What are the beliefs of Eastern philosophy?


What are the beliefs of Eastern philosophy?

Eastern philosophic traditions generally tend to be less concerned with the existence or non-existence of Gods. Although some Eastern traditions have supernatural spiritual Beings and even powerful Gods, these are generally not seen as separate from the Universe, but rather as a part of the Universe.

The content of this article will be discussed under two major eastern philosophies: the Confucian philosophy and the philosophy of Dao (Daoism). 

These philosophies share similar features with those described, with respect to their focus on God and the cosmos and their being tied to local religious traditions.

This article will examine the beliefs of Eastern philosophy and two traditions and how they have impacted the philosophical development of the east.

By the end of this article, you should be able to describe the main teachings of Confucianism, describe the main teachings of Daoism and state the sense in which both religions have impacted the eastern (Asian) philosophical tradition.


Confucian Philosophy

Around 500 BCE, China was in social upheaval and went through what is called its Warring States period. National emperors lost control over China’s various territories while local rulers increased their strength, waging wars against each other to the point that only the strongest states could survive.

Although exaggerated, stories reported that as many as 400,000 people were slaughtered in battles. 

In response to the problem of social chaos that impacted nearly everyone’s life, a Period of 100 Philosophers emerged in which sages proposed various solutions. Some recommended a totalitarian system, concentrating power in the ruler.

Others recommended loving everyone as a means of attaining peace. It was in this context that China’s great teacher Confucius emerged, offering his own solution to the problem of social chaos.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) was born in what is now China’s Shandong province, along the country’s mid-costal region. His family name was Kung, and the name “Confucius,” by which we know him in the West, is a Latinized version of “Kung Futzu”, which means Master Kung.

His father, a distinguished soldier, and his mother both died when he was a child. He married at 19, had a son and daughter, and worked as a clerk in a temple in which he learned rituals from elders.

Confucius set his eye on governmental work and eventually, in his 50s, held posts including police commissioner and imperial ambassador for a peace conference.

Disillusioned by these jobs, he travelled for 13 years to the various states in China, giving advice on governance. He made the grandiose claim to show concrete social improvements within one year, and achieve complete change within three years.

No ruler took him up on his offer and, disillusioned again, he returned to his home state. He continued teaching his followers and died at age 73.

Although he considered himself a failure, his followers preserved and developed his teachings, which ultimately resulted in the flourishing of the Confucian school that heavily impacted Chinese intellectual life for 2,000 years.

Confucius’s solution to the problem of anarchy was to return to the old Chinese customs before social turmoil broke out. To aid in that effort he researched China’s old cultural traditions and edited several books of ancient Chinese history and literature.

Confucius wrote nothing of his own views, the principal record of his teachings is contained in the work called the Analects, or “digested conversations,” which is an unsystematic collection of discussions, recorded by his students after his death.

While the Analects is somewhat sketchy and does not record any of Confucius’s organized discourses, it does offer a picture of his central teachings.

As a philosopher, Confucius was foremost, an ethicist who emphasized the importance of virtuous conduct. Much of his ethical thoughts focus on four specific themes: ritual conduct, humaneness, the superior person, child obedience, and good government.

Foremost among Confucius’s teachings is the notion of ritual conduct (li), which is the effortless adherence to social norms and the performance of customs.

By Confucius’s time, ritual conduct became associated with ceremonial formality, particularly in religious practices. But Confucius uses the notion more broadly to include customs as diverse as major holiday celebrations and simple greetings.

For Confucius, rituals and traditions are the visible glue that binds society together. For virtually every activity, there is a proper way of behaving. If we don’t follow these customs, then, in spite of our best intentions, we behave like bumbling fools. He makes this point here: Respectfulness without the rules of ritual conduct becomes laborious bustle.

Carefulness without the rules of ritual conduct becomes timidity. Boldness without the rules of ritual conduct becomes insubordination.

Straightforwardness without the rules of ritual conduct becomes rudeness. When those who are in high stations properly perform all their duties to their relations, the people are inspired towards virtue. When old friends are not neglected by them, the people are preserved from meanness.

Here’s an example of how ritual conduct might apply to political life. Imagine that, during a meeting, I want to propose the development of a new park.

As I make my case, I need to be duly respectful and careful, yet bold and straightforward. If I do not know the rules of ritual conduct, my efforts will be strained, and in the course of the discussion I can too easily either understate my view or inadvertently insult the council members.

On the other hand, if I am properly skilled in the ritual conduct of business discussions, then I will be able to make my case easily and effectively.

There is both an inward and outward component of ritual conduct. The outward component concerns the visible ritual itself. The inward component involves having the proper attitude in ritual conduct, rather than simply going through the motions with no thought of their significance.

Confucius argues that the true development of ritual conduct requires that we subdue ourselves.

Also, when performing our various duties, it is important that our actions flow from within ourselves, and are not motivated by outward pressures.

For Confucius, learning ritual conduct involves active social participation, similar to how we learn any skill or art form through direct involvement.

Insofar as it is a skill, Confucius groups ritual conduct together with the skills of learning poetry and music. What all of these skills have in common is that they involve cultivating a special aesthetic sense of appreciation. They also refine us, elevate the quality of our lives, and serve as a tool for moral instruction.

Another important notion in Confucian philosophy is the notion of humaneness (jen). This is the attitude of goodness, benevolence, and altruism towards others.

Again, there is a distinction between one’s mere outer expressions of humaneness and one’s inner sense of it: “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true humaneness”.

When we think of humane behaviour, we think of the various ways that we relate to other people, has Confucius relates here: The Master said, “It is humane manners that constitute the excellence of a neighborhood. If a person in selecting a residence does not fix on one where such prevail, how can he be wise?” The Master said, “Those who are without humaneness cannot abide long either in a condition of poverty and hardship, or in a condition of enjoyment.

The virtuous rest in humaneness; the wise desire humaneness.” The Master said, “It is only the truly humane person who can love, or who can hate, others.” The Master said, “If one’s will is set on humaneness, there will be no practice of wickedness.”

To acquire humaneness, I should develop the virtues of dignity and patience, which will help me be at peace regardless of the difficulties that I face in life.

Central to the concept of humaneness is the Confucian principle of reciprocity (shu), which is “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” This principle is similar to the famous Golden Rule in the New Testament, namely, “Do to others what you would want done to yourself.”

The difference, however, is that while the Golden Rule puts forward a positive duty, that is, I should treat you benevolently or charitably since that is how I prefer to be treated, the principle of reciprocity, on the other hand, involves negative duties to avoid harm.

For example, I should not steal from or lie to you since I would not want that kind of treatment myself. Because of this difference in emphasis, the principle of reciprocity is sometimes called the “Silver Rule.” However, because of its emphasis on mere avoidance, the principle of reciprocity is sometimes criticized for being too passive: it is one thing to say that I should simply avoid harming you, but it is another and much better thing to say that I should actively seek your improvement.

However, the wording of the principle of reciprocity is flexible enough to include positive as well as negative duties. For example, since I would not want anyone to withhold charity from me, then I should not withhold charity from others. For Confucius, the superior person (chun-tzu) is the ideal human who personifies the virtue of humaneness.

The term originally referred to children of aristocrats who inherited their family estates, but, like the term “gentleman” in English, the notion of a superior person acquired a broader ethical meaning. 

In the Analects, Confucius sees the superior person as the ideal to which his followers should strive. The superior person consistently exhibits a range of virtuous qualities, including humility, respectfulness, kindness, justice, impartiality, honesty, consistency, caution, and studiousness.

Although this is a somewhat abstract list of qualities, a set of passages in the Analects points out some very particular attitudes of the superior person: The Master said, “The superior person is distressed by his lack of ability. He is not distressed by people not knowing him.” The Master said, “The superior person dislikes the thought of his name not being mentioned after his death.”

The Master said, “What the superior person seeks is in himself. What the inferior person seeks is in others.” The Master said, “The superior person is dignified, but does not wrangle. He is sociable, but not a partisan.” The Master said, “The superior person does not promote someone simply on account of his words, nor does he put aside good words because of the person.”

In the above we see that, paradoxically, the superior person is not driven by a need for fame, yet at the same time he “dislikes the thought of his name not being mentioned after his death.” What Confucius had in mind is something like this.

The drive for fame while we are alive is too frequently tied with how wealthy, powerful, or successful we are. The underlying passions here are pride and arrogance, which the superior person should clearly reject.

On the other hand, when we consider our life-long legacy and how people remember us after our deaths, we think more about how good we’ve been as human beings, and less about the degree of wealth and power that we’ve obtained.

It is, then, admirable to hope to be remembered for our legacy as a good person. In spite of the lengthy list of values that the superior person holds, Confucius stresses that the superior person is not a by-the-book rule follower, whose beliefs are rigidly fixed.

On the contrary, “The superior person in the world does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything. What is right he will follow”. That is, the superior person’s attitudes and conduct will be guided by an overall sense of justice, and not by a nit-picky set of regulations.

In keeping with his emphasis on the internal aspects of moral attributes, Confucius describes the psychological state of tranquility to which the superior person must rise.

Distress, anxiety, and fear are all obstructions: “The superior person is satisfied and composed; the inferior person is always full of distress”.

Regardless of how much tragedy we might experience, our internal sense of virtue should give us peace: “When internal examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about? What is there to fear?” That is, if I know that my internal character contains the marks of virtue, then I can take faith in this, even if I’m plagued with misfortunes such as family tragedy or financial disaster.

Becoming a superior person involves an ongoing process that cannot be quickly attained, and an anecdote about a 17th century Confucian monk illustrates this point. Upon turning 90, the monk commented that he now saw how foolish he was at 80, and he looked forward to when he’d have better knowledge at a later age.

Similarly, Confucius did not believe that he himself was a perfectly superior person: “In matters of learning I am perhaps equal to other people, but I have not yet attained to the character of the superior person, who carries out in his conduct what he professes”. That is, Confucius did not yet fully embody the values he knew that he should possess.

Also read: What are the Major Historical Periods in Western Modern Philosophy?

The Philosophy of Dao (Daoism)

The notion of the Dao is the central concept in Daoism. Literally, the term means “way” or “path”, but it more specifically refers to the fundamental ordering principle behind nature, society, and individual people.

An initial obstacle to understanding the concept of the Dao is that it has an unspeakable mystical quality and cannot be defined. We see this in the opening and most famous passage of the book Dao De Jing: The Dao that can be named is not the eternal and unchanging Dao. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal and unchanging name.

The nameless is the source of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of all things. Always be without desires and you will see mystery. Always be with desire, and you will see only its effects. 

These two are really the same, although, as development takes place, they receive the different names. They are both a mystery, and where mystery is the deepest we find the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

According to the above, if you try to name, speak, or describe the Dao, then you have missed the point and distorted the Dao’s meaning. It is an indescribable source of all existence, and we grasp the Dao only by mystically experiencing its subtlety.

This experience begins with subduing one’s desires. From the start, the Dao De Jing advocates a non-intellectual and even anti-intellectual approach. 

We should abandon hopes of finding an adequate verbal description of the Dao, and instead psychologically realign ourselves so that we are not driven by our desires.

With no mental conceptions or desires to muddy the waters, we then allow the Dao to exhibit itself through our own lives, and we can recognize its presence in the natural world around us. Another passage early on in the Dao De Jing states that the indescribable nature of the Dao is like an empty vessel, which we should never try to fill with concrete descriptions that will invariably misrepresent it: The Dao is like the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness.

How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the honored ancestor of all things. We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should dim our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Dao is, as if it would continue forever. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.

The Dao’s nature, according to the above, is infinitely deep and as mysterious as any investigation into the origin of things in the far distant past.

To understand it, we must take an approach that is opposite to what we might expect. For example, we typically learn about things through our senses of sight, hearing, or touch. But the Dao lacks any sensory qualities that might enable us to perceive it in those ways.

In fact, if we try to investigate the Dao as though it were just another physical object of perception, we will find that its nature actually consists of lacking any tangible qualities: “We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it ‘the colorless.’

We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it ‘the soundless.’ We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we name it ‘the bodiless’”. What is the Dao’s form? It is formless. What is its appearance? It is invisible.

Try as we might to list its qualities, we are left with empty descriptions. In spite of the Dao’s unspeakable quality, the Dao De Jing tells us at least something about the Dao’s nature. One recurring point is that the Dao both creates and sustains everything that exists: “The Dao produces all things and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them”.

Although the Dao is the originator of all things, it should not be misconstrued as a kind of pre-existing God who created a universe distinct from itself. Rather, before things originated, the Dao was in a formless state of potential.

As it took on the state of existence, the Dao produced things that remain part of its nature: There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still and formless it was, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger of being exhausted.

It may be regarded as the Mother of all things. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Dao, the Way or Course.

The Dao De Jing repeatedly refers to the Dao as the mother of everything, and the metaphor of a mother has important implications. A cosmic father evokes images of a craftsman or builder who aggressively manufactures the world from some external raw material.

But a cosmic mother gives birth to things, generating them from within herself, and continually nurturing them. It is like a great tree that sprouts branches, leaves, and fruit, continually feeding them all from within.

It is like a great river that spawns and sustains a myriad of life forms. The takeaway message is that we should all strive to follow the Dao. Animals and plants do this naturally, and it is only humans that have the capacity to act contrary to it since our minds make us think that we are independent entities apart from nature.

We create artificial environments in which to live and see nature as something to conquer for our personal benefit, rather than something that we should be part of. When we go against the Dao, the consequences are disastrous for us personally, and for everything that damage in our path.

A central theme of Daoism is that of return: all things eventually decay and return to their ultimate source within the Dao.

There are clear natural cycles in the cosmos: everything around us has been recycled and will again be recycled. We tend to praise human accomplishments that have the most lasting value, such as timeless works of art, scientific discoveries, and moral traditions.

However, when we look at nature, we see that nothing is permanent and everything comes and goes in cycles. Growth and decay are not just one-time events, but occur again and again in an endless natural cycle.

This is the pulse of the universe that we find in most everything that we observe. Trees, animals, and even societies grow and die, and their elements will ultimately be recycled.

The passage below illustrates this point with plants, which first display luxuriant growth, and then return to their origin: All things alike go through their processes of activity, and then we see them return to their original state.

When things in the vegetable world have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the state of stillness; and that stillness may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end.

Plants and animals die and decay, leaving their elements to become the raw materials of other things. We too will wither, die and decay, whether we like it or not. Chuang-tzu gives a story of a dying man whose body has become deformed. Rather than be angry and resistant to his physical changes, he gladly accepts them.

According to Chuang-tzu, then, we should submit to the natural process of transformation, and to do otherwise amounts to disobedience: “If a parent tells a son to go east, west, south, or north, the son simply follows the command. 

The yin and yang [forces of nature] are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death and I do not quietly submit to them, I would be obstinate and rebellious.” Ultimately, we have no say in the matter.

Read on: Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods

Conclusion on what are the beliefs of Eastern philosophy

Confucian philosophy focused more on moral virtue and its moral message has a strong theme of social interconnectedness.

For Daoism, Dao is the natural force of the universe, which underlies everything. The natural world is interconnected, both with its general laws and forces of nature that govern physical bodies throughout the universe, and with the ecological interdependence of living things on earth.

And so, the ultimate reality can only be discovered within the cycles in the natural world in the context of this interconnectedness.

We have examined two other major eastern philosophies: the Confucian philosophy and the philosophy of Dao (Daoism), which have had tremendous impact on eastern philosophical tradition.

These philosophies share similar features with those described in the preceding article, with respect to their focus on God and the cosmos and their being tied to local religious traditions.

Most importantly however is the fact that these philosophies served as world views or guides to life the Chinese and some other societies in the east (Asia).

Post a Comment