4: Classical Eastern Philosophy (2023)


From The Historyof Philosophy: A Short Survey

James Fieser

Revised 6/1/2020


A. Introduction

B. Hindu philosophy

The Self-God

Release from Rebirth



C. Buddhist Philosophy

Four Noble Truths

Improper Questions and the No-SelfDoctrine

Dependent Origination

Emptiness and Zen Buddhism

D. Confucian Philosophy

Ritual conduct

Humaneness and the Superior Person

Child Obedience and GoodGovernment

Mencius: Inherent Human Goodness

E. Daoist Philosophy

The Dao


Non-Action and Non-Mind

Minimal Governing

Lieh-Tzu: Following NaturalDesires

F. Conclusion

Reading 1: Hinduismand Release Through Selfless Action

Reading 2: Buddhism and Zen Koans

Reading 3: Confucianism and Hsun-Tsu’sview of Human Nature as Evil

Reading 4: Daoism andTransformation

Study Questions


At the time that ancient Greek philosophy was blossoming, onthe other side of the world a different set of philosophical traditions emergedwithin the Eastern Asian regions of India and China. Like Greece, both of theseareas had complex social structures, sophisticated cultures, and, mostimportantly, systems of writing that enabled people to record their thoughts.But unlike Greek philosophy which was largely secular, Eastern philosophieswere intimately tied to their respective religious traditions of Hinduism,Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. Distinguishing Eastern philosophy from itsreligion is an issue of emphasis: its philosophy deals less with worshiprituals and depictions of the gods, and more with larger questions of ourrelation to the cosmos.

While the specific elements of the various Easternphilosophies differ dramatically, many share a specific conception of God andthe cosmos. Philosophers and theologians of all traditions try to understandhow God, or some ultimate reality, relates to the world, and there are twogeneral approaches to this: transcendence and immanence. The transcendenceapproach maintains that God is entirely separate or distinct from the finiteworld in which we live. When I look at a mountain, a forest or even a humanbeing, I may see these as external objects that God creates, which are notliterally part of God himself. God thus transcends or rises above the things inthe world, and is beyond even the cosmos itself. To communicate with God, Imust look beyond this finite created world and seek God in his secluded realm. Acommon expression used to depict the transcendent nature of God is that he is"wholly other", and the Western religious traditions of Judaism,Christianity and Islam typically depict God in this way. By contrast, the immanence,approach is that God is not external to the cosmos, but dwells within it or is immanentto it. Thus, when I look at a mountain, forest of a human being, what I see areliterally parts of God. This view is often called pantheism, a termliterally meaning all-God. On this view, God dwells within me too since I ampart of the cosmos. To communicate with God I look within myself, and notoutwards to a secluded divine realm beyond the cosmos. Communication with God,then, involves a mystical experience by which I become aware of my union withGod. Eastern religious traditions in general gravitate towards this pantheisticnotion of God.


The best place to begin examining Eastern Philosophy is bylooking at Hinduism. Hindu texts are among the oldest in the East, and theirconcepts directly or indirectly influenced the philosophy of other Easternphilosophical traditions. While many of the world’s religious traditions werefounded by renown people (Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad) Hinduism has no foundingfigure, and it covers a diversity of views of the people of India dating as farback as 3,500 BCE. The term “Hindu” comes from the Persian word “Hind,” whichwas the name given to the Indus River region of northern India.Most generally, “Hinduism” means the religion of the Indus River region. EarlyHindu religion was polytheistic, similar to the religion in ancient Greeceand Rome. Their sacred text is a large work called the Vedas, whichliterally means “bodies of knowledge,” written between 1,500-800 BCE in theancient language Sanskrit. It describes features of various gods, rituals toappease them, and hymns to chant to them. Hindu philosophical discussionsemerged shortly after, from around 800 BCE to 200 CE., emphasizing thepantheistic notion of the divine reality that permeates the cosmos. The Hinduname for this reality is the Atman-Brahman, literally meaning the Self-God,and much of Hindu philosophy focuses on this concept.

The Self-God

The dramatic implication of the notion of the Self-God isthat I am the God of the cosmos. At first glance this may sound strange oreven delusional, but classical Hindu philosophers provide an explanation. The Atmanis our true Self that lies at the inner core of our human identities,and it is only this inner core that is identical with God. Hindus sometimes usean analogy of an onion to describe the various layers of our identities. Likean onion with many layers of skin, our human identities also have differentlayers. The outer layers of our identities involve common sense views ofourselves that we experience empirically, such as our individual physicalbodies, sensations, thoughts and feelings. The Self-God is like the inner coreof the onion, hidden beneath many distracting layers, and consequently we failto immediately comprehend the very existence of that inner core and our divinestatus. Instead, we see ourselves as distinct beings, each of us with our own bodiesand minds, and we see the world itself as consisting of a multiplicity ofisolated parts. By pealing away the outer layers of our identities, though, wewill find the Self-God within each of us and see the underlying unity of theworld.

The doctrine of the Self-God was put forward intwo specific Hindu works: The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita.The Upanishads is a series of more than 200 anonymously-written texts,although Hindu tradition gives special emphasis to only about 18 early onescomposed between 600 and 400 BCE. In one of the most famous of these, a fatherpicturesquely describes to his son how things that seem diverse in fact have anunderlying common reality. Plants, animals, humans, and everything else areunited in the Self-God that exists beneath the physical structure of things.Take, for example, how bees collect juices from a variety of trees and unifythose juices in their honey:

Bees make honey by collecting thejuices of distant trees and reducing the juices into one form. These juiceshave no discrimination and do not say “I am the juice of this tree or thattree.” In the same manner, when all these creatures merge with Being [either indeep sleep or in death], they do not know that they merged with Being. Whateverthese creatures are here — whether a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, agnat, or a mosquito — they become that again and again. Everything that existshas as its soul that which is the finest essence. It is Reality. It is theAtman, and you are that, my son. [Chandogya Upanishad]

This passage makes a distinction between our physicalidentities and our underlying true identities. Our physical identities gothrough continual cycles of reincarnation; this is so of animal life as well ashuman life. Our true underlying identities, though, merge with God, which isundifferentiated reality. The father says to his son, “You are that,” meaningthat his son is the Self-God that he’s describing (Tat Tvam Asi in theSanskrit language). According to later Hindu tradition, this phrase “You arethat,” as spoken by the father, encapsulates the message of all the Upanishads.

The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God,is a 100-page section of an epic poem called the Mahabharata. At about5,000 pages and composed over an 800 year period, the Mahabharata is theworld’s longest epic poem. It chronicles a legendary feud between two branchesof a royal family. The long-standing quarrel culminates in a bloody battle. Thestory behind the Bhagavad Gita focuses on prince Arjuna, the leader onone side of the feud, who is despairing about going into battle against hiskinfolk. He expresses his grief to his charioteer, Krishna, who, it turns out,is the manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu in human form. Krishna comfortsArjuna with a philosophy lesson about discovering the Self-God within him:

Those who distinguish between theslayer and the slain are ignorant of them both. No one slays, and no one isslain. No one is born, and no one dies. No one who once existed, ceases toexist. They are unborn, perpetual, eternal and ancient, and are not slain whentheir bodies are slaughtered. If we understand a person to be indestructible,perpetual, unborn, undiminishing, how can that person slay, or be slain? [BhagavadGita, Sect. 2]

Krishna’s point is that we are all eternal by virtue of theSelf-God within us, and what happens to our bodies is insignificant. For thisreason, Arjuna should not worry about the conflict with his relatives sinceeven if their bodies die in battle, their inner selves are untouched.

Release from Rebirth

Hindus have a long tradition of belief in reincarnation,which, most simply, is the view that one’s present life is followed by a seriesof new lives in new physical bodies. There are two components to rebirth. First,there is the basic process of rebirth itself: when I die, my true Self will bereborn into another body, and when that body dies, I will be reborn intoanother, and so on. The Bhagavad Gita picturesquely states “As a personthrows off worn-out garments and takes new ones, so too the dweller in the bodythrows off worn-out bodies and enters into others that are new” (BhagavadGita, 2). Some Hindu writings are explicit about the mechanics of therebirth process. When I die, and my body is cremated, my soul rises with thesmoke and travels through the heavens for several months. My soul then fallsback to earth, mixes with natural elements, and is consumed by humans. Fromthere my soul works its way into a man’s semen, and, through intercourse,enters a woman’s womb.

The second component of rebirth is that themoral consequences of my behavior in this life are carried over to my nextlives. Known as the doctrine of karma (or "action") thequality of my existence in my new life is largely a function of my good or badactions in my present and previous lives. To illustrate, imagine that my trueSelf carries around a karma pouch from one life to another. Each time I performa good deed, a good-karma token is tossed into the pouch, and when I perform abad deed, a bad-karma token is thrown in. When I die, I carry the karma pouchand all its tokens on to the next life. If I have an abundance of good-karmatokens, then in my next life I may be healthier, wealthier, and morespiritually mature than I am now. On the other hand, if I die with an abundanceof bad-karma tokens, then I may be reborn sickly, poor, and ignorant. To makemy next life better, I should do what I can in this life to accumulate as manygood-karma tokens as possible.

While we might think of reincarnation as a goodthing, it is instead something that we should dread for it places us in aseemingly endless cycle of struggles. We need to do what we can to become released(moksha) from the rebirth cycle. Hindu writings stress severalapproaches to release, two of which are especially dominant. The first approachis that release is a matter of accumulating a great abundance of good karmaover our various lives. When I get as good as I can possibly be, then therebirth process is over and my true Self remains with God. The appeal of thisapproach is that it underscores the fact that life is a moral journey, withperfection as our ultimate goal. The second approach to release involvesdiscovering the Self-God within me through reflection and meditation. Theappeal of this approach is that I can go more directly towards my final goaland experience the pure Self-God right here and now. Both of theseapproaches, though, are interconnected. Before I’m capable of reflectivelyexperiencing the Self-God within me, I must first be morally mature. If I rob abank this morning, I stand little chance of discovering the Self-God within methis afternoon, no matter how hard I meditate. Developing that moral maturitymight require that I go through several more reincarnations until my karmapouch is filled with good tokens, at which time I’ll be a better person and be moresuccessful at meditating.


It is one thing for me to merely understand the concept ofthe Self-God as a philosophical theory about the cosmos, but it is an entirelyother for me to actually discover the Self-God within me. To assist believersin this task, Hindu tradition developed a series of Yoga techniques. The term Yogaliterally means “to yoke” or “to harness,” but its more general meaning is todiscipline oneself. The Bhagavad Gita is something like a handbook ofthe various Yoga methods, and we will look it its account of two of them.

The first of these is the Yoga of selfless action(karma), which involves routinely behaving with indifference to thefruits of our actions. By engaging in pure action, unconcerned with theaction’s results, we distance ourselves from the outer layers of our identitiesand our perceptions of the world. We thus become more sensitive to the realityof the Self-God. Suppose, for example, that it is lunchtime and I make asandwich. Ordinarily, I do this to ward off hunger pangs, to satisfy my foodcraving, to keep me healthy, or to keep me alive. All of these reasons, though,emphasize the outer layers of my identity: my bodily cravings, my desires, andthe continuation of my finite life. This all distracts me from my true innerSelf. I should continue make and eat the sandwich as I usually do, but at thesame time I should train myself to disassociate my identity from the act ofeating, and view that act impartially as though someone else is eating. Sinceall my daily actions focus on my outer self, the Yoga of selfless action helpstrain me to disassociate myself from everything that I do. Whendistractions of my outer layers are finally removed, and I then have some hopeof experiencing the glimmer of my true inner Self. This also brings me onestep closer to ending the cycle of reincarnation: “By renouncing the fruit ofone’s actions, the person who is endowed with intellect is freed from the bondof birth and goes to the place that is devoid of illness” (Bhagavad Gita, 2).I am locked into my physical body as long as I enjoy the results of myactivities, and I need an evenness of mind to give up the fruits of my actionswhich the Yoga of selfless action provides.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, wewill not reach this degree of indifference in our actions by followingtraditional customs in sacred texts: “Scriptures prescribe many ceremonies toattain pleasure and power, but rebirth is the fruit of those actions” (ibid).Like eating a sandwich, we perform religious rituals for a purpose; in thiscase, the purpose is to appease God or to get to heaven. However, religiousactions are no less distracting than any other action. There are clearpsychological indicators when we disassociate ourselves from our actions,namely, we are freed from all emotions and attachments:

When a person abandons all thedesires of his heart and is satisfied in the Self and by the Self, then he iscalled “stable in mind.” A sage of stable mind is free from anxiety whensurrounded by pains, is indifferent when surrounded by pleasures, and is freedfrom passion, fear and anger. He is without attachments on every side, whetherdesirable or undesirable, and neither likes nor dislikes. The person ofunderstanding is well poised. Just as a tortoise pulls in all its limbs, thesage withdraws his senses from the objects, and his understanding is wellpoised. [Ibid]

The analogy of the tortoise in the final sentence explainsthe benefit of freeing ourselves from emotions and attachments. Throughdetachment, we withdraw from the world of the senses, which in turn enables usto internally focus on the Self-God.

A second type of Yoga discussed in the BhagavadGita is that of meditation (raja), which involves immediatelyexperiencing our union with God through contemplation. The practice ofmeditation requires a disciplined effort, and to that end the Bhagavad Gita providesstep-by-step instructions. When attempting meditation, we should first find aprivate spot, assume a seated posture, gaze ahead, subdue our thoughts andsenses, and lose self-consciousness. Through this method, we directlyexperience the unified Self-God within us:

The Yogi should constantly engagehimself in Yoga, staying in a secret place by himself, subduing his thoughtsand Self, and freeing himself from hope and greed. He should set up a fixedseat for himself in a pure place, which is neither too high, nor too low, madeof a cloth, a black deerskin, and grass, one over the other. Once there heshould practice Yoga for the purification of the Self; he should make his mindone-pointed, subduing his thoughts and the functions of his senses. He shouldhold his body, head and neck erect, immovably steady, looking at the point ofhis nose with an unseeing gaze. His heart should be serene, fearless and firmin the vow of renunciation. His mind should be controlled as he sits inharmony. In this manner he will think on me and aspire after me. [Ibid, 6]

The point of all these steps in the meditative process is toblock out distractions. Imagine that you are in a room with 50 radios playing,all tuned to different channels, and in the back of the room a cat is meowing.The only way to hear the cat is to first shut off all the radios, one by one.Similarly, the meditative techniques guide us in successively shutting down thecommotion of ordinary consciousness so that we can experience our inner Selves.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Arjunadiscuss some of the pitfalls of the Yoga of meditation. Krishna says that thismeditation method is not for everyone, but only for those who can avoidextremes in their conduct and desires:

Yoga is not for the person who eatstoo much or too little, or who sleeps too much or too little. Yoga kills allpain for the person who is moderate in eating, amusement, performing actions,sleeping, and waking. When his subdued thought is fixed on the Self and freefrom desiring things, then we can say that he is harmonized. Just as a lamp ina windless place does not flicker, so too will the subdued thought of the Yogibe absorbed in the Yoga of the self. . . . The Yogi who harmonizes the self andputs away evil, will enjoy the infinite bliss of unity with the eternal God.The self, harmonized by Yoga, sees the Self abiding in all beings, and allbeings in the Self. Everywhere he sees the same thing. [Ibid]

Thus, if we succeed in being moderate, then we will see theunity of the Self in everything. In response to Krishna, Arjuna objects that somepeople’s minds are so restless that it is impossible to bring it under controlas Krishna advises. Krishna replies that through practice and the subduing ofour passions we may successfully restrain our thoughts; this underscores thechallenge in bringing our Self under control, and why we may appropriatelyrefer to Yoga as a “discipline.” Pressing the issue, Arjuna asks what willhappen to the person who attempts the Yoga of Meditation, but fails. Krishnaresponds that, even if you fail at the Yoga of Meditation in your currentincarnation, through good deeds you may eventually be reincarnated as a Yogiwho finally succeeds at meditation. “In this reborn state, he retains thecharacteristics belonging to his previous body, and with these he again worksfor perfection” (ibid).

Vedanta: Monism

In philosophy, monism is the view that the universe iscomposed of only one type of thing, and Hinduism as a whole tends to bemonistic, with its pantheistic conception of God enveloping everything.Beginning in the eighth-century CE, the issue of monism was debated by a groupof philosophers within Hinduism’s Vedanta tradition, which drew itsinspiration directly from the Upanishads. The debate started with theviews of a scholar named Sankara (788-820 CE). Philosophically, there are twoways that we can understand the notion of monism. The first, which we will callweak monism, is the view that the universe consists of one basic thing,but that thing is divided into sub-units. An orange, for example, is a unifiedwhole insofar as it is a self-contained biological unit. However, the orangeclearly has parts to it, such as its outer peal, inner sections, and seeds. Thus,it is a monistic whole that consists of parts. The second kind of monism, whichwe will call strong monism, is the view that the universe consists ofone undifferentiated thing that has no sub-units. A cannon ball, for example,is composed of a single metallic stuff through and through, and has no obviousinternal parts that differentiate it. When reflecting on the monistic themes inthe Upanishads, Sankara had to decide between interpreting them as weakmonism or strong monism. He took the Upanishad’s notion of unityliterally and went with strong monism. In the chapter on the Presocratics,we've seen that this is the approach that Parmenides takes with his conceptionof the One: a single thing with no parts.

There are dramatic implications to strongmonism. If reality as a whole is the single, unchanging God, then there issomething unreal about our commonsense perception that the world has parts.That is, as I look around me, I visually perceive a world that is composed of distinctelements, such as houses, mountains, and rocks. Also, I ordinarily see myselfas a distinct thing from the people and objects that surround me. For Sankara,all of these commonsense perceptions are unreal, and the truth of the matter isthat beneath these commonsense perceptions is the underlying unity of Godbeneath the unreal appearance of things. In the following, Sankara argues thatindividual selves and the world of appearances are unreal. The only reality isthe unchanging, undifferentiated God, in spite of how things seem from ourcommon sense perspective. He makes this point here using the analogy of a ropethat mistakenly appears to be a snake:

When accepted as the doctrine ofthe Vedas, this doctrine of the individual soul having its Self in Goddoes away with the independent existence of the individual soul. This is justas the idea of the rope does away with the idea of the snake [for which therope had been mistaken]. And if the doctrine of the independent existence ofthe individual soul has to be set aside, then the view of the entire phenomenalworld having an independent existence must likewise be set aside insofar as itis based on the individual soul. [Commentary on the Vedanta Sutra 2.1.14]

As Sankara suggests above, suppose that when walking downthe road I see a snake. On closer inspection, though, it is not a snake at all,but only a rope. In the same way, the world deceptively appears differentiated,but on closer inspection it is undifferentiated. There is an unreality to howwe ordinarily perceive the world as having parts.

According to Sankara, the strong monistic viewof the world is embedded in the famous phrase from the Upanishads “Youare that”:

everything has its Self in God,[and so] the whole world of appearances is non-existent, including actions,agents, and consequences of actions. Nor can it be said that this non-existenceof the phenomenal world is declared by Scripture to be limited to certainstates. For the passage “You are that” shows that the general fact of God beingthe Self of all is not limited by any particular state. [Ibid]

For Sankara, this means that all (not just some)elements of the world of appearances are unreal. Thus, the tree I see in frontof me may seem to be there, but it is actually unreal. Similarly, although I myselfseem to be a real physical person that performs actions, this component of meis unreal too. Why, though, do I perceive the world of appearances in thisillusory and deceptive way? According to Sankara, this deception is caused by aforce called Maya (literally "illusion"), sort of like amagician who has the ability to create illusions. It shields us from knowledgeof the true nature of God, and makes me think that the illusory world ofappearances is real. My goal, then, is to overcome this ignorance and see theundifferentiated nature of God as it truly is.

A rival Vedanta scholar named Ramanuja(1017–1137 CE) rejected strong monism in favor of the theory of weak monism,and here’s why. Suppose that Sankara’s strong monism is correct. That is,suppose that the only thing that exists in the universe is a single, unchangingand undifferentiated God. Anything else that I think exists is a matter ofdeception. A consequence of this is that it makes no sense at all for me toworship God. First, if God is completely without parts, then God has no personalityand is much like a huge glob of clay. There’s no point in worshipping that kindof thing. Second, if my true inner Self is this God, then by worshipping God Iam worshiping myself, which also seems silly. Third, any acts of worship that Iperform, such as prayer, sacrifice, or charity, would be part of the world ofappearances. But the world of appearances is not real, so any acts of worship Iperform would also be unreal. Strong monism, then, undermines the whole notionof religious worship; thus, Ramanuja concludes, we must reject it in favor ofweak monism.

According to Ramanuja’s weak monism, althoughthe world is unified in a single God, God has differentiated parts. Like thedifferent internal parts of a single orange, individual souls and the physicalworld make up the body of God. So, we are in one sense united with God, but inanother we are distinct from God. This approach rescues the world ofappearances, which Sankara rejected as unreal. For Ramanuja, when I perceivevarious houses, mountains and rocks around me, they are all real parts of God.When I distinguish between my own personal identity and other beings around me,I am again perceiving a genuine distinction within God. This approach alsorescues the meaningfulness of religious worship. Since I am only a smallcomponent of God, it is reasonable for me to show devotion to the totality ofGod.

To make his point, Ramanuja offers his owninterpretation of the phrase “You are that” from the Upanishads:

The words “That” and “You” denote aGod distinguished by difference. The word “that” refers to God as omniscient,etc., which had been introduced as the general topic of consideration inprevious passages of the same section, such as “It thought, may I be many.” Theword “you,” which stands in relation to “that,” conveys the idea of God insofaras its body consists of the individual souls connected with non-intelligentmatter. [Commentary on the Vedanta Sutra, 1.1.1]

According to Ramanuja, the terms “That” and “You” clearlyhave different meanings, and so there is some difference within God whichallows me and the world of appearances to have distinct existences, even thoughthey are all unified within God.


Buddhism was founded in India by a former Hindu monk namedGautama Siddhartha (563-483 BCE), better known as Buddha, a term whichmeans the “enlightened one.” Buddha came from a wealthy family in what is nowthe country of Nepal, where his father was a feudal lord. The night before hewas born his mother dreamed that a white elephant entered her womb through herside. Hindu priests interpreted the dream as a dual destiny: he would either bea universal monarch, or universal teacher. Hoping that his son would take thepath of a monarch, his father confined him to the family estate, sheltering himfrom the ugly experiences of illness and death. At age 29, he had threeoccasions to glimpse the outside world, and each time he was shocked to learnabout the suffering that humans experience. First he saw an old man, then asick man, and then a dead body. On a fourth occasion he saw a Hindu monk, whichinspired him to leave his family estate to pursue a life of religious devotion.Buddha wandered for six years, learning what he could from holy people aboutthe solution to the human predicament. He joined a band of five ascetic monkswho taught him the practice of self-renunciation. So austere were Buddha’sefforts, though, that he almost died of starvation. He started eating again toregain health, and his ascetic colleagues left him in disgust. Disheartened byhis failures, Buddha sat under a fig tree, vowing to not rise until he achievedsupreme awakening. He stayed up all night, and at the first glimpse of the morningstar he became enlightened. He eventually drew a large crowd of followers andset up monasteries in every major city. Buddha eventually died by accidentallyeating poisoned mushrooms at the home of a close disciple.

Through his early experiences as a monk, Buddhabecame dissatisfied with many traditional Hindu teachings, such as the role ofthe priests and the authority of their scriptures. Nevertheless, Buddha’sunderlying philosophy draws heavily from Hinduism, and one contemporary scholarhas gone so far as to say that Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. Buddhahimself wrote nothing, and the oldest accounts of his teachings are in avoluminous collection called the Pali Canon, compiled during the firstfive centuries after Buddha’s death. The texts are written in a languagerelated to Sanskrit, called “Pali”, hence the designation “Pali Canon.”

Four Noble Truths

The most famous part of the Pali Canon is a sectionknown as “The First Discourse,” which, according to tradition, Buddha deliveredto his ascetic friends immediately after his enlightenment. The content of thediscourse is the foundation of all Buddhist teaching. The discourse presents“four noble truths” concerning the quest for enlightenment. The first truth isthat life is suffering:

Now this is the noble truthconcerning suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease ispainful, and death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, andseparation from the pleasant is painful. Any craving that is unsatisfied isalso painful. In brief, the five components which spring from attachment arepainful. This then is the noble truth concerning suffering. [Samyutta-nikaya,56.2]

The Pali word for suffering is sometimes translated as anxietyor frustration, but a good description is dislocation. Forexample the pain that I experience from a dislocated shoulder is the result ofmy arm being yanked out of its normal position. Similarly, the root of allsuffering involves some twisting or distortion of our true nature. A poignantillustration of suffering is the birth process. From the moment we come intothe world as infants, we find suffering. With each contraction the mother isgripped with perhaps the greatest physical pain that she will experience inlife, while anxious friends and relatives stand by helplessly. Physicallycontorted as it emerges, the baby is forced to cry so that it may beginbreathing. Once giving birth, the mother remains in pain for some time, and thefrail baby requires continual monitoring at the risk of dying. Buddhistwritings offer an endless list of suffering that we experience throughout ourlives, such as that from sickness, old age, fear of death, failure to fulfillambitions, separation from loved ones, and association with people we dislike.Even on a good day, if we can escape some actual human tragedy, our lives arenevertheless dominated by preemptively avoiding suffering. We monitor ourdiets, struggle to keep up with an exercise routine, cautiously drive aroundtown, lock our doors, and stay clear of hostile people.

The second noble truth is that the cause ofsuffering is desire:

Now this is the noble truthconcerning the origin of suffering. It is that thirst or craving which causesthe renewal of existence, accompanied by sensual delight, and the seeking ofsatisfaction first here, then there. That is to say, it is the craving for thegratification of the passions, or the craving for a future life, or the cravingfor success in this present life. This then is the noble truth concerning theorigin of suffering. [Ibid]

The above quote describes desire as an insatiable cravingfor private fulfillment. We cling or grasp to virtually anything that mightsatisfy our yearnings, much like a child that jealously clutches a favoritetoy. Ultimately, our cravings can never be truly satisfied, and so we suffer, asa child does when we attempt to wrench a toy from his hands. The central pointof this noble truth is that for every type of suffering we experience,there is some misguided craving that is at its source. Suppose, for example,that my leg gets broken in a car accident on my way to the store.Chronologically, I had several desires that led up to the accident. One desireimpelled me to buy a car to begin with, rather than take public transportation.Another desire inclined me to purchase something at the store, and yet anotherhad me go shopping at that particular time. Further, once I’m at home in my legcast, lying in bed, my present desires perpetuate my suffering. I want to goback to work, but I can’t. I’d like to go to a restaurant, but I can’t. I’dprefer to walk around outside but I can’t. The more things that I desire andcling to, the more I increase my suffering. Why are we driven to cling soferociously to so many things? Buddha has an answer. Desire arises from fivedistinct components of our human nature. These components are matter,sensation, perception, predisposition, and consciousness. Each of these fivecomponents has me rely on something outside of me. Even if I want to dosomething as simple as walk from the living room into the kitchen, I rely onthe material construction of the house itself, my raw sense perception of it,and how these perceptions automatically register in my mind. Since the humancondition is shaped by desire, many if not most of which go unfulfilled, thenour condition is one of suffering.

The third noble truth is that the end ofsuffering is achieved by extinguishing our desire; this is the state of nirvana,a term that literally means “to extinguish.” Of the virtually endless number ofdesires that bubble up from my five components, my goal should be thedestruction of these, as Buddha describes here:

Now this is the noble truthconcerning the elimination of suffering [i.e., the attainment of nirvana]. Itis the destruction of this very thirst, in which no passion remains. It is thelaying aside of, the getting rid of, the being free from, and the harboring nolonger of this thirst. This, then, is the noble truth concerning thedestruction of suffering. [Ibid]

In this passage Buddha depicts nirvana as a state in which “nopassion remains.” We all understand the importance of eliminating at least somedesires, such as the desire for unhealthy foods. But the idea here is that weshould extinguish all desires, and this will bring on a mental state ofenlightenment.

The fourth noble truth tells us how toextinguish our desires, namely, by adopting a series of moral attitudes,beliefs, and actions, which Buddha collectively calls the eightfold path:“This is the noble truth concerning the path that leads to the eliminationof suffering. It is the noble eightfold path.” Briefly, these are the eightrecommendations. (1) We should adopt right views that are free fromsuperstition or delusion. (2) We should have right aims that are highand worthy of the intelligent and earnest person. (3) We should practice rightspeech, which is kindly, open, and truthful. (4) We should perform rightconduct that is peaceful, honest, and pure. (5) We should adopt a rightlivelihood that brings no harm or danger to living things. (6) We shouldput forth the right effort in self-training and self-control. (7) Weshould have right mindfulness insofar as we are fully aware of thepresent moment and not preoccupied with hopes or worries. (8) We should engagein right concentration, which involves proper meditation that leads tothe nirvana experience.

On the surface, the eightfold path endorsesmany of the values that we’ve been taught to adopt since childhood. In fact,these eight recommendations appear integral to simply conducting our normaldesire-filled lives in a civilized manner. How, then, do these recommendationslead to nirvana, the extinguishing of all desires? Buddha’s explanation is thatthey all involve adopting a Middle Way, which is the calm detachmentachieved by avoiding the extremes of asceticism and self-indulgence:

There are two extremes, fellowmonks, which a holy person should avoid: the habitual practice of ...self-indulgence, which is vulgar and profitless ... and the habitual practiceof self-mortification, which is painful and equally profitless. There is amiddle path discovered by the Buddha – a path which opens the eyes and bestowsunderstanding which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to fullenlightenment, and to Nirvana. Truly, it is the noble eightfold path. [Ibid]

For each of the recommendations in the eightfold path, wecan see how we must follow a middle course. For example, with the first path ofright aims, I should strive to be free from superstition and delusion. If welook at common superstitions and delusions today, such as belief in alienabduction or racial superiority, these are clearly extremist views that weshould steer clear of. This middle course “opens the eyes and bestowsunderstanding,” which eventually leads to nirvana. The Middle Path is a stepping-stonetowards nirvana insofar as it creates a mental disposition, which in turnenables us to be receptive to the nirvana experience.

Improper Questions and the No-Self Doctrine

Philosophers and theologians worldwide devote much attentionto speculative issues that cannot be easily demonstrated. What is God’s nature?How did the world come about? Is there life after death? What kind of existencecan I expect to have in the afterlife? In fact, many religions feel that theirmain mission is to give decisive answers to these questions and convey theiranswers to as many people as they can. We readily recognize that some religiousspeculations are superfluous to the central aim of religion – for example,speculations about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Where,though, do we draw the line between the superfluous and essential? The startingpoint is to determine what in fact is the main goal of religion. Buddha’ssingle complaint about the formal religion of his time was that its rituals andspeculations detracted from religion’s main goal, namely, enlightenment.

Buddha makes this point in a dialogue with astudent. The student, who has heard Buddha teach for some time, is puzzled thatBuddha apparently ignores a number of issues that philosophers commonlyaddress. Foremost among these are whether the world is eternal and whetherthere is life after death. In response, Buddha says that he refuses to discussthese topics since they do not help attain enlightenment. In the passage below,he uses an analogy to explain his resistance to these questions. If someone isshot with a poisoned arrow, his main concern should be to have his woundtreated, and not to inquire after details about his attacker's social caste:

Suppose that a man had been woundedby an arrow thickly smeared with poison. When friends and relatives went toprocure for him a physician, suppose the sick man said, “I will not have thisarrow taken out until I have learned whether the man who wounded me belonged tothe warrior caste, priestly caste, worker caste, or servant caste.” Or again,suppose he said, “I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned thename of the man who wounded me, and to what clan he belongs.” . . . That manwould die without ever having learned these things. Suppose similarly someonesaid “I will not lead the religious life under the Buddha until he explained tome that the world is eternal or not eternal ... or that the saint exists ordoes not exist after death.” That person too would die before the Buddha everexplained this to him. [Majjhima-Nikaya, 63]

Buddha continues arguing that speculations on such things donot address the basic problem of the human condition. We are in a state ofseemingly endless suffering, and the only way to overcome this is to extinguishour desires. Ultimately, these are the truths that matter:

I have not explained that the worldis eternal, ... that the world is not eternal, ... and that the saint neitherexists nor does not exist after death. And why have I not explained this?Because this does not profit us, it has nothing to do with the fundamentals ofreligion, and does not tend to aversion, absence of passion, cessation, calm,the supernatural faculties, supreme wisdom, and nirvana. ... And what have Iexplained? Misery, the origin of misery, the cessation of misery, and the pathleading to the cessation of misery. And why have I explained this? Because thisdoes profit and concerns the fundamentals of religion. [Ibid]

Accordingly, Buddha distinguishes between essential andnonessential religious speculations on the basis of whether they bring aboutthe end of suffering through nirvana.

Buddha’s resistance to nonessentialspeculations is seen clearly in how he addresses the issue of personalidentity, and questions like “Do I exist?” and “What does my self consist of?” Mycommonsense notion of my conscious self is that it is a fixed and permanentfeature of my identity. Just as my arms and legs are features of my body, myconsciousness is a feature of my non-physical self. As I travel through life, aconscious part of me receives new experiences through my senses, reflects onthem, recalls other experiences from my memory, and has me act out in a varietyof ways. There is always some permanent me that is watching, thinking,and acting. However, Buddha denies the meaningfulness of such notions of theself, a position known as the no-self doctrine. He explains that our ordinarynotion of the self consists of five components or aggregates, namely, matter,sensation, perception, predisposition, and consciousness. However, if weexamine each of these one by one, we will see that they cannot be the foundationof a permanent self. For example, sensations come and go in rapid successionand are far too fleeting to have any permanence. One moment I’m having apleasant sensation, the next moment a painful one. The other four components ofthe self are equally temporary and changing. In the end, there is not a shredof permanence to be found in the self, and all that these five components willgive is us suffering:

When a follower hears and sees this,he will find suffering in matter, suffering in sensation, suffering inperception, suffering in predisposition, suffering in consciousness. [SamyuttaNikaya 22:59]

By rejecting this common notion of the self and its fivecomponents, we thereby free ourselves of suffering associated with it. Embracingthe no-self doctrine is thus integral to the very act of nirvana, which has usextinguish our identities and frees us from suffering.

Doctrine of Dependent Origination

The Hindu law of karma maintains that our actions have moralconsequences that will affect us either in this life or in a reincarnated life.The mental image we might have of this Hindu position is that an invisiblesupreme judge watches us and tallies up our good and bad deeds. He thenappropriately rewards or punishes us as time permits, and, if time runs out inthis life, then he carries the rewards and punishments over to the next life.Buddha rejected this particular picture of the doctrine of karma. There are nomysterious tally sheets with our names on them. However, Buddha does not completelyreject the notion of karma, but instead gives it an earthly-grounded interpretation.According to Buddha, all events that take place are the result of precisecausal chains of events. When I trace back the series of causes of any givenunfortunate event, I find that it causally rests upon my desire, and,ultimately, on an unjustified concept I have of my conscious self. This notionof causal connectedness is called the doctrine of dependent origination.

In a dialogue from the Pali Canon, one ofBuddha’s followers claims to have a perfectly clear conception of the doctrineof dependent origination. Buddha, though, is not impressed and explains howcomplicated the notion really is:

Dependent origination appearscomplicated and is indeed complex. It is through not understanding andpenetrating this doctrine that humankind is accordingly like an entangledtwist, an ensnared web, or like jumbled grass. It fails to disengage itselffrom punishment, suffering, destruction, and rebirth. [Digha-nikaya 256,Mahanidana sutta]

In the final sentence Buddha suggests that misconceptionsabout punishment owe to our failure to grasp true causal connections. Suppose,for example, that my friend gets injured in an automobile accident shortlyafter he and I visited with each other. I might then feel partly responsiblefor the accident because our visit lasted too long, which put him in the wrongplace at the wrong time. I might then expect to receive some karmic punishmentfor my role. However, I may have a more realistic view of my responsibility ifI better understand all of the causal forces at work in the accident, particularlythe mental states of those involved as well as the long string of sorrowfulconsequences that follow from the accident.

We know from the first two Noble Truths thatdesire is the ultimate cause of suffering. According to Buddha, the doctrine ofdependent origination allows us to explain the connecting links between desireand suffering in very precise terms. Focusing on the suffering associated withold age and death, Buddha traces these back to their initial sources:

If one asks whether old age anddeath depend on anything, the reply should be that old age and death depend onbirth. . . . birth depends on existence . . . existence depends on attachment .. . attachment depends on desire . . . desire depends on sensation . . .sensation depends on contact . . . contact depends on mental and physicalphenomena . . . physical phenomena depend on consciousness. [Ibid]

Human consciousness, then, kicks off the entire series ofcausal events that results in the suffering from old age and death. Thesuccessive links are these:

consciousness > mental andphysical phenomena > contact > sensation > desire > attachment >existence > birth > old age and death.

To attack the problem at its source, we should subdue ourconsciousness, and this is the message of the third noble truth, namely, toextinguish all desire through nirvana.

Emptiness and Zen Buddhism

Around 100 CE, Buddhism split into two main denominations,Theravada and Mahayana. While Theravadists held fast to the teachings of thePali Canon, Mahayanists argued that Buddha’s more advanced teachings weretransmitted orally and ultimately recorded in later Mahayana texts. A runningtheme within these new Mahayana works is the notion of emptiness, theview that all reality is devoid of any discernable content or description. Theview here is not a nihilistic denial that reality exists; instead, it is adenial that reality has any describable distinctions. The metaphor of emptinesspresumes that there is something like a container that has nothing in it. Thecontainer, in this case, has a label on it that reads “reality”. But is thecontainer literally empty in the sense that nothing at all exists within it?No. It is one thing to say that reality is not as it initially appears, and itis another to say simply that nothing exists. The point of the metaphor isthis: when we look inside the container we find that it has no distinguishableparts or qualities that define its true nature. It is for all practicalpurposes empty, but there is still some characterless thing in the container.

One anonymously written Mahayana text, the HeartSutra, pushes the notion of emptiness to its extreme. It starts bymaintaining that everything about our identities and the ordinary world we livein are empty and have no true content. However, the author continues with themore radical claim that even the four noble truths and nirvana are empty:

There is no knowledge, noignorance, or no destruction of knowledge. There is no decay and death, or nodestruction of decay and death. There are no [four noble truths, namely,]pain, the origin of pain, the elimination of pain, and the path to it. There isno knowledge, no obtaining, no not obtaining of nirvana. [Heart Sutra]

It’s not enough to merely concede that the ordinary realm oflife and death are empty of descriptive content. What’s more important is thatnirvana, the very solution to our misery, also has no descriptive content. Whyis this so dramatic? We’ve seen that Buddhist teachings in the Pali Canonmake a fundamental distinction between (a) the ordinary realm of life, deathand suffering, and, (b) the realm of nirvana in which suffering is extinguished.But the point of the Heart Sutra is that even this distinction is notjustified. Stated most forcefully, the ordinary realm and the nirvana realm arethe same thing; that is, the world itself does not change when viewing it innirvana. The entirety of reality is one huge empty thing that is incapable ofdistinction or descriptive content.

Grasping the notion of emptiness is a genuinechallenge, and one branch of Mahayana Buddhism devised an innovative method forconveying the idea. Founded in China around the fifth-century CE, Zen Buddhismis famous for its paradoxical meditative puzzles, such as “what is the sound ofone hand clapping?” Zen resists any verbal formula, and has no creeds. Thefocus of Zen is experience, and rational discourse and doctrine play no role ingaining enlightenment. In Zen, the experience of enlightenment is transmittedfrom the mind of a seasoned teacher to the student in training. It is sometimescompared to a flame that is passed from candle to candle.

The Zen approach is based on one of Buddha’s discoursesknown as the Flower Sermon, in which he simply held up a golden lotus flower.No one in the crowd understood Buddha’s cryptic meaning except his leadingdisciple. The historical origin of Zen is attributed to a possibly fictitiousfigure named Bodhidharma (470-543 CE) who reportedly moved from Northern Indiainto China. For nine years he sat in meditation and was eventually approachedby a young man named Hui-K’o who wanted to be Bodhidharma’s disciple. Bodhidharmaresisted, until, in an act of desperation, Hui-K’o cut off his left arm andsaid to Bodhidharma, “My mind is not at peace; please bring it peace.” In replyBohdhidharma said, “If you bring me your mind I will give it peace.” Hui-K’oreplied, “When I look for it, I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma answered, “There!I have pacified it for you.” Hui-K’o then became enlightened.

Some centuries later Zen made its way into Japan,and one of its main schools developed what is known as the koan system.Koans are absurd riddles, such as the famous “what is the sound of one handclapping?” which defies any logical response. The koan system involves a Zenmaster having his student answer a series of up to 50 absurd riddles over thecourse of many years. Around the eleventh-century famous koans were assembledin written collections. Some classic beginners’ koans found in thesecollections are “What was your face like before you were born?” and “Does a doghave the Buddha-nature?” By struggling with these conceptually paradoxicalquestions, the student’s mind would be loosened from traditional reasoning, hewould see that ultimate reality is not discoverable, and experience theemptiness of all things. Some classical “correct” responses include lifting onefinger, kicking a ball, and slapping the face of an inquirer. There are alsointermediary level koans which request impossible tasks, such as “Stop thatship on the distant ocean,” or “Take the four divisions of Tokyo out of yoursleeve.” A solution in this latter one might be to take out a paperhandkerchief folded in four sections, which symbolically become the fourdivisions of Tokyo. In a series of formal consultations, the student would meetwith his master twice daily to discuss progress on the solution to his assignedkoan. Usually the master would criticize the student’s solution, and,ultimately, the student will recognize by himself when he gets it right. Theend result is enlightenment for the student.


Around 500 BCE, China was in social upheaval and wentthrough what is called its Warring States period. National emperors lostcontrol over China’s various territories while local rulers increased theirstrength, waging wars against each other to the point that only the strongeststates could survive. Although exaggerated, stories reported that as many as400,000 people were slaughtered in battles. In response to the problem of this socialchaos that impacted nearly everyone’s life, a Period of 100 Philosophersemerged in which sages proposed various solutions. Some recommended atotalitarian system, concentrating power in the ruler. Others recommended lovingeveryone 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 socialchaos.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) was bornin what is now China’s Shandong province, along the country’s mid-costalregion. His family name was Kung, and the name “Confucius,” by which we knowhim in the West, is a Latinized version of “Kung Fu-tzu”, which means masterKung. His father, a distinguished soldier, and his mother both died when he wasa child. He married at 19, had a son and daughter, and worked as a clerk in atemple in which he learned rituals from elders. Confucius set his eye ongovernmental work and eventually, in his 50s, held posts including policecommissioner and imperial ambassador for a peace conference. Disillusioned bythese jobs, he traveled for 13 years to the various states in China,giving advice on government. He made the grandiose claim to show concretesocial improvements within one year, and achieve complete change within threeyears. No ruler took him up on his offer and, disillusioned again, he returnedto his home state. He continued teaching his followers and died at age 73.Although he considered himself a failure, his followers preserved and developedhis teachings, which ultimately resulted in the flourishing of the Confucianschool that heavily impacted Chinese intellectual life for 2,000 years.

Confucius’s solution to the problem of anarchywas to return to the old Chinese customs before social turmoil broke out. Toaid in that effort he researched China’s old cultural traditions and editedseveral books of ancient Chinese history and literature. Confucius wrotenothing of his own views, though, and the principal record of his teachings is awork called the Analects, or “digested conversations,” which is an unsystematiccollection of discussions, recorded by his students after his death. While the Analectsis somewhat sketchy and does not record any of Confucius’s organizeddiscourses, it does offer a picture of his central teachings. As a philosopher,Confucius was foremost and ethicist who emphasized the importance of virtuousconduct. Much of his ethical thought focuses on four specific themes: ritualconduct, humaneness, the superior person, child obedience, and good government.

Ritual Conduct

Foremost among Confucius’s teachings is the notion of ritualconduct (li), which is the effortless adherence to social norms and theperformance of customs. By Confucius’s time, ritual conduct became associatedwith ceremonial formality, particularly in religious practices. But Confuciususes the notion more broadly to include customs as diverse as major holidaycelebrations and simple greetings.

For Confucius, rituals and traditions are thevisible glue that binds society together. For virtually every activity, thereis a proper way of behaving. If we don’t follow these customs, then, despiteour best intentions, we behave like bumbling fools. He makes this point here:

Respectfulness without the rules ofritual conduct becomes laborious bustle. Carefulness without the rules ofritual conduct becomes timidity. Boldness without the rules of ritual conductbecomes insubordination. Straightforwardness without the rules of ritualconduct becomes rudeness. When those who are in high stations properly performall their duties to their relations, the people are inspired towards virtue.When old friends are not neglected by them, the people are preserved frommeanness. [Analects, 8.2]

Here’s an example of how ritual conduct might apply topolitical life. Imagine that, during a city council meeting, I want to proposethe development of a new park. As I make my case, I need to be respectful andcareful, yet bold and straightforward. If I don’t know the rules of ritual conduct,my efforts will be strained, and in the course of the discussion I mightunderstate my view or unintentionally insult the council members. On the otherhand, if I am properly skilled in the ritual conduct of business discussions,then I’ll be able to make my case easily and effectively.

There is both an inward and outward componentof ritual conduct. The outward component concerns simply the visible ritualitself. The inward component, however, involves having the proper attitude whenengaged in ritual conduct, rather than simply going through the motions with nothought of their significance. Confucius argues that the true development ofritual conduct requires that we subdue ourselves. Also, when performing ourvarious duties, it is important that our actions flow from within ourselves,and are not motivated by outward pressures:

Yen Yuan asked about perfectvirtue. The Master said, “To subdue one’s self and return to ritual conduct isperfect virtue. If a person can for one day subdue himself and return to ritualconduct, all under heaven will attribute perfect virtue to him. Is the practiceof perfect virtue from a person himself, or is it from others?” Yen Yuan said,“I beg to ask the steps of that process.” The Master replied, “Do not look atwhat is contrary to ritual conduct; do not listen to what is contrary to ritualconduct; do not speak what is contrary to ritual conduct; do not make movementswhich are contrary to ritual conduct.” Yen Yuan then said, “Though I amdeficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practicethis lesson.” [ibid, 12.1]

For Confucius, learning ritual conduct involves activesocial participation, similar to how we learn any skill or art form throughdirect involvement. Insofar as it is a skill, Confucius says that thedevelopment of ritual conduct is similar to learning skills such as writing poetryor music. What all these skills have in common is that they involve cultivatinga special aesthetic sense of appreciation. They also refine us, elevate thequality of our lives, and serve as a tool for moral instruction.

Humaneness and the Superior Person

The Confucian notion of humaneness (jen, wren),is the attitude of goodness, benevolence, and altruism towards others. Again,there is a distinction between one’s mere outer expressions of humaneness andone’s inner sense of it: “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldomassociated with true humaneness” (ibid, 1.3). When we think of humane behavior,we think of the various ways that we relate to other people, has Confucius stateshere:

The Master said, “It is humanemanners that constitute the excellence of a neighborhood. If a person inselecting a residence does not fix on one where such prevail, how can he bewise?” The Master said, “Those who are without humaneness cannot abide longeither 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.” TheMaster said, “If one’s will is set on humaneness, there will be no practice ofwickedness.” [Ibid, 4.1-4]

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

Central to the concept of humaneness is theConfucian principle of reciprocity (shu), which is “Do not do toothers what you would not have them do to you.” This principle is similar tothe famous Golden Rule, namely, “Do to others what you would want done toyourself.” The principle difference, though, is that the Golden Rule putsforward a positive duty, that is, I should treat you benevolently or charitablysince that is how I prefer to be treated. The principle of reciprocity, on theother hand, involves negative duties to avoid harm. For example, I should notsteal from you or lie to you since I would not want that kind of treatmentmyself. Because of this difference in emphasis, the principle of reciprocity issometimes called the “Silver Rule.” We find Confucius present the principle ofreciprocity in several passages throughout the Analects. In one case hechastises a student for not following the principle: “Tzu-kung said, ‘What I donot wish people to do to me, I also wish not to do to people.’ The Master said,‘you have not attained to that’” (ibid, 5.11). In another passage Confuciusstates that the principle of reciprocity should be the guiding principle ofones life: “Tzu-kung asked, saying, ‘Is there one word that may serve as a ruleof practice for all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘Is not reciprocity such aword? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others’” (ibid, 15.23).In another passage, the principle appears among a longer list of moral recommendations:

Chung-kung asked about perfectvirtue. The Master said, “It is, when you go abroad, to behave to everyone asif you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you wereassisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish doneto yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in thefamily.” Chung-kung said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, Iwill make it my business to practice this lesson.” [Ibid, 12.1-2]

Because of its emphasis on mere avoidance, theprinciple of reciprocity is sometimes criticized for being too passive: it isone thing to say that I should simply avoid harming you, but it is another andmuch better thing to say that I should actively seek your improvement. However,the wording of the principle of reciprocity is flexible enough to includepositive as well as negative duties. For example, since I would not want anyoneto withhold charity from me, then I should not withhold charity from others.

For Confucius, the superior person (chun-tzu,junzi) is the ideal human who personifies the virtue of humaneness. Theterm originally referred to children of aristocrats who inherited their familyestates, but, like the term “gentleman” in English, the notion of a superiorperson acquired a broader ethical meaning. In the Analects,Confucius sees the superior person as the ideal to which his followers shouldstrive. The superior person consistently exhibits a range of virtuousqualities, including humility, respectfulness, kindness, justice, impartiality,honesty, consistency, caution, and studiousness. Although this is a somewhatabstract list of qualities, a set of passages in the Analects points outsome very particular attitudes of the superior person:

The Master said, “The superiorperson is distressed by his lack of ability. He is not distressed by people notknowing him.” The Master said, “The superior person dislikes the thought of hisname not being mentioned after his death.” The Master said, “What the superiorperson seeks is in himself. What the inferior person seeks is in others.” TheMaster said, “The superior person is dignified, but does not wrangle. He issociable, but not a partisan.” The Master said, “The superior person does notpromote someone simply on account of his words, nor does he put aside goodwords because of the person.” [Ibid, 15.18-22]

In the above we see that, paradoxically, the superior personis not driven by a need for fame, yet at the same time he “dislikes the thoughtof his name not being mentioned after his death.” What Confucius had in mind issomething like this. The drive for fame while we are alive is too frequentlytied with how wealthy, powerful, or successful we are. The underlying passionshere are pride and arrogance, which the superior person should clearly reject.On the other hand, when we consider our life-long legacy and how peopleremember us after our deaths, we think more about how good we’ve been as humanbeings, and less about the degree of wealth and power that we’ve obtained. Itis, then, admirable to hope to be remembered for our legacy as a good person.

In spite of the lengthy list of values that thesuperior person holds, Confucius stresses that the superior person is not aby-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, oragainst anything. What is right he will follow” (ibid, 4.10). That is, thesuperior person’s attitudes and conduct will be guided by an overall sense ofjustice, and not by a nitpicky set of regulations. In keeping with his emphasison the internal aspects of moral attributes, Confucius describes thepsychological state of tranquility to which the superior person must rise.Distress, anxiety, and fear are all obstructions: “The superior person issatisfied and composed; the inferior person is always full of distress” (ibid,7.36). Regardless of how much tragedy we might experience, our internal senseof virtue should give us peace: “When internal examination discovers nothingwrong, what is there to be anxious about? What is there to fear?” (ibid, 12.4).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 asfamily tragedy or financial disaster.

Becoming a superior person involves an ongoingprocess that cannot be quickly attained, and an anecdote about a seventeenth-centuryConfucian monk illustrates this point. Upon turning 90, the monk commented thathe now saw how foolish he was at 80, and he looked forward to when he’d havebetter knowledge at a later age. Similarly, Confucius did not believe that hehimself was a perfectly superior person: “In matters of learning I am perhapsequal to other people, but I have not yet attained to the character of thesuperior person, who carries out in his conduct what he professes” (Ibid, 7.33).That is, Confucius did not yet fully embody the values he knew that he shouldpossess.

Child Obedience and Good Government

Confucius held that there are five relationships (wulun)that underlie the order of society, namely, (1) father and son, (2) elderbrother and younger brother, (3) husband and wife, (4) elder friend and juniorfriend, and (5) ruler and subject. Confucian writings sometimes refer to ashorter list of relationships called the “Three Bonds”, which include those of thefather-son, husband-wife, and ruler-subject. Each of these involves a superiorand a subordinate, and special duties are required of both parties:

What are “the things which peopleconsider right?” Kindness on the part of the father, and child obedience onthat of the son. Gentleness on the part of the elder brother, and obedience onthat of the younger. Righteousness on the part of the husband, and submissionon that of the wife. Kindness on the part of elders, and reverence on that ofthe juniors. Benevolence on the part of the ruler, and loyalty on that of theminister. These ten are the things which people consider to be right. [Bookof Rites]

With each of these five relationships, the subordinateperson is duty bound to show obedience, and the superior person to showkindness. Of the five relationships, the two that Confucius discusses the mostare the father-son and the ruler-subject, which we’ll consider here in moredetail

The relationship between father and son, commonlyknown as child obedience (hsiao, xiao), sets a standard for theothers. Respect for all superiors is ultimately an extension of respectfor one’s parents, and we should treat all elders with respect almost as ifthey were surrogate parents” (Analects, 1.6). By respecting parents wewill respect elders in general, and by doing this we will be less likely tostir up confusion and thereby undermine social order, either in or outside ofthe home. Virtually all cultures stress the obligations that children have torespect and obey their parents and, to that extent, this value is not aConfucian invention. Like other virtues, though, Confucius gives a unique twistto this one by emphasizing the importance of having the proper attitude infulfilling this duty, rather than simply abiding by the letter of the law.Without this proper inner attitude, we are no better than animals that mighthelp provide for older members of its species: “Child obedience nowadays meansto support one’s parents. But dogs and horses also are able to do something inthe way of support. Without reverence, what is there to distinguish the onesupport given from the other?” (Analects, 2.7). By having the properattitude of respect for our parents, we will perpetuate the value system thatwe learned at home, long after we are grown and leave the house: “If the sonfor three years does not alter from the way of his father, he may be called anobedient child” (ibid, 4.10). The respect that we have for our parents whilethey are alive continues in the form of ancestral veneration when they die, andrequires that we perform various sacrificial duties.

Suppose that my father asks me to do somethingthat was obviously wrong, such as steal the neighbor’s wheelbarrow or rob astore. Would child obedience obligate me to follow my father’s instructions?Confucius’s reply to this question was “When a command is wrong, a son shouldresist his father, and a civil servant should resist his noble ruler.” Respectfor parents, then, is not blind obedience. One benefit of resisting is that wewill remind our father of his moral duty and prevent him from committing somewrong: “If a man has a good friend to resist him in doing bad actions, he willhave his reputation preserved. So, if a father has a son to resist his wrongcommand, he will be saved from committing serious faults” (Classic of ChildObedience). The prospect of resisting one’s parents and attempting tomorally instruct them places the child in an awkward situation. This highlightsthe obligation that parents are under to cultivate a proper sense of moralitywithin themselves and thus avoid forcing this dilemma on their children.

Turning next to the ruler-subject relationship,Confucius saw himself as a political reformer, and he held that good governingconsists of the ruler setting the moral example for the whole country. Hisgoodness will trickle down through the various layers of social hierarchy, andthe whole country will prosper when he is benevolent. According to Confucius,“He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to thenorth polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it” (Analects,2.1).

What, though, must the ruler himself do toacquire virtue? Confucius lists five kinds of actions that will lead to goodgovernment:

“When the person in authority isbeneficent without great expense; when he lays tasks on the people withouttheir grieving; when he pursues what he desires without being selfish; when hemaintains a dignified ease without being proud; when he is majestic withoutbeing cruel.” (ibid, 20.2)

First on this list is beneficence, and, to display this, theruler does not necessarily have to actively shower his subjects with luxuries.Instead, the ruler can emphasize things from which people naturally benefit,such as efficient governmental programs and honest governmental administrators.Second, concerning laying tasks on people without making them grieve, Confuciusbelieves that the ruler should discover people’s natural capacities andencourage them to work in those areas. A musician, for example, should not beforced to work as an accountant. Third, a ruler can unselfishly pursue what hedesires when he restricts those desires to cultivating a good government.Fourth, without being arrogant, he should carry himself with dignity witheverything and everyone he comes in contact with. Fifth, without being fierce,a ruler should appear majestic in everything that he does – right down to howhe places a hat on his head.

Good government is the theme of a later Confucianclassic titled The Great Learning, which tradition attributes toConfucius’s grandson. According to this work, good government is a matter ofrulers exhibiting their clear character to the world, that is,displaying their virtue as a model for others to follow. How does the ruleracquire clear character? The Great Learning, tells us that there areeight causal links that culminate in clear character and effective governing.The underlying theme of these eight steps is intense moral and philosophicalreflection:

The ancients who wished to exhibittheir clear character to the world first brought order to their states. Wishingto order their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulatetheir families, they first cultivated their personal lives. Wishing tocultivate their personal lives, they first corrected their minds. Wishing tocorrect their minds, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishingto be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended their knowledge. Suchextension of knowledge rests in investigating things. [The Great Learning]

The order of the eight steps, then, is this:

Investigate things > extendknowledge > sincerity in thoughts > correct one’s mind >cultivate personal life > regulate families > order states > exhibitclear character

The first step in acquiring clear character is extending ourknowledge by “investigating things.” For Confucius this involves not onlyknowledge of arts and sciences, but a knowledge of oneself and one’slimitations: “When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you donot know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge” (Analects,2.17).

Mencius: Inherent Human Goodness

The second most influential philosopher in the Confuciantradition is Mencius (390–305 BCE), or Mengzi. A few generations removed fromConfucius, Mencius studied under a disciple of Confucius’s grandson and, likeConfucius, Mencius traveled around China to promote political reform. Heconfronted rival philosophical schools, typically those that emphasized humanselfishness. Mencius believed that governments should be run through exemplaryconduct, with goodness as the goal. The most well known aspect of Mencius’sthought is his view of the inherent goodness of people. According to Mencius,our minds and hearts house our inherent tendency towards moral goodness. Evil,he believes, results from bad social influences that reduce our natural moralstrength.

Mencius presents this idea in a conversationbetween himself and a skeptical philosopher named Kao. Kao argues that humannature is neither good nor bad, but can be molded either way, just as we canmold a piece of wood into different things. “Human nature,” says Kao, “is likea tree, and righteousness is like a wooden cup or a bowl. The fashioning ofbenevolence and righteousness out of a person’s nature is like the making ofcups and bowls from the tree” (Mencius, 6a.1). But Mencius rejects Kao’sanalogy and argues that any such “molding”, even for the sake of moral goodness,would do violence to our nature. We would thus be forced to see moral virtuessuch as benevolence and righteousness as distortions of who we are. Menciusasks,

Without touching the nature of thetree, can you make it into cups and bowls? You must do violence and injury tothe tree before you can make cups and bowls with it. If you must do violenceand injury to the tree in order to make cups and bowls with it, on yourprinciples you must in the same way do violence and injury to humaneness inorder to fashion from it benevolence and righteousness. Thus, your words wouldcertainly lead all people on to consider benevolence and righteousness to becalamities. [Ibid]

As the conversation continues, Kao insists thathuman nature is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. But, just as wemight redirect the flow of water east or west, society is capable of directingour nature towards good or towards evil. Thus, according to Kao, “Human natureis indifferent to good and evil, just as water is indifferent to the east andwest” (ibid, 6a.2). But Mencius rejects this analogy too, and argues that humannature possesses potential goodness, just as the nature of water is to flowdown hill:

Water indeed will flowindifferently to the east or west, but will it flow indifferently up or down?The tendency of human nature to do good is like the tendency of water to flowdownwards. All people have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards.Now, by striking water and causing it to leap up, you may make it go over yourforehead, and, by damming and leading it, you may force it up a hill. But aresuch movements according to the nature of water? It is the force applied whichcauses them. When people are made to do what is not good, their nature is dealtwith in this way. [Ibid]

Mencius tells us exactly what our inherently good natureconsists of. First, he argues that we naturally have four specific moralvirtues, namely, commiseration, shame, respect, and approval. Second, thesefour virtues naturally give rise to others, namely humaneness, righteousness,ritual conduct, knowledge. Mencius insists that nature has instilled these inall of us, which we can all find if we just look for them: “We are certainlyfurnished with them. Any different view simply owes to an absence of reflection”(ibid).


Like Confucianism, Daoism emerged during China’s WarringStates period, and its specific recommendation for ending social chaos was thatwe should imitate nature and go back to the primitive tradition of China beforethe appearance of kings and feudal systems. Tradition credits the founding ofDaoism to a figure named Lao-tzu (Laozi), literally meaning “master Lao.” But virtuallynothing concrete is known about him, and some modern scholars argue he wascreated by early Daoists as a kind of rival to Confucius. Tradition alsocredits him with composing Daoism’s most important text, the Dao de Jing (Taote Ching), which literally means The Book of the Way and its Power.According to one story, as Lao-tzu was leaving his home town, the citygatekeeper was sorry to see the great master go and asked that he write a bookof his views by which people could remember him. Lao-tzu sat down on the spotand composed the Dao de Jing. Although tradition dates the Dao deJing at around 450 BCE, scholars today place it at around 300 BCE based onits literary style. The work is an anthology of sayings compiled to instructkings on government; specifically it recommends that kings should rule throughan extreme “hands off” policy, allowing social events to conform to nature.

The second most important book in Daoism is thework attributed to and named after Daoist philosopher Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi, 369-286BCE), or, “master Chuang”. Unlike the Dao de Jing, the Chuang-Tzuis not a political treatise. Intended for a more general readership, it iscomposed in a popular style with vivid stories and parables. We know few factsabout Chuang-tzu’s life, and tradition maintains that he held a minor politicalposition. According to one story, he was once invited to become a primeminister but replied, “I would rather leave myself to my own enjoyment in themire than be a slave to the ruler of a state. I will never take office. Thus, Ishall remain free to follow my own inclinations” (Chuang-Tzu, 37). Wealso find an anecdote about his burial plans, which highlights the theme ofnaturalness in Daoism:

When Chuang-tzu was about to die,his disciples indicated their wish to give him a grand burial. He replied, “Iwill have heaven and earth for my coffin and its shell; the sun and moon for mytwo round symbols of jade; the stars and constellations for my pearls andjewels; and all things assisting as the mourners. Will not the provisions formy burial be complete? What could you add to them?” [Ibid, 32]

We will look at some of the more prominent themes thatappear in both the Dao de Jing and the Chuang-tzu.

The Dao

The notion of the Dao is the central concept inDaoism. Literally the term means “way” or “path”, but it more specificallyrefers to the fundamental ordering principle behind nature, society, andindividual people. It is the ultimate reality of the cosmos, and one Englishversion of the Dao de Jing even translates the word "Dao"as "God", though is probably not the best choice. An initial obstacleto understanding the concept of the Dao is that it has an unspeakablemystical quality and cannot be defined. We see this in the opening and mostfamous passage of the book:

The Dao that can be named isnot the eternal and unchanging Dao. The name that can be spoken is notthe eternal and unchanging name. The nameless is the source of heaven andearth. The named is the mother of all things. Always be without desires and youwill see mystery. Always be with desire, and you will see only its effects.These two are really the same, although, as development takes place, theyreceive the different names. They are both a mystery, and where mystery is thedeepest we find the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful. [Dao de Jing,1]

According to the above, if you try to name, speak, ordescribe the Dao, then you have missed the point and distorted the Dao’smeaning. It is an indescribable source of all existence, and we grasp the Daoonly by mystically experiencing its subtlety. This experience begins withsubduing one’s desires. From the start, the Dao de Jing advocates anon-intellectual and even anti-intellectual approach. We should abandonhopes of finding an adequate verbal description of the Dao, and insteadpsychologically 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 Daoto exhibit itself through our own lives, and we can recognize its presence inthe natural world around us.

Another passage early on in the Dao de Jingstates that the indescribable nature of the Dao is like an empty container,which we should never try to fill with concrete descriptions that willinvariably misrepresent it:

The Dao is like theemptiness of a container; and in our employment of it we must be on our guardagainst all fullness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were thehonored ancestor of all things. We should blunt our sharp points, and unravelthe complications of things; we should dim our brightness, and bring ourselvesinto agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Dao is, asif it would continue forever. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear tohave been before God. [Ibid, 4]

The Dao’s nature, according to the above, isinfinitely deep and as mysterious as any investigation into the origin ofthings in the far distant past. To understand it, we must take an approach thatis opposite to what we might expect. For example, we typically learn aboutthings through our senses of sight, hearing, or touch. But the Dao lacksany sensory qualities that might enable us to perceive it in those ways. Infact, if we try to investigate the Dao as though it were just anotherphysical object of perception, we will find that its nature actually consistsof 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 wename it ‘the soundless.’ We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and wename it ‘the bodiless’” (ibid, 14). What is the Dao’s form? It isformless. What is its appearance? It is invisible. Try as we might to list itsqualities, we are left with empty descriptions.

In spite of the Dao’s unspeakablequality, the Dao de Jing tells us at least something about the Dao’snature. One recurring point is that the Dao both creates and sustainseverything 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 doesnot boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them” (ibid,10). Although the Dao is the originator of all things, it should not bemisconstrued as a kind of pre-existing God who created a universe distinct fromitself. Rather, before things originated, the Dao was in a formlessstate of potential. As it took on the state of existence, the Dao producedthings that remain part of its nature:

There was something undefined andcomplete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still and formlessit was, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in nodanger of being exhausted. It may be regarded as the Mother of all things. I donot know its name, and I give it the designation of the Dao, the Way orCourse. [Ibid, 25]

The Dao de Jing repeatedly refers to the Daoas the mother of everything, and the metaphor of a mother has importantimplications. A cosmic father evokes images of a craftsman or builderwho aggressively manufactures the world from some external raw material. But acosmic mother gives birth to things, generating them from withinherself, and continually nurturing them. It is like a great tree that sproutsbranches, leaves, and fruit, continually feeding them all from within. It islike a great river that spawns and sustains a myriad of life forms.

The takeaway message is that we should allstrive to follow the Dao. Animals and plants do this naturally, and itis only humans that have the capacity to act contrary to it since our mindsmake us think that we are independent entities apart from nature. We createartificial environments in which to live and see nature as something to conquerfor our personal benefit, rather than something that we should be part of. Whenwe go against the Dao, the consequences are disastrous for uspersonally, and for everything that we damage in our path.


A central theme of Daoism is that of return: allthings eventually decay and return to their ultimate source within the Dao.There are clear natural cycles in the cosmos: everything around us has beenrecycled and will again be recycled. We tend to praise human accomplishmentsthat have the most lasting value, such as timeless works of art, scientificdiscoveries, and moral traditions. However, when we look at nature, we see thatnothing is permanent and everything comes and goes in cycles. Growth and decayare not just one-time events, but occur again and again in an endless naturalcycle. This is the pulse of the universe that we find in most everything thatwe observe. Trees, animals, and even societies grow and die, and their elementswill ultimately be recycled. The passage below illustrates this point withplants, which first display luxuriant growth, and then return to their origin:

All things alike go through theirprocesses of activity, and then we see them return to their original state.When things in the vegetable world have displayed their luxuriant growth, wesee each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what wecall the state of stillness; and that stillness may be called a reporting thatthey have fulfilled their appointed end. [Ibid, 16]

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

If the creator transformed my leftarm into a rooster, I would watch the time of the night. If he transformed myright arm into a cross-bow, I would then be looking for a duck to shoot forroasting. If he transformed my rump-bone into a wheel and my spirit into ahorse, I would then be able to ride in my own chariot. I’d never have to changehorses. I obtained life because it was my time. I am now parting with it inaccordance with the same law. [Chuang-Tzu, 6]

According to Chuang-tzu, then, we should submit to thenatural 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 simplyfollows the command. The yin and yang [forces of nature] are more to a man thanhis parents are. If they are hastening my death and I do not quietly submit tothem, I would be obstinate and rebellious.” Ultimately, we have no say in thematter.

Non-Action and Non-Mind

The most practical advice of Daoism is that of non-action(wu wei), also called effortless action: everything we doshould flow with simple spontaneity and without contrivance. Artificial actionsrun counter to the natural course of things, and usually involve aggression andcompetition. Picture a log floating down a river with a large rock in its path.Rather than knocking the rock over, the log gently bumps into it, casuallyfloats around it, and continues on its course. Passivity, rather thanaggression, is the attitude towards life that we should adopt. In the naturalworld, weakness is linked with life, and strength with death:

Man at his birth is supple andweak; at his death, firm and strong. So it is with all things. In their earlygrowth, trees and plants are soft and brittle; at their death they are dry andwithered. In this manner, firmness and strength are the accompaniments ofdeath, whereas softness and weakness are the accompaniments of life. [Dao deJing, 76]

Chuang-Tzu gives a story that vividly describes non-action.A prince was watching his cook slice meat with a rhythmical and harmoniouscutting technique. The cook then explained his secret:

I am devoted to the method of theDao, which is superior to any skill. . . . Observingthe natural lines in the meat, my knife slips through the great crevices andslides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the accommodations thuspresented. My skill avoids the ligaments, and even more so the large bones. Agood cook changes his knife every year because he cleanly cuts. Anordinary cook changes his every month because he hacks. Now I have usedmy knife for nineteen years. [Chuang-Tzu, 3]

By working in harmony with the meat and slicing between thejoints, rather than hacking through bone, the cook incorporated the practice ofnon-action. He lost awareness of the techniques of butchering and cut the meatalmost as if he was in a trance. Impressed by the cook’s explanation, thePrince concluded, “I have heard the words of my cook, and learned how to carefor life.”

We might think that passivity and weaknesswould make us easy targets of attack, and more vulnerable to manipulation thanwe otherwise might be. Paradoxically, though, the Dao de Jing explainsthat non-action is actually the most successful means of self-defense andmilitary engagement: “The softest thing in the world dashes against andovercomes the hardest; that which has no substantial existence enters wherethere is no crevice” (Dao de Jing, 43). We overcome obstacles by homingin on an adversary’s vulnerabilities and then effortlessly shattering theirstrength. A good illustration of this is the Martial Arts, which distinguishbetween hard and soft techniques. Hard defense forms such as Tae Kwon Doattempt to batter an adversary into submission through forceful kicks andpunches. By contrast, soft defense forms such as Aikido attempt to redirect anadversary’s force against himself through techniques of twisting and throwing.Daoists prefer a soft approach when engaging in combat: “The person who relieson the strength of his forces does not conquer, just as a tree that has grownstrong is doomed by the lumberjack” (ibid, 76). The effectiveness of this softapproach is evident in the devastating effects that water sometimes has: “Thereis nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attackingthings that are firm and strong there is nothing that can outrank it” (ibid,14).

Paralleling the notion of non-action is that ofnon-mind (wu-hsin): we need to eliminate knowledge and actspontaneously through natural intuition. Accumulated knowledge hinderscreativity and can make one inflexible or subject to a false sense of security.Since the Dao runs through each of us, everything that we need to knowabout life is already within ourselves. Nature will automatically direct uswhen needs arise. The Dao de Jing rejects traditional methods ofeducation, such as learning from a master or traveling around and gainingknowledge through experience. The true sage never has to even leave home:

Without going outside his door, oneunderstands all that takes place under the sky; without looking out from hiswindow, one sees the Dao of Heaven. The further that one goes out fromhimself, the less he knows. Therefore the sages got their knowledge withouttraveling, gave their right names to things without seeing them, andaccomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so. [Ibid, 47]

Not only should we avoid acquiring knowledge by conventionalmeans, but we should also rid ourselves of the cumbersome knowledge that we’veacquired throughout the years. Most importantly, our understanding of the Daoitself comes through the practice of non-mind: “Those who are skilled in the Daodo not dispute about it, and those who dispute are not skilled in it” (ibid,81). Philosophical discourse and debate will be of no help, and the mostperceptive Daoists avoid debating about the Dao.

Minimal Governing

As a political treatise, the Dao de Jing insists thatif rulers follow the Dao then their states will be well ordered and innatural harmony: “If a prince or the king could hold onto the Dao, allwould spontaneously submit themselves to him” (Ibid, 32). To rule in accordwith the Dao, leaders must abandon common notions of governance, whichtypically involve authoritatively imposing their wills on the people. Instead,a more Dao-centered way of ruling involves not ruling at all, butallowing society to function naturally.

Successful rulers should adopt the attitude ofnon-action when governing: the more aggressive input and regulation agovernment imposes on its citizens, the more that disorder results. But when aleader sits back and does nothing, society develops on its own. Nature needs nohelp from rulers, and when the general public follows the Dao, eachperson will naturally find peaceful and simple ways to flourish. Even awell-intentioned leader may disrupt the natural flow of social order byimposing rules. The mere existence of rules will generate rule-breakers. Daoismthus recommends political anarchy in the true sense of the word, namely,a peaceful state of no rule in which we naturally find our place:

A sage has said, “I will do nothingwith purpose, and the people will transform themselves; I will keep still, andthe people will correct themselves. I will not trouble with them, and thepeople will become rich by themselves; I will show no ambition, and the peoplewill arrive at primitive simplicity by themselves.” [Ibid, 57]

The best style of governing, then, is for theruler to take a hands-off approach through the practice of non-action. However,to the extent that rulers do intervene in society, they should try to rid artificialvalues from their subjects’ minds through the practice of non-mind:

In exercising his government, thesage empties the people’s minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, andstrengthens their bones. He constantly tries to keep them without knowledge andwithout desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them fromacting on it. When there is this abstinence from action, good order isuniversal. [Ibid, 3]

As noted earlier, while things in the natural worldautomatically follow the law of the Dao, people do so by choice, andthis may require rulers to help empty people’s minds of ideas that distractfrom the Dao. The specific kind of knowledge that is most damaging tosocial harmony involves conventional standards of value and worth. Nature doesnot teach us to value one style of clothes over another, for example. The valuethat we place on specific luxury items, leisure activities, concepts of beauty,or human accomplishments, are principally matters of cultural brainwashing.Criminals break the law because they cannot easily acquire the endless array ofthings society dangles before them. If rulers can get their citizens topractice non-mind and shed their preconceived standards of value, then theywon’t be seduced into criminal behavior.

The perfect society envisioned by Daoism doesnot consist of large and complex cities of the sort that exist throughout theworld today. Instead, primitive simplicity is the ideal, which in practicalterms means small farming families and communities. Chuang-tzu describes thisoriginal and more natural human living environment:

People originally wove and madethemselves clothes; they tilled the ground and for food. These are common to humaneness.They all agreed on this, and did not form themselves into separate classes. Inthis way they were constituted and left to their natural tendencies. Thereforein the age of perfect virtue people walked along quietly, steadily lookingforward. At that time, on the hills there were no footpaths or excavatedpassages. On the lakes there were no boats or dams. [Chuang-Tzu, 9]

This, according to Chuang-tzu, is how society originallywas; but then rulers came along and disrupted its natural simplicity byimposing rules and artificial standards:

When sages appeared, trippingpeople up with charity and constraining people with the duty to one’s neighbor,then people universally began to be perplexed. The sages went to excess inperforming music and fussed over the practice of ceremonies. Then people beganto be separated from each other. . . . The injury done to the Dao in order topractice charity and duty to one’s neighbor was the error of the sages. [Ibid]

Leaders first disrupted the natural order of things byintroducing an alien standard of morality: “they dangled charity and duty toone’s neighbor in order to comfort their minds” (ibid). Leaders added to thisan endless list of complex ceremonies, which only confused people and createddifferences between them. These differences prompted people to outdo eachother by striving for knowledge and pursuing personal gain. Finally, leaderscreated governments to assure that people conformed to these new standards. Thebest rulers, then, are those that facilitate a primitive society, and the worstrulers are those that try to force order on people through the creation ofrules.

Lieh-Tzu: Following Natural Desires

After the Dao de Jing and the Chuang-Tzu, thethird most important book in Daoism is the Lieh-Tzu, meaning “master Lieh”.Tradition attributes it to a scholar named Lieh Yukou from period of 100philosophers, but scholars today date its composition at around 300 CE.Sometimes called the Classic of Complete Emptiness, the Lieh-Tzurecommends pursuing the path of emptiness as a means of becoming united withthe Dao. As a whole, the work has a skeptical and dismal undertone,emphasizing the certainty of our annihilation, resigning oneself to fate, andabandoning efforts in life. In view of the shortness of life, the workrecommends that we follow our own natural inclinations in pursuit of happiness.

In the most famous part of the book (Section 7,titled Yang-Tzu), Lieh-tzu criticizes the emphasis we often place on pleasingothers and acquiring notoriety that will last beyond the grave. This emphasisis especially strong in Confucianism, which we've seen holds that “The superiorperson dislikes the thought of his name not being mentioned after his death” (Analects,15.20). Lieh-tzu begins his argument by noting how short life is. If we’relucky we will live for at most 100 years, but most of our lives will beconsumed by infancy, the incapacities of old age, sleeping, suffering andillness. After all of this “there is less than an hour during which time we arecomfortable, satisfied and carefree.” Where, then, are we to find happinessduring our brief lives? Lieh-tzu’s answer is pleasure: “It is only foundin beautiful things and good food, music and sex” (Lieh-tzu, 7).Unfortunately, he continues, our efforts here are often thwarted. Sometimesthese pleasures are out of our reach. Worse yet, we often voluntarily foregoavailable pleasures in the hopes of attaining fame or empty praise after ourdeaths. And even when alone we deny ourselves pleasures simply to conform towhat others expect. “We thus deny ourselves happiness in our best years, and wecannot live freely for a moment” (ibid).

Lieh-tzu’s solution is that we should enjoylife’s pleasures when the opportunities arise, and avoid conforming for thesake of praise from others. It is irrelevant whether you leave an honorable ordishonorable legacy after your death since, once dead, you won’t be consciousof your legacy at all:

People of long ago understood thatin life we are here temporarily and in death we are gone temporarily. ... Thewicked and foolish both die. While alive they were the virtuous emperors Yaoand Shun. When dead they are rotten bones. While alive they were the evilemperors Chieh and Chou. When dead they are rotten bones. In either case, theyare rotten bones. Can anyone tell them apart? Enjoy your life right now whileyou still have it. Why bother with what happens to you after you die? [Ibid]

On face value, Lieh-tzu’s emphasis on pursuing pleasureseems to run counter to the Daoist rejection of desire, which we find in theopening verse of the Dao de Jing: “Always be without desires and youwill see mystery; always be with desire, and you will see only its effects.”But there may be some wiggle room here. On the one hand, if we are preoccupiedwith desire then we will not be able to see the Dao work through allthings, including our own lives. On the other hand, though, part of our natureis to have desires: our natural inclinations should guide our conduct. Theissue then rests on whether the desires for pleasure are natural orartificially imposed. Leih-tzu’s list appears to be firmly grounded in ournatural human inclinations, which includes desires for beautiful things, goodfood, music and sex.


This chapter opened stating that Eastern philosophies tendto be pantheistic—the view that God is the totality of the cosmos. While thegeneral notion of pantheism may be easy enough to grasp, the devil is in thedetails, and the various Eastern philosophies wrestled with this concept indifferent ways. Classical Hindu writings, like the Upanishads and BhagavadGita, focused on the pantheistic idea of God at the core of our trueidentities, and how we might discover the Self-God through Yoga practices likemeditation. Vedanta philosophers pushed the idea of monism (the cosmos beingcomposed of one divine stuff) but disagreed about whether God wasundifferentiated or had parts. Within Buddhism, the theme of pantheism emergesfirst with the notion of nirvana, the idea that we should extinguish all desireand components of our ordinary consciousness. Within the nirvana state, wesubdue our individual selves and experience the oneness of everything. Mahayananotions of emptiness stress that even the nirvana experience isundifferentiated and empty of descriptive content. While classical Confucianphilosophy focused more on moral virtue than on the nature of God, its moralmessage has a strong theme of social interconnectedness. Some later Confucianphilosophers developed this idea of interconnectedness in pantheistic ways. Daoism’spantheism appears clearly in its view that the Dao is the natural forceof the universe, which underlies everything. While Hinduism and Buddhism haveus gain enlightenment by disassociating ourselves from the world ofappearances, Daoism takes the opposite approach and has us discover theinterconnectedness of ultimate reality within the cycles in the natural world.

Eastern religions invariably maintain that understandingultimate reality and reaching enlightenment are difficult tasks: it is hard forus to find the Self-God within us, or reach Nirvana, or become a SuperiorPerson, or live in accord with the Dao. If Easterners themselves must struggleto internalize these concepts, what chance do people in Western cultures havewho lack the benefit of life-long exposure to pantheistic ideas? Even if we canintellectually grasp the central points of these Eastern philosophies, we maynot be able to take them seriously or adapt them into our already formed viewsof things. But while there is a gap between pantheistic and non-pantheisticviews of divine reality, some middle ground may still be found. It willinvariably, though, require at least some compromise of the Western view thatGod is a distinct being from his creation.

Those who doubt the existence of a divine beingface yet a different obstacle when approaching Eastern philosophy: is all thisEastern talk about undifferentiated ultimate reality and mystical enlightenmentjust nonsense? But even here there may be some room for compromise, since thepantheistic message of Eastern philosophy is capable of a naturalistic spin.The natural world is interconnected, both with its general laws and forces ofnature that govern physical bodies throughout the universe, and with the ecologicalinterdependence of living things on earth. Daoism in particular has beenadapted to a non-religious view of the natural world: the Dao is just the flowof all the interconnected components of nature. On this view, we humans canbecome enlightened about our part in this unified fabric through what is callednature mysticism: we might experience a unity of all things whenreflecting on some dramatic component of the natural world. For some mystics,reflecting on something like a sunset, a forest or an ocean can trigger a senseof connection with the natural world.


Introduction: The Bhagavad Gita explores several paths toachieving release (moksha), and in the selection below Krishna discusses pathof selfless action (karma yoga), which involves routinely acting withindifference to the fruits of our actions. By engaging in pure action,unconcerned with their results, we distance ourselves from the outer layers ofour identities and our perceptions of the world. We thus become more sensitiveto the reality of the Atman-Brahman with us.

[Krishna:] Your business is with actions only,and never with the fruits of your actions. So do not let the fruit of youractions motivate you, and do not be attached to inaction. Perform action,Arjuna, dwelling in the union of the divine. Renounce attachments, and balanceyourself evenly between success and failure. Equilibrium is called Yoga. Actionis inferior to discrimination; so, take refuge in the intellect. People arepitiable who work only for its fruits. By disciplining one's intellect, oneabandons both good and evil deeds. Therefore, you should cling to Yoga [ofselfless action], which is skill in action. The wise disciplined theirintellect, renounced the fruits of their actions, released (moksha)themselves from the bonds of birth, and attained a state of bliss. When your intellectescapes from the tangle of delusion, then you too will be indifferent aboutwhat you had heard and will hear [in the Vedas].

[Arjuna:] What is the mark of the person who isstable of mind and steadfast in contemplation, Krishna? How does the stable-mindedperson talk, sit or walk?

[Krishna:] When a person abandons all thedesires of his heart and is satisfied in the Self and by the Self, then he iscalled "stable in mind." A sage of stable mind is free from anxietywhen surrounded by pains, is indifferent when surrounded by pleasures, and isfreed from passion, fear and anger. He is without attachments on every side,whether desirable or undesirable, and neither likes nor dislikes. The person ofunderstanding is well poised. Just as a tortoise pulls in all its limbs, thesage withdraws his senses from the objects, and his understanding is wellpoised.


Introduction: Mahayana Buddhism holds that ultimatereality is empty of any descriptive content, and the Zen branch of MahayanaBuddhism attempts to reveal this through absurd riddles, or Koans. Below areexamples of three such Koans. They are presented in dialogues between Zenstudents and their masters; following that is a brief comment on the dialogueby thirteenth-century Zen master Mumon.

18. Tozan's Three Pounds

The story: A monk asked Master Tozan when hewas weighing some flax: "What is Buddha?" Master Tozan replied:"This flax weighs three pounds."

Master Mumon's comment: Old Tozan's Zen is likea clam. The minute the shell opens you see the whole inside. However, I want toask you: Do you see the real Tozan?

Three pounds of flax in front of your nose,close enough, and mind is still closer. Whoever talks about affirmation andnegation lives in the right and wrong region.

19. Everyday Life Is the Path

The Story: Joshu asked Master Nansen:"What is the path?" Master Nansen said: "Everyday life is thepath." Joshu asked: "Can it be studied?" Master Nansen said:"If you try to study, you will be far away from it." Joshu asked:"If I do not study, how can I know it is the path?" Master Nansensaid: "The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does itbelong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition issenseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself inthe same freedom as sky. You name it neither good nor not-good." At thesewords Joshu was enlightened.

Master Mumon's comment: Master Nansen couldmelt Joshu's frozen doubts at once when Joshu asked his questions. I doubtthough if Joshu reached the point that Master Nansen did. He needed thirty moreyears of study.

24. Without Words, Without Silence

The Story: A monk asked Master Fuketsu:"Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth?"Master Fuketsu observed: "I always remember springtime in southern China.The birds sing among innumerable kinds of fragrant flowers."

Master Mumon's comment: Master Fuketsu used tohave lightning Zen. Whenever he had the opportunity, he flashed it. But thistime he failed to do so and only borrowed from an old Chinese poem. Never mindMaster Fuketsu's Zen. If you want to express the truth, throw out your words,throw out your silence, and tell me about your own Zen.

Without revealing his own penetration, heoffered another's words, not his to give. Had he chattered on and on, even hislisteners would have been embarrassed.

READING 3: CONFUCIANISM AND HUMAN NATURE AS EVIL (Hsun-Tzu,ch. 17 "Human Nature is Evil")

Introduction:The Confucian philosopher Hsun-tzu (298–238 BCE), a younger contemporary ofMencius, entered the debate about the goodness or badness of human nature. WhileMencius argued that human nature is good, Hsun-tzu argued that it isfundamentally evil, and it is only through education and ritual conduct that wecan correct it.

Human nature is evil and the good that we showis artificial. Even at birth human nature includes the love of gain. Since weact according to our desires, conflict and robberies emerge. We will not findself-denial and altruism. Human nature includes envy and dislike, and asactions are in accordance with these, violence and injuries spring up, whereasloyalty and faith do not. Human nature includes the desires of the ears and theeyes, leading to the love of sounds and beauty. And as the actions are in accordancewith these, lewdness and disorder spring up, whereas righteousness and ritualconduct, with their various orderly displays, do not. It thus appears thatfollowing human nature and yielding to its feelings will surely create strifeand theft. It will lead to violation of everyone's duties and disruption of allorder, until we are in a state of savagery. We must have the influence ofteachers and laws, and the guidance of ritual conduct and righteousness. For,from these we get self-denial, altruism, and an observance of the well-orderedregulations of conduct, which results in a state of good government. From allthis it is plain that human nature is evil; the good which it shows isartificial.

Consider some illustrations. A crooked stickmust be submitted to the pressing-frame to soften and bond it, and then itbecomes straight. A blunt knife must be submitted to the grindstone andwhetstone, and then it becomes sharp. Similarly, human nature, being evil, mustbe submitted to teachers and laws, and then it becomes correct. It must besubmitted to ritual conduct and righteousness, and then it is capable of beinggoverned. If people were without teachers and laws, our condition would be oneof deviation and insecurity, and would be entirely wrong. If we were without ritualconduct and righteousness, our condition would be one of rebellious disorderand we would reject all government. The sage kings of old understood that humannature was evil, in a state of hazardous deviation, improper, rebellious, disorderly,and resistant to governance. Accordingly, they set up the principles ofrighteousness and ritual conduct, and framed laws and regulations. Theseefforts served to straighten and embellish our natural feelings. They correctthem, tame them, change them and guide them. By this means we might proceed ona path of moral governance which is in agreement with reason. Now, the superiorperson is the one who is transformed by teachers and laws. He takes on thedistinction of learning, and follows the path of ritual conduct andrighteousness. The inferior person is the one who follows his nature and itsfeelings, indulges its resentments, and walks contrary to ritual conduct andrighteousness. Looking at the subject in this way, we see clearly that humannature is evil, and the good that it shows is artificial.

One might ask, "If human nature is evil,what is the source of ritual conduct and righteousness?" I reply, all ritualconduct and righteousness are the artificial productions of the sages, andshould not be thought of as growing out of human nature. It is just as when apotter makes a vessel from the clay. The vessel is the product of the workman'sart, and should not be thought of as growing out of human nature. Or it is aswhen another workman cuts and hews a vessel out of wood; it is the product ofhis art, and is not to be considered as growing out of human nature. The sagespondered long in thought and gave themselves to practice, and so they succeededin producing ritual conduct and righteousness, and setting up laws andregulations. In this way ritual conduct and righteousness, laws andregulations, are artificial products of the sages, and should not be seen asgrowing properly from human nature.


Introduction: The following selection by Daoistphilosopher Chuang-Tzu describes how four friends learn the lesson of thetransformation of all things as they face death.

Masters Ssu, Yu, Li, and Lai were allfour conversing together. They asked, "Who can make non-action his head,life his backbone, and death the tail of his existence? Who knows how birth anddeath, existence and annihilation comprise one single body? The person whounderstands this will be admitted to friendship with us." The four menlooked at one another and laughed, but no one grasped with his mind the driftof the questions. All, however, were friends together.

Not long after, Yu fell ill, and Ssu went tosee him. "How great is the Creator!" said the sufferer. "He mademe the deformed object that I am!" Yu was a crooked hunchback; his fiveviscera were squeezed into the upper part of his body; his chin bent over hisnavel; his shoulder was higher than his crown; on his crown was an ulcer pointingto the sky; his breath came and went in gasps. Nevertheless, he was easy in hismind, and made no trouble of his condition. He limped to a well, looked athimself in it, and said, "I can't believe that the Creator would have mademe the deformed object that I am!" Ssu said, "Do you dislike yourcondition?" He replied, "No, why should I dislike it? If the creatortransformed my left arm into a rooster, I would watch the time of the night. Ifhe transformed my right arm into a cross-bow, I would then be looking for aduck to shoot for roasting. If he transformed my rump-bone into a wheel and myspirit into a horse, I would then be able to ride in my own chariot. I'd neverhave to change horses. I obtained life because it was my time. I am now partingwith it in accordance with the same law. When we rest in what the timerequires, and manifest that submission, neither joy nor sorrow can enter. Thisis what the ancients called 'loosening the rope.' Some, though, are hung up andcannot loosen themselves. They are held fast by the bonds of materialexistence. But it is a long-acknowledged fact that no creatures can overcomeHeaven. Why, then, should I hate my condition?"

Eventually another ofthe four, named Lai, fell ill, and lay gasping for breath, while his family stoodweeping around. The fourth friend, Li, went to see him. “Leave!” he cried tothe wife and children; “Go away! You hinder his decomposition.” Then, leaningagainst the door, he said, “Truly, God is great! I wonder what he will make ofyou now. I wonder where you will be sent. Do you think he will make you intorat’s liver or into the shoulders of a snake?”

“A son,” answeredLai, “must go wherever his parents ask him. Nature is no other than a man’sparents. If she asks me to die quickly, and I object, then I am a disobedientchild. She can do me no wrong. The Dao gives me this form, this toil inadulthood, this tranquility in old age, and this rest in death. Surely thatwhich is such a kind mediator of my life is the best mediator of my death.Suppose that the boiling metal in a smelting-pot were to bubble up and say,‘Make a sword out of me.’ I think the caster would reject that metal asstrange. If a sinner like myself were to say to God, ‘Make of me a man, make ofme a man,’ I think he too would reject me as strange. The universe is thesmelting-pot, and God is the caster. I will go wherever I am sent, to wakeunconscious of the past, as a man wakes from a dreamless sleep.”


Please answerall of the following questions for review.

1. Explain the Hindu notions of the Self-God(Atman-Brahman) and "you are that".

2. Explain the Hindu notions of reincarnation and thedoctrine of karma.

3. Explain the Hindu methods of action yoga andmeditation yoga.

4. Explain Sankara’s strong monism and Ramanuja’s weakmonism.

5. Explain the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and EightfoldPath.

6. Explain the Buddhist notions of improper questions andthe poisoned arrow analogy.

7. Explain the Buddhist doctrine of dependent originationand no-self doctrine.

8. Explain the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, and how doZen koans lead to an awareness of emptiness?

9. Explain the Confucian concepts of ritual conduct,humaneness, reciprocity, the superior person, child obedience and the fiverelationships

10. Explain the Confucian concepts of good government andthe five actions that lead to good government.

11. Explain the Confucian seven steps of the GreatLearning.

12. Explain how Mencius and Kao differ on the issue ofhuman goodness.

13. Explain the Daoist notions of the Dao and return.

14. Explain the Daoist notions of non-action, non-mindand good governing.

15. Explain Lieh-tzu's view of happiness and death.

[Reading 1: Hinduism and Release Through Selfless Action]

16. Explain the path of selfless action and what itsconsequences are.

[Reading 2: Buddhism and Zen Koans]

17. What are the three questions asked by the studentsand the three answers given by the Zen masters?

[Reading 3: Confucianism and Hsun-tzu’s view of HumanNature as Evil]

18. Explain the point of Hsun-tzu’s analogies of thecrooked stick and blunt knife.

19. According to Hsun-tzu, what is the origin of ritualconduct and righteousness?

[Reading 4: Daoism and Transformation]

20. What are the main points of Chuang-Tzu’s story of thefour friends and transformation?

[Short Essay]

21. Short essay: In a minimum of 150 words, pick one ofthe following Eastern Philosophy concepts and defend it against someone whomight say that it is silly. Hinduism: Self-God; law of karma; yoga of action;yoga of meditation; weak or strong monism. Buddhism: nirvana; eightfold path;improper questions; no-self doctrine; doctrine of dependent origination;emptiness; Zen Koan system. Confucianism: ritual conduct; humaneness; principleof reciprocity; superior person; child obedience; good government; seven stepsof the Great Learning; Mencius, Kao or Hsun-Tzu on inherent human goodness.Daoism: the Dao; return; non-action; non-mind; minimal governing; Lieh-Tzu'sview of happiness and death.

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