Confucius: the meaning of life

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Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) was one of several intellectuals who started questioning the meaning of life, and the role of the gods and the spirits. During the Warring States Period, Confucius developed a system of ethics and politics that stressed five virtues: charity, justice, propriety, wisdom, and loyalty. His teachings were recorded by his followers in a book called Analects, and formed the code of ethics called Confucianism that has been the cornerstone of Chinese thought for many centuries.

Confucius’s guiding belief was that of the philosophy Tien Ming (or the influences of fate and mission). Tien Ming states that all things are under the control of the regulatory mechanism of heaven. This includes life and death, wealth and poverty, health and illness. Confucius believed that understanding Tien Ming was his life’s mission. He encouraged people to accept whatever happened to them, including death.

Confucius affirmed that if people do not yet know about life, people may not know about death (Soothill 1910). Without knowledge of how to live, a person cannot know about death and dying. However, Confucius was criticized for avoiding discussions of death. He did not encourage his followers to seek eternal life, nor did he discuss death, gods, ghosts, and the unknown future or afterlife in detail. He maintained that ghosts were spirits and were not easy to understand. Confucius concluded that these issues were complicated and abstract, and that it was better to spend time solving the problems of the present life than to look into the unknown world of death and afterlife. He wanted to convey the importance of valuing the existing life and of leading a morally correct life according to one’s mission from heaven.

Confucius considered righteousness to be a basic requirement of a good person, stating that such a person would not seek to stay alive at the expense of injuring virtue. He encouraged people to uphold these moral principles and care for each other until death. His followers were exhorted to be loyal and dutiful toward family, kin, and neighbors, and to respect their superiors and the elderly. Filial piety to parents and ancestors is fundamental to these beliefs. Far from being characterized by fear, the attitudes of the living toward the departed members of the family or clan are one of continuous remembrance and affection.

These beliefs may partially explain why Qu Yuen and other students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China, were prepared to give up their lives to advocate the values of justice and goodness for their country. Those who follow such beliefs would have no regret when confronted with their own death and would accept death readily. This is regarded as a high level of moral behavior of family or social virtue. Although Confucius did not express it explicitly, to die for righteousness is an example of a good death for the individual as well as the nation.

By Mui Hing June Make

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