The Moral Foundation of Chinese Religion
Chinese character for ritual Confucius Chinese character for humaneness

The Teachings of Confucius
551-479 BCE
Confucius was born in ... a period of political chaos, with the stability of the early Zhou dynasty giving way to disorder. As central power weakened, feudal lords held more power than kings of the central court, minsters assassinated their rulers, and sons killed their fathers. Confucius felt that a return to classical rites and standards of virtue was the only way out of the chaos, and he unsuccessfully sought rulers who would adopt his ideas. He then turned to a different approach: training young men to be wise and altruistic public servants. ...
Map: Late Spring and Autumn Period
After his death in 479 BCE, interstate warfare increased, ancient family loyalties were replaced by large and impersonal armies, and personal virtues were replaced by laws and state control. After the brutal reunification of China by the Qin dynasty, however, rulership required a more cultured class of bureaucrats who could embody the virtues advocated by Confucius. In the second century BCE the Confucian Classics thus became the basis of training for the scholar-officials who were to serve in the government. The life of the gentleman-scholar devoted to proper government became the highest professed ideal. Eventually temples were devoted to the worship of Confucius himself as the model for unselfish public service, human kindness, and scholarship. However, the official state use of the Confucian Classics can be seen as a political device to give the government a veneer of civility. (Living Religions, 206-7)
Confucius (cartoon)
Although Confucius did not speak much about an unseen Reality, he asserted that li are the earthly expressions of the natural cosmic order. Everything should be done with a sense of propriety. (Living Religions, 209)
Yan Yuan asked about humaneness. The Master said, “Through mastering oneself and returning to ritual one becomes humaneIf for a single day one can master oneself and return to ritual, the whole world will return to humaneness. Does the practice of humaneness come from oneself or from others?” Yan Yuan said, “May I ask about the specifics of this?” The Master said, “Look at nothing contrary to ritual; listen to nothing contrary to ritual; say nothing contrary to ritual; do nothing contrary to ritual.” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 55 [Analects 12:1])
Concentric Circles of Ritual and Humaneness
With regard to humaneness: wishing to establish oneself, one helps to establish others; wishing to develop oneself, one helps to develop others. The ability to take what is close (i.e. what one wishes for oneself) as an analogy [for what others would also wish for] — this may be called the method of [cultivating] humaneness. (Analects, 6:30, translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 50 [Analects 6:28])
Animated Ripples
As the Great Learning states it, peace begins with the moral cultivation of the individual and order in the family. This peace extends outward to society, government, and the universe itself like circular ripples in a pond. (Living Religions, 208)
  • Is this approach to self-cultivation “religious” ... or merely “moral”?

Filial Piety
In addition to the five classic virtues, Confucius emphasized filial piety to parents. According to Confucian doctrine, there are three grades of filial piety: the lowest is to support one’s parents, the second is not to bring humiliation to one’s parents and ancestors, and the highest is to glorify them. In the ancient Book of Rites, as revived by Confucius, deference to one’s parents is scrupulously defined. For instance, a husband and his wife should go to visit their parents and parents-in-law, whereupon:
On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are (too) warm or (too) cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place. They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents in quitting or entering (the apartment). In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease. (Living Religions, 208)
  • How does this description of filial piety represent the Confucian concept of ritual/propriety (li) and its relationship to humaneness (ren)?
  • Can such “rituals” lead to personal transformation ... and if so, is this transformation “religious”? Why or why not?


Family Altar for Ancestral Sacrifices


Bamboo Separator

Heaven, Earth, and Humans
Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. To think how to be sincere is the way of man. He who is sincere is one who hits upon what is right without effort and apprehends without thinking. He is naturally and easily in harmony with the Way. Such a man is a sage. He who tries to be sincere is one who chooses the good and holds fast to it. (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 107)
Concentric Circles: Wisdom and Humaneness
Sincerity is the beginning and end of things. Without sincerity there would be nothing. Therefore the superior man values sincerity. Sincerity is not only the completion of one’s own self, it is that by which all things are completed. The completion of the self means humanity. The completion of all things means wisdom. These are the character of [human] nature, and they are the Way in which the internal and the external are united. Therefore whenever it is employed, everything done is right. (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 108)
The Confucian Trinity: Heaven, Earth, and Humans
Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can then fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can then assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth. (Centrality & Commonality, 77)
Neo-Confucian Trinity: Heaven, Earth and Human

Taiji Chart
Buddhism and Daoism became very popular during the period of disunity that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, and Confucianism declined. But during the Song dynasty (960-1280), Confucianism was revived, on the premise that Buddhism and Daoism had brought moral and thus political weakness into Chinese society. This revised version is referred to by Western scholars as Neo-Confucianism. ... Neo-Confucian thinkers ... further developed the metaphysical basis for Confucianism: the individual is intimately linked with all of the cosmos. According to ZHANG Zai’s (Chang Tsai) Western Inscription:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions. The great ruler [the emperor] is the eldest son of my parents [Heaven and Earth], and the great ministers are his stewards. … To rejoice in Heaven and to have no anxiety this is filial piety at its purest.
By becoming more humane one can help to transform not only oneself but also society and even the cosmos. The Neo-Confucianists thus stressed the importance of meditation and dedication to becoming a sage. (Living Religions, 212)
Confucian ethics insists that the self be the center of relationships, not in order to claim one’s rights but to claim to be responsible; and that a sense of the community of trust must be modeled on the family, not in a way that excludes others but in a way that extends one’s family affection to a wider world. According to a Confucian understanding, daily behaviour must be guided by an established ritual, not merely for restricting individuals, but more for cultivating the sense of holiness and mission in their heart. Education is essential for building up a good character, not primarily for building up one’s physical power to conquer what is unknown, but for the ability to cooperate with others and to be in harmony with nature and the universe. ...
The Confucian faith is fundamentally humanistic, which lays the responsibility for a better world and for a secured future, not in the hands of a supremely detached God, but in the hands of ordinarily engaged humans. In this sense, Confucianism provides us with an alternative way of dealing with the meaning of life and the meaning of death. ...
For a Confucian, the meaning of life can be realized only in learning and practice, in bringing oneself to the standard of a gentleman (i.e. a morally cultivated person) and the society to the standard of Great Unity: the destiny of a human can be fulfilled only in establishing words, merits and virtues for generations to come. (Xinzhong Yao in Anthology of Living Religions, 159-60)
Confucian Temples
Is Confucianism a Religion?
Mary Pat Fisher
Mary Pat Fisher[According to Mengzi,] Heaven empowers the righteous, for there is a direct connection between the goodness of human nature and the nature of Heaven. Learning is therefore ideally a process of coming to understand the Way of Heaven. ... [According to Xunzi, human nature is flawed, and yet] humans can gradually attain sagehood by persistent study, patience, and good works and thereby form a cooperative triad with Heaven and Earth. ... These basic points situate Confucianism within the academic category that can be referred to as “religion,” if religion is defined broadly as Frederick Streng did: “a means to ultimate transformation.” All things considered, Confucian Studies Professor Rodney L. Taylor concludes: “The key to the religious interpretation of Confucianism lies in the role of Heaven, not just as an authority for the stability of society, but as a source of religious authority and inspiration for the individual.” The goal of Confucian learning is to become a sage, fully cultivating one’s inner virtues and always acting according to righteousness, in accord with the Way of Heaven. (Living Religions, 209-10)
Is Confucianism a Religion?
Xinzhong Yao

Xinzhong Yao (Confucian Scholar)As a religion, Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and ancestors, harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred (Yao, 1996a: 31-3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimensions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human perfectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although it holds a different conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’, Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns. These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commitments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to their moral and political vision. (An Introduction to Confucianism, 45)
 Taiji Symbol
Confucianism & Daoism
According to Yu YingshiFor Chinese, the transcendental world, the world of the spirit, interpenetrates with the everyday world though it is not considered identical to it. ... So mundane human relationships are, from the very beginning, endowed with a transcendental character. (Living Religions, 206)
Transcendental Communication
  • What does this tell us about the relationship between Confucianism and Daoism?
Sanjiao Heyi: The Unity of the Three Teachings (Chinese Characters)
Sanjiao Heyi: The Unity of the Three Teachings
Chinese Syncretism: Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism
Reflection Paper Icon
Are the teachings of Confucianism merely “ethical” or do they represent a genuinely “religious” path of spiritual cultivation?
PollEverywhere: Daoism/Confucianism