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Religion Library: Confucianism

Vision for Society

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Kongzi dreamed of a peaceful society in the midst of civil war, social turmoil, and chronic conflict. Over a thousand years later, when his spiritual descendants, the Song dynasty "Neo-Confucians," found themselves in a position to put Kongzi's theories into widespread practice, they naturally turned to ritual as the means of harmonizing society.

Zhou Dunyi: Public DomainLike other "Neo-Confucians," Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) believed that every human being could attain sagehood -- that is, could fully develop his Tian-endowed moral and spiritual potential and act in concert with the cosmos, for the benefit of all. When asked about the essentials to be mastered in learning to be a sage, Zhou replied:

To be unified is essential. To be unified is to have no desire. Without desire one is empty when still and direct in activity. Being empty when still, one will be clear; being clear, one will be penetrating. Being direct in activity, one will be impartial; being impartial, one will be all-embracing. Being clear and penetrating, impartial and all-embracing, one is almost a Sage. . . .

Here, Zhou is synthesizing both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of his own time and combining them with Kongzi's vision of tranquility as both the root and the result of ritual practice. To ritualize the self is to overcome selfish desires, focus one's efforts on the good of all, and belong completely to the whole of society. Zhou's disciple, Zhu Xi, devised an entire manual of rituals for use in the family home, the Jiali (Family Rituals), which then was widely adopted across East Asia over the next several hundred years. The manual begins with a statement of first principles in establishing a household:

When a profound person builds a house, his first task is always to set up an offering hall . . .

Zhu's manual was revised and reprinted dozens of times and succeeded in bringing members of nearly every social stratum in China, not to mention those in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, into compliance with his Confucian vision of society as a grand, perfectly-choreographed ballet. This is all the more remarkable, given Confucianism's lack of institutional coercion (no papal magisterium, no fatwa, no holy wars to root out the infidel, no conquests to swell the ranks of converts) -- and all the more consistent with Kongzi's ideal of ritual as ultimately efficacious, because ultimately non-coercive.

Confucianism largely exists today as a diffuse, rather than as an institutional, religion. Those who seek Confucianism, as others seek particular religious traditions, in buildings such as temples and persons such as clergy may look in vain. Instead, Confucianism may be most alive today as a lived social reality.


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