confucianism in modern society
“Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience” World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures, Kyoto, November 3-4 2017
It was in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, in the season when maple trees were turning elegantly red, at the time when the once-a-year exhibition of imperial treasures from Shōsō-in (正倉院) was open, that the 2017 conference of the “World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures” took place. As this Conference focused on “Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience in an East Asian context”, scholars from all over the world shared views and visions on the potential and challenges of Confucian Philosophy. Seen as a model for our contemporary world, the conference itself eloquently manifested the Confucian key value “harmony in differences” (hé ér bù tóng 和而不同).
Discussing topics on “Confucian Cultures” in this context certainly acquired a subtle “Japanese” flavor. Kizou Ogura 小倉紀藏 (Kyoto University) presented a brief history of 1,300 years of Japanese Philosophy, from which he deduced a Japanese national spirit as neither materialistic, nor purely spiritual, but what he referred to as “animistic” (more precisely, a kind of “humanistic animism”), constructing an “in-between” world that is both sensuous, and aesthetically ethical. It was Motoori Norinaga本居宣長 (1730-1801) who first appealed for an awareness of Japanese Philosophy that would not simply adopt Chinese Neo-Confucianism. Based on his critical work on The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari源氏物語), Norinaga developed his idea of “mono no aware” (物の哀れ, pathos of things) through a sensuous and sensible touch and feeling towards nature and surroundings, which completely ran against the abstract concept of lǐ 理 (principle) of the Chinese Neo-Confucian tradition. According to Ogura, when Japan adopted Neo-Confucianism as a national agenda in the progress of modernization, which did not truly speak to the Japanese spirit, it was “turmoil and covered with blood”. This perspective was echoed by the presentation on Ōkawa Shūmei’s大川周明(1886-1957) commentary on the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhōng Yōng中庸), by Viren Murthy (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Shūmei was condemned as “Class-A” war criminal in his Tokyo trial in 1945, the only convicted war-criminal who was not a military official.
However, the hybridization of Chinese and Japanese ideas was not always disastrous. As Thomas Kasulis (Ohio State University) addressed in his keynote speech, like combining raspberry and blackberry can produce loganberry, and combining loganberry again with raspberry can produce the most delicious boysenberry, in Japanese history, the philosophy of Inoue Tetsujirō井上哲次郎(1855-1944), for example, is such a “boysenberry”. Tetsujirō did not only adopt the Confucian ideal of “accomplished person” (jūn zǐ 君子), but also transplanted this ideal into the context of Japanese culture, such as “Shintō-based reverence”. The result was a moral system that could be loosely called “Confucian”, but in reality was a uniquely interesting hybrid that has been partially accepted and partially lost.
Contrary to the Japanese reaction to Confucianism, which manifested the necessity of renovation, the Korean experience of Neo-Confucianism was one of cultural reinforcement, which was even used to develop anti-Japanese attitudes in colonial times. For example, the second keynote speaker, Kim Tae-Chang金泰昌 (Tonyang Forum/Tongyang Newspaper Co.), argued from his personal experience of being brought up in a Confucian cultural environment, to promote the “public” dimension of learning and education. According to Kim, a Confucian is, first of all, a learning person, and learning is not simply a private matter, but tends to transform the domain of “heart” (xīn 心) to that of “spirit” (líng 靈).
The official language of this Conference was English but there was a panel that was exclusively for presentations in Chinese with on-spot English translation, which included Lǐ Cún Shān 李存山 (Chinese Academy of Social Science) and Kǒng Dé Lì 孔德立 (Bei Jing Jiao Tong University), who is in fact the 77th descendent of Confucius. Quoting from the Analects and other canons, both talks supported the Confucian moral values that are based upon self-cultivation and human-heartedness especially manifested in loyalty (zhōng 忠) and forgiveness (shù 恕), the conditions upon which “harmony in differences” can truly be realized.
Confucian ideology is, however, strongly challenged by the feminist point of view. Wu Shiu-Ching (National Chung-Cheng University, Taiwan) argued against Confucian misogynistic tendencies, not only in the words of Confucian canons, but also in the etymology of Chinese characters. For example, when one adds the “woman” (女) glyph to rén 仁 (human-heartedness), it becomes nìng 佞, which means “hypocritical” and “flattering”. The President of the Consortium, Roger Ames (Bei Jing University), confirmed that the 2020 conference will be held at Ewha Womans University in Korea, in order to confront and address specifically these questions from a perspective of contemporary Confucian Philosophy.
After the conference, the committee performed a small but sincere “ritual”, on occasion of the birthday of Takahiro Nakajima 中島隆博 (University of Tokyo), featuring sake that was secretly bought from Nakajima’s wife’s brewery! What an amazing surprise for him!
Perhaps, such a little “not-knowing” surprise, a contemporary play on ritual-propriety (lǐ 禮) is indeed an example and celebration of the immediacy and intimacy expressed in “mono no aware”, where we find a thread of convergence with the Confucian key concept rén 仁 (human-heartedness). Etymologically, rén could also mean “kernel”– the innermost part of life which inheres all potential of growth, most vulnerable, yet open and in anticipation of encounters. In this sense, the Japanese tradition does not proscribe, but describes and illuminates Confucian concepts through its subtle reflections of everyday life, i.e. through establishing an aesthetic ethics that focuses on the simple and often overlooked gestures of this life and at this very moment.
A good point to depart from, for our next Confucian journey…
Written by Yi Chen
Assistant Professor of Confucian Philosophy, Bond University
Painting by Zhang Hongnian (张红年). Retrieved from here.
Most humans experience intense emotions throughout their lives, such as love, lust, anger, and grief. In its most general sense, the nature of grief is about feeling pain and sadness. First used in 13th century France, grief is defined as the feeling of injustice, misfortune, and calamity, and derives from grever, which means to “afflict, burden, oppress” (Harper, 2017). In Latin, gravare is something which makes heavy or causes grief, coming from gravis– that which is weighty or heavy. While the expression ‘good grief’ has been used since the 1900s to express surprise or dismay, grief is a deep emotional response or a mental state when reacting to the death of someone or loss of something. Bereavement or mourning, on the other hand, indicates the process of grieving. Although there is no timeframe for grieving, mourning is meant to signify a period when grieving can properly take place.
There are many examples of how grieving takes place, and the expression of grief is culturally specific. In other words, how we experience sadness and pain is influenced by our culture’s rituals, customs, and beliefs. Generally, sobbing at the news of the death of a loved one and the experience of shock and sadness is an example of grief. From the Euro-American view, such an experience can be harmful as it destroys an individual’s assumptive world: the condition of one’s reality is altered as the loss of a loved one disrupts one’s social network and emotional health. Thus, Shear and Smith-Caroff (2002) calls the act of grieving a ‘syndrome’ as grieving often induces a person to be shocked, cry, decline to eat, neglect basic responsibilities, and so on. The extent of which grief can affect one’s life was criticised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), who argued that grief is entirely self-centred and misguided. Since, Epicurus believed that being dead was harmless and we cannot stop death from occurring, the fear of death and sadness for someone’s death is irrational and only harms the griever.
In Chinese philosophy, Zhuang Zhou (370-287 B.C.) had a similar opinion. In the ancient text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, which was written during the late Warring States period, the chapter ‘Perfect Enjoyment’ (至樂) particularly deals with this theme. The story goes that one day, Zhuang Zhou meets with his friend Hui Shi just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife had died. Hui Shi found that Zhuang Zhou was singing joyously and beating on a drum. Astonished, Hui Shi remarked:
“When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?”
Zhang Zhou replied that it is not. Initially, he had been very upset. But after reflecting on the circumstances of her being, and how she came to be through changes in the cosmos- through the intermingling of waste and dark chaos that resulted in change, breath, change again, bodily form, birth, and life- he realised that death represented just another aspect of this cycle. Just as the seasons change, his wife had simply taken part in the process of life. Understanding this, Zhuang Zhou restrained himself and his grief disappeared.
For Confucius, however, grief is not only natural and expected, it is necessary. Although Confucius also suggested looking positively at the transformative stages of life and death, where people should be more concerned about life and care less about the uncertainty of death (Qin & Xia, 2015), ritual and respect were noted to be important factors to consider when reacting to death. As Confucius states in The Analects passage 3.4, “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief.” Put simply, in following ritual and carrying out the correct mourning practices, one should not be afraid to feel sorrow and confront loss.
In traditional China, ancestor worship was one of the ways which many people could express their grief and sorrow while receiving guidance from those who had passed. The rituals in ancestor worship acted as narratives that connected the family to individuals, their social status, and the land which they once occupied. Researchers from Webster University, Klass and Goss (2003), note that funeral rituals actually developed from Daoism as they were meant to ensure the deceased received what they needed before passing on to the other world. But once Confucianism was popularised in the following dynasties, funeral rites were re-interpreted to fit within a Confucian social framework that represented hierarchy in the family and community. Since the most important family relationship was that of the father and son, and filial piety (xiao, 孝) or respect and obligation was one of the highest regarded virtues, funeral rituals were primarily designed for sons to mourn their fathers. For instance, only the death of a father who had a son merited a full funeral ritual, while all other deaths had only part funerals. Parents whose children had died merited no ritual at all.
Although grieving is culturally monitored in that individuals, families, and communities have rules for how to display and handle emotions of grief, grieving intensively and in ways that transgress ritual was not necessarily prohibited. There is not much information in the Analects on how to respond to those grieving over the death of a loved one, so the passages that describe Confucius’s grief over the death of Yan Hui顏回 are significant. Hui or Yan Hui was one of Confucius’s most celebrated disciples, often portrayed as someone who was wise and dutiful. In passage 6.3, when Duke Ai asked which of Confucius’s disciples loved learning, Confucius replied that it was Yan Hui who never repeated his errors or became agitated. From passages 9.20-9.22, Confucius also describes Yan Hui as never lazy and observant. In that case, when Yan Hui dies Confucius chooses not to hold back on his grief lamenting, “Oh! Tian destroys me! Tian destroys me!” (11.9). When Confucius’s followers state that the Master wails beyond proper bounds, Confucius replies: “Have I? If I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” (11.10).
If grief is to be understood as a necessary precondition for the process and ritual of mourning, it is only natural that one expresses emotions that signify sadness, sorrow, or despair. However, to explain Confucius’s expression of grief which went beyond the ‘proper bounds’, it is important to not only consider the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui, but also the attitude towards death that Confucius demonstrates when losing Hui. As Ivanhoe (2002) and Olberding (2004) highlight, the sorrow of Confucius at the death of his disciple was partly attributable to the way in which Hui’s death was wasteful: Hui was a young person who lived in accordance with the Dao, but did not get to live life to his maximum potential. In addition to this, we can understand the relationship of Confucius and Hui by what the David Hall and Roger Ames (1987) call an “actualization of a mode of being” (p. 178), where a superior person realises or creates ritual through personal signification. Put simply, the “mode of being” for Confucius on the death of Yan Hui does not, and cannot, serve as instruction for all but rather shows Confucius reacting to the moment rather than prescribing action for all.
For Confucius, Yan Hui’s death signified not only the loss of a good student and friend, but the closing of developmental avenues for Confucius himself. With the “dramatic and final rupture in the relationship between him and his treasured disciple, Confucius laments over “the Confucius who never was” (Olberding, 2004, p. 294). To understand the phrase “the Confucius who never was”, it should be noted that the Chinese concept of self is inextricably linked to communal relationships. As a result, when one member of a community is lost, other members of the community are affected in ways where their own sense of selves are altered because of the self’s relational nature. Confucius sense of self was altered in that Hui’s death signified the loss of a friend and the loss of a Confucius who could never be as Confucius could no longer learn by interacting with Hui.
Contrasting the traditional view of Confucianism as a mode of philosophy that suppresses individuality and emotions (see Ho, 1995), the practice of grieving in passage 11.9 Analects highlights that there is flexibility in mourning practices. Sometimes it may be appropriate to transgress ritual if it is useful to help one deal with emotional pain and bereavement. Because we live through others just as others influence, shape, and live through us, grief cannot be a matter of theoretical instruction, but an immediate reality.
Although not many people know that Confucianism is one of the six official religions in Indonesia, the capital Jakarta was chosen as the spot where the 2017 Congress of Confucian Religion was held from the 17-18th of October. The theme for the conference was “Building Harmony and Golden Mean to Create Welfare and World” as the world continues to deal with problems such as inequality, terrorism, and nuclear threat. As the President of The Supreme Council of Confucian Religion of Indonesia, Uung Sendana, stated:
“Now, this extreme thought is developing in world. Just look at this country, many people who reproach and criticize each other…What we want to show is bringing peace throughout the world.”
The conference is thus not only timely, but also necessary in the current political climate. Previously, an inter-religious dialogue between Islam and Confucianism with the theme of prosperity and peace was held, but this year the focus was on the need to establish world peace.
Some of the countries that sent delegates to attend the conference included Australia, Britain, Italy, Germany, Egypt, China (including separate representatives for Hong Kong and Taiwan), Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States.
Here are the 8 recommendation messages that emerged from the conference:
- A Peaceful world is not an impossible strive for it if we strive for it and build both harmony and golden mean.
- Harmony should be built from family as the smallest unit of society, nation and the world.
- Golden mean can only be actualized through if every individual, family, group is able to control self-ego, have their own responsibilities and togetherness, giving first before demanding and always consciously think of greater good, realize their respective role as parents or children, husband or wife, friend or companion, and leader or member of a community.
- Equality is the key crucial factor and must be prioritized, as Confucius said, “When there is equality there is no poverty and where there is equality there is no discord.” To achieve equality, we must show appreciation for those who made an achievement or contributed and on the other hand, care for marginalized people.
- Religion should give solutions to the problems of humanity based on respecting differences on the one side and strengthen similarity on the other sides. What is same should not be differentiated, what is different should not be forced to be the same. Confucian religion, people and leaders should actively become a bridge between communities through interfaith dialogue, spreading information in local or native language with respect to local culture and diversity in order to build mutual understanding.
- Education should be fully accessible to everyone and include all of these aspects: lntellectual, emotional, spiritual, moral-ethics, complete and holistic, therefore a superior, well-educated person can realize him/herself as God’s creation and friend to fellow humans and nature, which is called “Junzi” in Confucian terminology.
- It is better for us to avoid debating whether Confucianism is a religion or philosophy or moral ethics, because every religion truly has the above dimension. It is more beneficial if Confucian people and scholars aspire to emulate the Great Prophet Confucius—respecting our elders, trusting friends, companions and fellow humans, and guiding younger generations with benevolence. In each respective household and together with other religions, to reflect on their respective wisdoms thus dedicating themselves to world peace and welfare.
- Confucians and Confucian scholars from all over the world believe that within the four seas, all people are brothers/sisters and thus have to work together and help each other for common virtue and prosperity.
The overall message is that everyone has a responsibility to break the limits and discriminative barriers made by nationalism, corruption, and corporate greed. Confucian religion should be free from exclusive association with any specific ethnicity or organisation. It is only by universally adopting the ethical teachings of Confucius and applying them to different contexts, from development to human rights, that world peace can be established.
For more information on how Confucianism is being adapted to the modern world, see the Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture.
In this public lecture held in 2014, Professors Daniel A. Bell, Joseph Chan, Tongdong Bai discuss the role of Confucianism in the modern world.
With the difficulty of cooperating over issues such as nuclear warfare, terrorism, and environmental protection, has the time come for a globalised, cosmopolitan adoption of Confucianism? In this series, the three guest speakers develop Confucianism in rather different ways, and the purpose of this panel is to explore how they do that, and how they think Confucianism can save the world. The panel is moderated by Mathias Risse from Harvard University.
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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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.