Tuesday, March 13, 2012


What’s new in the religious field? Other than an assortment of oddball sects that pop up like weeds, not much is new.

Since the beginning of recorded history, and even before that, there have been persons who proclaimed themselves saviors. They are charitably termed charismatic individuals. They can be compelling, dynamic. They call attention to themselves by being authoritative. They are like most politicians in that they have the power to persuade, and they speak claptrap.

Often these types claim divinely inspired powers such as healing, prophecy, and the gift of tongues.

To quote anthropologists John Monaghan and Peter Just, “Charismatic individuals have emerged at many times and places in the world. It seems that the key to long-term success—and many movements come and go with little long-term effect—has relatively little to do with the prophets, who appear with surprising regularity, but more to do with the development of a group of supporters who are able to institutionalize the movement.”

Such phonies prey on people who are looking for answers outside themselves. They appeal to people who are followers, not thinkers.

Think organized religion. Think folks who have made their mark by convincing others they speak for a supreme being. History is full of them, right up to now with the evangelistic preachers who gull others on radio, and on television, and in churches.

Now, don’t think religion. Think of the relatively few men and women who have been free thinkers and who have encouraged others to think for themselves.

It’s interesting how so much free thought rose a long time ago in Asia. Much of it had little to do with organized religion.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and court bookkeeper. He was born in 551 BC, and lived for seventy-one years. He was also known as K’ong-tzu—Master Kong—because he was noted for controlling his own thought and behavior.

Instead of promising pie in the sky, Confucius stressed practical matters, such as loyalty to the family, respect for ancestors, and political morality.

Political morality. That’s an oxymoron, a contradictory term like military intelligence. I wonder if there was much political morality twenty-five hundred years ago. There certainly isn’t today.

Confucius’ teachings are preserved in the Analects, or sayings. They are not the sort of witticisms found on fortune cookies.

The Analects are identified with Confucius’ name, though most of them were compiled by his followers. They deal with the education and comportment of the ideal man, with how such an individual should live his life and interact with others, and with the forms of society and government in which the ideal man should participate.

Here are a couple of sayings attributed to Confucius:

Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

That last one has been picked up by many religions: Judaism, Moslem, Christianity, Quakerism, Zoroastrianism.

Other so-called Confucian sayings are inventive latecomers:

Man with one chopstick go hungry.
Man who eat cookie in bed wake up feeling crummy.

Lao-tzu was another Chinese thinker, and he lived around the same time as Confucius. I like to imagine the two of them playing cards together, or sitting up late at night to share a bottle of rice wine.

Lao-tzu is best known as the author of Tao Te Ching, which translates as “The Way.” He is considered to be the founder of Taoism, a way of life that emphasizes a return to the natural state.

Most stories about Lao-tzu are fuzzy around the edges, but they make for good legends. One tale states that Lao-tzu grew tired of metropolitan life and decided to become a hermit. As he was leaving the city gate he was recognized by a guard, who was so impressed by the master he abandoned his post and went off into the wilderness with him.

According to Tao Te Ching, the Tao is the ideal of existence, the root of all things. Behaving unnaturally upsets the natural balance of the Tao. To return to the natural state is to be in harmony with the Tao.

Livia Kohn, professor of religion and author of several books on Taoism, mentions that Taoism does not reject technology; instead, it aims at freedom from desires. This is known as the state of wu wei.

Wu wei has several meanings:

 Being without doing. A tree is a tree without trying to be a tree.
 Knowing when to act and when not to act. Not overdoing one’s actions.
 Being balanced, outwardly and inwardly.
 Letting go. Not forcing or pressing but flowing.

The state of Tao is likened to frying a small fish. Too much poking will ruin the fish.

Here are a few quotes from Tao Te Ching:

He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel. But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

Mencius was born around 372 BC. He has been called the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself. He served as an official, but like many of the later Japanese Zen masters, he was a wandering sage who was honored where ever he went.

Mencius taught that the individual was innately decent, and that the pressure of society itself caused bad moral character. He maintained that one’s goodness could be cultivated through education and self-discipline.

To quote Mencius, “The way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind.”

One day Mencius met King Hui of Liang. The king asked abruptly, “How shall the world be settled?”

“It will be settled by unification,” Mencius answered.

“Who will be able to unify it?” the king demanded.

Mencius answered, “A person without a taste for killing.”

Another time, Mencius said, “We live not as we wish to, but as we can.”

Mencius also said, “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”

And then there was the Buddha. We talk about him a lot.

To wind this up, those old Asians weren’t hyping anything. They didn’t promise a better life or rewards after death.

It’s interesting how so many Asian thinkers and meditators weren’t swindlers or scammers. They were open and honest, and they gave human beings credit for having brains.

So many of the ancients spoke common sense rather than treating people like children. They didn’t shake a finger and say, “You must do this,” or “You must not do that.”

They said, “Think for yourself.”


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