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Cultivation Of Morality In Chinese Philosophy

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One thing anyone can say about Chinese philosophy is that it just didn’t have an effect on a chosen few in the Western world who desire it as a philosophy. It has influenced and involved various cultures for thousands and thousands of years whether they have embraced it or not. While this introduction may not be so flattering, they are realities that, when taken into account, can have significant consequences for the topic at hand, which are the various techniques of moral cultivation created by ancient Chinese sages. This is not some trivial topic that can be ignored or relegated to be no value. It has spread throughout all eastern religions as well as several in western ones. It has molded the daily lifestyles, government, and education of several countries throughout the world. It can illuminate all those who venture within its domain. We realize that most people are well aware of its scope but we still find it imperative to restate it for the sole intention of emphasizing the weight of the topic to be discussed.

Among the Chinese people, the cultivation of morality was a very important aspect of their culture and they were determined about doing it correctly. There was one important school of thought that historically has supervised all the others. This was Confucianism and indeed it did involve an unusual exhausting discourse by which people could develop their morality. This article will present this topic and attempt to clarify it. Still, it may be difficult to talk about Confucius without tackling the teaching and ideas of Zhu Xi, a sage who’s deemed to be the most prominent neo-Confucianist thinker of his age. The correct course of self cultivation was also taught by Zhu Xi although it may vary in some way to that of Confucius. In order to determine the importance in their differences and in what they have to offer, we may need to discuss the two courses and equate them both.

The teachings of Confucius in Analects 8.8 regarding the course of moral cultivation states, “Get your start with the Odes, the Master said; obtain a solid standing through ritual; finish the process with music”. This passage means that Confucius recognizes three distinct stages by which an individual needs to undergo in order to arrive at the level of sage hood which is the highest level of moral cultivation.

The Odes is moral cultivation’s point of origin that is made up of old Chinese songs or poetry considered by Confucius as ways to inspire the mind. While poems may not appear as prefect models for the start of a transformative momentous journey, Confucius was firm in his decision to use this as his starting point. The words “enable you to respect customs, prepare you in analogy, train you to be sociable, instruct you to articulate anger” are inscribed within these classical writings. This excites the mind so much so that it triggers us to ponder what is morally right and contemplates over basic issues that concern the soul. With the aim of becoming cultivated morally, it seems proper that the start is made up of something that advances such thoughts.

What is made up of the middle stage is putting that which has been considered within the mind to be morally right and good into action. Practicing what is right in the physical sense can embed itself even more in the soul and mind and can lead to a proper understanding of concepts that are morally right. For instance, you can go through your entire life just knowing it is only proper to respect your parents. You may not however be able to really comprehend just how essential it is until you actually do it, or even see it practiced by your own children. Actions that are morally good have been integrated into a culture via what is known as ritual. A ritual, according to Confucius, is deemed to be extremely necessary to the development of the soul due to the long term effect it can have that’s impossible to come about in any other way.

Music is the final stage by which the completion of the process is attained. Always a social event, music is where a congregation of people connect with each other on an equal level. When properly performed, it’s a manifestation of what is really found within the soul and metaphorically affirms the accomplishment of moral cultivation. In Analects 3.23, Confucius illuminates us more, “One can understand music this way. First the players play in unison, then harmonizing freely, carrying on from one another or playing separately, and therefore the piece is achieved”. This describes how the cultivation of morality is realized from a congregation of individuals onto a person. In the cultivation of the soul, a group renders each other as it is properly managed, the person then has the skill to do it individually without interrupting the harmony or, in other words, without deviating from the right path.

The method of Zhu Xi is the other course of moral cultivation that needs to be discussed. His technique is perfectly articulated in 5.42of Learning To Be A Sage, “In learning, we need to first set up the great foundation: learning at the outset ought to be largely concerned with what’s vital; mainly with breadth in the middle stage, and with what is vital again in the end”. We also see here that Zhu Xi espouses three different stages by which a person needs to go undergo in order to truly cultivate himself morally.

It starts with which what Zhu Xi refers to as the essential. He especially considers the books, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Greater Learning, the Book of Mencius, and the Analects to be the sole authority on how to properly cultivate one’s morality. He argues that there needs to be a point of origin and reading the writings of people that have already acquired sagacity is an ideal place to start. By so doing, a person can be exposed to that which is widely recognized as correct and therefore, he or she can be aware of what to fixate his attention on.

The second stage involves observing “mainly with breadth” which literally and metaphorically translates as “widely”. Literally speaking, looking widely is observing everything in the external environment that is all around you. Observing the way food is prepared, perceiving the flow of the water in a river, and taking into account the manner in which animals behave all have definitive awareness to the cultivation of morality. What makes all these seemingly unimportant happenings so important is the notion of li. Li is the celestial principle that exists in every matter in the universe including each individual and to comprehend the li within the self we need to observe it in other things.

Bringing together the prior stages into the third stage is the most important. Finishing again with what is essential, but with a totally different meaning. This kind of essential is directly alluding to the self. It entails taking what you’ve observed and read and integrating it thoroughly into the soul in order to become what the sages actually wrote about and the celestial principle that spreads throughout everything. This can be manifested through action, which is much greater than merely the internal knowledge declared by Zhu Xi, “A dialogue arose that dealt with action and knowledge. According to the Master, when one knows something but he doesn’t act on it, his knowledge of it is still without depth. After one has experienced it in person, its meaning will not be the same from what it used to be and his understanding of it will become significantly clearer”. The manner by which a person can truly gauge his morality is through action.

While both courses are somewhat identical to each other, some important differences remain. We will concentrate on a topic that needs to be discussed and by so doing can further delineate the significance of this specific step in the cultivation of morality. The core topic is the role that action and practice play in each course. The way they are carried out and the timing by which they are made known are very important concepts. In regard to Confucius, ritual or the action aspect conveys a powerful compliant-like submissiveness connoting a belief in a higher power. In Analects 12.1, Confucius clearly commands a person to never disregard ritual, “Don’t look at it, if it is opposed to ritual. Don’t listen to it if, it is opposed to ritual.” It may seem that that rules are clearly lined out and a person expresses morality in a genuine manner when he follows them appropriately. This helps people act in a dignified way which is good; nonetheless, there some things that make this certainly wrong. How can anyone be sure that a certain ritual is the proper and true way to behave morally? What if a ritual (i.e., some form of funeral ritual that was handed down from generation to generation) while it is considered tradition, is also wrong. Overemphasizing ritual could actually impair the development of positive morality.

This is why Zhu Xi stresses the need to first observe celestial principle from every source and then later on to act upon it. The celestial principle will be constantly found in everything if something is truly correct and in harmony with it. After one has observed genuine principle and incorporates it into his soul, then it is advantageous that proper action be executed, thusly being in agreement with the celestial principle.

Zhu Xi is right to say that a person needs to first adhere to morally correct principle and nurture it within prior to being able to act properly based on genuine moral standards. Most of us living ordinary lives who struggle with moral cultivation can find this to be a bit hard to follow; however, in the long run, it could also result in rewarding outcomes because once we cultivate proper morality and celestial principle within us, each of us can then become morally good individuals not just people who obey rituals and rules that simply allow us to act in a morally good way.

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Written by Valerie

December 11th, 2018 at 12:59 pm