Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 9—551 B.C.E. onward—The Oriental Search for the Right Way
“The way of truth is like a great road.”—Meng-tzu, Chinese sage of the 4th century B.C.E.
ANY number of religions lay claim to being the way of truth that leads to salvation. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, for example, are called China’s “three ways.” Japanese and Korean religions use similar terminology. Just how do these various “ways” differ, if at all?
Confucianism—The Way of Man
Although little is known for certain about Confucius, a noted reference work says that he “must be counted among the most influential men in world history.” A teacher, philosopher, and political theorist, he lived between 551 and 479 B.C.E. His family name was K’ung, so he was later called K’ung-Fu-tzu, meaning “Master K’ung.” The Latinized version is “Confucius.”
Confucius did not found a new religion. The Viking Portable Library World Bible explains that he simply “organized the one which had existed in the land of his birth from time immemorial, giving form to its books, dignity to its formalities, and emphasis to its moral precepts.” Human behavior, not theology, was his chief interest. His teaching was primarily a social ethic. His attempts to achieve political office were motivated by an overwhelming desire to alleviate the sufferings of his people. Appropriately, then, the philosophy of this man—more the frustrated politician than the aspiring religious leader—has been called the “Confucian way of man.”
Confucius did not think highly of the religion of his day, saying that much of it was only superstition. When asked if he believed in God, he supposedly answered: “I prefer not speaking.” But his many references to Tien, meaning “Heaven,” are interpreted by some to mean that he did believe in something more than just some impersonal higher force.
Confucius stressed family values, respect for authority, and social harmony. He called attention to the need for education in developing abilities and strengthening personal qualities necessary for serving others. He emphasized jen, a word meaning benevolence toward humankind in general, but filial piety and brotherly respect in particular. He encouraged ancestor worship.
These typical Confucian traits are still characteristic of Asians reared in Confucian fashion. Sociologist William Liu, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that “the Confucian ethic drives people to work, excel and repay the debt they owe their parents.” Thus, immigrants from countries with a strong Confucian influence have become noted in the United States for exceptionally high scholastic marks.
The cornerstone of Confucian thought is the collection known as Wu Ching (“Five Classics”). The “Four Books,” or Ssu shu, added in the 12th century, are considered as being essential to Confucian thought. Their style, marked by brevity and compactness, makes them difficult to understand.
By the fourth century C.E., Confucian precepts were being taught in the Kokuryo Kingdom in northern Korea. Confucianism spread to Japan perhaps by the beginning of the fifth century C.E. Meanwhile, back in China another “way” was developing.
Taoism—The Way of Nature
Tao, central to Chinese thinking for millenniums, means “way” or “road.” It came to designate the correct way of doing things in harmony with the natural way the universe operates. Tradition says that its founder was a contemporary of Confucius who bore the title Lao Tze, meaning either “Old Boy” or “Old (Venerable) Philosopher.” Some claim that Lao Tze was called this because, after a miraculous conception and prolonged pregnancy of several decades, his mother gave birth to him after his hair had already turned white with age. Others say that he was given the title out of respect for his wise teachings.
Taoism teaches that at birth a child is endowed with a certain amount of “primordial breath,” or life-force. By various means, such as by meditation, dietary regimens, breathing and sexual control, an unnecessary depletion of the “primordial breath” can be avoided. Thus, longevity is synonymous with sainthood.
The human body is viewed as a miniature universe that must be kept in proper harmony with nature. This has to do with what the Chinese call yin and yang, literally the shaded and the sunny sides of a hill. Basic to all Chinese philosophies, yin and yang are the opposing, yet complementary, elements out of which everything in nature is composed. The Encyclopedia of Religion elaborates: “The yin predominates in everything that is dark, shaded, cool, wet, waning, bending, earthy, female, while yang is bright, hot, dry, waxing, stubborn and aggressive, heavenly, and male.” An application of this principle is found in feng-shui, a form of Chinese divination called geomancy in English. It is designed to find propitious locations for towns and houses, but especially for graves. Harmonizing the yin-yang forces of a potential site with those of its inhabitants will ensure, it is claimed, the latter’s welfare. Helen Hardacre of Princeton University explains that the proper “combination of cosmic forces is believed to benefit the dead and to facilitate their progress in the other world.”
While trying to keep the yin-yang forces in balance, however, no attempt should be made to change their natural state forcibly. This, it is thought, would be counterproductive, a belief that encourages passivism. In 1986 an elderly monk explained it like this: “The teaching of Taoism is to keep quiet and to do nothing. Doing everything lies in doing nothing.” Taoism’s strength has therefore been likened to water, which despite its softness benefits all creatures.
Formerly, it was customary to differentiate between Tao philosophy (4th/3rd centuries B.C.E.) and Tao religion (2nd/3rd centuries C.E.). This distinction is no longer so clear-cut, for it is evident that Tao religion evolved from the Taoist philosophies that preceded it. Professor of religion Hans-Joachim Schoeps says that Taoism as a religion “is nothing more than the continuation of the ancient Chinese folk religion. At its core is a simple form of spiritism . . . [with spirits who] nest everywhere, forever endangering human life and health. . . . In today’s China, Taoism has deteriorated into a religious form of superstition for the masses.”
Shinto—The Way of Kami
Japan is also noted for an ancient folk religion, a mixture of “polytheistic nature and ancestor worship,” as one author describes it. At first this ethnic religion went unnamed. But when, during the sixth century C.E., Buddhism was introduced to Japan, one name given to Buddhism was Butsudō, “the way of the Buddha.” Thus, to differentiate between this and the native religion, the latter soon became known as Shinto, “the way of the kami.”
Kami (the various gods or deities) is indeed the focal point of Shinto. Kami came to refer to any supernatural force or god, including nature gods, outstanding men, deified ancestors, or even “deities who serve an ideal or symbolize an abstract power.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion) While the term Yaoyorozu-no-kami literally means eight million gods, the expression is used to signify “many gods,” since the number of deities in the Shinto religion is ever increasing. Humans, being children of kami, have a primarily divine nature. Therefore, the idea is, live in harmony with kami, and you will enjoy their protection and approval.
Shinto, while not strong on dogma or theology, has given the Japanese a code of values, molded their behavior, and determined their way of thinking. It provides them with shrines, where they can worship as they feel the need.
The major types of Shinto are interrelated. Shrine Shinto and Folk Shinto have few significant differences. Sect Shinto, on the other hand, is made up of 13 sects founded during the 19th century that in varying degrees contain some elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
Buddhist influence on Shinto has been especially strong. This explains why many Japanese are Buddhist and Shintoist at the same time. A traditional Japanese house has two altars, a Shinto altar to honor the kami, and a Buddhist altar to honor one’s ancestors. Keiko, a young Japanese girl, explains: “I owe respect to my ancestors and show it through Buddhism . . . I’m Japanese, so I do all the little Shinto rituals.” Then she adds: “And I thought a Christian marriage would be real pretty. It’s a contradiction, but so what?”
Ch’ŏndogyo—Korea’s Religion of the Heavenly Way
Buddhism, fortified by Taoism, and Confucianism are among Korea’s main non-Christian religions. After being introduced from China, they were influenced by Korea’s folk religion, shamanism, and according to The Encyclopedia of Religion were “selected, transformed, and adapted in varying degrees to the social and intellectual conditions prevailing on the Korean Peninsula.”a
Another religion in Korea is Ch’ŏndogyo, “Religion of the Heavenly Way,” its name since 1905. Founded in 1860 by Ch’oe Suun (Che-u), it was originally called Tonghak, “Eastern Learning,” in contrast with Sohak, “Western Learning,” the term for Christianity, which Ch’ŏndogyo was developed partially to counteract. According to German author Gerhard Bellinger, Ch’ŏndogyo attempts to merge “the ideals of Confucian human kindness and justice, Taoist passivity, and Buddhist compassion,” which is what its founder intended. Ch’ŏndogyo also contains elements of shamanism, and Roman Catholicism. Despite its claims of promoting religious unity, by 1935 it had spawned at least 17 daughter sects.
Central to the “Religion of the Heavenly Way” is the belief that man is essentially divine, part of God. Sain yŏch’ŏn, (“Treat man as God”) is therefore a major ethical tenet, requiring that fellow humans be treated with “utmost concern, respect, sincerity, dignity, equality, and justice,” explains Yong-choon Kim of the University of Rhode Island.
Striving to change the social order in pursuit of these high principles brought the founder, Suun, into conflict with the government. Political meddling led to the execution of both him and his successor. It also helped provoke the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. In fact, political activity is characteristic of newer Korean religions, of which the Tonghak movement was only the first. Nationalism is often a major theme, with Korea being assigned a future place of world prominence.
Which “Way” Leads to Life?
Obviously, many Asians feel that it is largely immaterial which religious “way” one follows. But Jesus Christ, whose religion back in the first century was also called “The Way,” rejected the view that all religious “ways” are acceptable to God. He warned: “The road that leads to perdition is wide with plenty of room, . . . but the road that leads to life is small and narrow, and those who find it are few.”—Acts 9:2; 19:9; Matthew 7:13, 14, The New English Bible, footnote; compare Proverbs 16:25.
Of course, most first-century Jews ignored his words. They did not think that they had found their true Messiah in Jesus or the right “way” in his religion. Today, 19 centuries later, their descendants are still awaiting their Messiah. Our next issue will explain why.
a Shamanism centers around the shaman, a religious figure who supposedly performs magic acts of healing and who communicates with the spirit world.
[Pictures on page 21]
General Guan Yu, a god of war in Chinese folk religion and patron of the military and merchant classes
From the left, Han Xiangzi, LuDongbin, and Li Tieguai—three of the eight Taoist Immortals—and Shoulao, the Stellar God of Longevity
Courtesy of the British Museum
[Pictures on page 23]
Various statues are found in the precincts of a Shinto shrine, and the guardian dog on the left is thought to ward off demons
Students, with parents, at the Yushima Tenjin Shinto shrine, Tokyo, pray for success in examinations