The Confucian Self and Experiential Spirituality

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  • 8/10/2019 The Confucian Self and Experiential Spirituality



    The Confucian Self and Experiential Spirituality

    YAO Xinzhong

    Published online: 15 October 2008# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2008

    Abstract Since the publication of his book on Zhongyong (Tu 1976), TU Weiming has

    worked for more than 30 years on an anthropocosmic reconstruction of the Confucian

    universe, in which self-transformation is defined both as the starting point and as the

    necessary vehicle for ones spiritual journey. This article is primarily intended to examine

    Tus attempts to reconstruct Confucian spirituality but further to take a step forward to

    argue that in the spiritual world as construed by Confucius and Mencius, the experiential

    functions as transcendental by which the self initiates and empowers the transformativeprocess. Through exploring the spiritual significance of Confucian experiences, this essay

    will conclude that although transcendental experienceis only one of many dimensions in

    other religious or intellectual traditions, it is the most important path for Confucians by

    which the self is enabled to become fully integrated with ultimate reality.

    Keywords TU Weiming. Confucian self. Religious experience. Spirituality

    1 Introduction

    The best illustration of TUWeimings anthropocosmicism can be found in a chapter

    entitled What is the Confucian Way? (Tu 1995), which provides a short but

    comprehensive outline of, and the most penetrating insight into, his underlying principles.

    In this outline, Tu defines Confucian spirituality in terms of a four dimensional process: the

    self as creative transformation, the community as a necessary vehicle for human flourishing,

    nature as the proper home for our form of life, and Heaven as the source of ultimate self-

    realization, placing the self right at the centre of the Confucian universe, which then

    radiates to family, community, country, world, and beyond (Tu 1995: 142). While

    advocating Confucianism as a religious humanism, Tu suggests that a Confucian individualwould take the status quo as only the starting point for his/her spiritual journey.

    Dao (2008) 7:393406

    DOI 10.1007/s11712-008-9088-3

  • 8/10/2019 The Confucian Self and Experiential Spirituality


    Different scholars often talk about Confucian spirituality in different senses, as an

    ideology of ritual or the state cult (Smart1992: 1034), or as the theoretical function

    of integrating social life and shaping the spiritual world (Cui 2001: 843). In contrast to

    these, Tus approach reveals a much deeper root of a unique type of spirituality, in which an

    ontologicallyexternal transcendence(Heaven or the Way of Heaven) is closely associatedwith an existentially internal awareness, enabling us to be closer to an appropriate concept

    of Confucian religiousness. However, inspired by his overall project of a rational

    construction of Confucian anthropo-theologyto enable Confucianism to be listed among

    our religions in the world, Tu quickly dismisses the possibility of a self-sustained self-

    transformation, suggesting that the idea of selfhood devoid of communication with the

    outside world is alien to the Confucian tradition (Tu 1995: 143). While this is true

    concerning the fulfilment of the self, by making the self conditional to the outside world, Tu

    has, probably unintentionally, diverted from his own position on the self-transformation

    of the creative self,leading to a contrast rather than integration of the individual and the

    cumulative symbolic tradition, including social community, nature, and the ultimate

    authority of Heaven.

    Based on the understanding that there is no justification for any dichotomy of the

    internal and the external in the early Confucian tradition, this essay is intended to take Tus

    view on the Confucian self and spirituality one step further, arguing that Confucian

    spirituality is characterised not only by its affirming the possibility of self-transformation or

    self-realization, but also by its admitting that the transformation is fully self-powered and

    self-resourced.1 Many Confucians, historic or modern, hold that the power and resources

    within each person are produced by the ultimate power (Heaven) but still need to be

    brought to their full realization, and accordingly champion a doctrine of ultimate-individualunity. On the surface it seems justifiable to say that the Confucian self can manifest its

    values only through fulfilling its responsibilities in external activities. As far as ones

    spirituality is concerned, however, these activities must be preconditioned on an awareness

    of ones heavenly endowed position and mission, and the awareness must be gained

    through ones own spiritual experience of the transcendent, in whatever form the

    transcendent may appear to be. In this sense, to reveal the true nature of Confucian

    spirituality, we must examine the religious dimension of the Confucian self and how its

    experiential dimension in terms of transcendental experience comes to define Confucian


    2 Religion and Confucian Religiosity

    It is notoriously difficult, if not totally impossible, to find a definition of religion acceptable

    to all people, and it is even more so to spell out clearly the link between Confucianism and

    religion. Borrowing from HAN Yus terminology, we can say that there is a lack of

    consensus in defining religion at least partially because religion as a category is not a


    In a sense Confucian spirituality and Chan Buddhism share something in common. It is well known thatChan Buddhists advocate that everyone is able to realize his or her Buddha-nature, or in other words, to

    become a Buddha. In the famous poem by Huineng the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan transmission line,

    394 YAO Xinzhong

  • 8/10/2019 The Confucian Self and Experiential Spirituality


    definite name (ding ming)but an empty position (xu wei ), a kind of box that

    can be filled up with different contents by different people and in different ages (Han 1997:

    120). The same can also be said about Confucianism, which has further complicated the

    issue due to the different interpretations of the tradition that is named Confucianismin the

    West (Yao 2000: 26

    47). A link between Confucianism and religion depends, to a greatextent, on clarifications about what religion is and how the dimensions of Confucian

    teachings and practices can be matched to the criteria of religion. It is no surprise, therefore,

    not only that philosophers and theologians outside the Confucian tradition often either

    cement or sever the link but also that scholars of the Confucian tradition tend to highlight

    different aspects to emphasize or deemphasize its religious, a-religious, non-religious, or

    even anti-religious nature and function.

    When expanding on Hans Blumenbergs definition of myth by its quality of significance,

    Gavin Flood suggests that like the term significance itself, religion is resistant to

    definition, yet despite this problem there are forms of cultural life which are clearly

    identifiable as religionin contrast to other cultural practices(Flood1999: 42). Where can

    we locate the special quality of these forms of cultural life? Having seen the ultimate

    similaritybetween religion and secular culture, Paul Tillich seeks to enlarge the traditional

    Western notion of religion by introducing the concept of ultimate concern, and further

    interprets ultimate concern as involving the sacred or the holy, which facilitates

    transcending the mere human existence to unlimited reality.2 Does Confucianism have

    such an ultimate concern? The answer is probably universally affirmative. However,

    scholars differ over whether this concern is of a holy or transcendent nature. It seems

    apparent that what defines the characteristic of Confucian religiosity has much to do with

    how to interpret

    the ultimate,

    and that the spiritual dimension of Confucianism must berevealed through a reinterpretation of transcendence.

    Transcendenceitself is an ambiguous term, open to a variety of interpretations. While

    the root meaning oftranscendentdoes not necessarily contain a religious connotation (to

    transcend is to be or go beyond the range or limits of), throughout European history it

    has become closely associated with the Christian Gods existing apart from and not subject

    to the limitations of the material universe (Pearsall 2001: 1522). Following phenomen-

    ologists of religion, notably Mircea Eliade (19071986) and Ninian Smart (19272001),

    contemporary scholars of religions have significantly expanded this narrowly understood

    concept, and associated it with a more flexible, culturally adapted, and therefore more

    abstract and general quality. For example, by defining religion as any beliefs which involvethe acceptance of a sacred, trans-empirical realm and any behaviours designed to affect a

    persons relationship with that realm, Peter Connolly suggests the transcendental quality

    can be found in the concept of trans-empirical or sacred (Connolly1999: 67). Keith

    Ward provides yet another example of how liberal Christian theologians take a further step

    toward an abstract and broadened concept of transcendence and reli