China has a proud heritage of 5,000 years as an “ancient civilization” with very high moral standards. Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism either originated in China or took root there.
They flourished and were promulgated in a land whose people were devoted to achieving a oneness with heaven. The very concept of enlightenment originated in ancient China. Here we try to review the foundation of China’s morality in ancient times.
Without understanding the heritage of China’s traditional cultural and the height China’s moral standards attained in history, we would not have a clear understanding of how profoundly China has been severed from its past, its own true cultural heritage.
China, which always called itself the “Divine Land”, has long been aware of the relationship between the human world and the divine.
Historically, Chinese believed there were higher beings; that man should follow these higher beings; and through cultivation practice, that man can reach the level of the divine.
In talking about traditional Chinese culture, people tend to think of the three main schools of teaching: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
However, even before that, Chinese legends were filled with elements of the divine.
For example, Nü Wa , a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology, created mankind from clay.
Later on, the water god, Gonggong, smashed his head against Buzhou Mountain, the pillar that supported the sky, and knocked it down.
The sky collapsed, and the sky’s waters poured into the human world. Nü Wa, being compassionate to mankind, repaired the sky and set up a new pillar. The flood dissipated. When there were ten suns in the sky, creating unbearable heat for mankind, Houyi, the god of archery, was sent to earth to make them stop. He used his arrows to shoot down nine of the suns, and thus lost his immortality. Houyi did not want to die and was eventually given two elixirs that would have made him and his wife immortal. Not knowing what they were, Houyi’s wife drank them both herself and flew to the moon.
Also, in many tales from ancient Chinese civilization gods came down from the heavens to teach man. Suirenshi taught people to create fire by rubbing two sticks together. Fuxi taught people how to make clothes, how to knit a net to fish, and how to throw a spear to hunt.
He also invented the eight trigrams. Shennong taught people agriculture. He tasted hundreds of herbs to find what could be used for medicinal healing.
As the civilization proceeded, Chinese people not only fully embraced the concept of the oneness of man and heaven (man is here; heaven is in another realm; man should follow heaven), but they also explored how man becomes one with heaven and how man finds his true self. In the Chinese language, the way to do that is called “cultivation practice” or “seeking enlightenment.” It is a generic term for the practice of mind and body transcendence.
Throughout Chinese history there were many different schools that taught cultivation practice. Most were taught in private or secretly, but three schools taught their students in public. Those three schools are: Taoism – taught by Laozi , Buddhism – taught by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni , and Confucianism – taught by Confucius. Whether it was mere coincidence or arranged for a purpose, Laozi, Shakyamuni, and Confucius lived at about the same time. Shakyamuni was born in 566 B.C. and Confucius in 551 B.C.
Laozi’s birth date is unknown, but we do know that he lived in that era, since Confucius went to consult with him. These three teachings contributed greatly to the Chinese people’s wisdom and understanding.
Laozi wrote Tao Te Ching, the main book of Taoism, in 478 B.C. It is one of the most influential books in history. After the Bible, it is the book most often translated into English.
Laozi taught people the meaning of the “Tao”, or “the Way,” a term variously used by Chinese philosophers to connote man’s means of becoming one with the essential, unnamable process of the universe. The Tao was associated with the complex concept of De “virtue, integrity.” In the course of cultivating the Tao, a person must seek the truth, practice De (being virtuous), and eventually return to one’s original, true self.
Laozi characterized the relationship between man, Heaven, and the ultimate Tao as “Man models himself after Earth, Earth models itself after Heaven, Heaven models itself after the Tao, and the Tao models itself after its Nature.”
The well-known concept of yin and yang originated in Taoism. Yin and yang “are not opposing forces (dualities), but complementary opposites, that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, as light cannot exist without darkness and vice-versa, but either of these aspects may manifest more strongly in particular objects, and may ebb or flow over time.”
Buddhism was imported into China during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). It is based largely on the teachings of Shakyamuni.
Cultivating benevolence is the core of Buddhism. In China, Buddhism reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.).
From the Emperor to ordinary people, many worshipped Buddha and chanted Buddhist scriptures for their whole lives. Many of them were lay disciples (as distinguished from clergy; non-professional) since they cultivated Buddhism at home (instead of becoming a monk in a temple). Many famous poets in the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty (960 A.D. – 1279 A.D.) used pen names that identified themselves as “lay Buddhists,” a demonstration of the popularity of the practice at that time.
The three practices of Buddhism, using the original words from the teaching, are sila (precept ), samadhi (meditation), and panya (wisdom ).
Sila is generally translated as “virtuous behavior,” “morality,” or “ethics.” Thus Buddhism provided a solid foundation in promoting not only the peace of mind of the cultivator, which is internal, but also peace in the community, which is external.
Buddhism had a great influence on Chinese culture. It taught people the concept of “good begets good” and “evil begets evil”: a person would reincarnate among the six realms; what he experienced in his current life was the result of what he did in his previous lives; what he did in his current life would determine what he would get in his next life.
Confucianism, the third major teaching, was the mainstream ideology for society and governance in China for 2,000 years.
Confucius studied the Book of Changes, a book written 3,000 years ago and considered the oldest extant book of divination in China. He also consulted Laozi on the Tao. He said “If a person hears the Tao in the morning, he has nothing, even death in the evening, to be afraid of.”
Confucius’ teaching included the Tao, but it was too profound for his disciples to understand.
Zigong, one of Confucius’ disciples said, “Teacher’s explanation of books, we can hear and understand; Teacher’s talk on human nature and the heaven’s Tao, we cannot understand.” Ranqiu, another disciple, said, “It is not that I don’t like Teacher’s Dao teaching, it is that I am unable to do it.”
Most of Confucius’ teaching, as recorded by his disciples, was about developing one’s character, or virtual ethics, in the mundane world.
These moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than a knowledge of rules. Some core values that Confucius stressed were: Ren (benevolence or humaneness), Li (actions committed by a person to build the ideal society), Yi (righteousness) and
Zhongyong (maintaining balance and harmony by directing the mind to maintain a state of constant equilibrium).
Confucius’ teaching emphasized cultivating one’s own virtues. Confucius said, “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good.”
“If you are upright, things will go well without your giving orders. But if you are not upright, even if you give orders, no one will follow them.”
Confucius also left a maxim for generations of Chinese intellectuals to achieve greatness in the following order: start with a righteous thought, have a sincere determination, cultivate oneself, put family in order, govern the state, and pacify the world.
These three main teachings in China set the tone of Chinese culture: seeking the relationship between man and higher beings.
Even the political system in China was based on divine culture. In ancient China, people believed the emperor’s power was bestowed upon him by gods. The emperor was called “Heaven’s Son” . On the surface this belief conveyed sacredness and power, but on a deeper level, it also conveyed the limitations on that power. The ultimate authority is Heaven or higher beings, not the emperor. The higher beings loved people. Therefore, if an emperor was not benevolent to his people, he would lose the gods’ blessings, and subsequently lose his legitimacy.
When the emperor made mistakes, Heaven gave him a warning or punished him by causing a calamity to occur in the human world, such as a flood or famine. The emperor would recognize the connection and then issue an edict of self criticism. The “Evaluate and Recommend” system selected persons with good personal cultivation to be government officials. In the sixth year of his rule, Emperor Han Wu (156 B.C. – 87 B.C.) ordered each city to recommend one person who had filial piety and another person who was honest and uncorrupted . This formally established the “Evaluate and Recommend” system. Local officials were required to
evaluate candidates, identify their characteristics, recommend those who had great merit, and then try them out by giving them temporary official assignments. under this system, the path to becoming an official became one of personal cultivation (improvement).
Everyday people who did not practice cultivation still respected divine beings. They believed in a “Heavenly God” , where, in Chinese culture, Heaven is a god.
Abstract From “The Moral Crisis in China”