, the ever popular book of oracles. Most scholars today dispute that he wrote any part of those works, but agree that his essential teachings are contained in The Analects (Lun-yu), a compendium of his sayings and dialogues compiled by some of his 72 closest disciples, and The Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung), a collection of Confucian tenets authored by his grandson, K'ung Chi. Those tenets include the Wu-ch'ang, or “Five Constants” of Confucianism, among them jen and li. The rest of the Five Constants are i (“transformation”), a sense of moral uprightness that evokes the right response from selfless motives; chih (wisdom); and hsin (trust). The Confucian ideal is the chun-tzu, or “superior person,” the noble-minded or princely one who possesses jen and practices li.

Confucius saw himself as a reformer of a corrupt, nepotistic class system, but did not openly attack traditional religious beliefs such as ancestor worship. He also accepted the conventional Chinese deities and expressed his faith in Heaven that he was on a mission, but did not believe in asking the deities for help through prayer. And so his paradigm was not individual mystical experience but honorable, compassionate conduct within a social framework of interrelated responsibilities. Still, K'ung's understanding of the individual was much more communal, less ego-identified than the Western ideal, and closer to the Eastern mystical notion of union with the One—minus the speculative metaphysics. This sense is captured in the title of Herbert Fingarette's popular book, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. “Society, at least insofar as regulated by human convention and moral obligations, becomes in the Confucian vision one great ceremonial performance, a ceremony with all the holy beauty of an elaborate religious ritual,” Fingarette writes. “It is the ceremonial aspect of life that bestows sacredness upon persons, acts, and objects.”

Like Jesus and the Buddha, Confucius reanimated (to use Fingarette's word) the tradition from which he sprang, and which he found embedded in li, the ancient rituals based on mutual respect. His opponents, generally known as the Legalists, favored governing the community instead through regulations based on fear and greed. By embracing human dignity in the face of such base motivations, Confucius once again emerges as a figure of great significance for our own times.

A Few Things Confucius Really Did Say:

Thanks to Charlie Chan and other Hollywood movie characters, the essential wisdom of Confucius has been reduced in the West to mindless fortune cookie quips (often, ironically, turning up in Chinese restaurants). But here are five sayings taken from The Analects, the most popular and authentic work of K'ung Fu-tzu. Judge for yourself.

“The failure to cultivate virtue, the failure to examine and analyze what I have learned, the inability to move toward righteousness after being shown the way, the inability to correct my faults--these are the causes of my grief.”

“When you see a good man, think of emulating him; when you see a bad man, examine your own heart.”

“When a man is generally detested, or when he is generally beloved, closer examination is necessary.”

Chi Wen Tzu used to reflect three times before he acted. When told of this, the Master said: “Twice would do.”

“Your goody-good people are the thieves of virtue.”

“He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is indeed fit to be a teacher.”

“Until you are able to serve men, how can you serve spiritual being? Until you know about life, how can you know about death?”


As noted earlier, Confucianism, like most religions, experienced pendulum swings during which it became bogged down in legalistic excess and was subsequently “freed” of this excess by certain reformers who re-envisioned the original thrust of the tradition. Confucianism grew in power and appeal from the reign of Emperor Wu until the centuries preceding the Sung dynasty (960-1279), during which time Buddhism gradually became the dominant religious force in China, and the land's intellectual centers became the Buddhist temples. But during the Sung, Confucianism once again became a powerful force of thought and the locus of intellectual activity moved back to the individual scholar. The most important of these new scholars was Hu Yuan (993-1059) who spearheaded the revival of Confucianism. Hu Yuan was, like Confucius himself, concerned more with the ethics of everyday life than with abstract metaphysical speculation or mystical practices. This Neo-Confucianism, often called Tao-hsueh, or “Learning of the Way,” was both a reaction to the dominance of Buddhism and a response to the problems Buddhism and Taoism had raised. Not surprisingly, it incorporated Buddhist and Taoist elements and placed them in a Confucian setting. For example, it borrowed the Taoist notion of the underlying unity of all things, calling it T'ai Chi (the “Ultimate Cause”), while Neo-Confucians worked to lessen desires and discover their true natures in the Buddhist fashion.

In time the movement split into two main schools, the School of Mind or Intuition, whose greatest thinker was Wang Yang-ming, and the School of Principle, which culminated in the work of the movement's greatest theoretician, Chu Hsi (1130-1200), who taught that the world was composed of vital essence, or force, called ch'i, configured according to the guiding principle called li. Both schools saw the world divided into the realms of li and ch'i; the underlying principles of li control ch'i, while the material force of ch'i manifests li, which derives from a single principle, or T'ai Ch'i. Chu said that, for most people, their ch'i gets in the way of their li, meaning that their material urges (both physical and psychological) obscure their spiritual and intellectual goals. Meditation on the li is required to achieve maturity and vision, which in Confucian terms translates to good family values and strong, honest government. By 1237, Neo-Confucianism had become the state orthodoxy, and Chu Hsi's commentaries on Taoist and Confucian texts became an important part of preparing for civil service examinations. Neo-Confucianism kept its privileged status until early in the 20th century, when it began to be attacked by the Communists. It now continues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the American Chinese community.

The Three Teachings

Although Eastern religions have had their share of fanaticism and fundamentalism, they have tended to be far more tolerant of other religions than have their Western monotheistic counterparts. From at least the first century, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were all considered sacred by the vast majority of Chinese, and by the 11th century, Chinese religious culture was thoroughly steeped in a synthesis of the three. It wasn't just that believers of one tradition accepted the others as valid in some abstract way, but that they actually practiced elements of all three. Referred to as San-chiao kuei-i, or “Three religions, one culture,” this openness reflects the sharing of the basic principles of yin-yang cosmology in popular or traditional religion.

Nevertheless, the Taoist Church was responsible for occasional persecutions of Buddhists during the first millennium, when they feared that their own hierarchical power was being threatened. Major persecutions took place in 446 and again in 845, when a Taoist emperor moved to counter Buddhism's growing popularity by closing thousands of Buddhist monasteries and defrocking their monks and nuns, leading to the eventual decline, but not disappearance, of Buddhism in China, and, as we have seen, the re-emergence of Confucian principles.

Despite these occasional attempts by certain emperors to counteract, persecute, or stamp out one or another tradition, most Chinese assimilated the Three Teachings in different proportions in their own belief systems, so that in general a Taoist could feel comfortable worshiping in a Buddhist temple, and vice versa. A Buddhist might have an image of the Kitchen God or Confucius alongside various buddhas and bodhisattvas in the home. One current Chinese saying translates as, “Confucian head, Buddhist heart, Taoist belly,” implying that even today, at least among those Chinese who are not doctrinaire Marxists , elements of Confucian ethics and morality, Buddhist funeral rituals and prayers for the dead, and Taoist philosophical attitudes toward nature (along with Taoist physical practices based on the principles of qigong) all form a part of their lives. Beyond that, many people are still likely to incorporate elements of folk religion and the ancient cult of ancestor worship, making the Chinese perhaps the most religiously pluralistic people on earth.

Peter Occhiogrosso has been writing about world religions and spiritual practices since 1987, when his first book, Once a Catholic, was published. He has written or co-authored a dozen books on religion, spirituality, prayer and healing. His popular guide to the world's religions, The Joy of Sects, is a favorite on high school and college reading lists and web sites around the world.

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