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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Confucian Nichiren Part 1

Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism



                      Nichiren then turns his attention to the guest’s criticism that it is absurd to blame the present calamities on Honen who passed away almost four decades past.  In response, he cites several incidents in the history of China and Japan wherein various acts of impropriety preceded the downfall of the rulers. The first incident involves the fall of the Chou dynasty (c. 1100-256 BCE) in China, the second involves the fall of the Western Chin dynasty (265-316), the third involves the death of Emperor Wu-tsung (r. 840-846) of the T’ang dynasty (618-906), and the last example involves the fate of the Retired Emperor Gotoba.


                      The first incident is reported in the Records of the Historian, a history of China written by the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien (c. 145-86 BCE), as cited by Chih-i in the Great Concentration and Insight and then elaborated on by Miao-lo in his Annotations on the Great Concentration and Insight wherein he cites Tso’s Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. King P’ing (r. 770-720 BCE) of the Chou dynasty, while moving his court east to Loyang, observed that those living by the Yi River were no longer following the ancient customs of the Chou and were reverting to their own local rustic customs. They were letting their hair down, wearing no upper garments, and making offerings in the fields. One of the king’s officers predicted that this territory would soon be lost to them.


                      The second incident is also from the Great Concentration and Insight. Chih-i describes how the noted poet and philosopher Yuan-chi (210-263) allowed his hair to grow wild and would leave his belt undone among other improprieties. Yuan-chi was one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, who were proponents of living a naturalistic lifestyle in accordance with the Taoist influenced philosophy called the Mysterious Learning. The Seven Worthies and their followers were infamous for speaking and acting in an informal or even vulgar fashion as a matter of course. They were basically ancient Chinese hippies. This kind of behavior was seen in later years as one of the indications that the house of Ssu-ma, rulers of the short lived Western Chin dynasty (265-316), was on the decline.


                      Before moving on to the third and fourth incidents we should pause and wonder why the lack of propriety on the part of a few is regarded as a portent of disaster for the ruling dynasty. What meaning did these stories hold for Nichiren and his contemporaries? What did any of this have to do with Buddhism? The answer lies with Confucius (551-479 BCE). It is no exaggeration to say that the worldview and values of China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan were formed or at least clearly articulated by Confucius. Confucianism was the foundational cultural context that East Asian Buddhism had to relate to and develop in. From the very beginning of Buddhism in East Asia until today, East Asian Buddhists have accepted, accommodated, or at least tried to account for many Confucian tenets even as they committed themselves to the study and practice of the Buddha Dharma. In order to understand Nichiren, his values and worldview, one must also have an understanding of how Confucianism and Buddhism mutually transformed each other in East Asia. A complete account of Confucius and Confucianism would be outside the scope of this commentary, but I would at least like to provide a survey of those aspects of Confucianism that are relevant to Nichiren’s teachings.


Confucius is the Latinized name of K’ung Fu-tzu. He was the son of an aristocrat who was born in the state of Lu during the declining years of the Chou dynasty. His father died when he was only three, but his mother raised him with a great love of learning. He married at 19 and soon had a son. As a young man he was employed in what would today be called middle management positions. He eventually attained the post of police commissioner. He later quit that post and traveled throughout China as an itinerant teacher. At that time China was little more than a patchwork of feudal kingdoms whose allegiance to the Chou dynasty was nominal at best. The conflicting ambitions of the many feudal lords and scheming ministers led to frequent warfare and social upheaval. Confucius hoped to be given the chance to implement his ideas for a model government, but none of the rulers of the various states of China were interested in his reforms. He contented himself with studying the already ancient classics of poetry, history, and ritual and teaching his many disciples so that his vision of a harmonious society could be passed down and someday realized.


Confucius did not claim that he was teaching anything original. In fact, he insisted that he was trying to pass on the heritage of the idealized sage-rulers of the legendary golden age of China’s past. These sage-rulers were the Three Sovereigns, Five Emperors, and Three Kings. The Three Sovereigns were the mythical prehistoric tribal rulers credited with the beginnings of civilization. They were: Fu Hsi (c. 2852 BCE) who invented cooking, hunting, and the domestication of animals while his wife “discovered” marriage and family; Shen Nung (c. 2737 BCE) who is credited with the invention of the plow and agriculture, tea drinking, and herbal medicine; and Hunag-ti (c. 2607 BCE), the Yellow Emperor who invented pottery, houses, carts, and boats while his wife discovered how to gather and weave silk. A member of the court of the Yellow Emperor is even credited with the creation of the Chinese ideograms. The Yellow Emperor also organized the first army and used it to conquer the fertile land around the Yellow River. The legendary Five Emperors succeeded his rule: Shan-hao, Chuan-hsu, Ti-hung, Yao (r. 2356-2347 BCE), and Shun (r. 2244-2205 BCE). Yao and Shun were particularly revered as ideal rulers who instituted many of the rites that Confucius believed were at the heart of civilized life. The Three Kings were the founders of the first three dynasties to rule China. The first was the Hsia dynasty (c. 2205-1751 BCE) founded by Yu, the engineer who was the first to succeed in bringing the flooding of the Yellow River under control. The second was the Shang or Yin dynasty (c. 1751-1112 BCE) founded by a feudal prince named Ch’eng T’ang who rose up against the corrupt and evil Emperor Chieh. History repeated itself when King Wu Wang founded the Chou dynasty (c. 1111-249 BCE) by overthrowing the corrupt Emperor Chou Hsin. King Wu was a model of filial piety, and so he attributed the founding of the new dynasty to his father King Wen. When King Wu died, his brother, the Duke of Chou, ruled as regent until King Wu’s son came of age. The Duke of Chou proved to be an excellent ruler; nevertheless, he quietly stepped aside when it was time to do so. Confucius regarded the Duke of Chou as a paragon of virtue and strove to emulate him. Confucius believed that these sage-rulers had left behind a blueprint for a model civilization in texts that Confucius designated as the “six classics.” The six classics are:


1. The Book of Changes (the I Ching): a book of divination with various layers of commentary centered on a series of 64 hexagrams composed of broken and unbroken lines viewed in a state of dynamic transition from one to another. These hexagrams and their components represent the various cosmological forces the Chinese believed made the world the way it is, most notably the receptive and nourishing element known as yin and the dynamic and creative element known as yang that are represented by the broken and unbroken lines respectively. The ancient form of divination utilized the casting of yarrow stalks in order to discover which hexagram and its transitions applied to any given situation. Each hexagram and its transitions would reveal the underlying dynamics of the situation and provide appropriate advice. The ancient sage-ruler Fu Hsi is credited with creating the eight trigrams that compose the hexagrams of the Book of Changes. King Wen received the credit for combining the trigrams into hexagrams. The various commentaries that compose the Book of Changes are attributed to Fu Hsi, King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius himself.


2. The Book of Poetry, also known as the Book of Odes or Book of Songs, is a collection of 305 poems dating from the beginning of the Chou dynasty to around 600 BCE. These poems described the ideal conditions of life in a harmonious society. Confucius summarized the teachings of these poems with the saying, “Swerving not from the right path.” (Confucius: The Analects, p. 63)


3. The Book of History or Book of Documents is a historical record of the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties. It contains conversations between various kings and their ministers and is therefore held to be a repository of guidance on good government, morality, ethics, and religion.


4. The Book of Rites is a collection of writings that according to tradition describe the ancient rituals and ceremonies adhered to by the founders of the Chou dynasty as collected and interpreted by Confucius and his disciples. These writings deal with matters of propriety in all matters, from public sacrifices to Heaven and the ancestors to the proper way of conducting oneself in all affairs of daily life.


5. The Spring and Autumn Annals are the court records of the state of Lu from 722-481 BCE. These records provided Confucius with a standard of virtue and good government by which to measure one’s conduct. Confucius is even reported to have said, “Those who understand me will do so through the Spring and Autumn Annals; those who condemn me will also do so because of the Spring and Autumn Annals.” (Mencius: A Bilingual Edition, p. 141) It was one of three classical commentaries on this work that Miao-lo cited in his Annotations on the Great Concentration and Insight.


6. Unfortunately, the Book of Music was lost during the persecution of Confucianism and the burning of Confucian literature by the short lived but brutal Ch’in dynasty (221-206 BCE). Confucius valued music that could exalt the mind and heart and convey an appreciation for harmonious living. He considered the teaching of the rites of propriety and music the twin pillars of culture and civilization. Confucius once said, “Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites and be perfected by music.” (Confucius: The Analects, p. 93)


With the six classics as the basis of his curriculum, Confucius taught his disciples the Tao or Way that human beings should follow in order to become genuinely human and bring peace and harmony to their families, their society, and ultimately the world. Confucius teachings were composed of four main subjects: culture, right conduct, doing one’s best for others, and trustworthiness. He told his disciples that his many teachings were strung one main thread: benevolence. Confucius’ concept of benevolence encompassed the values of filial piety, generosity, treating others as one would want to be treated oneself, doing one’s best for others, and many other virtues. Many of the teachings and sayings of Confucius were recorded for posterity in a collection called The Analects of Confucius.


After the death of Confucius, the tradition continued to develop and several important works appeared. One was the Book of Filial Piety by Tseng Shen (505-435 BCE), who was a disciple of Confucius. Tseng Shen is also credited as the transmitter of the Great Learning, an important work that was incorporated in the Book of Rites. Tseng Shen was also the teacher of Tzu Ssu (483-402 BCE), the grandson of Confucius. Tzu Ssu is credited with compiling the Doctrine of the Mean that was also incorporated into the Book of Rites. One of Tzu Ssu’s disciples would become the teacher of Mencius, the second great Confucian sage. The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean became very important as Confucianism developed. Both teach that self-cultivation is the key to a harmonious society. The Great Learning emphasizes the investigation of things and the extension of knowledge as the basis of personal cultivation that in turn leads to peace in the family, then the state, and ultimately world peace. The Doctrine of the Mean in particular teaches the cultivation of personal integrity and harmony in one’s conduct as the Middle Way beyond unbalanced extremes to a mystical integration with Heaven and Earth, in other words “all that is.”


Mencius (372-289 BCE) was the second great sage of Confucianism. Mencius is the Latinized name of Meng-tse. He lived during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) of Chinese history when the Chou dynasty was nothing more than a name and the princes of all the various states vied with each other over who would get to become the founder of a new dynasty. Despite the chaos and bloodshed, Mencius believed that through self-cultivation in accordance with the Confucian teachings people could manifest and develop their innate goodness and thereby bring about a peaceful and unified empire united by moral virtue rather than force of arms.  His teachings were collected into a work called simply the Book of Mencius. Two passages from the Book of Mencius should be notes as they relate two very important themes in the Confucian tradition. The first passage relates the “four beginnings” which are the innate seeds of good all people possess:


As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man is capable of becoming good,” said Mencius. “This is what I meant by good. As for his becoming bad, that is not the fault of his native endowment. The heart of compassion is possessed by all men alike; likewise the heart of shame, the heart of respect, and the heart of [knowing the difference between] right and wrong. The heart of compassion pertains to benevolence, the heart of shame to righteousness, the heart of respect to propriety, and heart of [discerning] right and wrong to wisdom. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom do not give me a luster from the outside, they are in me originally. Only this has never dawned on me. That is why it is said, ‘Seek and you will get it; let go and you will lose it.’ (adapted from Mencius: A Bilingual Edition, p. 247)


In the next passage, Mencius relates the ideal pattern of human relationships in terms of the five relations set forth by the Sage Emperor Shun:


According to the way of man, if they are well fed, warmly clothed, and comfortably lodged but without education, they will become almost like animals. The Sage (emperor Shun) worried about it and he appointed Hsieh to be minister of education and teach people human relations, that between father and son, there should be affection; between ruler and minister, there should be righteousness; between husband and wife, there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young, there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness. (A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, pp. 69-70)


Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Confucius and Mencius and their followers, force of arms triumphed over moral virtue and the ruthless King Cheng of Ch’in became Shih-Huang-Ti, the first emperor of the ruthlessly totalitarian but mercifully brief Ch’in dynasty. Incidentally, the English name “China” was derived from the name of this dynasty, the first to truly unify China under imperial rule. The ruling philosophy of this dynasty was Legalism. Legalism taught that humanity was innately evil and that the only way to unify and control the empire was through the impartial administration of strict and harsh laws. The Ch’in dynasty tolerated no ideological rivals to Legalism and banned all other schools of thought. They particularly despised Confucianism and did their best to eradicate it by burning the Confucian classics and either executing or banishing the Confucianists themselves. In the end, the successors of Shih-Huang-Ti fell victim to their own arrogance and corruption and it soon gave way to both peasant revolutions and the rebellion of the former feudal lords.


Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

More Articles by Rev. Ryuei

Life of Nichiren
Life of the Buddha
Overview of Buddhism
History of the Hokke Shu
Pali Canon Commentaries
Mahayana Sutra Commentaries
Six Senior Disciples of Nichiren

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