Confucianism and Buddhism: The Most Tolerant World Views

It is generally agreed that religion strongly promotes social cohesion. But, from a historical viewpoint, it looks unavoidable that religion can lead to human conflict, discord and intolerance between different groups and tribes with different religious traditions, particularly during times of hardship. The recently published book Religion, Intolerance, and Conflict (Clarke et al., 2013) contains a thorough scientific and conceptual investigation of the relations between religion, intolerance and conflict. One of the main findings is that a lack of tolerance for other beliefs, other cultures and other social groups is the key factor that causes conflict between the different religions.

-The White House Temple, Luoyang, Henan Province(Copyright: Xinhua)

Let us first look what tolerance means. A good, but rather academic, definition of tolerance has been provided by Andrew Cohen (2004): “An act of tolerance is an agent’s intentional and principled refraining from interfering with an opposed other concept or activity (or their behaviour, etc.) in situations of diversity, where the agent believes that she or he has the power to interfere”. In other words, tolerance is when you are in a situation that you do not like, or that is not your favourite one, but you do not take action and just let it happen, in cases where you have the possibility to change a situation. Of course, everybody has to make their own choice how far his or her tolerance can be extended.

Although there is a clear link between religion, intolerance and conflict as exemplified in the book mentioned above, there are religions and world views that exhibit remarkably tolerant behaviour. It was argued by Flanagan (2013), based on extensive investigation of religious beliefs over a long historic period, that Confucianism (at present about 1.5 billion people) and Chinese Buddhism (about 400 million people) are more tolerant, less conflict prone and less warlike than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This conclusion applies particularly to China and perhaps less to Japan and some other neighbouring countries.

Daoism and the Chinese folk religions can be placed in the same category as Confucianism and Buddhism. All four traditions have different customs and beliefs, but share the following features which are essential for their religious tolerance and larger respect for other world views (Flanagan, 2013):

  • Impersonality. The supreme concepts, such as Dao (道) and Ren (仁), are conceived impersonally. This means that no human-like figures or objects are used to represent these concepts.
  • Spirit Finitude. The supreme supernatural beings can be person-like but do not possess omnipotence and omniscience nor are any all-loving, all-good. Also there is no punitive, creator God.
    Confucianism and Buddhism are perhaps not religions as defined in the Abrahamic cultures. Confucianism originated in a largely agricultural society and developed a deep feeling and worship for nature. The natural forces are often expressed as heaven (天, the structure of the universe) or the mandate of heaven (天命), and followers of Confucianism often lead an impersonal life style which is based on a natural teleology. The gentle human being of high morality (君子), educated by extensive studies of the sage kings, is the ideal person to govern the country. Following Dao (道), the way of heaven, is a moral law in which morality involves one’s personal choice to live and behave according to the following major virtues:
  • Humaneness, benevolence, reciprocity (仁);
  • Filial piety, respect for elders (孝);
  • Respects for rituals, customs, good manners (礼);
  • Honesty, justice, righteousness (义);
  • Discernment (keen insight) and phronesis (智, practical wisdom).
    These ethical qualities are the basis of Confucian morality and involve the assumption that all people have the same good human nature, which automatically leads to considerable tolerance in dealing with other people.

Buddhism was first introduced in China in the first century BC and was well received. Shakyamuni (释迦牟尼), the later Buddha, saw the human beings go through an endless series of lives, better and worse, depending on their karma and constantly suffering because of their attachment to everything around them. The Buddha taught people how to reach liberation from the cycle of sufferings and how to realise the ending of rebirth, called Nirvana (涅槃). These teachings found a fertile soil in China, and the first Buddhist temple (白马寺, the White Horse Temple) was built by Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (东汉) in 68 AD close to the capital Luoyang (洛阳). Many Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese, and, particularly after the arrival of the monk Bodhidharma (菩提达摩) from India in the fifth century AD, there was a remarkable growth of Chinese Buddhism, also in the surrounding countries. The new Buddhist world view had a tremendous influence on the entire Chinese culture, including philosophy, poetry, painting and architecture. Different schools were developed, the most popular being the Chang Pure Land (净土宗), now better known as Zen (禅宗). In the year 500 AD, there were about 80,000 Buddhist temples in China.

A poem written on a wall by a Chinese monk found in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔) in Xi’an (西安) expresses how Chinese and Buddhist thought influenced each other in a beautiful way (Engberts, 2010):
古塔 曙光 新.
ɡǔtǎ shǔɡuānɡ xīn

Literally, it means: (Standing on) the ancient pagoda, (you can feel) the first light of dawn is brand new. We have reformulated that into the following English interpretation :

My permanent home is in
the ancient pagoda,
where every puff of existence
is tenderly renewed at dawn
in the glorious sunshine.

We can see in this poem the Buddhist withdrawal into a monastery to seek enlightenment of the mind and the idea that no beings and phenomena have an intrinsic existence but are in a process of continuous change, coupled with the Chinese love of the beauty and harmony of the nature around us.

-Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province(Copyright: Teng Ruizhu)

An important Buddhist concept is the ‘void’ (空), which is rather close to the Daoist wu (无, non-being), not to be understood as nihilistic but as a new state of consciousness of complete fullness, but nevertheless in complete rest. Everything in the universe has a relational origin. There is continuity, no integrity, which means that there is a continuous process of change but no personal self. Chinese Buddhism also developed ideas that were rather close to Confucianism, such as tolerance of and respect for other world views and a strong emphasis on universal compassion, comparable with the Confucian concept of ren (仁).

However, already just before the glorious Tang dynasty (唐代 618-907), learned Confucianists started to criticise Buddhism for several reasons, the main one being that Buddhism was not suitable for governing a large country like China. There was too much emphasis on meditation and asceticism instead of on study of the moral behaviour of the ancient sages. In later times it was emphasized that government was neglected and morality became chaotic. Since the start of the seventh century, many temples and monasteries were closed (Chu His & Lu Tsu-Chien, 1967; Ivanhoe, 1988). But, it is most relevant to note that, even though this criticism certainly had serious consequences, it did not lead to armed conflict or other severe violence as we know from religious conflicts between Abrahamic religions in other parts of the world as most recently dramatically demonstrated by the conflict between fundamentalist Islamic groups and Judaism and Christianity.

-The statue of Confucius in Guozijian, Beijing(Copyright: Hao Cui)

In China, private sympathy for Buddhism inspired a stimulating and creative dialogue, with the understanding that the Chinese state should not suffer from certain Buddhist concepts. The mutual respect for and merging of Confucianism and Buddhism had another important consequence. The major issues of Chinese education had for many centuries been based upon Confucian ethics, lacking a clear metaphysical basis. Buddhism had shown the significant importance of a convincing metaphysics. The Buddha taught, among other things, that everything in our world is interrelated; that the world is governed by natural laws; and that following the Eightfold Path (八正道) leads to the end of suffering. This inspired a further development of Confucianism which was enriched in the Northern and Southern Song dynasty (宋代 960-1279) by metaphysical concepts as mainly provided by Zhu Xi (朱熹 1130-1200) and laid down in the Jinsi Lu (《近思录》Chu His & Lu Tsu-Chien, 1967; Ivanhoe, 1988), the most important Chinese philosophical text written in the second millennium. In Neo-Confucianism (新儒家), a metaphysics of process, Qi (气) is the vital force, the dynamical principle of natural change and plurality that provides form and existence to Li (理), the great principle of order and creativity. No heaven or hell, no punitive God. Ancestors are worshipped, but there is no belief that they are alive now here or somewhere else. Cheng Hao (程颢 1032-1085), another Neo-Confucian sage said: “The laws introduced by the wise monarchs were all based on human nature and in accord with the order in the nature around us”.

In recent times, conflicts between different religions seem to be increasing, in particular the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 have drawn worldwide attention to the severe problems of hostility and violence between the various religions and world views in our world. But looking back over the long history of mankind, it becomes clear that religious conflicts are, as it looks, almost unavoidable between different social groups with their own specific cultural values, which are most strongly expressed in their religious beliefs. But both Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism have no supreme being like Yahweh, God, or Allah, which according to the ancient scriptures, puts disbelievers into hell, or less badly, outside the leading religious community and society.

These differences in cultural heritage can be observed in daily life. When visiting Tai Shan (泰山), one of the four holy mountains in China, I noticed that a Confucian, a Daoist and a Buddhist temple were situated close to each other. I was moved to see that Chinese visitors entered the three temples with equal respect. It remains a dear memory. Flanagan’s suggestion in his thoughtful chapter (Flanagan, 2013) looks justified; Confucianism and Buddhism possess the most tolerant world views.

-Holy mountain Tai Shan, Tai'an, Shandong Province(Copyright: Meng Haiyan)

Chu His & Lu Tsu-Chien. (1967). Reflections on Things at Hand, The Neo-Confucian Anthology (Wing-Tsit Chan, Trans.) New York and London: Columbia University Press.
Clarke, S., Powell, R., & Savulescu, J. (Eds). (2013). Religion, Intolerance, and Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, A.J. (2004). What Tolerance Is. Ethics, 115(1), 68-95.
Engberts, Jan B. F. N. (2010). The Natural Sciences, Classical Chinese Philosophy, Process Thinking, and Brain Lateralization. Process Studies Supplement, 16, 1-39.
Flanagan, O. (2013). Chapter 11. In Clarke, S., Powell, R., & Savulescu, J. (Eds). Religion, Intolerance, and Conflict (pp. 201-219). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ivanhoe, P.J. (1988). Reflections on the Chin-ssu lu. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 108(2), 269-275.