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Religion Library: Confucianism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Imported from South and Central Asia around the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhism offered a well-articulated theory of afterlife and salvation that was missing in early Confucianism, and also provided an alternative to marriage and family life for those who were willing to take vows as a monk or a nun. Taoism, although rooted in early texts and traditions that are contemporary with early Confucianism, responded to the introduction of Buddhism by adopting many of its elements and practices, including theories of karmic retribution and rebirth and an emphasis on divinely-revealed scriptures, while offering its own distinctive vision of afterlife and salvation through the attainment of personal immortality. While some Confucians condemned Buddhism and Taoism, usually because of their perceived threats to Chinese social values, other Confucians adopted, covertly or overtly, many Buddhist and Taoist ideas, institutions, and practices.

Exterior of Confucian temple, Suzhou, China: Public DomainThese two traditions' emphases on meditation and metaphysics influenced Zhu Xi and other Confucians, such as Zhang Zai (1020-1077 C.E.) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.), to revisit ancient texts such as the Yijing and the Daxue. These latter-day Confucians reinterpreted these and other early scriptures through a lens informed as much by Taoist mysticism and Chan (Zen) Buddhist spirituality as by traditional Confucian concerns for social harmony and personal rectitude. Confucianism's rediscovery of its own metaphysical traditions and texts enabled it to hold its own against its Buddhist and Taoist rivals and retain its proud place as China's preeminent intellectual and spiritual tradition well into the 20th century.

Study Questions:
     1.     What kinds of texts became the earliest Confucian scriptures?
     2.     What kinds of texts became Confucian scriptures later on?
     3.     What role did Buddhism play in the development of Confucian thought?
     4.     What role did Taoism play in the development of Confucian thought?


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