A Flexible Indeterminate Theory of Religion: Thinking through Chinese Religious Phenomena
2. Shared Ideals and Assumptions
2.1. Common Notions in Popular Religiosities
- The difficult and the easy complement each other;
- The long and the short off-set each other;
- The high and the low incline towards each other;
- Note and sound harmonize with each other;
- Before and after follow each other. (Lau 1963)
- (And we might add:
- The good and the bad stand by each other.
- The saintly and the evil lean in to each other.)
2.2. Classical Confucian Theories of Ritual: Religious and Secular as Complementary and Integral to Each Other
2.2.1. Theoretical Ancestors: Being Religious yet Keeping Away from Gods and Spirits
2.2.2. The Ultimate Goal: Peace through Self-Cultivation
In ancient times, those who wished to make bright virtue brilliant in the world first ordered their states; those who wished to order their states first aligned their households; those who wished to align their households first refined their persons; those who wished to refine their persons first balanced their minds; those who wished to balance their minds first perfected the genuineness of their intentions; those who wished to perfect the genuineness of their intentions first extended their understanding; extending one’s understanding lies in aligning affairs.36 (Then in reverse order, the author repeats the famous eight steps towards world peace.)Only after affairs have been aligned may one’s understanding be fully extended. Only after one’s understanding is fully extended may one’s intentions be perfectly genuine. Only after one’s intentions are perfectly genuine may one’s mind be balanced. Only after one’s mind is balanced may one’s person be refined. Only after one’s person is refined may one’s household be aligned. Only after one’s household is aligned may one’s state be ordered. Only after one’s state is ordered may the world be set at peace.From the Son of Heaven to the common person, for all alike, refining one’s person is the root. That roots should be disordered yet branches ordered is not possible. That what should be thickened is thin yet what is thin becomes thick has never yet been so. This is the meaning of “knowing the root.” This is the meaning of “the extension of understanding.”37
2.2.3. Confucius and Mencius: The Germ of Ritual Theory
As Tan interprets it then, it is not that Confucianism is not religious but that, “religious commitment is a continuation of moral commitment” at a higher level. The central task for a Confucian is not to gain salvation for themselves in a dogmatic afterlife but to build a harmonious society for everyone through ethical engagement, before all else. A secular worldly goal this may seem, but it is predicated on the Mandate of Heaven.In Confucianism, the political is subordinated to the moral, and the religious is accessible only through a significant level of moral achievement. (Emphasis added.) Human beings must focus their attention and effort on the moral (self-cultivation), and the rest will fall in place. The authority that has primacy in Confucian life is therefore neither political nor religious, but moral.
2.2.4. Xunzi and the Liji: The Development of Theory
With the recognition that “the rules of ceremony have their origin in heaven,” Confucianism is undeniably religious in spirit. Yet these rules also serve seemingly secular ends, as they help to nurture human nature to stave off disorder by encouraging honesty and harmony. And, in contrast to monotheism, rituals are important the Liji offers, because when rites are abandoned, it is the state that is imperiled not one’s personal eternal life.While the rules of ceremony have their origin in heaven, the movement of them reaches to earth. The distribution of them extends to all the business (of life). They change with the seasons; they agree in reference to the (variations of) lot and condition. In regard to man, they serve to nurture (his nature). They are practised by means of offerings, acts of strength, words and postures of courtesy, in eating and drinking, in the observances of capping, marriage, mourning, sacrificing, archery, chariot-driving, audiences, and friendly missions.Thus propriety and righteousness (liyi as discussed by Jeung et al.) are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony … (Rites) constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.
Only a sage can fully understand ritual. The sage has a clear understanding of it, the gentleman finds comfort in practicing it, the official takes it as something to be preserved, and the common people accept it as custom. To the gentleman it is the way of being human (ren dao); to the common people it is a matter of serving spirits (and ghosts).
2.3. Potential Buddhist Contributions to Theory
The craftsperson’s preconditioned conception of what a lion is, their skill, and the whole and the parts of the sculpture together form the eventual shape of the lion. Applied specifically, one might say that Chan Buddhism arises and takes the form it does because of the presence of Confucianism, Daoism, and other factors like the spiritual needs of human beings who suffer. Fazang continues to say that “when we look at the lion, we see at once that all conditioned things, without going through the process of disintegration, are from the beginning in a state of quiescent non-existence.” That is, they do not exist until they come into existence through dependent arising. “By being free from both clinging and detachment, one can … comprehend the fact that from the very no-beginning” the lion comes into being from the conditioned origins of many elements including the gold, the craftsperson, and the accepted norms of what a sculpted lion should look like. In this way, misconceptions, misapprehensions, and “all illusions are in reality non-existent.” That is, they are all conditioned, subject to the influence of other elements around them. For Fazang and Buddhists, when the interrelated and conditioned nature of all things is realized, that is “Enlightenment.”The lion represents the character of wholeness, and the five organs, being various and different, represent diversity. The fact that they are all of one dependent-arising46 represents the character of universality. The eyes, ears, and so on remain in their own places and do not interfere with one another; this represents the character of particularity. The combination and convergence of the various organs makes up the lion; this represents the character of formation. The fact that each organ remains at its own position represents the character of disintegration.
2.4. Potential Daoist Contributions to Theory
There is a fantastic quality to this Holy Man. Zhuangzi mixes magic and mystery into philosophical ruminations and it is difficult to know when he is serious. But like the oxherd, the Daoist sage is careful not to make radical distinctions. In his famous passage on “this” and “that”, Zhuangzi says this about the sage:He doesn’t eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful.
Resonating with Buddhist emptiness and Daoist complementarity, Thierry Meynard, a Jesuit Sinologist and scholar of philosophy writes that “We should recognize that the boundary between the religious and the secular is not as rigid and absolute as we have thought, but a changing reality in history.” He refers to the Jesuit theologian, Henri Bouillard, who uses the term “holy” to bypass “the binary opposition between religion and secularity” and writes that “the holy is an element of the profane, where the religious human being recognizes the echo of the divine, and by which he expresses his personal relation, as well as the whole profane’s relation to the divine.” (Meynard 2005)Everything has its “that”, everything has its “this”. From the point of view of “that” you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it … [The sage] illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a “this”, but a “this” which is also “that”, a “that” which is also “this”. His “that” has both a right and a wrong in it; his “this” too has both a right and a wrong in it.
By the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, religious Daoist schools like Numinous Treasure adopted wholesale Buddhist teachings, institutions, and practices. Daoists took on swaths of “excellent” elements from Buddhism while retaining its prime foci on health and longevity, sharing with Confucianism the ethos proclaimed in the Liji, which declared that “what is right, (even though) it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings … may be adopted on the ground of its being right.” In this way of thinking, if a new idea, method of cultivation, or institutional structure could bring succor and joy to people, accepting it is only sensible. If this seems unprincipled and inconsistent, the first two lines of the Daodejing offers some insight into the Daoist approach to inter-religious encounter: “The dao (way or path) that can be taken or spoken is not the constant Dao. The ming (name or title) that can be named is not the constant ming.” In short, things change. Speaking and naming are human activities that are limited and limiting; even if there were Eternities, The Way or The Name (or Sign) could not be captured in the mortal realm.Make you will one! Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness49 alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.
2.5. Shared Fundamental Pluralism: Assumptions of Difference and Diversity
3. Secularism and Other Theories: Easternization and Westernization?
He continues to say that the PRC’s policy and treatment of religion are “inevitably” evaluated by western analysts through what would be considered the “legitimate exercise of power.” But the mainland government’s measure of legitimacy is not “respect for individual rights” alone, as the prominence of human rights in the West might suggest but includes “the pursuit of nationalism and modernization.” That is, PRC national interests concentrate on freedom from foreign incursion and achievement of a prosperous and stable country. This sounds remarkably like the goals of governance stated by Xunzi. Could be that religion, as predominantly defined by Protestant theorists, is simply not important to the PRC government—just as it has not been central to dynastic China in the way that revealed teachings have been core to much of the experiences, politics and histories of the monotheistic West? If so, are the PRC’s recent policies and actions encouraging religious charity work simply a pragmatic response to the reality of religious development in the country rather than a shift in theoretical perspective? And what does all this mean for a flexible, indeterminate theory of religion?Recognizing that secularization even in its more restrictive forms is a highly contingent process (that is “the very measures themselves turn out on closer analysis to be culturally specific rather than universal”) will shape other debates as well. For example, it becomes evident that it is unproductive to discuss issues such as whether there is religious freedom in China without attending to the historical process through which the notion of religious freedom emerged there (2009).
4. Towards a Sociology of Religion Based on Chinese Experiences
Conflicts of Interest
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The emperor during historical dynasties was construed as the Son of Heaven and even the modern state itself, Liang Yongjia argues, “assumes a religious aura.”
The upheaval during the 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed numerous examples of “false consciousness”. Two examples with a twist away from reward in the next world toward active resistance using magic in this world will serve as illustrations here. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), led by Hong Xiuquan who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus, claimed an estimated 20 million lives. And the Yihequan or the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, also known as the Boxer Rebellion in the West, was a peasant uprising that was encouraged by the empress dowager, Cixi, and supported by the Manchu government. The participants believed that their rituals made them impervious to bullets. They were slaughtered.
The voluminous literature on the effect of Confucian culture on the diligent and frugal individual and the subsequent successful development of East Asia is an example.
The New Culture Movement from the early 20th century is a clear example of this. It aimed to transform traditional Chinese culture by disassembling Confucianism, which was believed to perpetuate gender inequality, and Daoism and Buddhism, which were deemed superstitious and kept the populace mired in ignorance. Instead, the reformers introduced Western ideals of democracy and gender equality and encouraged scientific thinking.
All the Daoist and Buddhist paraphernalia including most visibly talismans and small shrines where various statues are placed; services like divination and installation of altars and shrines in stores to ward off unwelcomed supernatural forces are all examples of this.
Liang Yongjia argues that the Chinese state has never been secular. He writes that “For more than two millennia, the core ideological conviction shaping and buttressing imperial governance also direct correlatively the purpose and process to regulate, control, and exploit all rivalry (sic) religious traditions whenever it is deemed feasible and beneficial to the state.” He argues that post-Mao “nationalism” becomes the transcendent. Citing Tim Oakes and Donald Sutton, he quotes from the introduction of their edited volume, Faith on Display: Religious Revival and Tourism in China: “The gods and churches are sponsored and in principle subsumed within the party-state—much as approved gods and religious institutions in imperial times were subsumed ideologically within the imperial metaphor and bureaucratically within the official system.” (Liang 2014)
The agitation by and suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs and Buddhist Tibetans are illustrations of this.
The conversion to Christianity and the disavowal of traditional rites like funereal rituals by many Chinese is an example of this. I am not aware of any studies on the acceptance of coexisting Daoist and Buddhist funeral liturgies for Christian converts. Anecdotally, my experience within the Toronto Chinese-Canadian community is that while Daoist and Buddhist funeral practices are performed alongside each other, Christians often try to keep other family members from practicing them.
This is true also for other “ethnic” religions such as Japanese and Korean.
One wonders if one would speak about an English Religion, a Scottish Religion, a Welsh Religion, an Irish Religion, a British Religion, British Religions, or British Religious Traditions. And what might one include within them? Continuing as well as defunct pre-Christian contact Folk Religion and popular practices? Or Christianity only?
See (Freedman 1974). On the Sociological Study of Chinese Religion. In Ahern, Emily M., Arthur P. Wolf, & Joint Committee on Contemporary China. Subcommittee on Research on Chinese Society. Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Maurice Freedman was a well-respected 20th-century Sinologist and British anthropologist.
Szonyi writes that “it becomes evident that it is unproductive to discuss issues such as whether there is religious freedom in China without attending to the historical process through which the notion of religious freedom emerged there.” (Szonyi 2009) See also Woo (2019), Religion and Politics in the People’s Republic of China: An Appraisal of Continuing Mistrust and Misunderstanding.
For this section, I draw from three decades of reading and asking questions of self-confessed Daoists, Buddhists, practitioners of folk religions, agnostics, and atheists. I have had casual conversations and or formal interviews at temples, shrines, community functions, various universities, gatherings with family and friends, and elsewhere. Although I have never met a self-identified Confucian, Confucian ideals are often found in the person’s conversation, whatever their (non-)affiliation is. See Woo (2010), Chinese Popular Religion in Diaspora: A Case Study of Shrines in Toronto’s Chinatowns; and Woo (2016), Distinctive Beliefs and Practices: Chinese Religiosities in Saskatoon.
Ritual is treated here as a broad equivalent to Religion and includes informal practices like bowing three times when offering incense at a temple or in front of an ancestral altar at home, chanting and meditating alone or with others, placing a shrine at the foot of a tree, and visiting the grave of a dead relative to pay respects. More formal rituals could include state rites to Heaven and Earth, or public rituals of exorcism and renewal.
I am never quite sure what to make of this. When I point out that religions can be very destructive, I am told that violence and terrorism are deviant; that all religions in their most essential teachings, teach people to be good. When I push further and suggest that not everyone’s “good” is the same, the response is often the silver rule: “Do not do to others what you don’t wish to be done to you.”
This is not universal and there are philosophical differences. Mengzi and Wang Yangming are two Confucian thinkers who believe that people are innately good; Yangming was especially leery of classical book learning that Zhu Xi advocated—he was influenced by Buddhism. Many Mahayana Buddhists also believe that ubiquitous Buddha Nature can be discovered not by formal education alone, but by meditation.
Confucianism may have influenced this orientation. As noted later in the article, Tan Soon Har argues that “The authority that has primacy in Confucian life is … neither political nor religious, but moral …” She goes on to say that “Confucians would deny the autonomy of both the political and the religious” because they “have a more holistic outlook that keeps together the moral, the political, and the religious to yield what they consider a truly satisfying existence within the continuity of the personal, the familial-social, and the cosmic-infinite.”
James Spickard cites a story from the 20th-century anthropologist C. K. Yang: “A Baptist missionary urged a Chinese college student to repent, to which the student answered: ‘I come of reputable ancestry, I have a good conscience, and I have always been strict about my moral responsibilities and conduct. How is it that I am full of sin?’” (Spickard 2017), from Yang, C. K. 1968. “Introduction.” Max Weber. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism.) However, it is also true that the Daoist Yellow Turbans introduced the idea of sin that is inherited from ancestors and Buddhism brought with it elaborate ideas of depravity, sins, punishment and hells.
An interesting parallel, perhaps, is the description of the sage in the Daoist Daodejing. He is described as “unadorned”, “drowsy”, “muddled”, and “foolish”.
On trivial matters, this is expressed by the response of “It’s simply like that.” The same response is offered for events ranging from life passage events like marrying, becoming a parent, to ravages wrought by a typhoon or getting hit by a truck.
The Book of Changes is a text for divination. It has 64 hexagrams with commentaries, and functions as a guide through the inevitable changes and transformations in human life and the natural world.
There are stories about the goddess Nü Wa creating human beings and Pan Gu creating the world, but these are understood to be folk tales, as they lack the credibility and gravitas of the Genesis account.
See Analects 12.19: “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good.”
Although this appears similar to the four levels of interpretation in Jewish exegesis, Campany and Puett show that Xunzi encourages the Confucian literati to interpret the rituals not as “true” but as indirectly training emotions and attitudes.
The Essential Lotus says: “For numberless kalpas in the past/countless Buddhas who have now entered extinction,/a hundred, thousand, ten thousand, million types/in numbers incapable of calculation—/such World-Honored Ones,/using different types of causes, similes, and parables,/the power of countless expedient means,/have expounded the characteristics of teachings.” (Watson 2002)
There are undeniably thousands of Protestant sects, but they all confess and profess to believe in Jesus and the creator God of Genesis.
This is of course not quite right. Buddhism, and Daoism imitating it, both have salvational figures such as Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land in the West.
Meynard notes that the Jesuit idea of civil religion is different from Bellah’s. The latter assumes an intended formal sacralization of the state.
In the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Hangzhou, for example, posters can be seen on the street and in the subway, and the surrounding villages.
Wenming are the characters in Chinese. They can be translated as enlightened, cultured, and civilized indicating good manners and kind consideration.
Jingye are the Chinese characters. They can be translated as dedicated to study and work or respect for school and work. The second character ye has a sense of profession, occupation, business, and course of study.
Shangdi, the Lord on High, was the god of the imperial family of the Shang dynasty. The Zhou naturalized this lineage transcendent into impersonal Heaven. Shangdi was then picked up by the Christians as a translation for “God”.
Liang Yongjia contends that the current relationship between the political establishment and religions in the PRC is not so different from that of dynastic China. He writes: “The gods and churches are sponsored and in principle subsumed within the party-state—much as approved gods and religious institutions in imperial times were subsumed ideologically within the imperial metaphor and bureaucratically within the official system.” He describes this as “hierarchical plurality”: “a state encompassing religion, and the accordance of legitimacy between state and religions, as well as among religions.” Zhao Litao agrees with Liang and describes the traditional relationship between the state and religion as “soft secularism”. He states that “By and large, religion has always been weak vis a vis the state.” (Zhao 2010)
A major contradiction in religious goals, for example, is the Daoist pursuit of longevity and even physical immortality in some cases in contrast to the Buddhist striving towards enlightenment and leaving behind the dusty world of suffering. This description, of course, overstates the difference. The genius of the religious faithful is in syncretizing/synthesizing not only Daoism and Buddhism and Confucianism, but also Islam and Christianity.
The Liji or Book of Rites is an edited volume that dates from the Warring States to the Han dynasty (c. 400 B.C.E. to 9 C.E.). The tradition understands Zeng Shen (505–436 B.C.E.) to be the author of the Great Learning. Western scholars believe that the authors are unknown.
“Aligning affairs” is often also translated as “investigation of things”.
This was during Han Wudi’s reign (r. 141–87 BCE).
Demonstrated here is the need to clarify which aspect of religion is considered. Tan seems to be thinking of what would likely fall under “theology”, whereas Xunzi is clearly referring to naïve indigenous beliefs and practices.
An analogy might be made between that the sage who developed the rites in Xunzi and Tan’s higher level of religion achieved through moral cultivation. Such a comparison is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.
These include virtues, transformation, complex complementarities, varying spiritual and intellectual capacities, authority of impersonal Heaven as ultimate, limits to one’s knowledge, importance of self-cultivation for every individual, and most importantly the absence of discussions about the divine and an afterlife.
Drawing from a personal anecdote is the following story. In the 1950s, in a wealthy, well-educated, Nationalist Party sympathizing, Shanghainese Chinese family in diaspora in Melbourne, the teenaged third daughter asked her father why they should continue to practice ancestor “worship” when it is clearly superstitious and has no scientific basis. Her father replied that the better term to use is not worship but veneration, and that the spirits may not really exist but the ritual is performed out of respect and memory of where you come from.
The Ox-herding pictures are used as metaphor for teaching about the stages of spiritual training through meditation, a disciplining of the mind. This is one part of the traditional three trainings, which also include an adherence to clerical rules for monastics or precepts for laypeople, and the cultivation of insightful wisdom.
Emptiness refers to two core ideas in Mahayana Buddhism: that all things are composite—that is, made up of different elements; and that they are impermanent—that is, they change over time.
To explain the idea of interpenetration, Fazang is said to have put a statue of a golden lion at the centre of a room with mirrors on all the surfaces, thereby showing the infinite reflections of the form of the lion.
That is, simply put, the lion arises because there is an idea of a lion, the interest in seeing a lion, so when a form of the lion arises, the five organs (among other body parts) are generated as a part of it.
Theravadins do not believe this and not even all Mahayana Buddhists agree. The Faxiang (a branch of Yogacara) school believes that there are people, icchantikas, who are so completely devoid of any good roots that they are doomed to eternal samsaric existence.
For our purposes here, the focus will be exclusively on Lao-Zhuang or philosophical Daoism that forms one foundational stratum of a boundless complex of multitudinous variations within religious Daoism.
This Daoist emptiness refers to vacuity, like the hollow of a bowl, and is quite different from and not to be confused with the Buddhist emptiness which involves the concepts of no-self and impermanence.
This pluralism is especially true of the islands of Taiwan, the Republic of China and Hong Kong. The political ecology makes the situation on the mainland People’s Republic of China more complex.
This is impossible to say. The Chinese society idealized by the Roman Catholic missionaries and Enlightenment thinkers was an imaginary one. The missionaries could very well have invented the idea from some other circumstance. The crucial point is that China was a factor in the conceptual development of secularism and the misunderstanding has relevance in understanding the current place of religion in the world.
“Cultural China” refers to the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the multiple Global Chinese diasporas.
Szonyi includes the works of Geremie Barmé, Shades of Mao; Stephan Feuchtwang and Mingming Wang, Grassroots Charisma: Four Local Leaders in China; Barend Ter Haar, “China’s Inner Demons: the Political Impact of the Demonological Paradigm” in China Information; and Zuo Jiping, “Political Religion: The Case of the Cultural Revolution in China” in Sociological Analysis.
There has been a long history of millenarianism in political movements encouraged by religious beliefs. Early examples include the Daoist-inspired Heavenly Masters and Yellow Turbans from the Han dynasty; and later examples include the White Lotus and the Taiping rebellions during the Qing. Exorcism is still current in folk practices.
I cannot speak specifically to this as I do not know which studies Szonyi refers to. I would say generally that there are different notions as to who the “elite” are. I believe that Xunzi is speaking about mental and psychological capacities and not what we would call categories of socio-economic class when he describes the four groups. In other words, a very poor scholar or carpenter might be construed as junzi, while an extremely wealthy “official” may in fact be a very ordinary person.
The choice of interviewees is the crucial factor here. I look forward to more scholarship on this in the future.
One magical practice here is the calling on the master to heal one’s illness while meditating on the revolving dharma wheel (falun) in one’s abdomen.
While this is true, the Chinese example is odd in that it is unlike the mainstream Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist nationalisms as the Chinese mainland abandoned its own religious traditions and adopted instead Communism, a foreign ideology. However, one might argue, like Liang, Cai, and Laliberté, that the current policies and implementation mark a distinctive continuation of traditional norms and values.
We still encounter here the issue of definition. If we take seriously Xunzi’s theory, then Confucianism, as Tan and Spickard insightfully identify, is neither simply religious nor secular—the categories are not theoretically helpful.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Woo, T.-l.T. A Flexible Indeterminate Theory of Religion: Thinking through Chinese Religious Phenomena. Religions 2019, 10, 428. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10070428
Woo T-lT. A Flexible Indeterminate Theory of Religion: Thinking through Chinese Religious Phenomena. Religions. 2019; 10(7):428. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10070428Chicago/Turabian Style
Woo, Tak-ling Terry. 2019. "A Flexible Indeterminate Theory of Religion: Thinking through Chinese Religious Phenomena" Religions 10, no. 7: 428. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10070428