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by Ryuei Michael McCormick

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The Confucian Nichiren Part 2

Confucian Virtues and the Mandate of Heaven



Confucianism revived during the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE). Under the Emperor Wu (r. 140-87 BCE) Confucianism became the state orthodoxy. A meritocracy under the emperor was established on the basis of a civil service examination that tested applicants on their knowledge of the five classics (the six discussed above minus the Book of Music lost during the Ch’in dynasty). The leading light of Confucianism at this time was Tung Chung-shu (179-104 BCE). Tung Chung-shu, consolidated and systematized Confucianism so that it could serve as the ideological underpinning of a united empire. When Nichiren speaks about Confucianism in his writings, it is most often the Confucianism of Tung Chung-shu that he is referring to.


         Tung Chung-shu’s approach was rather eclectic and he fused certain aspects of Legalist authoritarianism and the cosmology of the Yin Yang school of early Chinese metaphysics with the humanism of Confucius and Mencius in order to create a more comprehensive ideology for the Han rulers. In particular, he believed that processes of nature and human life are governed by the forces of yin and yang and due to their interactions the succession of the five primary elements or agents: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Tung Chung-shu believed that a correspondence could be found between these five agents that compose and govern the world and other categories of five such as the five relations (as taught by Mencius in the passage cited above) and what he termed the five constant virtues: benevolence (jen), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (chih), and trustworthiness (hsin). Mencius had taught that the first four of these were inborn in all people, at least in nascent form. Trustworthiness was a quality often emphasized by Confucius in relation to doing one’s best for others and other aspects of benevolent conduct. The five constant virtues taught by Tung Chung-shu become a useful summary of Confucian values. 


         At this point, let us turn from the history of Confucianism to an examination of Confucian thought and values as Nichiren understood them, starting with the five constant virtues. The first and most important is benevolence. Benevolence was the one thread that Confucius insisted held together all his teachings. Benevolence means much more than just a general feeling of well-wishing towards others. Confucius held it out as an almost impossible to attain ideal of admirable and inspiring conduct. He taught that it was rooted in the love and respect that it is hoped one naturally feels towards one’s parents and elder siblings and in the kindness and tolerance one ideally feels towards one’s younger siblings and other family members. It also includes one’s sense of dignity and self-respect. Extended beyond the family, it becomes generosity and kindness towards those one is responsible for, and an attitude of respect and deference towards one’s elders and social superiors such as the ruler. The benevolent person always tries to put themselves in the others place so they can act as they would have others act towards them – the so-called golden rule. On this basis they always try to do their best for others at all times. The benevolent person is not an obedient automaton or a simpleton however. They balance their kind-heartedness with learning and discernment and have the courage to remonstrate with their superiors if need be. Under no circumstances will they give in to wrongdoing nor do they value profit over virtue. The benevolent person is someone who has overcome selfishness and through personal example inspires and instructs others. Confucius believed that all people had the capacity to be benevolent but that few lived up to, or even tried to live up to, their potential. Mencius taught that the natural feelings of compassion people feel in the face of suffering, esp. of children or innocents, is the nascent form of benevolence.


         The other four virtues support benevolence and complete it. The second is righteousness, the virtue of knowing how to act appropriately in all circumstances. Righteousness is having the self-restraint to resist temptation and the fortitude to do one’s duty. Standing up for what is right also involves courage. Above all righteousness is about preserving one’s integrity. Mencius taught that people’s natural feeling of shame in regard to wrongdoing is the nascent form of righteousness.


         Propriety refers to “ritual propriety.” It is the virtue of knowing and acting in accord with the rites handed down from ancient times. These rites involved court manners, the proper way to perform ceremonies like sacrifices to Heaven or the ancestors, funerals, weddings, and other occasions, and matters of etiquette in various social situations. The rites governed social relationships and the mutual duties, responsibilities, and expectations between people. They set the standard but also set limits so that people could act in a way that was mutually beneficial and not exploitative. Confucius saw the rites as integral to culture along with music. They directed benevolence and righteousness in specific and concrete ways and refined one’s character. Confucius was not inflexible about them however. He recognized that the rites had changed over time from the Hsia to the Shang to the Chou dynasty. He preferred frugality and sincere expressions of feeling in regard to them, and approved of changes along those lines. However, he was also concerned when standards were allowed to slide or when those not entitled to perform certain rites or to initiate changes in the rites presumed to do so. This was a sign of decadence and social disintegration. Above all, it would seem that for Confucius, ritual propriety was rooted in natural human feelings and mutually beneficial relationships and the goal was harmony both within oneself and between people and ultimately between Heaven and Earth and humankind.  Mencius taught that the natural wish to be courteous and modest is the nascent form of propriety.


         Wisdom is primarily the virtue of discerning right from wrong. In a sense it precedes the others because without wisdom one will have no sense of ethics, or social skills, or even just the plain common sense the other virtues require for guidance. Wisdom, however, does not rate as highly as the others because it is sometimes spoken of as though it involved only what is good or bad for oneself. In other words, this is the wisdom of enlightened self-interest and not cosmic awareness or esoteric knowledge. Mencius taught that people’s instinctual ability to distinguish right from wrong is the nascent form of wisdom.


         The final virtue is trustworthiness, sometimes called “faithfulness.” Confucius praised this virtue many times and spoke of it as the mainstay along with doing one’s best for others. Trustworthiness means not only being honest and sincere, but also being able to live up to one’s word. The trustworthy person is the person who can be relied upon in all things. On one occasion Confucius stated that this virtue was close to righteousness. On another he stated that it was the consummation of other virtues.


A student of the Tao or Way according to Confucianism aims at becoming a person of nobility (chun-tzu) who can guide others by exemplifying these five constant virtues. A noble person is a person of refinement and integrity. They are impeccable in their actions, fair and just in their dealing with others, and above all full of loving-kindness. Confucius confessed that in his own estimation he had not accomplished much in the way of the person of nobility. Beyond even the noble person is the sage whose virtue benefits all people and whose conduct can serve as the model for future generations. The sage’s virtue and wisdom is so great that they are at one with Heaven and Earth. Incidentally, the title “shonin” which is given to Nichiren is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word for “sage.”


Only the virtuous are fit to receive the Mandate of Heaven according to the political vision of Confucianism. The term “Heaven” is not any easy one to define. Sometimes it can mean the collective will of the ancestors and sage-rulers of the past who have ascended to the status of gods, becoming a kind of celestial bureaucracy under the Supreme Emperor of Heaven. At other times, Heaven can indicate the laws of nature or the supreme but impersonal metaphysical principle that gives rise to all life and all life-sustaining patterns and relationships. In any case, the Mandate of Heaven refers to a divine commission given to a nobleman worthy enough to serve as the Son of Heaven. The Son of Heaven rules China (the entire civilized world as far as the Chinese were concerned) as the emperor and in doing so serves to unite Heaven and Earth by fulfilling the will of Heaven in this world through benevolent leadership and the performance of the proper rituals and sacrifices. However, if the rulers do not fulfill their obligations and maintain their virtue, the Mandate of Heaven can be rescinded. In such a case, the corrupt dynasty will fall to anarchy and revolution and a new dynasty will receive the Mandate of Heaven in its place, as happened when the villainous emperors Chieh and Chou were overthrown by Ch’eng T’ang and King Wu respectively.


In connection with the idea that Heaven commissioned rulers to rule in recognition of virtue or rescinded such commissions due to malfeasance, Tung Chung-shu also taught that humanity’s actions could affect the natural world and vice versa:


Tung Chung-shu (179-104 B.C.), the greatest Confucian scholar of the age, expressed the central idea best when he wrote that the action of man flows into the universal course of heaven and earth and causes reciprocal reverberations in their manifestations. Since there was this close relationship between heaven and man, the Han Confucianists believed that abnormal events in the human world caused heaven to manifest abnormal phenomena in the natural world. These abnormal phenomena were known as catastrophes and anomalies. Catastrophes represented the warnings of heaven to errant man. Such warnings might be in the form of floods, famines, landslides, or earthquakes. If man persisted in his evil ways despite these warnings, then heaven caused strange anomalies to arise in the form of eclipses of the sun or moon, unusual movements of the stars, growths of beards on women, or birth of babies with two heads. If man still persisted in evil, unmindful of these signs from heaven, then he was doomed to ruin. On the other hand, if man acted correctly, then the world system would be harmonious and well governed. (Buddhism in China, pp. 22-23)


          As has been seen previously in the Rissho Ankoku Ron, Nichiren and the Buddhist sutras shared this view. Here we see the Confucian version of it. Again, this was common among agrarian people all over the world. While we no longer share this mythic view of natural events, it is still true that human greed, anger, and ignorance can bring about civil strife, warfare, poverty, famine, and can even bring about or exacerbate natural disasters through ecological damage, or the refusal to adequately plan and prepare for natural events like earthquakes, forest fires, flooding, or hurricanes.


                      This brings us back to the notion that the appearance of hippies signals the downfall of civilization, or at least the ruling dynasty. When the people living by the Yi River began to forsake the rituals and manners of the Chou court, this showed that the court was no longer respected and that China was again disintegrating into a patchwork of warring tribes with no central authority or common customs and traditions. The Chou had lost the Mandate of Heaven because the dynasty no longer represented a benevolent central rule that could unite all of China by acting as the proper intermediary between Heaven and Earth. Confucianists also took the philosophy and behavior of Yuan-chi and the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove in the third century of the Common Era as a sign of the decadence of the house of Ssu-ma. Only a ruler who could govern benevolently and uphold the rites would be able to gain the respect of the people, establish a central authority, and unite China. Only such a ruler could receive and maintain the Mandate of Heaven. The observance of the proper rites, therefore, was looked upon as the responsibility of the rulers, and when people began to turn away from the correct rites, customs, and traditions, then it was viewed as a sign that the rulers were losing the Mandate of Heaven and that if disaster was to be averted either reform or a new regime was needed.


                      We may not subscribe to the idea that a divinely appointed emperor is needed to maintain law and order and act as an intermediary with God or Heaven, but these ideas are not totally alien either. Confucianism is basically about family values. Ideally within a family there are clearly delineated relationships and responsibilities and an underlying spirit of love and affection. If the family is the basic building block of society, then the same values that hold a family together in love and harmony should also be the values that hold the country itself together. The country, then, becomes an extension of the family. Even today, there are those who argue that family values are needed if our society is to hold together and receive God’s blessing. Some believe that one of the greatest threats to these values is when public figures like politicians, actors, singers, or sports stars act contrary to these values or endorse ideas or ways of life that could possibly lead to or encourage the breakdown of the family. Usually it is religious conservatives who hold such views. Often these are the very same people who believe in the literal unfolding of scriptural prophecy and the intervention of an all-powerful God in human affairs through things like earthquakes, floods, disease, and other disasters. So the Confucian view that certain core values rooted in family relationships are vital to a healthy society should not be all that unfamiliar to us.


                      Unfortunately, the term “family values” has also come to represent various forms of bigotry, such as homophobia, and authoritarianism. Family values are sometimes viewed as another way of imposing outmoded patriarchal values in which women are subordinated to men, regardless of ability or relative merits, and in which unjust hierarchical relationships, unbendingly severe laws, and social conformism and repression are the norm. Certainly Confucianism throughout its history came to represent a very patriarchal system which devalued women, emphasized rote learning and strict conformity, and was often responsible for the political suppression of rival systems of thought and even outright bigotry against non-Chinese people and cultures. It became a very narrow, close-minded and oppressive system of thought. But this was the dark side of the Confucian tradition. The dark side of Confucianism and what are called “family values” need to be recognized and critiqued. However, one should not lose sight of the positive aspects. The Confucian emphasis on the five constant virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness need not necessarily be connected with bigotry and patriarchal repression. These Confucian “family values” had a vital role in uplifting the human spirit and steering human society (at least in East Asia) towards a more peaceful and harmonious way of life based on the fundamental building block of a loving family. It was these values that Nichiren praised in many of his writings as necessary precursors to the reception of Buddhism. Hopefully, we too can come to appreciate the continuing relevance of such values and find ways to appropriate them into our own lives in a way that appropriate in our day and age wherein other values such as equality, creativity, progress, and tolerance prevail.



Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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