This video shows a talk held by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in 2010. Featuring Tu Weiming, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, the subject of discussion is Confucian-Islamic cooperation in a globalising world.
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The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.
The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.
Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.
In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.
The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tian–ren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.
On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.
Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.
Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).
Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.
In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
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Authenticity can mean many different things. According to Ballentine (2011), authentic is that which is genuine or real. An item from the store can be considered authentic if that item is made from the material the seller claims it is. So, a real watch or a genuine purse contrasts with a watch or purse made from less valuable material. While the less-valuable watch would still be a ‘watch’ that measures time, the fact that it is made from material other than what the seller claims it was made from makes the watch cheap, worthless, and in-authentic.
Rodriguez (2015) extends the definition of authenticity to people when he claims that authenticity means trustworthy and reliable. In other words, a person is considered authentic if they are what they claim to be. If person A states that she is honest and tells the truth to her friend, it follows that person A is an authentic person. She has proven to be reliable by doing what she said she would do, i.e: tell the truth. While person A would still be a physical person whether or not she told the truth, following through with being honest is what gives her the attribute of authenticity. Thus, authenticity is a social value that does not exist in the natural world: “what is taken as authentic is a social construction rather than an objective fact” (Carroll, 2009, p. 4).
Understanding authentic personhood (what it means to be a ‘real’ person) goes beyond being honest when one claims to be honest, and raises questions about how to live in the world and what it means to genuinely experience life. In Western philosophy, this question has been extensively explored where ‘being in the world’ means to think (Descartes), to be conscious (Kant), or to imagine (Hume). For Descartes, for example, to be an authentic being with an identity means to doubt and inquire. “I know that I exist and that nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing” (Meditations VI, p. 29). In Confucianism however, the idea of individuality or self is not adequately explored. As Chen (2015) states, the idea that Confucian ethics is antipathy to individuality is a mistake as there are plenty of references to the self in both The Great Learning and The Analects. While emphasised by most Confucian texts, the value of authenticity is also often ignored and dismissed by scholars in the West. To address this gap, this article discusses both authenticity and the self in Confucian philosophy.
While there is no direct reference to what the self is in Confucian teachings, the doctrine highlights that humans are different from other beings. The Analects states, “an authentic person is not a vessel” (2.12). Personhood consists in zhixiang or having a sense of meaning in life. This means that experiencing the self and the world is about committing to some purpose: “the way of humanity consists in learning broadly, acting firmly on one’s zhixiang, inquiring seriously, and reflecting critically” (The Analects, 9.6). To have purpose and to act on that purpose is therefore what distinguishes humans from other beings. Since Confucianism is concerned with establishing harmony with others, the idea of purpose or zhixiang usually refers to ethical aspirations and concern for the common good (Chen, 2004). This relates to Heidegger’s (1962) definition of authenticity. According to Heidegger, to be oneself in the world (what he calls Dasdein or ‘being-there’) is to be in relation. Relation here refers to what one is at any moment and what one can be as life unfolds in endless possibilities. Over the course of one’s life, identity and being are always in question: “we are always projections into the future, incessantly taking a stand on who we are” (Varga, 2014). Being authentic or representing one’s self truly comes down to ownership or ‘being one’s own’, implying that to exist fully in the world means to own up to what one is and what one does. Zhixiang in Confucianism says the same thing. With a purpose, a person is able to own up to their existence by having a firm vision of how their existence should be. Without it, people “are like ships without helms…wandering around and losing in direction” (Wang, 1986, p. 26). Consistent thoughts, actions, beliefs, and choices in accordance with zhixiang allows one to focus on existence and become an authentic being.
In addition to purpose, creativity also develops the individual. Whereas zhixiang provides the self with a vision and meaning, creativity is what drives or energizes the self. In The Great Learning, it is written that “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day” (Tu, 1978, p. 37). Renovating, constructing, and producing are all ways of accessing the authentic self. Creativity, in this sense, is related to ownership and originality. To be creative is to truly exist on one’s own terms as creatively gives the self energy to construct and pursue zhixiang. The Doctrine of the Mean states, “only those with the greatest sincerity under heaven can fulfil their nature” (ch. 22). Making use of one’s potentials enables the self to strive for an ethical life in which ritual, kindness, and justice can be established wherever one is.
The third attribute that makes up personhood and authentic existence is critical thinking. Like the Socratic dictum, the unexamined life is not worth living, Confucianism emphasises self-examination as a way of establishing truth, value, and meaning to existence. For instance, in The Analects Master Zeng is recorded to have said, “each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?” (1.4). Critical thinking means reflecting upon one’s action and inquiring about what one is learning in addition to reflecting and inquiring about other people’s actions and learning. As Chen (2004) notes, “without thinking things over, we cannot understand the truth of Being and be free of self-deception” (p. 19). Critical inquiry provides the setting or means to which one can be creative and pursue a sense of purpose. With it, authentic life can be experienced to a greater degree.
Finally, the most important aspect to living an authentic life is sincerity. Sincerity resembles loyalty and trustworthiness in that it means to ‘be true to oneself’. To be sincere is to not veer from the position one holds or strive to appear otherwise than one ought to (Varga, 2014). It is, as Trilling (1972) states, “the sense of being sound, or pure, or whole; or consistent in its virtuousness” (p. 12-13). In Islam, sincerity is one of the most important aspects of religious duty. For instance, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq notes that “sincerity of action lies in this that you should not desire anyone to praise you for it except God Almighty, and intention supersedes action. Lo, verily, intention is action itself.” Al-Sadiq’s statement highlights that sincerity involves having the right intentions as whether or not one carries out a religious duty correctly, the merit of that action will be based on the truthful feelings, beliefs, and thoughts of the believer. Or as the Qur’an (17:84) states, “in accordance with his character (shakilatihi)”, which refers to the believer’s way or manner. One of the oldest elaborations of sincerity is found in chapter 20 of The Doctrine of the Mean: “To be sincere is the way of heaven. To become sincere is the way of mankind. If you are sincere you will reach the center without force”. Thus, developing sincerity is the way to establishing personhood. Since sincerity is an essential component to practicing the moral way, being sincere relates to sincerity to self and others. Only by cultivating ‘right’ emotions can a person genuinely be benevolent, righteous, and wise. Without it, ritual would be empty, kindness would be false, and practice would have no meaning. Insincerity would not only involve deceiving and diminishing others, but putting on a mask and becoming disconnected from the world.
Although individualism does not exist in Confucian thought – all individuals are relational beings that exist through and are defined by other people – it is incorrect to state that “we ought to make it a point to avoid speaking of ‘the self’ in Confucius” (Fingarette, 1991, p. 199, cited in Ames, 2011, p. 125). There is no denying that the self exists. Being an ethical person is predicated on the assumption that a subjective, metaphysical self is required to carry out one’s ethical duties and develop harmonious relationships with others. Building authentic personhood by finding purpose, being creative, inquiring critically, and carrying out sincerely is what gives one the means of relating to and being with others. It is what gives one humanity.
Image: Paramore, K. (2016). Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History (Front Cover). Retrieved June 22, 2017, from here.
The Development of Japanese Confucianism through Zen
Confucianism continues to be a significant philosophical tradition in East Asia, along with Daoism and Buddhism. Collectively, these three schools of thought are known as the “three teachings” of Chinese tradition. The adoption of the three teachings across East Asia was partly due to travel and trade on the Silk Road. As the Asia Society (2017) notes in their series on East Asian communication, for over two thousand years the Silk Road acted as a transmitter of people, goods, ideas, beliefs, and inventions, where networks of travel spread intersecting religious beliefs and traditions across China, Japan, and Korea. What is unknown to many is that Zen Buddhist monks played a key role in bringing Chinese culture into Japan which contributed to the development of ‘Japanese Confucianism’.
With the territorial and cultural expansion of the Han dynasty throughout the Korean peninsula, the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche (18 B.C.- 660 A.D.), Keun Ch’ogo, sent instructors named Wang-In and A-Chikki, along with a copy of The Analects and the Thousand Character Classic, to the ruler of Yamato (in Japan’s Nara Prefecture) around 404-405 AD. Literate Chinese and Korean migrants were highly valued in early Japan and many of them taught Confucianism as a way of strengthening the imperial institutions and centralising the Japanese state. An example of how Confucianism influenced Japanese politics can be seen in Prince Shōtoku’s Seventeen-Article Constitution, where in the late 6th century Japan’s clan chieftains developed into monarch-type rulers following the Chinese model of rule. In the constitution, an emphasis is placed on harmony and proper behaviour in human relations as well as the Han Confucian three-tiered cosmology in which human obedience is a requisite for Heaven to provide its blessings on Earth:
Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys the superior acts. (Article 3)
For Tsukahira (1966) however, there is little evidence that Japan consciously sought to model their system on ancient Chinese feudalism. Instead, even during the later Tokugawa shogunate, scholars and statesmen wanted to enhance the dignity and prestige of state institutions by identifying the regime as a Confucian, not Chinese, state.
However, as Confucianism developed in Japan’s political structure, Japanese monks who went over to China brought back both Zen and Confucian thought to the masses. In the book Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), D.T. Suzuki highlights that not only did Zen monks edit and print Confucian textbooks, “instilling fresh blood into Confucianism” (p. 42) through Zen idealism, the monks also compiled these books for popular education in their monasteries. In academia, it was Zen monks like Keian (1427-1508) and Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) who emphasised the connection between Buddhist teachings and Confucian philosophy by studying the foundational texts, including the Book of Changes (I-Ching), the Book of Odes (Shih Ching), the Book of Annals (Shu Ching), the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch’un Ch’iu), and the Record of Rites (Li Chi). By following a long line of Confucian thinkers who shaved their head like Buddhist priests, these monks made a combined effort to propagate orthodox Confucianism as it suited the political and intellectual situation in Japan after the country suffered many years of conflict. By promising to “yield practical solutions to the problems of government” (Tsukahira, 1966, p. 109), Confucianism stood against corruption and the growing influence of money in society.
Anti-Buddhism and Neo-Confucian Scholars
Although Confucianism came to Japan in the sixth century, it had largely been confined to Buddhist monasteries. By the late sixteenth century, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually establish over 250 years of domestic peace (Hooker, 1997). As a result, anti-Buddhist perspectives in many Neo-Confucian texts became influential throughout the seventeenth century. For instance, a well-known critique of Zen Buddhism was articulated by the Confucian scholar Itô Jinsai (1627-1705). In the text The Meaning of Words in the Analects and Mencius (Gomô jigi), Jinsai states that the Buddha believed that emptiness was “the way” (dao), and that mountains, rivers, and land masses were all unreal. However, given that for all ages heaven and earth have sustained life, the sun and moon have illuminated the world, and beings such as birds, fish, insects, and trees live as they do now, it makes no sense to say that all is emptiness or nothingness. Instead, this emphasis on emptiness derives from the Buddhist practice of retiring in the mountains and sitting silently while emptying the mind. Emptiness or nothingness exists neither in this world nor outside it, only in the minds of the Buddhists.
Jinsai argues that in real life the principles of harmony, love, and order are found in every aspect of life: from human relations to even the grains of sand (Tucker, 2013). In this sense, the ‘Confucian way’ refers to how people should conduct themselves in their daily lives. As a universal and natural truth, the Confucian way can simply be called dao. By contrast, the teachings of Buddhism exist only because a small group of people follow them. According to Jinsai, with no practical benefits or ways of contributing to social reality, Buddhism becomes completely irrelevant.
Following on from Jinsai’s comments, Confucian scholars also criticised aspects of Zen that were renowned for their anti-intellectualism. Affirming the uselessness of texts and words on the path to realising one’s Buddha-nature, Zen Buddhism puts forward the idea that the universe is a constantly changing state and that the core of being and non-being cannot be captured by fixed meanings of conventional language (Lieberman, 2006). Japanese Neo-Confucianism, on the other hand, was defined in opposition to assertions of semantic emptiness by reasserting the integrity of language, meaning, and discursive truth. As Tucker (2014) notes, “without the crucial role of language, most especially the words of sages, Confucius and Mencius, humanity would hardly be different from beasts” (p. 33). As a result, words and their correct usage were essential to self-cultivation, governance, and bringing peace to the world.
For all the criticisms on Buddhist thought, it should be noted that the role of ancient history cannot be omitted or underestimated. While the Chu Hsi school throughout the Korean peninsula rejected Zen Buddhism “decked out in Confucian grab” (Kalton, 1988), Confucianism became very strong in Japan because it was originally influenced by and combined with Zen as well as Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. For Hiroyuki (2006), philosophical theorizing in Japan usually took the position that Confucianism, Shinto, and Zen were three versions of the same ultimate truth (shinjubutsu sankyō-itchi), especially since Confucian scholars actively promoted ‘Confucian Shinto’ (Juka Shintō).
Confucianism in Modern Japan
Because of the assertion that these three philosophies did not contradict absolutely and could coexist, the legacy of Japanese Confucianism continues to influence Japan today. As Professor Reischauer states in his book The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (1977), “almost no one considers himself a Confucianist today, but in a sense almost all Japanese are” (p. 214). Many studies have noted the influence of Confucian ethics in education, the workplace, and the role of the government bureaucracy (Ornatowski, 1996), where harmony and right conduct coincides with hierarchical leadership as major characteristics of Japanese organizational culture. However, Confucianism is also understood as being a ‘feudal’ ideology of the past. For example, the work by Japanese sinologist Hattori Unokichi is often criticised for defending Confucian teachings by relying on “Emperor-centered nationalism”, when linking filial piety with Japanese self-sacrifice (Nakajima, 2004). In this way, the relationship between the emperor and the people as compared to that of father and son is criticised as forming right-wing nationalism. With most philosophical departments in Japanese universities also preferring to focus on western philosophy rather than Confucian thought, it would seem that Confucianism currently suffers from a setback in Japan.
An exception to this is the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy (UTCP). Since its founding in 2002, the UTCP has sponsored discussions addressing issues relating to the status of Confucianism in Japanese philosophy. Some academics and journals have also published papers on Confucianism, including Sakamoto Hiroko’s (2009) feminist critique of Confucianism and Azuma Jūji’s (2008) translation of new Confucian documents. For now though, it is unclear whether Japan will relive a Confucian renaissance as China currently has.
In 2013, Professor Stanley Jiadong Zheng delivered a lecture on the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity. Exploring what difficulties followers of both traditions might encounter, Zheng discusses new ways of understanding the encounter between the two traditions and how this might impact on academic, theologian, and practitioner perspectives.
Co-sponsored by the Centre for Asian Theology, Interchurch-Interfaith Program Team, Toronto Southeast Presbytery & Emmanuel College.