Question: First, are the moral concepts of Buddhism and Confucianism similar? Second, do the Confucian and Taoist concepts explain morality in the same way?
Ven. Master: These three teachings are the moral curricula for elementary school, secondary school and university respectively. The university moral curriculum teaches one to take refuge with the Triple Jewel of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and not to forget about them. At the secondary school level, one is taught to take refuge with one’s own essence, energy and spirit and not to dissipate them. As for the elementary school level, one learns the art of humanity and the way to perfect it. If you want to understand the contents of these three curricula in detail, you first have to apply for admission to elementary school, secondary school or university.
I have mentioned this previously: Confucianism is similar to elementary school and at this stage, one knows nothing about the secondary school or college syllabus. Taoism is akin to secondary school and at this level, one has no knowledge of the university curriculum. This is why Confucius praised Laozi’s concept of the Way as being analogous to a dragon for it is unfathomable and undergoes endless transformations. From this, we gather that Confucius did not fully understand the Way of Laozi. But was it really the case? Of course not! He understood but did not want to divulge it. He could not reveal this Dharma-door because at that time, his students were still not prepared to understand the secondary school syllabus. Laozi understood a little bit about Buddhism but refrained from talking about it. He only expounded the principles of Taoism because the people of his time were not ready to accept Buddhist doctrines. Both Confucius and Laozi were forerunners who paved the way for Buddhism. By the same token, externalists pave the way for the Proper Path while deviant sects pave the way for the orthodox teachings. They arrive at the place first to do some preparatory work. Deviant sects are like waves that give the human mind a good pounding so as to unveil people’s wisdom. Once the door of wisdom is slightly ajar, people are then able to accept the unsurpassed flavor of Buddhism.
Therefore, it is not very appropriate to discuss Confucianism in terms of Buddhist principles. Why did Confucius say:
“If I could hear the Way [truth] in the morning, I would be willing to die in the evening”? Do not interpret the word ‘die’ literally as it is only used as a basis of comparison to highlight the importance of the Way. It means that learning about the Way of being a person is far more important than the issue of death. If you know how to be a proper person, then you can die without regret. All of you should take note: It does not imply that you hear about the Way in the morning and then commit suicide at night. If you took your own life, you would fall into the hells. It’s not like that. On assessing the relative importance between the two, he asserted that the Way was of a much higher priority than death. Human beings attach great importance to birth and death for birth results in great joy whereas death brings misery and anguish. However, the Way is far more important than the matter of birth and death! This is why you should understand the Way of being a person.
What is the Way of being a person? Its meaning can be expressed by the Chinese idiom
‘putting others before the self’, which includes attributes such as being devoid of desire, selfishness and self-benefit. The Six Guiding Principles of not contending, not being greedy, not seeking, not being selfish, not pursuing personal advantages and not lying are practical and logical and can be explained in terms of Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian principles. Why did people not express it in this way previously? Let me tell you this: I was the one who stated that Buddhism in the scientific age is just the Six Guiding Principles. This is scientific Buddhism; it has a scientific basis, accords with logic and has practical applications for everyone. If you don’t believe me, just try to combine Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism together and you will find that they complement each other perfectly. The three are one and one is just the three: This method serves the purpose very well. Essentially, the Buddhist Vinaya is all about the Six Guiding Principles.
Confucius advocated the Tao [way or path]. Let us discuss this character. It consists of the character 首(shou) combined with the radical 走(zou). The former means ‘head’ and refers to the first and foremost matter, while the latter means ‘walk’ or ‘practice’. So the first thing is that you have to go and walk the path. If you do not put things into practice, then whatever you say is just deceptive talk. Hence, the saying:
“Ten feet of talk is not as good as one inch of practice.” There is a hundred-fold difference between the two. When we talk about
‘hearing the Way’, this refers to the ‘Way of being a person’ and not to any other ‘ways’ such as the way of ending birth and death. If you understood the Way of being a person, it would far surpass your own birth and death in importance. The ancients said,
“It is for sure that a person has to die eventually.” This applies to everyone but then,
‘Death can be as heavy as Mount Tai, or it can be as light as a goose feather’. Some people, death exceeds the value and magnitude of Mount Tai whereas for some others, death is as insignificant as a sparrow’s feather. With regards to the saying:
“If I could hear the Way in the morning, I would be willing to die in the evening”, morning and evening are separated by a very short interval. What this means is that if one could hear about the Way, albeit for only a very short time, one could die a worthy death. It would be far better than to die without knowing how to be a person and being ignorant of the principle of
‘putting others before self’. The character wen [hear] also means ‘understand’, as in understanding how to be a person.
As for the character 道[Tao], I mentioned before that it is fundamentally the ‘true principle’. Absolutely no one can shake or overturn the true principle. There is only one true principle, not two. It is absolute, nondual. Whatever is nondual is the true principle. It is quite right to say that the Tao can be explained in terms of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. However, we should not make sweeping comments like: “Confucius described Buddhism as such and such…” If you were to say this, it would appear that Confucius was also a Buddhist. He paved the way for Buddhism but did not dare to publicly advocate any Buddhist doctrines. During his time, even the word ‘Buddhism’ did not exist [in China]. You people who investigate knowledge should be aware of the sequence of events. If you did not know any better and went around telling others that Confucius lectured on the Buddhadharma, people would certainly laugh their heads off!
During that period, scholars set their hearts on the Tao, meaning the Way of being a person. In this context, the Tao does not refer to the way of becoming a Buddha or an immortal but refers to the way of becoming a person. Why is that so? It is because a Confucian scholar studies to become a proper person, a Taoist practitioner wants to attain immortality and eternal youth, while a Buddhist cultivator strives to realize Buddhahood. All these various methods are called ‘ways’ but they differ from one another. Among the scholars, some set their hearts on learning how to be proper people while some want to learn how to be ‘ghosts’. Ghostly people are those who look for gains and benefits in whatever they do. A proper person benefits others while a ghost benefits himself. They are complete opposites.
Confucianism advocates loyalty and forbearance, while Catholicism and Protestantism preach universal love. The character ‘博’ [universal] has a ‘vertical mind’ radical on the left. The character ‘愛’ [love] also has a ‘mind’ radical but it is sandwiched in the middle. Taoism emphasizes ‘influence and response’. Although it talks about clarity, purity and non-action, its method of cultivation is according to the natural Tao. As the
Classic of the Way and Virtue says, “Man is conditioned by earth; earth is conditioned by heaven; heaven is conditioned by the Tao; and the Tao is conditioned by nature.” In fact, its religious doctrine is summed up by the two characters ‘gan ying’ [influence and response]. Buddhism preaches kindness and compassion. The three teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are not apart from the mind for if there is any deviation from the mind, it is no longer a teaching.
Confucianism talks about loyalty and forbearance. The character 忠[zhong] means to conduct oneself with loyalty. We must exercise good faith in whatever we do and in our dealings with others. This is a basic requirement in the cultivation of one’s morality. The character 恕[shu] means to treat others with forbearance. If other people have any shortcomings, you should adopt a forgiving attitude towards them. If you can conduct yourself with loyalty, you will have a lofty character. If you can treat others with forbearance, you will generate thoughts of benefiting others instead of being critical and judgmental. Confucianism is not apart from the mind. You see, the characters ‘zhong’ and ‘shu’ both have the mind radical at the bottom.
According to Taoism, everything is based on ‘gan ying’ [influence and response]. The character感 [gan] means ‘where there is influence, there is penetration’, while 應[ying] means ‘absolutely all requests will receive responses’. Therefore, the term ‘gan ying’ refers to achieving a response in the Way. Take electricity for example: A room lights up if it is supplied with electricity. In other words, the other party is aware of whatever you think due to the mutual interaction of the ‘electricity’ in your minds. Thus is the response; the response is thus. Where there is influence, there is penetration and absolutely all requests will receive responses. In this way, you will obtain whatever you seek. As long as you are truly sincere, you will be able to exert an influence and penetrate to the realm of the deities.
To be continued