A Confucian Response to Buddhism & Daoism
From left to right: Laozi, Confucius, and Bodhidharma
Essay 3: Establishing Harmony in the Human Realm
Neo-Confucianism Icon
Emperor presiding over the Imperial Examination
Medieval Confucianism
Even though the medieval period was marked by the ascendancy of Buddhism and Daoism, Confucianism continued to play a vital role in Chinese life — especially during the Tang period ... following the reunification of China and the establishment of a strong centralized state. The imperial state actively promoted classical scholarship and drew extensively on the ideological resources provided by the Confucian tradition, which legitimized its reign and helped consolidate the intricate structures of dynastic rule. The knowledge and skills of scholars trained in the Confucian canon proved to be indispensable to the Tang rulers in their organization of the government and the running of its institutions. Confucian teachings also provided key tools for the sanctioning of state power and royal prerogatives. Because of that, the imperial administration was a generous sponsor of canonical scholarship, most of which took place at official institutes and agencies in the capital. ... On the whole, during the Tang era Confucianism was seen as being complementary to Buddhism and Daoism. The basic formula used to describe the harmonious relationship among the three teachings was “Confucianism for the external (world),” [and] “Buddhism and Daoism for the inner (world),” although of course this was a general schematization and there were exceptions to it. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 189-91)
Han Yu Temple
Not all literati agreed with the prevalent cosmopolitan attitudes and ecumenical sentiments noted above, nor was everybody at ease with the pluralistic culture of Tang China. One of the most foreceful voices to take up the Confucian cause and rally against the perceived dominance of Buddhism was the famous official and writer Han Yu (768-824), who was among the leaders of a reform movement known as “ancient writing” (guwen, also referred to as “classical prose”). This movement called for [a] return to the simple and unadorned writing forms evidenced in the early Confucian classics, which stood in contrast to the ostentatious and ornate literary style that was in vogue at the time. The reform of the literary style was meant to go together with a return to the authentic contents and central messages of the classics, especially their moral injunctions and proscriptions for self-cultivation. ... Han Yu’s advocacy for return to the genuine Confucian way was tinged with exclusivist sentiments. While he also criticized the Daoists, in his eyes the main culprit for the social decline and cultural contamination that supposedly engulfed China during his time was Buddhism. ... While some of Han’s intolerant views and xenophobic sentiments were exceptional within the Tang context, his valiant stand in defense of the Confucian way won him many admirers among later generations of Confucians. Because of that, he is often identified as a precursor of the Neo-Confucian revival that blossomed during the Song era. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 191-3)
Neo-Confucianism Icon
Maps of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties
The Song Reformation
The Foundations of Neo-Confucianism

When applied to the tradition’s early historical development, Neo-Confucianism is a general designation that encompasses the thought and writings of a number of thinkers. ... The leaders of the Neo-Confucian movement during its formative period — five of whom retroactively came to be celebrated as the five great masters of the Northern Song era — were creative and reform minded scholars that engaged in far-reaching rethinking of the ancient Confucian heritage. On the whole, there was a palpable purist or fundamentalist streak in their basic intellectual orientations and religious attitudes, in the sense of an overarching concern with getting back to the inimitable truths and timeless insights of the Confucian tradition, which they believed to have been lost for many centuries.
       The refashioning of Confucian norms and ideas at the hand of the Song era reformers was accompanied with overt critiques of the doctrines and practices of Buddhism and Daoism. ... While openly criticizing Buddhism and Daoism the Neo-Confucian reformers were influenced by the ideas of the two competing religions, which most of them studied during their formative years. Much of their thinking and speculation about the nature of mind and reality, along with the manner in which they framed key philosophical issues, were shaped by their encounters with Buddhist — and to a smaller degree Daoist — teachings. In that sense, the rise of the Neo-Confucian movement must be placed in the context of its leaders’ responses to the perceived dominance of Buddhism and their engagements with its teachings and practices.
       Nonetheless, while the influences of Buddhism (and Daoism) are readily observable in the teachings propounded by the major exponents of Neo-Confucianism, it is important to note that they ultimately went back to the Confucian classics as their main sources of inspiration and guidance. They produced a comprehensive system of thought that explained the whole of reality, in all of its multifacetedness and complexity. ... Most notably, they reoriented Confucian learning towards metaphysical speculation about the structure of the cosmos and the nature of reality. At the same time, they made concentrated efforts to focus attention on the processes of spiritual cultivation that culminated in the perfection of sagehood. They thus covered the two key areas — metaphysical reflection and spiritual cultivation — that previously were dominated by the Buddhists and the Daoists. ... [In] the long run the Neo-Confucian reformers were successful in bringing about a gradual shift in intellectual interest away from Buddhism and towards Confucianism, with profound significance for the subsequent history of China. They influenced the protracted decline of Buddhism, as Buddhist leaders largely failed to provide compelling responses to the Neo-Confucian challenge. (
Introducing Chinese Religions, 193-4)
Taiji Bagua Symbol
Sculpture of Zhou Dunyi
Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073)
Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate

Zhou Dunyi made significant contributions to the formulation of Neo-Confucian cosmology, for which he drew extensively from the Book of ChangeThe central concept in his explanation of the origins and evolution of the universe was the Supreme Ultimate (taiji). Identified as the underlying origin of yin and yang, the five elements, and the myriad things, the Supreme Ultimate represents the unifying principle of reality. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 194)

Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (Taijitu)
The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi)! The Great Ultimate through movement generates yang. When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil. Through tranquility the Great Ultimate generates yin. When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again. So movement and tranquility alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established.
Taiji (yin-yang symbol)
By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the Five Agents of Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth arise. When these five material forces (ch’i) are distributed in harmonious order, the four seasons run their course. ... When the reality of the Ultimate of Non-being and the essence of yin, yang, and the Five Agents come into mysterious union, integration ensues. Ch’ien (Heaven) constitutes the male element, and k’un (Earth) constitutes the female element. The interaction of these two material forces engenders and transforms the myriad things. The myriad things produce and reproduce, resulting in an unending transformation.
       It is man alone who receives (the Five Agents) in their highest excellence, and therefore he is most intelligent. His physical form appears, and his spirit develops consciousness. The five moral principles of his nature (humanity or jen, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness) are aroused by, and react to, the external world and engage in activity; good and evil are distinguished, and human affairs take place. ... Hence the character of the sage is “identical with that of Heaven and Earth. ...
The superior man cultivates these moral qualities and enjoys good fortune, whereas the inferior man violates them and suffers evil fortune. (Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 185)
The Dharma Body of the Body (i.e. the totality of space-time)
Statue of Zhang Zai
Zhang Zai focused on the concept of qi (vital force or energy), which according to him is behind the origin of the universe and the endless changes that occur in it. According to him, all things in the world are constituted of qi, and thus share the same substance. But qi is also capable of assuming a variety of forms, which accounts for the individual characteristics of various things or phenomena. Within this overarching scheme of cosmic unity, human beings and all things in the universe partake of the same shared reality. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 194-5)
The Western Inscription
The 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. Respect the aged — this is the way to treat them as elders should be treated. Show affection toward the orphaned and the weak — this is the way to treat them as the young should be treated. The sage identifies his virtue with that of Heaven and Earth, and the worthy is the best [among the children of Heaven and Earth]. Even those who are tired and infirm, crippled or sick, those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to.
       When the time comes, to keep himself from harm — this is the care of a son. To rejoice in Heaven and have no anxiety — this is filiality at its purest.
       One who disobeys [the principle of Heaven] violates virtue. One who destroys humanity (ren) is a robber. One who promotes evil lacks [moral] capacity. But one who puts his moral nature into practice and brings his physical existence to complete fulfillment can match [Heaven and Earth].
       One who knows the principles of transformation will skillfully carry forward the undertakings [of Heaven and Earth], and one who penetrates spirit to the highest degree will skillfully carry out their will. ...
       In life I follow and serve [Heaven and Earth]. In death I will be at peace. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 683-4; cf.
Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 188)
Portrait of Cheng Yi
Portrait of Cheng Hao
The Cheng Brothers
Especially important contributions towards the development of Neo-Confucian philosophy were made by the two Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. They established the notion of principle (li) as the central element of Neo-Confucian philosophy, in a manner that encompassed both the cosmological and the ethical spheres. While the Cheng brothers asserted the singularity and absolute nature of principle, they also allowed for its manifold manifestations. In their teachings principle was transformed into a crucial concept that brought together all other key concepts and ideas. For instance, at the level of the individual, they equated human nature (xing) with principle. Eventually, all these ideas were brought together into a synthesis that was fully articulated in the lectures and writings of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the most famous of all Neo-Confucian thinkers. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 195)
Chinese character for "principle" (li)
Diagram showing relationship between principle and material force with a blueprint and the completed house
Chinese character for "material force" (qi)
Daoist with the eight trigrams of the YijingAll things under Heaven can be understood by their principle. As there are things, there must be specific principles of their being. ... Due to the interaction of the two material forces [yin and yang] and the Five Phases, things vary as weak and strong in thousands of ways. ... What the sage follows, however, is the one principle. People must return to their original nature [which is one with principle]. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 690)
The mind of each human being is one with the mind of Heaven and Earth. The principle of each thing is one with the principle of all things. … There is only one principle in the world. You may extend it over the four seas and it is everywhere true. It is the unchangeable principle that “can be laid before heaven and Earth” and is “tested by the experience of the three kings.” Therefore to be serious (reverent, jing) is to be serious with this principle. To be humane is to be humane according to this principle. And to be truthful is to be truthful to this principle. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 690)
Chinese character for "principle" (li)
animated image of dna
Chinese character for "material force" (qi)
The nature comes from Heaven, whereas capacity comes from material-force. When material-force is clear, capacity is clear. On the other hand, when material-force is turbid, capacity is turbid. ... Human nature is universally good. In cases where there is evil it is because of one’s capacity. The nature is the same as principle, and principle is the same whether in the sage emperors Yao and Shun or in the common man in the street. Material-force, which may be either clear or turbid, is the source of capacity. Men endowed with clear material-force are wise, while those endowed with turbid material-force are stupid.
       Further Question: Can stupidity be changed?
       Answer: Yes. ... Since all have the same basic nature, who cannot be changed? Because they ruin and cast themselves away and are not willing to learn, people are unable to change. In principle, if they are willing to learn, they could change. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 691)
Neo-Confucianism Icon
Portrait of Zhu Xi
Learning to Be a Sage
Zhu Xi’s penchant for abstract philosophizing and his passion for ritual observances notwithstanding, in many of his writings there is an unmistakable prioritization of the quest for becoming a sage. That echoes an overall shift in priorities and a change in tenor within Song Confucianism. In contrast to the public-mindedness and overriding concern with the requirements of the imperial state that were characteristic of medieval Confucianism, within Zhu Xi’s corpus the pursuit of sagehood often takes the center stage. ... For Zhu Xi, the main goal of Confucian learning was the individual’s moral improvement, not the acquisition of wealth and social status. Accordingly, his model of learning was primarily geared towards molding his disciples into committed students and preservers of the ancient way, rather than towards producing Confucian officials in a conventional mold. Echoing the salvific objectives of Buddhism and Daoism, Zhu Xi proclaimed that Confucian learning should first and foremost be concerned with moral cultivation and personal transformation, culminating in the attainment of sagehood. That kind of thinking was essentially religious in orientation, although he believed that individuals’ realization of moral perfection would also lead to political stability and social harmony. ...
Concentric circled from self to family, community, country, and world with the word "principle" and an arrow pointing from "self" to the outer circles
Chinese characters for "the investigation of things and the extension of knowledge" (gewu zhizhi)Within Zhu Xi’s philosophical scheme, the human mind is the locus or battlefield where a fundamental tension, between the true nature (principle) on one hand and self-centered emotions and desires on another, needs to be resolved. Accordingly, moral cultivation involves uncovering the essential goodness that inheres in the human mind/heart (xin). That necessitates gradual removal of all impurities and obstructions that prevent the true nature from becoming fully manifest in its resplendent perfection. ... While in his writings Zhu Xi addressed various issues related to the exploration of the mind and the inner world, overall he placed greater emphasis on the reflection and examination of the outer world of phenomenal appearances and concrete events. For him, principally the study of the Way consisted of “the investigation of things and the extension of knowledge” (gewu zhizhi). ... [The investigation of things] meant apprehending the true principle of an ethical issue or a human predicament, for instance the proper pattern of interaction between parents and their children, or perhaps the intricate relationship between two spouses. By broadly investigating the principle of individual things and affairs, one gradually arrives at knowledge of the basic patterns that underlines them all. The extension of knowledge meant expansion of one’s insight into principle, culminating in the realization of the universal pattern of reality, which is imprinted in the human mind. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 200-2)
The relationship between "knowledge" and "action" is represented by an image of a person walking
Knowledge & Action
Zhu Xi
The efforts of both knowledge and action must be exerted to the utmost. As one knows more clearly, he acts more earnestly, and as he acts more earnestly, he knows more clearly. Neither of the two should be unbalanced or discarded. It is like a person’s two legs. If they take turn to walk, one will be able gradually to arrive at the destination. If one leg is weak and soft, then not even one forward step can be taken. However, we must first know before we can act. This is why the Great Learning first talks about the extension of knowledge, the Doctrine of the Mean puts wisdom ahead of humanity and courage, and Confucius first of all spoke of knowledge being sufficient to attain its objective. But none of extensive study, accurate inquiry, careful thinking, clear sifting, and vigorous practice can be omitted. (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 609)
After exerting himself for a long time, he will one day experience a breakthrough to integral comprehension. Then the qualities of all things, whether internal or external, refined or coarse, will all be apprehended and the mind, in its whole substance and great functioning, will all be clearly manifested. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 729)
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