Tuesday, February 18, 2014


In recent months, Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, and other periodicals have been enthusiastically cackling about what they see as an apparent resurgence of Confucianism in China. Ever since 1949 and the Communist takeover in that country, Confucianism was all but nonexistent. Seemingly the sage was too revolutionary for the new-age revolutionists. But today, if we are to trust the mass media, Confucianism is experiencing a rebirth in his native land.
          So let’s hear it for the old boy.

Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, humanist, and philosopher of what is known as the “Spring and Autumn” period of Chinese history. That label comes from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a written history of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BC. It’s a tradition linked with Confucius.
Some sources say Confucius came from a noble family, others say he rose from modest beginnings. The dates of his birth are debatable but all images of him depict ample beards and long moustaches, so he must have been around for a good while.
Confucius’ teachings emphasized self-cultivation, the upholding of moral examples, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than adherence to rules.
From an early age the man endorsed a system of social and political philosophy which was later collected by followers in a book known in the West as the Analects. Confucius was also believed to have been the author, or at least the editor, of the classic texts called the Five Classics.
To his credit he claimed he was not a trendsetter or a guru. His teachings were merely rediscoveries of what had been true in the past. Because society was said to have wandered away from the ideals of an earlier period of peace, harmony and prosperity, he felt it was up to him to guide it back to its proper condition.
Much of what he taught was probably considered revolutionary at the time, because after his death Chinese emperors attempted to burn his books and execute his followers.
There is a quote that says a philosopher is always despised in his own country. That’s probably because such a dynamic person is good at pointing out the questionable behavior of the public as well as the rulers.
However, Confucius’ ethical structure eventually came to be adopted as the state system of philosophy, and it lasted within Chinese society for many centuries. At least until the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The teachings of Confucius stress two areas: (1) social instructions, which deal with the proper behavior of the individual in society, and (2) political lessons, which deal with the proper relationship of the ruler to the ruled. He viewed education as vital to achieving proper conduct both within society and in government.
Confucius thought that individuals could begin to cultivate an all-encompassing sense of virtue through “Ren,” and that the most basic step to cultivating Ren was devotion to one's family.
When asked to describe Ren, Confucius replied, "One should see nothing improper, hear nothing improper, say nothing improper, and do nothing improper."
He also said that Ren is not far off; he who seeks it has already found it. Furthermore, Ren is close to man and never leaves him.
The concept of Ren is echoed by some words by the Buddha and some notions of Master Dogen.

The Great Learning was one of the "Four Books" in Confucianism. It consists of a short main text attributed to the teachings of Confucius, and then ten commentary chapters that are credited to one of his disciples.
The Great Learning became a textbook in schools, and it was a prerequisite for imperial examinations. Other than in China, it was used by Japan, Korea, and later in the West.

You have probably encountered the tag word “neo.” It’s a Greek term that means new or young. All too often it is joined to words and phrases to give them a special buzz. For example, a neophyte is a new student; a neology is a new word. There is even a Lithuanian pop music band that calls itself N.E.O., a contraction for New Electronic Opus.
As if Confucianism were something novel and newfangled, neo-Confucianism refers to a school of found-again Confucian.
Then there is Edo neo-Confucianism. It’s a philosophy that developed in Japan from around 1603 to 1868. It’s characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, and that it was up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and the individual.
The Japanese Edo period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, environmental protection policies, and the popular enjoyment of arts and culture.
Creativity came not from its conservative military leaders, but from the two lower classes in the Confucian social hierarchy: the artisans and merchants. It stimulated the tea ceremony, painting, crafts, and woodblock prints.
In Japan neo-Confucianism spread as basic education for monks in training. Knowledge of the philosophy was limited to Zen monasteries, who saw Confucianism as intellectually interesting, but secondary to Zen.

I don’t know if this lengthy talk has done anything other than reconfirming three truths: 
1.     History never goes away for long,
2.    Nothing is really new,
3.    The mass media is not the final word.