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Religion Library: Confucianism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Kongzi seems to be of two minds about Tian. At times, he is convinced that he enjoys the personal protection and sanction of Tian, and thus defies his mortal opponents as he wages his campaign of moral instruction and reform. At other moments, however, he seems caught in the throes of existential despair, wondering if he has lost his divine backer at last. Tian seems to participate in qualities of "fate" and "nature" as well as those of "deity." What remains consistent throughout Kongzi' discourses on Tian is his threefold assumption about this extrahuman, absolute power in the universe: (1) its alignment with moral goodness, (2) its dependence on human agents to actualize its will, and (3) the variable, unpredictable nature of its associations with mortal actors. Thus, to the extent that the Kongzi of the Lunyu is concerned with justifying the ways of Tian to humanity, he tends to do so without questioning these three assumptions about the nature of Tian, which are rooted deep in the Chinese past.

Later Confucian thinkers share Kongzi's vision of human beings as communing with the cosmic source of moral order, but (perhaps influenced by Buddhist and Taoist traditions) tend to describe that source in more metaphysical terms. Zhu Xi, for example, envisioned human beings as a crucial link in a "great chain" that extended from the primeval, undifferentiated qi (vital energy) of the universe through its division into the complementary opposites of yin and yang, which in turn generate the five elements or phases (earth, wood, fire, water, metal) to create heaven, earth, and all beings. According to Zhu, because li (cosmic principle) is inscribed in the human heart-mind, humans are uniquely capable of both understanding this cosmic creative process and actively participating in it.

Rites in honor of Confucius' birthday, Taipei, Taiwan: Public DomainHere, Zhu drew extensively on his predecessor Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073 C.E.)'s Taiji tu shuo (Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity), which explained how the image of yin and yang illustrated the dynamic interplay of opposites in the ongoing development of the universe. True to the humanistic spirit of the Confucian tradition, both Zhou and Zhu saw human beings as playing a vital role in that continuous cosmic drama whereby the raw material of qi assumed the shape formed by the master pattern of li.

Still later, Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) would argue that not only is li interchangeable with Tian, li can be found in and discerned by the human heart-mind, and in fact, li is none other than the human heart-mind. Thus, for Wang, to know oneself fully is to comprehend the universe and the source of the universe's moral and creative order: "The heart-mind is the master of heaven, earth and all beings. The heart-mind is none other than Tian. If we mention the heart-mind, heaven, earth and all beings all are also mentioned automatically."


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