Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chinese Religions

Chinese Religions are one of my favorite areas of study.  I focused on them for my history degree, and have done work at the East/West Center at the University of Hawaii.  Here I'd like to look at two aspects that our textbook brings out.

The first has to do with the development of Chinese religious thought from ancient times to the present.  Ancient records show that the Chinese believed in one God, although also worshiping lesser spirits and powers.  By the time of Confucius this had changed to more obvious polytheism and ancestor worship.  However, Confucius was important in shifting Chinese thought away from belief in a personal God and instead spoke of "tien," sometimes translated "heaven," as an impersonal force.  He also encouraged the Chinese to generally ignore the idea of God or gods and instead focus on moral duty.  This has been characteristic of Chinese thinking since his time.  It also helps explain the popularity of Buddhism in China in that Buddhism provides bodhisattvas, persons who attained enlightenment, as objects of worship like that found in polytheism.

The second point involves the teaching about yin/yang.  Chinese thought is said to be immanent in that it denies there is a transcendent God who created the world, and instead thinks of the world as the totality of being.  All that exists is divided into the two forces of yin/yang.  Change in the world is explained in terms of the relationship of these two forces.  Balance between them is important to keep harmony.  When balance is not kept disasters befall humans and the natural world.

This explanatory device is like the ancient Greek materialists who sought to explain all of reality in terms of physical principles like water, or water and fire, or water, earth, wind and fire.  It is also like materialists of today in the West who claim to explain all of reality in terms of matter and energy.

By necessity, those who say that there is nothing transcendent, that all is immanent, must claim that the world has existed from eternity.  If the world has existed from eternity, and is composed of two basic forces, then the question is how these can ever be out of harmony.  Either they have always been in harmony, or they have always been out of harmony.  However, to go from having been in harmony to then not being in harmony requires an uncaused event, or a cause from outside the system (meaning not all is immanent).  Furthermore, how can humans affect these forces either for harmony or non-harmony?  Humans as part of the system are merely responding as parts and have no creative power over the system.

Confucius himself did not address these questions.  Nevertheless, his beliefs have been formative for China over the millennia, and forms of them are popular in the West as people grow disenchanted with Western religions and look to the East for enlightenment.