CONFUCIANISM: WHAT DID CONFUCIUS REALLY SAY?
by Stan Griffin
Confucianism is described by some observers as a "philosophy" based on ideas of the Chinese teacher Confucius. It originated around 500 B.C. and was " ... the most important single force in Chinese life ..." from approximately 100 B.C. to 1900 A.D. A philosophy is defined as an "overall view of or attitude toward life and the purpose of life" or "a system of ideas and thoughts that address human behavior." They see Confucianism primarily as a way of life, a guide to morality, not a religion. Their reasoning is based partly on the following points:
(1) Confucianism does not teach of any god. One of their books contains this quote: "Respect gods but have as little to do with them as possible." Instead of "gods," it speaks of "goodness."
(2) Confucianism’s center of attention is to " ... make people better during their lifetimes ... to guide them toward a virtuous existence ... (and) to help them choose the right and moral course to take regardless of consequences." There is no teaching of life after death.
(3) Confucianism has no priesthood, no clergy, no organized body.
(4) Confucianism has no formal creed.
(5) Their temples which are found through all of China are not "centers of a living faith," but rather museums.
(6) Confucius did not claim any divine status for himself.
Believers in an opposing viewpoint contend Confucianism should be considered a religion because:
(1) Confucius was convinced his mission as a moral teacher came directly from Heaven (the supreme deity in traditional Chinese religion).
(2) Since his death, his followers pay him homage and honor him the way other founders of religions have been honored.
(3) Confucianism has its own scriptures: the "Analects" which are the collected sayings of Confucius and his disciples (much like the Bible’s proverbs); and classic works of Chinese literature which he urged his followers to read.
(4) Confucianism has spiritual elements.
(5) Confucianism has rituals (although most have faded away through the years).
(6) Confucianism today attempts to " ,,, comprehend the ultimate purpose and meaning of human existence ..." which is arguably an important objective of many religions.
It seems true at various times during the long history of Confucianism, it was considered a religion and during other periods it was classified as a philosophy.
Today Confucius is mistakenly identified as a zany wise man constantly spouting brainless jokes that always begin with the words: "Confucius say ..." For the past half century or more, the witticisms put in an appearance (often in fortune cookies!) and then disappear; but they always seem to return. Those counterfeit quips are nothing more than products of joke writers. Here’s one example: "Confucius say: ‘Man who cut self while shaving lose face.’ "
In reality, Confucius was the author of many legitimate "wise sayings" which taught Chinese people of his time about such things as rules of life, nature, and human behavior in addition to educating them about morals. His wisdom also helped emperors by teaching lessons on how to rule successfully-- and fairly! Two examples of this advice: "A ruler should learn self-discipline, govern his subjects by his own example, and treat his subjects with love and concern" and "An oppressive government is fiercer and more feared than a tiger."
Confucius’ teachings were, without doubt, "the greatest influence on Chinese society," having a monumental effect on history and culture. He influenced their education, government, their personal behavior, and duty to the community. At different times, Chinese rulers made his teachings the official state philosophy.
Confucius’ ideas also spread to other nations in eastern Asia; namely Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. He " ... laid down a pattern of thinking followed by more people for more generations than any other human being on earth ... Regardless of their religions or form of government, Chinese and most other east Asian civilizations and their way of thinking can be shown in some way to have Confucian elements."
Confucius was born in the duchy of Lu in Shandong Province (551 B.C.). His name had several variations, but it was "K’ung-fu-tzu" (Great Master) that was Latinized to produce the one which is now familiar.
His family was poor but of noble ancestry. At the age of three, his father died. Confucius was married at 19 and eventually had three children: one son and two daughters. For a short time, he was employed by the district governor as overseer of parks and livestock. He established a school when he was 22 years old. Then came his first "wandering" period which he spent as a traveling teacher. He returned to Shandong where he lived for the next 15 years.
Then at age 52 Confucius was appointed district governor, also acting as magistrate and minister of crime. He instituted reforms. established a fair justice system, and almost eliminated crime. His personal goal was to return peace and orderliness to the province. He was so successful that the governor of a neighboring state became jealous and successfully plotted his removal. He then went into voluntary exile, never returning to public life.
Confucius’ second "wandering" period lasted 13 years. He spent his time teaching, " ... hoping to change the world by changing leaders at an early age ..." He became famous as "a man of learning and of character with a reverence for Chinese ideals and customs." His guidelines for individual moral development would, he said, result in the creation of " a harmonious and orderly society.
At the age of 69 Confucius returned to Lu where he died three years later (479 B.C.), largely unknown in China. He was buried in the city of Ch’uFu, Shandong. Today the site is in K’ung Forest, and his grave is still a place of pilgrimage for "believers."
Confucius did not put into writing any of the principles of his ideology. They were handed down only through his disciples who collected and preserved them in books called Lun Yu (translated as the "Analects.") Later they were refined and expanded.
By the dawn of Christianity, Confucianism had become China’s official ideology and central focus of its education system. Through the centuries, Confucianism lost its dominant position; but it continued to mold the attitudes and behaviors of millions. Communists opposed its principles until the 1970s because " ... it encouraged people to look to the past instead of to the future."
It is impossible to get an accurate estimate of his followers today, but one put forward is six million. Making this count more difficult is the fact that it’s possible to identify yourself as Buddhist or Shintoist but still be a follower of Confucius.
The overwhelming message of Confucius is based on one concept: "jen" which means humanness, humanity, or benevolence. He said, "If we are to achieve a state of orderliness and peace, we need to return to traditional values of virtue." He also taught his students to love others, to honor one’s parents, and to do what is right instead of what is to advantage.
One of the quotations found in the "Analects" is much like Christianity’s Golden Rule: "A man should practice what he preaches, but a man should also preach what he practices." Some other interesting bits of Confucian wisdom follow:
"In education there are no class distinctions."
"By nature, all men are pretty much alike; it is by custom and habit that they are set apart."
"When you know a thing, say that you know it; when you do not know a thing, admit that you do not know it. That is knowledge."
"A promise easily made is hard to keep."
"They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom."
"If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life."
Confucius called himself a "transmitter, not an innovator." Other basic principles he advocated are: (1) take action; (2) respond to social demands; and (3) respect your parents.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance and stature of this man who lived milleniums ago.
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