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Philosophy And Spirituality

Characteristics Of Chinese Philosophy
By Sanjeev Nayyar, December 2000 [[email protected]]

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To most of us living in India, China is some sort of an enigma. On one hand we are told that India exported its culture and philosophy to China some two thousand years ago. On the other, we have the scars of the War of 1962. Today the country is swamped with cheap but quality Chinese goods.

What is Chinese philosophy all about, how did it evolve, what was Buddhism’s impact on China? A book on Comparative Philosophy by Prof P.T. Raju helped me find some answers. Here is an article based on inputs from that book. Notes talk about historical and philosophical developments follow it. Do not miss reading them.

General characteristics of Chinese philosophy (CP) are –
1. CP is neither inward looking or outward looking. It keeps a balance between the two and is more at home with man in society than the ultimate problems. No problem is probed too deep, pressed to its logical conclusion. Chines thought affirms man first and never forgets its commitment to man. Confucianism affirms man in society and Taoism man by himself, although Taoism was inclined to belittle his material existence. On the whole CP is outward looking if Confucianism is considered typically Chinese.

2. Although a few questions about the ultimate nature of Tao were raised, the inquiry was not very thorough and everything is related to Human Nature. None probed into the mind systematically or deep and what was found within mind were good feelings, sentiments, all that which contributes to a happy social life. They are few found in every society and were not unique to China. Hence CP is somewhat superficial and unsystematic.

3. CP, however, has made a distinct contribution to world philosophy. It persistently tries to build ethics and even metaphysics on the emotional nature of man but not on his rational nature. Neither Indian nor Western philosophy consider this aspect.

4. CP is concerned with the immediate life of man, not his past or future birth as is the case with Indian philosophy. If a doctrine works on building a good state and society, it is not; when it does it is accepted. The Chinese adopted Communism hoping that it would improve their quality of life. When it did not achieve its objective, they adopted the capitalistic model and their success is for all to see.

5. CP is more concerned with the Good than with the Beautiful and less with the Truth than with the Beautiful. It finds the Good in normal human life not necessarily in communication with God but with other men. It finds Good, not by controlling nature but in controlling oneself with reference to others.


6. There is some mysticism but not of the kind that we in India are familiar with, a kind of nature mysticism, concerned with human nature only. Taoism has elements in it and Buddhism deepened it but it was repeatedly brought to the human level in the history of Chinese thought.

7. China does not have a well-developed materialistic philosophy. It was human nature that was elevated to the Tao of the early Taoists or to the material Tao of the later Confucians. They were interested in human nature but not in spiritual or material nature. This has an important lesson for Indians. We were excessively concerned with the realization of Atman, in the process we ignored the well being of man, building of state and society, political thought.

8. Because nature meant human nature, China did not feel the need to develop a method for understanding nature. There are always examples of men with good nature so there was found no need to study it as good nature was observed and studied. Accordingly, China did not develop systems of logic and epistemology. The need for both is felt only when we want to study more. The Chines were not interested in the outward or inward so what was the need to study, probe.

9. For the same reason, there is very little categorization of reality. There is some categorization of human virtues, of which human-heartedness is the highest. To the Chinese, reality, is human nature? But as the categorization is not carried out methodically and systematically, we find very little importance attached to categories.

10. Because of a keen interest in human affairs and achievements, China had a strong sense of history and constructed some philosophies of history, besides a few doctrines of evolution. The Chinese did not regard history as unreal or insignificant. The aim of the Chinese mind is universal peace and it interpreted human achievements as progressing towards universal peace. This statement baffles me. The Chinese continue their march towards becoming a world military power, arm Pakistan to the teeth, and aid its nuclear program and Universal Peace!

11. CP considers Man as the highest object of creation, not because he alone can attain salvation as the Indian philosophers thought but because he alone can build up culture and civilization.

12. Because of this deep abiding interest in man, culture, civilization China could develop good social, political thought as also good life-affirming ethics. While Chanakya’s Arthashashtra has some profound thoughts on foreign policy, defense, governance they were with the exception of a few warriors like Shivaji never followed. If Indians had a strategic culture, all it had to do was to convert the Khyer Pass into an impregnable fortress and the country’s history might well have been different.

The ideal of democracy started with Confucius and the French Revolution seems to have influenced by his ideas, whether directly or indirectly. Even semantics must have been discovered by the Chinese school of Names. China was the first to invent paper, printing, and gunpowder but could develop none of these for the want of systematic methodology. She has to be, therefore, content with only so much credit for her inventions as Egypt received for the discovery of geometry. Because of her humanistic interest, China pushed her inquiries in political and social thought, rather than in inventions.

13. In spite of a deep interest in human nature, it appears that pre-communist Chinese thought viewed man as an emotional and social animal but not as a rational animal. The thought that the soul in full or in part is immortal never occurred to the Chinese. This explains the lack of the development of logic and epistemology in Chinese thought.

14. Another interesting feature is the absence of a definite conception of the spirit, soul in Chinese thought. They referred to the spirits of the ancestors, spirits of water, mountain and so on but did not think of the spirit of the man.

Notes on Chinese Philosophy (CP)

1. In no other philosophy are state and society given so much importance as in the Chinese. Man and society are the preoccupation of every Chinese philosopher. CP believes that it is to be tested by the concept of good government. History and philosophy are very closely connected unlike Western, Indian philosophies.
2. How to become a complete man is the question of Chinese wisdom. The idle man is one with sageliness within and kingliness without. Unlike the West, where Plato’s philosopher became king unwillingly, the Chinese sage willingly became king. It is his duty to become king and set right state and society.
3. Macaulay laid the blame for the French Revolution upon some distorted notions of China’s political institutions. Man is the same everywhere, provided he is ethically perfect and complete. Equality of man must be the basis of political and social structure (was that one of the reasons why the Chinese took to Communism). No philosophy in China could ignore this principle.
4. If a sage is to be king all the administrators must be philosophers. The philosopher is a wise man, since wisdom is obtained from the study of books and training according to their teachings. (Slight similarity with Indian thought, concept of Knowledge as enunciated in the Bhagwad Geeta). Hence, there is the famous examination system of China of which the Civil Service of England is a copy.
5. Nature is an important to the Chinese. It does not mean external nature, hills etc, as we understand it but is something deep within man. It is not asceticism in the Indian context but it relates to Human Nature. How can we make this life pleasant, happy and useful in itself? CP did not preach control of nature but control by man of his own nature, to live an ethical life. A philosophy of Outwardness, emphasis control of nature first and then man’s effort by self-control to conform to nature. (Good behavior).
6. CP emphasizes man’s self-control with reference to state and society and not with reference to the Divine, Amman within.
7. The anxiety not to loose touch with the human situation reflects itself in the comparative absence of logical development in ancient and classical China. CP also had pantheism, atheism and materialism like the Indian but without the metaphysical depth and logical subtly of the Indian.
8. Fung thinks that the absence of scientific development in ancient China was due to the fact that the Chinese wanted to know and control the mind unlike the West who wanted to know and control nature. The lack of mathematics and logic are for the same reason. But ancient India offers a contrary example. Indian philosophy is inward and more interested with the control of the mind than is ancient China. But logic and syllogism are important parts of Indian philosophy, were systematized by Gautama, the author of the Nyayasutras, as early as 400 BC. In spite of great developments in logic, in ancient India, science and logic did not develop as well as in Europe. That is because it was applied to the Inward unlike the West, there was outward motive and interest.
9. Like in India, unlike the West, a number of schools of philosophy developed and grew simultaneously. In China all schools were motivated by the search for an ideal, but the ideal was model man, state and society. There were six main schools. Yin-Yang Schools (the cosmologists – originated among official astronomers, who observed the heavens and seasons and became cosmologists, major figure Tsou Yen –3rd century B.C.), the Ju school (the literati – teacher members of the Ministry of Education), the Mo school (the Mohists had its origin among the Guardians of the temple, founded by Mo Tzu lived between 372 and 289 B.C.), Ming School (the school of names was started by the Ministry of Ceremonies which had to do with titles and positions), the Fa School (the legalists sprang out of the Ministry of Justice and emphasized strictness in rewarding and punishing, founded by Han Fei Tzu, 3rd century BC) and the Tao-Te School (the Taoists – was started by official historians, who became hermits after observing the rise and fall of dynasties, fortunes of the people and learned to hold on to what was essential in man).
10. Confucius belonged to the Ju school and was born in 551 BC
11. The object of CP was to make the state strong, man and society happy and stable, and the ruler an ideal one, the various Chinese schools analyzed human nature for this common end. If they studied Cosmology it was to meet this objective. When this did not happen, the thinkers in the Government would attribute failure to the inadequacies of the philosophy of the advisors. In no other country was philosophy and institutional life as well connected.
12. The period 200 BC to 1000 AD marks the blending of various schools with each other and Buddhism. From 1000 to 1900 AD indigenous schools tried to dominate. Confucianism, impacted by Buddhism and other philosophies became the dominant philosophy. What started, as a philosophy of practical life became a religion subsequently? Under the influence of Buddhism, both Confucianism and Taoism became some kind of religions.
13. Chan says, “Chinese philosophy is tantamount to Neo-Confucianism.” Since 1900, China is strongly influenced by the West. China has become communist and Mao Tse-tung advocates Marxism.
14. The four books which every Chinese student reads are 1) The Confucian Analects. 2) The Book of Mencius. 3) The Great Learning. 4) The Doctrine of the Mean. Confucius is regarded as the first teacher but is seen to represent the Chinese outlook on life. It is said that he did not compose but compiled the six classics, which are 1) Yi or the Book of Changes. 2) Shih or the Book of Odes. 3) Shu or the Book of History. 4) Li or Rituals. 5) Yueh or music.6) Chun Chiu or Spring and Autumn Annals.
15. The Chinese did not start with any scripture corresponding to the Vedas. Whenever they needed an authority to support their views, they referred to some legendary emperor and attributed their views to him.
16. Confucius (born 551 BC) was a traditionalists who felt that the misery in China during his time because the people were not following venerable traditions. He said, any man could be superior man if he is noble, unselfish, kind and just.
17. Confucius understood duties in terms of customary rites (Li), sacrifices, manners and etiquette. Li originally meant sacrifice; its meaning was extended to include every courtesy that characterized the conduct of courtesies. To observe Li became a duty and is like Dharma. Here lies the similarity between his thoughts and Sanatana Dharam. Li originally meant sacrifice and was later given the meaning of ritual, proprietary, moral and political duties. Dharma too was originally associated with sacrifice. What the Vedas ordained, the performance of sacrifices was a duty, which came to mean Dharma. Man’s dharma is what sustains the world and Li is what sustains man, state and society.
18. He emphasized righteousness (yi) and human-heartedness (jen). The word rational was absent; perhaps reason did not interest Confucius.
19. The practical aspect of Jen consists in regard to others. The positive bit is Chung i.e. do to others as you would like them to do to you and the negative bit is Shu. Chung and shu were later interpreted as the doctrine of golden mean and harmony.
20. Confucius recognized the importance of Knowledge for he realized that without it one cannot become a superior man. He who does not know Ming cannot be a superior man and ming means the total existent conditions and forces of the universe. Their interest lies only in the study of human relationships and not in a scientific study of the Universe.
21. Confucianism reminds me of the Vedic period at that time, over emphases on sacrifice. If you want to read about the conditions during the Vedic period, go to the essay Religious Development in India. Confucius stressed the importance of music in education; belief in a pre determined fate. In a number of ways his thoughts are very similar to Indian thinking around and before that time.
22. Yang Chu (440 to 360 BC) was in a sense a naturalist. Instead of calling the pure happy nature of man by the name spirit or atman, he calls it nature. To call it by nature is part of Chinese tradition, which was more interested in things human than in thing material. Yang Chu felt that it could be achieved only by shunning desires (Indian concept) and leading a life of purity.
23. Mencius (372 to 289 BC) is one of the greatest followers of Confucius is associated with the doctrine that all things are completely within mind. He introduced meditation which is absent in the teachings of Confucius. There is a peculiar similarity between the doctrine of Mencius and Mimamsa. The law of Karma governs the world, which is dependent on the duties of man. Duties include sacrifices to gods and duties to family, society. For Mencius also man’s duties include duties to spirits, family, state and society.

24. Confucius said anyone could be a superior man, provided he was noble, virtuous and skillful. In India too, the word Aryan was given a philosophical meaning. While it had a racial meaning earlier, by the time of Buddha it meant anyone who was noble hearted. Vedic religion was called Arya Dharma. For Buddha the Aryan was one who followed the eight-fold path, for Mahavira, the Aryan was one who followed the path prescribed by him and observed ahimsa, vegetarianism.
25. Lao Tzu is amongst the most famous Taoists. He placed nature above everything else and urged man to realize it. The realization is possible by leading a simple and pure life, taking life as it comes without any high ambitions and aspirations. The Tao is simplicity itself and can be attained through simplicity of life. Tao (universal nature), te (individual nature), human-heartedness, righteousness (yi) and rituals (li) are the five ideals in the descending order of importance. According to Tao life is to be here itself, in the family, state and society.
26. According to Taoists, the king has to be a sage. He must not try to do anything, but allow nature to take care of all. The Tao itself will work spontaneously. The king must act through non-ruling. Inspite of its laissez faire teachings, Taoism was made the basis of totalitarian philosophies of China. The Tao is the absolute, it is the totality of all that there is. On one hand, Taoists political philosophy is anarchists, because the ruler rules not by ruling and allowing the subjects to act according to their nature. On the other hand is totalitarian, because the Tao is one and absolute and works through every person.
27. Yin-yang school. Yin stands for the mother goddess and Yang for the father god. To this school belongs the doctrine of Wu Hsing or five elements. They are fire, wood, metal, earth and water. In India wood and metal is replaced by air and ether while the Greeks had only four elements. The Chinese man was an agricultural animal hence metal and wood, the Greek man was a rational, political and trading animal while the Indian was a rational and spiritual animal.
28. Revival of Taoism - From the end of the Han dynasty in 220 ad to 589 ad, when the Sui dynasty succeeded in unifying China, there was a period of constant wars among the Six dynasties. It was during this period of confusion that Buddhism made great strides and offered a great appeal, quite similar to Taoism. It is sometimes called Neo-Taoism. It was divided into the Rationalists and the Sentimentalists. For both life is lived according to the Internal nature. To the former this internal nature is reason while to the latter it is impulse.

Important teachers of the rationalist’s wing believed that Tao is found everywhere and it is Wu. Everything causes itself and nothing is produced by another. (Sounds like the cause and effect of Vedanta). To allow things to follow their nature is to allow them to undergo change and to do so is wu-wei (nonaction). One must not imitate ancient sages for they belonged to different times, in short lets flow with the tide rather than fight it.

The sentimentalists also believed in living according to ones nature but this nature is reason. They preached that emotions are to be calmed by reason.

29. Philosophically Neo Confucianism (1635 to 1750) to be richer than the earlier schools which must be attributed to B.  It gave Taoism and Confucianism more content and a wider outlook. But what B did not have a distinct philosophy for this life, the life of a householder in society and politics. Buddhists ideas were assimilated to Chinese ideas.
30. Contemporary Thought – China has become communist, with Marxism as interpreted by Lenin and Stalin has become the official philosophy of the nation. Mao hated Confucianism. The new philosophy that Mao Tse-tung preaches is a philosophy of action, an activism along the lines of Marxism, which appealed to him as a philosophy of a dynamic life, the aim of which is to change the world, a rationalistic activism in which the life of knowledge and life of action cannot be separated.
31. Buddhism (B)
a) As a philosophy Taoism had much in common with Buddhism but as a religion they were opposite in China. B entered China in the first century a.d. via Central Asia. During 220 to 280 ad. it became an authorized religion, Buddhist law was translated into Chinese. During 420 to 589 ad. the Doctrine of Pure Land developed and promised happiness in another land to the misery stricken people. The importance of happiness on earth and body diminished. Being a foreign religion, B suffered at the hands of the Taoists and Confucians. However, B had become immensely popular by then.
b) Being sublime and logical, B became complimentary to Taoism and Confucianism. Unlike these two, B was a highly developed religion and catered to the religious needs of the Chinese. In addition, B was not a revealed religion but a religion based on the philosophy of human nature, and the Chinese being naturalistic by temperament, could find something not completely alien to their ways of thought.
c) China assimilated Buddhism through its Taoistic concepts. It was east to equate Tao with Tathata, understanding both as nature, human nature to the Chinese. Tathata would be interpreted as Tao, Nirvana (non movement) as Wu Wei (non action). The Buddhist middle path would be the Golden Mean of Confucius. There was a tradition in China by which Buddha became the disciple of Lao Tzu (famous Taoists refer 25 above); the implication being that B was not foreign to China.
d) Although the religious texts were the same, B in China became different from the B in India. It was assimilated by the Chinese by blending it with its pragmatic humanism. B had been born in India when the Aryans were at their peak. The Aryanised way of life meant a life of peace, compassion and nobility. The Chinese adopted this noble life because it offered them a window to escape from the turmoil and misery in China at that time.
e) Two Indian scholars contributed to Chinese B. The first was Kumarjiva (344 to 413 a.d.) born in Turkestan and Bodhidharma (486 to 536 a.d.).
f) The important deviations that B underwent in China may be noted. The Taoists doctrine of wu wei was identified with the Nirvana of the Buddhists, Buddha was called the disciple of Lao Tzu and a certain bodhisattva was reported to be an incarnation of Confucius. Thus, while assimilating B the Chinese made it a system built up of Taoist and Confucian elements. The techniques of meditation are to be used to attain sageliness and not Buddhahood. The sage need not give up the world (unlike the monks in India) but could live with family. Thus the Chinese reaction in general was to humanize, naturalize and socialize B.
g) On the whole it was Mahayana B that attracted the Chinese particularly those schools that are more positive then negative.
h) Chinese B was later divided into Ten schools. Almost all the schools preached that anyone could attain Bud-dhahood. The highest Adhikari for the Chinese is the sage, interested in world affairs, not the Buddhist monk. So later there was a tendency to reduce Buddhahood to sagehood, since the central concern was for the Way rather than for the Reality.
i) The Tao, Tathata and Brahman are the three ultimates of Chinese philosophy, B and Indian Vedanta. The Tao is the Way of the processes of the world and so is Tathata but the Brahman is Being and so is not a part of the world. For this reason it would not appeal to the Buddhists. The Chinese wished to follow a way of life that is in harmony with the ultimate way of the universe but they did not conceive a static being.


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