Introduction To Asian Philosophy (Part Two): China



In the previous post I have outlined how we “Westerners” have tried to resolve the dialectic of Many vs. One, and thus I thought it would be interesting to start a series of posts on the Eastern attempt. In this post I will focus on China, as it is the source of one of my research specialties, Zen Buddhism – even though the story of what we could call “Asian” philosophy begins in India. In China we see the rise of the One Great Thing (道: Dao) directing/within The 10,000 Things – a Chinese metonym for “everything.” Once again, this list is not meant to be exhaustive, so you will find many major works/individuals not listed.


Sun Tzu (unknown: c. 771 – 476 BCE): Also known as Sun Zi or Sun Wu, Sun Tzu is the author to which the Chinese military classic The Art Of War (孫子兵法: “Master Sun’s Rule For Soldiers”) is attributed. Since its creation it has been studied by literally millions of people as not only a guide to war strategy, but as a figurative model for business and politics as well. Many of its ideas are based on the idea of deception in terms of opposites: when active feign inactivity, when near seem far, when organized feign disorder, etc.

Kongfu-zi (551 BCE – 479 BCE): known in the West as Confucius – author of the Lunyu (Analects), a collection of his notes and sayings all recorded and edited by his disciples. The love of one’s fellow man or Ren (“human-heartedness”) is the highest virtue one can attain; the goal of all proper education. The practice of Li (social norms) is the path to the attainment of Ren, as it carries with it the adoption of Yi (proper character). Confucius was particualrly focused on using and understanding words properly, what he called “the rectification of names”.

Known as the Ultimate Sage-teacher, his ideas (“Confucianism”) have been the subject of massive amounts of study in ancient to modern Asia: especially in Singapore, Japan, and the Koreas. The Analects are one of the Four Great Books of Confucianism, the others being the Meng-Tzu, the Da Xue (“The Great Learning” – attributed to Zengzi), and the Chung Yung (author unknown but attributed to Tzu Ssu). My favourite line from the Analects is – “the knowing enjoy water, the humane enjoy mountains…

Laozi (c. 500 BCE – 400 BCE): known in the West as Lao Tzu – author of the Tao Te Ching (Daode Jing), “The Way and Its Power.” Everything in the Universe follows particular processes and patterns that cannot be precisely defined. These processes and patterns are “The Way,” which is best realized through wu-wei, ‘effortless action,” a type of refined “going with the flow of things.” Life is best lived with softness and flexibility (a main principle of such martial arts as Tai Ch’i), and Confucianism’s ethical/moral systems create more problems than they solve. Famous for the phrase “wu-wei er wu bu wei” – no action yet nothing isn’t done.

Mozi (c. 470 BCE – 391 BCE): known in the West as Mo Di or Mo Tzu – posthumous author of the Mozi, a collection of his sayings mixed with his later follower’s teachings on defensive warfare. Humans show too much partiality or favoritism in their acts of compassion, thus one should cultivate Jian Ai, a true Universal love for all. One should also show impartiality in governance, assigning social and political position based on individual merit rather than familial ties. Mozi and his followers were the first analytical philosophers in China, attempting to find objective truths in economics, politics, ethics, education, etc. Mozi also criticized Li, as these Confucian ‘social norms’ now meant wasteful, unnecessarily elaborate rituals, funerals and music.

Zhuangzi (c. 400 BCE – 300 BCE): known in the West as Chuang Tzu, Zhuang zi’s actual name is thought to be Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Chou) – author of the Zhuangzi, a particularly philosophical rather than religious Daoist text. He argued that our experience of the world is relative to our perspective, and this experience is constantly transforming/being transformed. Our optimal experience is thus (1) freeing ourselves from our almost unconscious adherence to convention and (2) “seeing clearly” (ming), leading us to (3) act both morally and spontaneously (his view of wu-wei). An example of this wu-wei is given in the story of Cook Ding slicing an ox to prepare it for Lord Wen-hui. Ding explains that his knife has never gone dull because he does not slice through bone, but rather flows with the grain and shape of the meat, slicing through joints instead. He describes his effortless technique by saying that “what I care about is the Way, which goes beyond all skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes.” This conservation of energy and flowing effortlessly greatly impressed Lord Wen-hui and he took it as a life-lesson. Zhuangzi also suggests that philosophical disputes are futile, as “right and wrong” cannot be discovered through arguing.

Mengzi (c. 371 BCE – 289 BCE): known in the West as Mencius, he is responsible for the propagation of Confucianism through his long, extended prose arguments in his Meng-Tzu, one of the Four Great Books of Confucianism. Mencius’ expansion on Confucius’ ideas makes him the “Second Great Sage” in traditional Chinese culture after Confucius himself. Mencius expanded upon Confucius’ aphoristic writing, and eventually his writing became Confucian orthodoxy centuries later. Mencius argued that our base nature contains goodness, human-heartedness, righteousness, and such, but they are not innate per se. Rather, they are pure potentialities in our nature, which can be cultivated in everyone. This involves going on a metaphysical, sacred journey within to develop one’s Qi, “spiritual/material life force” – developed through continuous regimen of righteous acts. Unlike in Buddhism, this categorical moral imperative does not lead to a/any “liberation,” but rather ignores the consequences of the act as an accumulation of a “good deed.” One does not do good to become good, one is good and thus their acts are good.

NOTE: As I mentioned before, Mencius and his relationship to Confucian thinking is often compared by Western writers to the relationship between Plato and the ideas of Socrates, or the relationship between St. Paul and the theology of Jesus Christ. But I reject such comparisons, as they hold a particularly Western bias towards our philosophy/theology as primary. Is it not just as apt to compare the Pauline/Christ, or Platonic/Socratic continua to Mencius and his quasi-exegesis of Confucius, all three of the latter speaking in the absence of the former? Especially since the Mencian writings occur before Paul and roughly concurrent with Plato, whose audience was significantly smaller than Mencius’. Though most Westerners are more familiar with the Platonic continuum, maybe this speaks to a lacuna in Western education concerning what we call “the East.” Maybe we should be as familiar with Mencius, considering his influence on billions of Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Singaporeans, and Japanese down through time, and the socio-economic rise of modern day China? At the very least, a thorough study of Chinese thought in particular reveals a number of extremely interesting individuals worthy of inclusion in any study of philosophical and/or creative thought, such as Gongsun Long.

Gongsun Long (c. 320 BCE – c. 250 BCE): also known as Kung-sun Lung, Gongsun Long is notorious for being an enigmatic philosopher of language, once again often compared to the Greek Zeno of Elea (c. 490 BCE – 430 BCE).  The author of the Kung-sun Lung Tzu, Gongsun Long is known for such sayings as “one + one cannot = two because neither becomes two itself.” He also stated that “a white horse is not a horse,” because a white horse and a horse are not the same thing – one is “not” the other, thus a white horse is not defined the same way as “horse.” Thus “a white horse” is not the same as “a horse” and thus is not “a horse.” This idea though is translated from the Chinese phrase “白馬非馬,” literally “white horse not horse,” and thus one can also argue about the nature of Chinese translation. Gongsun Long, a member of the School Of Names (Logicians), was also known for his arguments against war, and support of pacifism. Most of what he wrote was lost, thus we cannot truly gauge the complete logic and nature of the bits that remain.

Xunzi (c. 300 BCE – c. 215 BCE): “Master Xun,” known for his work the Hsün Tzu, in which he argues that human nature is evil, and evil in the world arises from the unrestrained expression of human desire and emotions. Education thus civilizes humans, and religion is merely the result of superstition and mass ignorance, though religious ritual can be of benefit in giving emotion an outlet in the process of overcoming selfish desires. Wrote much of his work as a refutation of Mencian human nature.

Lu Buwei (c. 291 BCE – 235 BCE): Successful merchant and later Chancellor to King Zhuang-Xiang of the Qin Dynasty, the first true Imperial Dynasty of China. He is considered to be the compiler of The Spring And Autumn Annals of Master Lu, China’s earliest surviving annalistic (yearly) history, covering the State of Lu (the term ‘Spring and Autumn” is a metonym for ‘year.’). The S&A Annals also discuss the role of the ruler in performing seasonal rites, which in part dictates political order. Also, traditional philosophy must be applied according to the proper season, and the harmony of music is key to uniting political with cosmological order.

Han Fei (c. 280 BCE – 233 BCE): author of the (compiled) Han Fei Tzu, and major figure in the Legalist School (Fa-jia). Legalism, to Han Fei, was a philosophy of government by Law, though the King still exercised absolute power. It was anti-Confucian, as Han Fei considered Confucian moral cultivation and rites ineffective in establishing order (because humans are self-interested and thus can’t be trusted to develop Ren). Reward and Punishment must be the main tools of a successful government, as humans “naturally” respond to both.

Zengzi (c.505 BCE): also known as Tseng Tzu – author to whom the Da Xue, “The Great Learning” (compiled in the third to second century), is often attributed (also attributed by some to Tzu Ssu). The ultimate human education, ergo the Great Learning consists of three goals and eight steps: (1) manifesting virtue, (2) renewing the people, and (3) abiding in perfect goodness. The eight steps to achieving these goals are the investigation of things, extension of knowledge, sincerity of the will, the purification (rectifying) of the heart, cultivation of one’s personal life, regulation of the family, national order, and world peace. The Da Xue is one of the four great works of Confucianism. Of particular interest is the further nurturing and development of Mencius’ Four Beginnings – our inborn feelings of shame, deference and/or compliance, commiseration, and right vs. wrong.

Zi Si (492 BCE – 431 BCE): also known as Tzu Ssu (the grandson of Confucius), attributed author of the Zhong Yong, or Chung Yung – The Doctrine Of The Mean (compiled in the third to second centuries). This work, one of the Four Great Books of Confucianism, states that Heaven and Man are a complete, inseparable Oneness. Heaven (tian) is a/the impersonal supreme “Being” or spiritual reality, within and without human beings, thus part of our ‘nature.’ Humans by nature partake in the Heavenly Reality as part of a Heaven/Human way (cheng), a creative dynamic reality one eventually possesses through cultivating the ultimate goodness. ‘Becoming cheng’ makes one a junzi, “superior person” – ‘superior’ in the sense that they cans serve as a role model for others.


Kumārajīva (334 – 413 CE): Between 148 – 401 CE, various monks translated both Theravadan and Mahayana Buddhist texts, beginning with (Prince) An Shigao’s translation of (Theravadan) Sarvāstivāda texts around 148 CE, and Zhī Chèn’s (a.k.a. Lokakṣema) translation of Mahayana texts between (168 –186 CE) all the way to 401 CE with the prolific translation work of Kumārajīva, a Central Asian monk who revolutionized Chinese Buddhism through his influence on Emperor Yao Xing, who built monuments and distributed the teachings resulting in roughly 90% of the population of China at that time to become Buddhist.

Kumārajīva also revolutionized Chinese Buddhism by using more standardized language to describe (Sanskrit) Buddhist terms, what some call “ge-yi” – concept matching. But ge-yi in modern scholarship is considered to be the use of almost exclusively Daoist terms to describe Buddhist ideas, which is not what Kumārajīva did. His translation of the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, the “Lotus” Sutra, in particular, was hugely influential in both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, especially in the later Tendai and Nichiren sects in Japan.

Chi-Tsang (549 – 623 CE): Also known as Jizang, Chi-Tsang is known for his extensive commentaries on Madhyamaka Buddhism’s Śūnyatā (“Emptiness”) scriptures, especially what his predecessor Kumārajīva wrote about such scriptures that he himself had translated. Chi-Tsang is known for advocating poxie xianzheng – “correcting what is misleading; revealing what is remedial,” stating that striving vigorously to become enlightened is also an attachment, in this case to the idea of non-attachment.

Xuanzang (600 – 664 CE): Also known as Hsüan-Tzang, Xuanzang travelled to India to study the scriptures and return to China to reinfuse the growing proliferation and propagation of questionable ideas and translations back in line with what he thought were the proper Indian traditions he had learnt. This was a time when competing schools of Yogācāra Buddhist thought. Xuanzang is most famous though for his translation of the Prajñāpāramitā or “Heart” Sutra, considered by many to be the most popular, most often chanted sutra of all time, containing the line “form does not differ from the void, and the void does not differ from form…”

Hui-neng (638 – 713 CE): A Legendary patriarch of Zen Buddhism, he is reputed to be the author of the Liu-tsu t’an-ching , the “Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch,” a position “won” by Hui-neng in a poetry competition based on the demonstration of one’s learning. Hui-neng is considered the great master of the “Southern” School of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism that believed enlightenment came suddenly (頓教) after much “free” meditation, in contrast to the Northern School of Master Shenxiu (the rival Hui-neng beat in the poetry competition), who taught that formalized meditation techniques would bring enlightenment on gradually (漸教).


© 2014 Daniel


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