Vedic and Upanishadic Roots of Buddhism

Week 10, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss four goals in Upanishadic life
  2. Define atman

During the sixth century BCE a group of nomadic Aryan people crossed the Khyber pass and entered into the Ganges river valley, crossing from Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent. These Aryan people recited and practiced rituals delineated by their ancient hymns, called the Vedas. Theirs was a highly stratified, caste-based society with the hereditary aristocracy, warriors, and priests dominating the people responsible for farming, herding, construction, and commerce. These folks in turn aggressively segregated and exercised domination over the people who butchered animals, made leather, and did the dirty work—these people are still thought to be “untouchable” because they are inherently unclean. This caste arrangement has historically meant that there is no mobility between the castes.

All members of each caste, however, are encouraged to aim for four goals in life:

  1. Artha: material goods and comfort
  2. Kama: sensual or aesthetic enrichment
  3. Dharma: the proper exercise of duty to family, society, and the gods
  4. Moksha: liberation

It was expected that all members of each caste would do the first three. However, only brahmins, the élite caste composed of the hereditary aristocracy, priests, and warriors, could hope to realize complete freedom from the limitations of having an individual existence, merging with the limitless and eternal cosmic principle known as Brahman. Everyone else would have to do their best to satisfy their obligations during this lifetime in hopes that they would accrue enough positive karma to cause their rebirth as a brahmin in their next rebirth.

As the power of the Vedic brahmins began to wane, a new class of people began to exercise tremendous influence on Indian religion and society; these were the sramanas, “strivers.” These strivers came from the non-élite castes and they led an ascetic lifestyle marked by disciplined exercises of reasoning and debate as well as a strict meditative regimen.

There were two poles of the Vedic philosophical perspective. On the orthodox side of the spectrum the general tendency was to believe that each individual exists only provisionally and the true reality of life is that we are all actually emanations of a singular consciousness-existence-bliss called Brahman. When we think that we are individuals we are suffering from the effects of maya (illusion) and karma (weighted moral action).

By releasing ourselves, through diligent training and perseverance, from illusion and the chain of cause and effect that binds us to vicious cycle of rebirth can we restore our true selves (atman) with the infinite absoluteness of Brahman.

At the other end of the spectrum were folks we would today call rational materialists. They argued that there is no immaterial godhead or divine force, nothing we call human survives death, good and evil are manmade constructs, and reality is material. For these folks moksha (liberation) is the result of people making choices and acting in accordance with their self-determination.

In between were a variety of practitioners who developed traditions for realizing liberation by cutting their adherents free from their worldly obligations to their castes, families, and so on. Others were more conservative and observed a philosophy more like what is found in the Bhavagad-Gita, where yoga (union with the divine) is achieved through strict adherence to doing one’s duty without care for whether it is right or wrong.

Buddhism rejects Hinduism
It was into this context that Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) was born. After rejecting the throne he was born to, he became a sramana and followed a variety of ascetics in his search for an end to the suffering of all beings. After years of skillful practice and determination he achieved his enlightenment and would translate the experience to those who followed him on his “middle way.” Unlike his contemporaries, he did not advocate cutting off ties to the rest of the world, but advocated for the good friend on the path, thus establishing the community of practitioners, or sangha. He opened his practice to anyone of any caste, men and women. Perhaps most radical, however, was his insistence that his patterns of speech and language should not be considered necessary to spreading his teachings.

As Peter Hershock states,
“the Buddha made it clear that great learning and intellectual sophistication were  not necessary for liberation. One did not need the ability to read sacred texts, the talent for reciting and understanding convoluted doctrines, or the means and institutional authority to perform complex rituals [….] One needed only to keenly attend to how things have come to be, just as they are. This alone was needed to see the way of fully and meaningfully resolving suffering.” (Chan Buddhism, 12)

Setting the Stage for Buddhism to Enter China

Week 10, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define ziran 自然.
  2. Discuss the role dao 道 played in translating Buddhism into Chinese.

Kongzi died in 479 BCE, just before the Warring States period began to rage. Over the next two centuries the states that had broken away from the Zhou dynasty fought one another for supremacy. Finally, in 221 BCE, the Qin dynasty conquered the what was left of the Zhou dynasty as well as the remaining seven warring states. Although the Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years, their dynasty marks the beginning of the imperial system of China which has lasted for more than two centuries. Succeeding the Qin was the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

Confucianism in the Han dynasty
Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, is considered to be the principal architect of the Han system, and formulated the cosmological need for an emperor that would rule over all of what we today would think of as China. Dong extended the earlier arguments between the Ruists and the Mohists and argued that  Tian 天, earth, and man are the origin of all things. “[Tian 天] gives gives birth to things, Earth then nourishes them, and man’s role is to consummately arrange them all [….] These three complement each other as arms and legs go together to  complete a body and none can be dispensed with.” (Chun Qiu Fan Liu, chapter 19; modified translation from Fung, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 194–195)

We’ve previously discussed this theory here and here.

Arthur Wright explains Dong’s argument in this way:
“The three spheres of heaven, earth, and man […] are linked together by the three horizontal lines in the character wang [王], ‘Prince.’ As Son of Heaven the ruler was concerned with the timely performance of ritual, with astronomy and the calendar, with responding to phenomena which could be interpreted as reflecting Heaven’s approval or disapproval. In relation to Earth, the ruler was to ensure its harmonious productivity by seeing that proper arrangements were made for agriculture; one way of doing this was by promulgating an agricultural calendar based on observations of the heavenly sphere. Another way was by establishing well-balanced programs for land use and taxation, for trade in the fruits of the earth’s bounty. And in doing this he moved into the sphere of Man. There he must first see that his subjects have an adequate means of livelihood, for man cannot perfect himself in virtue until his materials needs are met. Once this is done, the ruler is to educate and civilize his people, by teaching the proprieties (li [禮]), music, and the moral norms.” (Buddhism in Chinese History, 13)

The Ascent of Daoism in the Han
During the Han dynasty Ruist philosophy had dominated the bureaucracy.  But as the Han dynasty began to deteriorate in the late-first and early-second century, there was an earnest desire to find alternatives to Ruist thinking. There then came a resurgence in Daoist philosophy.

This renewed interest in philosophical Daoism brought the promise of explaining how to overcome an empire in dissolution. A central concept that was engaged with and elaborated during this period was ziran 自然 “naturalness” it literally means “self-so.”

Étienne Balasz  explains that ziran 自然  has three associated meanings:

  1. nature without human intervention—the self-perpetuating balanced order of nature;
  2. the spontaneous liberty of the individual—the endowment, as it were, of the natural man, free of restraints of convention; and
  3. the ‘Absolute’—another name for [dao 道], the principle of harmonious vitality which informs of all phenomena. (Wright, 29)

Translating from the Indian to the Chinese

From Arthur Wright’s Buddhism in Chinese History:

“No languages are more different than those of China and India. Chinese is uninflected, logographic, and (in its written form) largely monosyllabic; Indian languages are highly inflected, alphabetic, polysyllabic. Chinese has no systematized grammar; Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit, have a formal and highly elaborated grammatical system. [….] In their attitudes toward the individual the two traditions were poles apart at the beginnings of the invasion of Buddhism. The Chinese had shown little disposition to analyze the personality into its components, while India had a highly developed science of psychological analysis. In concepts of time and space there were also striking differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life-spans, generation, or political eras; the Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic eons rather than of units of terrestrial life. The two traditions diverged most critically in their social and political values. Familism and particularistic ethics continued to be influential among the Chinese even in an age of cataclysmic change, while Mahayana Buddhism taught a universal ethic and a doctrine of salvation outside the family. Whereas Chinese thinkers had long concentrated their efforts on formulas for the good society, Indian and Buddhist thought had laid particular stress upon the pursuit of other-worldly goals.” (33–34)

“Early efforts to translate Buddhist scriptures were carried on under difficult conditions. Patrons of this work were superstitious and fickle; wars and rebellions disrupted many such enterprises. The early missionaries knew little if any Chinese, and their Chinese collaborators knew no Indian or Central Asian language. There was little communication among scattered Buddhist centers, and hence little chance for one translator to profit from the experience of others. [….] Little by little the technique of translation improved. But it was not until 286 [CE …] that a translation appeared which made the speculative ideas of the Mahayana accessible and reasonably intelligible to literate Chinese. This was the work of Dharmaraksha, who had been born in [Dunhuang] ….” (35)

This first work to be translated into Chinese was the Prajñaparatmita. In our class you are reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s commentary on the “Heart Sutra” section of the Prajñaparatmita.

In order to facilitate communication of these Buddhist ideas to the receiving Chinese language speakers, the early translators of the Buddhist canon relied heavily on terms and concepts that were indigenous to China. For example, dharma (meaning “teaching”) became dao 道. But dao 道 also became useful for translating bodhi (meaning “the enlightenment that allows all things to be as they are”), and dao 道 also was used to translate yoga (meaning “union with totality”). We also see that wuwei “effortless or non-coercive action” came to translate nirvana (meaning ultimate release from illusion).

Water and Daoism

The image of water is frequently invoked in Daoist texts. Water is of the greatest efficacy because it mirrors the world around it but does not impose onto the world its own values. Think of water filling a jug. Water embraces the emptiness, rapidly, and effectively demonstrates the shape of its container.

In the classical Chinese context this is not a problem. Rather than the body (auton) being distinct from the mind (psyche ψυχή) there is xin 心, heart-and-mind. Mengzi tells us in 6A15:

“It is not the office [guan 官] of the ears and eyes to reflect, and they are misled by things. Things interact with things and simply lead them [our ears and eyes] along. But the office of the heart is to reflect. If it reflects, then it will get Virtue [de 德]. If it does not reflect, then it will not get it.” (Van Norden translation)

Ames and Hall state that xin 心 intimates what we understand as the functioning of “knowing,” “acting,” and “feeling.” (Thinking Through Confucius, 300) They further argue that because of the sheer volume of characters in Chinese that index “thinking” include xin 心 in them, “there are many passages in these classical texts that would not make sense in English unless xin 心 thinks, as well as feels.” (Focusing the Familiar, 82)

Unlike in our own tradition, where “who we are” is a battle between our ability to rein-in or temper our fiery passions through cold reasoning, in the classical Chinese context our feelings are dispositions toward acting.

In Ruist philosophy “who we are” is a matter of skillful and prolonged attention (zhong 忠) to our relationships with others, marked by shu 恕 “sympathetic understanding.” We previously discussed shu 恕 and Analects 15.24, “not imposing on others that which we would not want imposed on us is shu 恕” and dictated by the proper performances of our prescribed ritual activities (li 禮) so that we can become a junzi 君子.

In the Daoist philosophical project what is of utmost importance is cultivating and practicing a deferential disposition that establishes and maintains relationships with the “ten thousand things (wanwu 萬物).”

In the Daoist tradition our task is to allow our xin 心 to mirror the way the world actually is, free from our impositions onto it. We defer to it all and find a dynamic balancing with the way the world is. We see this in the Zhuangzi:

“When the sage is still, it is not that he is still because he says, ‘It is
good to be still’; he is still because none among the myriad things is sufficient to disturb his heart. If water is still, its clarity lights up the hairs of the beard and eyebrows, its evenness is plumb with the carpenter’s level: the greatest craftsmen take their standard from it. If mere water clarifies when it is still, how much more the stillness of […] the heart of the sage! It is the reflector of heaven and earth, the mirror of the myriad things.” (Graham translation)

The world, from the Daoist perspective, is not a jumble of dumb stuff, it is, as Lau and Ames state, “a flow of events which belies any discriminations that would lay claim to fixity or certainty.” What the Daoist sage advises is that we attune ourselves—we become aligned with, one with—and this means recognizing “the parity and continuities that obtain among them [….] reveling in the bottomless particularity and sustained uniqueness of each passing event made possible by the transformation of things (wuhua 物化).” (Yuan Dao, 50)

We see this demonstrated in chapter 16 of the Daodejing:
“Returning to one’s destiny [ming 命] is known as constancy.
To know constancy is called ‘enlightenment’ [ming 明]”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Ames and Hall explain the above passage in the following way:

“It is not through an internal struggle of reason against the passions but through ‘acuity (ming 明)’—a mirroring of the things of the world as they are in their interdependent relations with us—that we reach a state in which nothing among all of the myriad of ‘the goings on’ in the world will be able to agitate our hearts-and-minds [xin 心], and we are able to promote the flourishing of our world.” (emphasis added)

Note the use of paronomasia here. Ming 命 is how the world tends to be. One translation of ming 命 can be “mandate,” or “command,” or “destiny,” but it can also be “the propensity of things.” All four can be valid translations because the situations in which we find ourselves largely determine what is likely to occur. It’s not that anything can happen, but given the constellation of things that are conditioning our present, a certain range of events are more likely to transpire.

Our ability to work with the world as we find it is called ming 明 which can mean “bright” as well as “enlightenment.” The character明 presents us with both the character for “sun” or “day” ri 日 and the character for “moon” and “moonlight” yue 月. Putting together two characters that refer to the brightest objects in the heavens recommends us to thinking with the self-so-ness (ziran 自然) of the Daoist position.

That is, when we come to a relationship with the world that is free and at ease with the flux of the world as it undergoes its changes, we are in a better position to effect our flourishing with the world. To let the world “do its thing” presents itself as the obvious solution, or common sense, to many of us at different times. It’s perhaps for this reason that Ames and Hall translate the selection of Daodejing 16 above as,
“[R]eturning to the propensity of things [ming 命] is commonsense.
Using common sense is acuity [ming 明]…”

If we continue to reflect on the use of paronomasia, if we are willing to riff on the theme of ming, then we might be reminded of Daodejing 1:

“A way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name [ming 名] that can be named is not a constant name [ming 名].
Nameless [wuming 無名], it is the beginning of Heaven and earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.”
(Ivanhoe translation)

Let’s look at this character for name and naming, ming 名 because again there is a moment of ziran 自然 at work here. The character is composed of xi 夕”crescent moon” and ko 口 “mouth.” When it is dark out and there is not much light from the moon (because it’s not a full moon) and we hear something in the darkness we ask, “who’s there?” expecting that the thing we’ve heard will name itself.

If we get too hung up on how we name (ming 名) something, we run the risk of mistaking the menu for the meal. If this transpires, then we’ve lost our way dao 道.


Philosophical Realism and Xin 心

Week 9, lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss philosophical realism.
  2. Define xin 心.

Realism, as we use the term in Philosophy, generally means that things, stuff, “the world out there” exist independently of whether or not we observe it. If what is real does exist independently of whether or not we observe it, then how do we explain the existence of universals?

Recall in the Phaedo that the body is phenomenal and the psyche (ψυχή) is noumenal. According to Plato’s story, in the Phaedo, Socrates spends his last moments alive discussing the existence of a realm beyond human experience that is the proper home of our psyches (ψυχή). The phenomenal world, the one that we experience with our bodies, is a shadow of a more real—the True—world, the world of Forms.

If I draw a triangle, according to Plato, my drawing is participating in the idea (ἰδέα) of the Form (eidos εἶδος) called triangle, our psyches observe this shape I’ve drawn and are reminded or recollect the True Form of a triangle back in the noumenal dimension. We’ve touched in this matter previously (you can review it here).

In this Platonic sense, the Forms are real, but they exist outside of space and time (because space and time are phenomena). To be accurate, I would say that this thing (res) I’ve drawn has the property of being triangular in shape, but it is not The Triangle. If I draw a series of triangles, they will each demonstrate the property of being triangular, and here I now have evidence of what is meant by “universal.” A universal is what particular things have in common.

I’ve led you to a major philosophical problem: does the universal exist in this phenomenal dimension or is it noumenal? The Forms (eidos εἶδος) are communicable through their ideas (ἰδέα) which demonstrate the character of the Forms but are not the same thing as the Forms.

The result is that philosophers can agree that people talk about properties, but it’s not clear of the ideas being exchanged between those people are real or not.

Plato’s theory of Forms informed a tremendous amount of thinking among people in what we would call the West for millennia. Later this semester we will read Immanuel Kant, largely because, next to Plato, it’s hard to imagine another philosopher who has so fundamentally reoriented our thinking in the West.

Kant follows the lead of Aristotle and holds that our knowledge comes from our experience of the world. This means that our knowledge is always imperfect, because experience is phenomenal, not noumenal. We can think up and imagine a noumenal world, but it is not the noumenal world in itself, only a device for our imagination. Our ability to use reason enables us to uncover degrees of truth about the universe, but ultimately our ability to reason is limited.

Kant’s “Copernican revolution” has us shift our model of thinking: since the reality of things-in-themselves are always is always hidden from us, our model of reality needs to shift from asking about “what can we know about stuff” to asking “since our minds are the faculty that enables us to know about stuff, how do our minds operate?” The model shifts from “stuff out there” to “what is going on inside here?”

We’ve read the assigned selections of the Daodejing and my notes to this point have been prepared for you to consider a fundamental problem that the Daodejing proposes to overcome: How should we act and what should we do?

Following the Kantian set-up we arrive at the problem of other minds. Since we cannot know things-in-themselves, we can only know what we observe, and since we cannot see the minds of others, only their actions, how can we be so sure that others do in fact possess minds?

This is a perennial issue present in the West which we term the “mind-body” problem. The Phaedo is fairly explicit about the mind-body problem: the mind (psyche ψυχή) has a body and that is the problem: “we” are trapped in these bodies.

Despite this “revolution” brought forth by Kant, the Western tradition still holds that “what is true” is a matter of correspondence between what we see and what we think. The mind mirrors the world. The world is a matter of representation, and its image is possessed by an individual’s mind.

There is a danger in growing too enamored of our mind’s own image, though; isn’t there? We look to the story of Narcissus to illustrate. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who loved to hunt and was cruel to his peers who would try to love him. One story tells us that Echo, so lovestruck by Narcissus, followed him through the woods. Narcissus, hearing he was being followed, called out, “Who’s there?” and the smitten Echo found she could only reply, “Who’s there?” Finally she approached him, he rejected her, and she wandered away into the woods. Heartbroken and determined to be alone, she withered away until all that was left of her was her voice repeating what it heard. Narcissus himself, later, came across a still pool. When he went to gather water he saw his beautiful reflection and fell hopelessly in love with this image. Realizing that he could never have his love reciprocated, he killed himself there.

Reflecting on water, in this story, is a source of death and water is a different kind of image in the Daoist tradition. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about Daoist philosophy.

Paronomasia in the Mengzi


Mengzi in script and character
“Mencius (Mengzi)” in seal script (top) and regular (bottom) Chinese characters

Week 9, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define dao
  2. Discuss the role of paronomasia in the Ruist tradition (li 禮, li 利, li 里; ren 人, ren 仁, ren 訒)

Dao 道 can be rendered as “path,” or “the way,” or “road,” but we should consider the metaphysical implications of the use of the definite article “the.” The English language requires us to include an article, whether “the” or “a” and we do recognize there is a difference between “the way” and “a way,” don’t we? In the Ruist context to this point we see dao 道 has come to mean “the proper way to do something” giving the term a sense of an artistry.

The character is composed of two elements: shu 疋 (foot) and shou 首 (head, hair and eyes). Ames and Hall read these elements as indicating a “passing over” or “leading through on foot” (shu) with what is “foremost” and “to give a heading” and therefore “to lead.” Dao 道 in this last sense is found in the ancient Book of Documents where the term is used to describe the “leading” of cutting a channel in order to lead a river away and thereby prevent its future flooding. (Ames & Hall, Daodejing, 57)

Recall that in our last lecture we discussed fatalism. We see this expressed in Analects 20.3:

Kongzi said, “One who does not understand fate (ming 命) lacks the means to become a gentleman (junzi 君子). One who does not understand ritual (li 禮) lacks the means to take his place [as in, they don’t know where to be in the world]. One who does not understand words lacks the means to evaluate others.”

Roger Ames tells us, “In fact, according to the Analects, not only do we need to understand how to use language in general, we are exhorted to realize what is at risk in the choice of every word.” Indeed, these are the last words in the “collected sayings,” the meaning of the term Analects. (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 37)

Today I’d like for you to be able to define the term, “paronomasia,” a play on words; puns. It is a technical term for a semantic device. This is critical for our appreciation of the Ruist philosophies.

Ames helps us understand the utility of this technique in the following passage:

“The technical term for defining, and in fact, redefining, expressions using words that sound alike or that have a similar meaning is ‘paronomasia.’ Significantly, in this paronomastic process, the expectation is that we are not just ‘discovering’ definitions about an existing world, but actively delineating a world and bringing it into being.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

To illustrate this point, let’s look at Analects 12.3 where a student has asked Confucius about demonstrating authoritative conduct (ren 仁).

Kongzi replies, “Authoritative persons (ren 仁)are cautious in what they say (ren 訒).”

Ren 訒 means, “to speak with caution and modesty.” This second term, combines a word for knife/blade ren刃 with the character yan 言 “proposal, word, speak.” Yan is composed of a radical for “lid” (亠)with the number two (er 二) and a mouth (ko 口).

In other words, Kongzi is suggesting to us that the person of consummate character, this authoritative person, is that person who knows the value of measuring their words before committing others to a fight.

The first thing that I would like for you to note about our reading from Mengzi is that it begins with a series of puns.

Temple to Mencius
Yasheng Dian (“Hall of the Second Sage”, i.e. Mencius), the main sanctuary of the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng.

King Hui of Liang greets Mengzi:

Mengzi 1A1
“Sir, you have come, not regarding one thousand li 里 as too far. Surely you will have something to profit (li 利) my state?” (Van Norden translation)

Note li 里 which is a unit of measurement (gongli 公里 is “kilometer” today) and li 利 “profit” are in this passage. The reason these words appear here is not only to set the stage for the effort Mengzi has made to help a king who is clearly struggling, but also because the reader familiar with Chinese should, after hearing or reading li 里 and li 利 should also associate another critical term: li 禮, “ritual propriety.”

Mengzi and the Ruist school of philosophy are marked by their excellence in transmitting and refining ritual technology, li 禮. It is through proper attention to ritual performances, the Ruists argue, that true kings can protect themselves against civil unrest in their kingdoms as well as rectify the preponderances of the cosmos at large so that the human community can flourish.

Mengzi replies to King Hui saying he would rather the king focused less on li 利 (profit) and instead focused on “righteousness” (yi 義). Let’s look at this character and how it is composed. It features the word for “I, me, my” (wo 我) with the word for “sheep” (yang 羊).

Why do you think these two go together?

We see this character, yang 羊 come up again when we use the second-century lexicon Shuowenjiezi to try and define the word jun 君 of junzi 君子. The Shuowenjiezi tells us that jun 君 is defined as qun 群, “gathering.” Ames states that that this association of jun 君 and qun 群 is made “because of the underlying assumption that people will gather round and defer to exemplary persons.” (“Paronomasia: A Confucian Way of Making Meaning,” 38)

Paronomasia is a useful tool for aiding in memorization of long passages of text (which is a significant technique for illiterate folks), and it is also a useful tool for stimulating the moral imagination of the listener and reader.

I’ve created this simple app to help you practice memorizing some of the Chinese philosophical terms in our class:

Now that we’ve spent some time with these sheep, let’s look at King Xuan’s decision to spare the ox when consecrating the bell, in Mengzi 1A7 shall we?

We are told that Xuan is not considered to be a true king because he does not rule with virtue (de 德). Xuan says that he couldn’t bear to see the terror in the ox’s eyes as it was led to the sacrifice and so commanded that the ritual be stopped and that a sheep be substituted in its place.

Because Xuan had the ritual interrupted and then broke away from the prescribed way that this ritual is supposed to be performed, the people came to believe that Xuan had made this substitution out of miserliness. To this accusation Xuan replies, “What was this feeling really?! It’s not the case that I grudged its value and exchanged it for a sheep. But it makes sense that the commoners would say that I was stingy.”

Mengzi replies to that it makes sense that Xuan would have his heart moved by the ox’s fear of death. And it is because Xuan has this capacity to have his heart moved by others that there is hope for Xuan to become a true king (a king who reigns with virtue, de 德). The trouble for Xuan, though, is that his kindness has been extended to this particular ox, but his kindness is not being extended to the common people in his kingdom. Mengzi tells Xuan, “For the old to wear silk and the black-haired people to be neither hungry nor cold, yet for their ruler not to become a king—such a thing has never happened.”

Mohist Rejection of Ruist Fatalism

We’ve just reviewed the way in which Ruists (like Kongzi and Mengzi) understand the concept tianming 天命 and how this supports their understanding of moral actions. Here we will consider the ways in which Mozi rejects the Ruist project and insists on a consequentialist lens for deciding moral actions.

Previously we pointed out that Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty as the exemplars for how his contemporaries ought to constitute future governments. And we noted that the Mohists point to the example given to us by the Xia dynasty. The differences between these two examples can be seen in how the Mohists interpret their relationship with Heaven’s will.

The Ruists argue that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force, unconcerned with human affairs, and ultimately it is the role of king—as the intermediary between the human community and the cosmos—to consummate the relationship between us, thus the character for king (wang 王) shows the king in the middle, between heaven and earth. The king can bring about this harmonization between the differences of the heavens, humans, and earth by observing ritual propriety (li 禮) and maintaining the right kind of actions (ren 仁) that promote the flourishing of the human community.

The Mohists argue that what Heaven tian 天 is an anthropomorphic figure who is very much concerned with human actions and regularly condemns us when we fail to meet the appropriate standards. Rather than discussing the mandate of Heaven, 天命, Mozi argues that tian 天wills (zhi 志) things to be as they are. Crucially, this willing (zhi 志) is a predictable inclination, rather than the capricious and ineffable propensity (ming 命) that the Ruists maintain.

It is tianzhi  天志 that underwrites the central ethical principle for the Mohists: yi 義 (righteousness). For the Mohists  it is Heaven that determines everything and so yi 義 (righteousness) is the will of Heaven. Wing-tsit Chan has argued that, “In teaching obedience to the will of Heaven, [Mozi] was the most religious of the ancient Chinese philosophers. No one else relied on religious sanction as much as he did.” (A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 220–221)

A.C. Graham states the difference this way,
“The Confucian thinks of the right as done for its own sake, and frees himself from the temptation to do wrong for the sake of gain by saying that wealth and poverty, long life and early death, are decreed for him by Heaven and outside his control. He can therefore act rightly with an untroubled mind, leaving the consequences to Heaven. For the Mohist on the other hand, judging all conduct in terms of benefit and harm, there can be no meaning in a morality detached from consequences. He is in a position to discard the fiction that material welfare is unaffected by how one acts, and he sees a fatalism which clings to it as not encouraging but undermining morality. At the same time he is driven in the direction of another moralising fiction, that if you behave rightly you can be sure of your reward.” (Disputers of the Tao, 50)

The Mohists level four critiques against the Ruists:

  1. The Ruists do not believe in ghosts—this leads the ghosts to be upset and this creates chaos.
  2. The Ruists argue that everyone should have elaborate funeral ceremonies for their dead parents, lasting three years, and this costs too much money and other resources.
  3. The Ruists overemphasize the role of musical performances in cultivating good personhood and this has the result of wasting everyone’s resources.
  4. The Ruists have the wrong idea about tian 天, believing that tianming 天命 is an impersonal force that predetermines one’s outcomes. This leads people to accept poverty and misfortune when these outcomes could be avoided by doing the right actions.

Mozi doesn’t disagree with the emphases that the Ruists place on ren 仁 (humaneness, authoritative or consummate conduct) and yi 義 (righteousness or appropriateness). Rather, Mozi argues, in his “Impartial Caring,” that the person who is ren 仁 and yi 義 is the person who shares their concern for others equitably.

If someone is overly committed to their filial networks (which is what Mozi argues that the Ruists are encouraging), the result is often times nepotism or worse, cronyism. Mozi argues that the people rise or fall together and therefore folks should work together to make the greater good better.

Ruist and Mohist Interpretations of Tianming 天命

Week 8, Lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Define utilitarian ethics.
  2. Discuss consequentialism and fatalism found in Mohist and Ruist philosophies.

Utilitarianism: the right action is that which produces the overall greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Happiness is understood to be the same thing as pleasure. The overall pursuit is to structure society in a manner that motivates people who are self-motivated by their self-interest, to work toward maximizing general happiness.

Utilitarianism is a mode of a branch of ethics called consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the consequences of our actions are what determine whether or not our actions are justifiable or not. The common expression “the ends justify the means” is the spirit of consequentialism.

Against consequentialism we may productively contrast fatalism. Fatalism is that body of thought that argues that resistance to the inevitable is futile. A chain of events prior to our birth has set the stage such that there is little one can do to alter the future—it is our fate or destiny.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a consequentialist perspective, we ask ourselves about the outcome that we are about to generate and whether or not the results of our action generates the appropriate outcome we desire. This, then, is the rubric for determining whether our action is good or bad.

When contemplating what course of action we should take from a fatalist perspective we recognize that our actions do not generate the outcome because the outcome is predetermined by our fate. So, we must assess whether or not our actions are good or bad by a metric different from that used by the consequentialist. Our actions are deemed good or bad not by the effects of our actions but rather because our actions are good or bad actions in-themselves.

Kongzi is a good model for us to understand this fatalist position because he did not achieve what he set-out to achieve before his death. As FUNG Yu-lan states:

“Confucius’ own life is certainly a good example of this teaching. Living in an age of great social and political disorder, he tried his best to reform the world. He traveled everywhere and, like Socrates, talked to everybody. Although his efforts were in vain, he was never disappointed. He knew that he could not succeed, but kept on trying.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

We can get a more robust sense of what is meant by fate or destiny by discussing the concept of tianming 天命, which is often translated as “the mandate of heaven.”

Let’s look at the Book of Songs, number 267:

The Mandate of Heaven [tianming 天之命],
How beautiful and unceasing!
Oh, how glorious
Was the purity of King Wen’s virtue!
With blessings he overwhelms us.
We will receive the blessings.
They are a great favor from our King Wen.
May his descendants hold fast to them.
(from Wing-tsit Chan’s A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 6)

What we see with this Book of Songs example above is an ancient documentation of a strong cultural belief in China, tianming 天命.  Tianming 天命 is here presented as an anthropomorphic force that exerts its will in the affairs of the human community. The kings of ancient China can secure the favor of tianming 天命 by observing proper ritual conduct and this includes practicing sincere veneration of one’s ancestors.

Kongzi looked to the Zhou dynasty (1111–770 BCE) as the exemplars whose model all future kings ought to aspire. The Duke of Zhou argued that it was because the Yin dynasty (1384–1112 BCE) had lost the Mandate of Heaven tianming 天命 that it was now possible for the Zhou dynasty to ascend to a position of primacy in the region. From earliest records we see that tianming 天命 has long served as an explanatory principle for rationalizing why political change occurs in the region.

While Kongzi encouraged his students to observe the model created by the Zhou dynasty, Mozi, on the other hand, looked to the Xia dynasty (2183–1752 BCE). The difference is significant because we see that what tianming 天命 means changes fundamentally between these two models.

For the Ruists, tianming 天命 comes to mean the way (dao 道) or moral order that cosmos itself observes, independent of human concerns. The role of sage king is to foster and enhance the relationship between the human community and the greater cosmos. Indeed, one way we can understand the character for “king” (wang, 王) is that the king is the intermediary between heaven and earth.

What tianming 天命 dictates, or what fate tianming 天命 has in store for us, is beyond our control, as we see expressed in Analects 14.36:

“The Master said, ‘Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be put into action is a matter of ming 命, fate. Whether or not the Way (dao 道) is to be discarded is also a matter of fate.” (Slingerland translation)

We see also that, because tianming 天命 is beyond our control, that the proper way for the Ruist is to do nothing that would disturb the way tianming 天命 is unfolding:

Analects 16.2
Kongzi said [….] “In a world world which follows the Way, political initiative does not belong to the ministers; in a world which follows the Way, there is no need for commoners to dispute over politics.” (Simon Leys translation)

The people do not debate the affairs of the state because there is no need for them to debate the way the state is operating: the people are flush with crops, the elderly are cared for, the young are being raised in the appropriate manner, etc. In short, when the way guides human affairs, the human community flourishes.

Analects 20.3 argues that if we do not learn how to harmonize ourselves with the what tianming 天命 intends, then we will not be able to become an exemplary person (junzi 君子), “One who does not understand the Heavenly Mandate lacks the means to become a [junzi 君子].” (Slingerland translation)

Fung argues that, “to know ming 命 means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists [rather than how we wish it existed], and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty, that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 45)

This embrace of fatalism is in part what Mozi despised about the Ruist project. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about the Mohist position.

Kongzi’s “Golden Rule”

Bloch's "The Sermon on the Mount"
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Harmony is the chief accomplishment of human activities in the Analects. We look to 2.14 and 15.22 for discussion of the culinary nature of the term rendered commonly as “harmony” (he 和).

Rosemont, Jr. and Ames state, that “harmony is the art of combining and blending two or more foodstuffs so that they come together with mutual benefit and enhancement without losing their separate and particular identities.” (Philosophical Translation of the Analects, 254—258)

Identity here is a matter of negotiating one’s situation in the filial context. “Who we are” is the sum of the roles we perform in a meaning-generating and enforcing network of communal living. We become “this-particular-son” or “this-particular-teacher” by individuating ourselves in our wholehearted engagement with the rituals of our stations.

Rather than seeking to achieve a unity through sameness—as we see in the sameness of voice in the Händel chorus above—or sameness of dimension—as we see in the felloes above—which are indicative of what is meant by harmonia, in pursuing he (和) what is sought is a dynamic balancing of differences.

A note on terminology

Without these differences, the kind of harmony that is sought by the Ruists (儒學) isn’t possible. The term ru (儒) means “erudite” or “classicist,” and is the term that folks who observe the teachings and practices of Confucius.

The name “Confucius” is a Latinization of the Chinese name Kongfuzi (孔夫子), we will refer to him in this class as Kongzi (孔子, “Master Kong”).

Golden Rules and Translation Differences

Those of you familiar with the Christian tradition will likely know the “Golden Rule” to be something like what we see in Matthew 7:12 or Luke 6:31, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We see something similar when we look at Analects 15.24:

Zigong asked, “Is there one teaching that can serve as a guide for one’s entire life?
The Master [Kongzi] answered, “Is it not shu [恕], ‘sympathetic understanding?’ Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.”

The concept shu 恕 which Slingerland translates above as “sympathetic understanding,” is critical to our ability to comprehend Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.” Shu is elaborated upon in Analects 4.15:

The Master said, “Zengzi! All that I teach is unified by one guiding principle.”
Zengzi answered, “Yes.”
After the Master left, the other disciples asked, “What did he mean by that?”
Zengzi said, “All of what the Master teaches amounts to nothing more than zhong 忠, ‘loyalty,’ tempered by shu 恕, ‘sympathetic understanding.'”

Slingerland emphasizes in his footnote to the above translation that, “To be zhong 忠 ‘loyal’ or ‘dutiful’ involves fulfilling the duties and obligations proper to one’s ritually defined role.” This sense of obligation—which can be quite cold if we reflect on what we tend to think about the concept of duty—must be tempered by putting ourselves into another person’s shoes.

Because “duty” is such a cold concept for many of us, I prefer the way Ames and Rosemont translate zhong 忠 here as “doing one’s utmost.”

Kongzi reiterates his “Golden Rule” in several other places as well.

Analects 5.12
Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others.”
The Master said, “Ah, Zigong! That is something quite beyond you.”

We get the sense that Zigong, one of Kongzi’s students, is working persistently to fully comprehend an important lesson from his teacher.

Analects 6.30
Zigong said, “If there were one able to universally extend his benevolence to the people and bring succor to the multitudes, what would you make of him? Could such a person be called ren [仁, “one of consummate character”]?
The Master said, “Why stop at ren 仁? Such a person should surely be called a sage! Even someone like Yao or Shun [legendary kings of antiquity] would find such a task daunting.
“Desiring to take his stand, one who is ren 仁 helps others to take their stand; wanting to realize himself, he helps others to realize themselves. Being able to take what is near at hand as an example could perhaps be called the method of ren 仁.”

Slingerland comments in his translation that “taking what is near at hand as an example,” sounds like a formula for performing what is intimated by the term shu 恕 as in Analects 4.15.

Analects 12.2
Zhong Gong asked about ren 仁.
The Master said, “When in public, comport yourself as if you were receiving an important guest; in your management of the people, behave as if you were overseeing a great sacrifice. Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire. In this way, you will encounter no resentment in your state or in your family.”
Zhong Gong replied, “Although I am not quick to understand, I ask permission to devote myself to this teaching.”

Kongzi’s “Golden Rule” and he 和

With the Christian formulation of the “Golden Rule” we get the sense that other people are like us and want what we want. We should do unto others what we want done to us. In part, I suspect, this is because the assumption in the Christian perspective is that there is one True way to be and one True thing to desire that we all hold in common.

But this is not at all the assumption in the Ruist perspective. Other people are different and they will likely want different things. So, we are advised to do our utmost and seek ways to understand others from their own perspective before we try to act on their behalf.

This is a radical difference between these two traditions.

Two Kinds of Harmony

Week 8, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss differences between harmonia (αρμονία) and he (和)
  2. Explain Kongzi’s “golden rule”

Harmonia, from which we derive our word “harmony” is another critical term for the ancient Greeks. In our current usage, harmony indicates a state of being well-blended, a mode of unity in which each element is properly-apportioned in relation to one another.

Think of a choir wherein the altos aren’t overpowering the sopranos, nor are the tenors overly loud to the bass, and all to one another. Let’s look at this example from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

There are hundreds of people on this stage, and yet what is produced is a singular voice. This is what harmonia seeks to achieve.

It’s important that we recognize just how significantly our cultural inheritance biases us towards understanding the world around us. Our cultures orient us in the world.

Contrast the performance of Händel’s Messiah above with the following example of Gagaku (雅楽), the traditional music of the Japanese imperial court (this is arguably the oldest orchestra in the world):

In the ancient Greek context, harmonia indicated a joining together, an organizing principle of unity that assumed, as was the thinking from Heraclitus, that the universe is the site of constant enmity between forces and agents. (Anna Afonasina, “The Birth of Harmony out of Tekhe”)

Prior to Heraclitus we get the sense of harmonia as a “felloe,” the inner rim of a wheel where the spokes intersect with the outer rim. (Petar Ilievski, “The Origin and Semantic Development of the Term Harmony”)

Felloes illustrated
This image shows the assembling of a wooden wheel using felloes.

The felloe was an early technical innovation. The initial wheels were solid disks with an axle, but these solid wheels were both heavy and fragile. With the use of a hollow wheel supported by spokes around an axle it was possible to move more materials and potentially further and over rougher terrain. The initial wheels used wood that had been bent through heat or were naturally occurring such as those in use at Thebes ca. 1435 BCE. By the time of Homer and Hesiod a chariot wheel features light spokes that intersect at four felloes to create a circle.

Try to imagine how important it would be that each of these felloes be fitted well. It is for this reason that we talk about “truing” a wheel: the parts must fit accurately and steadfastly.

Check-out this handy webpage that discusses and presents how to make wooden wheels.

Wood is critical, obviously, in making the earliest light-spoked wheels, and so was truth in fitting the joints. So crucial is this relationship that in Old English the term treow means both “tree” and “loyalty.” (Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 740)

Harmonia refers to the felloe of a light-spoked wheel. Hyle (ὕλη “carved wood”) refers to matter, it would then be translated into the Latin term materia from which we get in English “material” and “matter.” In the Chinese context, and throughout East Asia this distinction is resonant, “harmony” is of a different matter.

Click here to continue the lecture, here we’ll discuss Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.”

Final Questions about Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial”

This is the final installment of frequent questions raised by my students when reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” my responses follow.

For Questions 1–5; for Questions 6–10.

Question 11:
Is it possible that the defendants denied the truth because they didn’t want to accept the truth of the crimes they committed in Auschwitz? Or did they simply take advantage of the late proceedings of the trial?

Part of what is so terrible about the Holocaust is that at seemingly every opportunity for failure to occur, it did. Even in pursuing justice at the trials there is great harm done, to our sense of stability through law. Law seems to be reduced to the will of those in power rather than something more rarified and good. Even though the prosecution is trying to make things right, by pursuing these “intolerable cases,” the result is to reveal a broken system.

Perhaps it is the case that justice is something that doesn’t always happen through the machinations of the criminal justice system.

Would justice for the crimes of the Nazi regime and the society that supported it mean that all the people of Germany would also die like their victims? Is justice simply delivering an eye for an eye?

Or is justice something different?

Something that can arise through the bearing witness to harms caused and from this witnessing there might be generated a sense of mutual obligation and mutual concern that these harms will not happen again?

Perhaps when folks like us read and discuss what happened at Auschwitz, look at what the Bogers did, we become something like agents for justice?

In reading and discussing what happened at Auschwitz, do we not become obligated to warn our friends and family and children that people are capable of doing these things if we don’t pay attention and if we don’t hold one another to a higher standard?

Question 12:
To the question of Nazi suicides and leaving the “small frys” in a lurch.

Socrates is ready to die because he has been practicing philosophy and this practice, he thought, purified his soul (psyche) and prepared his soul for a smooth transition to the best place for his soul.

The Nazi war criminal kills himself or herself, it would seem, because they see no value in living (nor the value of anyone’s life). Death is of no consequence and nothing matters beyond the exertion of one’s will onto others. That was the ethos of the Nazis.

Question 13:
To the question of Jewish resistance.

To be clear: there were Jews who rebelled.

And, to be truthful there were Jews who agreed to assist in the functioning of the camps.

And, there have been trials and convictions of some of the Kapos, in some instances for crimes against humanity.

Question 14:
To the question of whether people need hierarchies of dominance.

To your ultimate question about a psychological dependence on hierarchies of dominance: I’m not sure. I think that people seek relationships of reciprocity where they feel they have meaningful ways of effecting changes they’d like to see.

Further, there have been studies that suggest that both non-human primates and humans are inclined toward equitable distribution of resources and when they sense that there has been a grossly unbalanced distribution of resources, both non-human primates and humans react against that person not fairly sharing.

My experience suggests that leadership is not so much about making the decisions no one else wants to make, but orchestrating the best options given what the folks around us have the moral courage to do.

Question 15:
What about Dr. Lucas?

Part of what Arendt points out here is that the world has gone topsy-turvy, perhaps because of the madness of genocide.

Dr. Lucas is clearly the only person at this trial who demonstrates and testifies to remorse. But he goes out of his way to avoid accepting that he was somehow less culpable for his participation in genocide.

He is on trial for two different offenses: “The prosecution had indicted for ‘murder and complicity in murder of individuals,’ together with ‘mass murder and complicity in mass murder.'”(242) He is guilty of being complicit. He will not deny that he helped the camps do what they were designed to do. He could have made other choices.