Reconciling Taoism and Confucianism
Taoism and Confucianism are two of the world's major philosophies that have been contributed by Chinese society. Upon first inspection, Taoism and Confucianism may appear to be very different, even contradictory. To the enlightened, it is realized that Taoist thought and Confucian thought are very much in line with one another, but it just may be that the two philosophies are expressed differently. At the crossroads where the two seemingly different philosophies find reconciliation are the three ideas at the heart of each philosophy: filial piety, education, and enlightenment.
On the surface, it appears that Taoist thought and Confucian thought regard filial piety in very different ways. In the Tao te Ching, the great Taoist master Lao Tsu once said, "...When there is no peace in the family, filial piety begins...." On the other hand, from passages five to eight of Book II of Confucius' The Analects, we are instructed to behave, to never disobey our parents, and to remain filial to our parents even after their deaths. This may seem like a contradiction until we look at the deeper meanings of filial piety from the two philosophies.
According to Lao Tsu, if filial piety begins after a conflict has occurred in a family, this is going against the true nature of what it means to be filial. This implies action to correct a situation: action that is not coming naturally from the heart. If natural filial piety were expressed in the family from the very beginning, conflict would have no means to arise. Thus, filial piety exists naturally; it is through the expression of filial piety using non-action, known in Chinese as wu wei, that its true nature can be understood. Indeed, it would seem that Taoism considers wu wei an essential element of filial piety.
In addition, filial piety exists not only within the family; it also naturally exists between members of the extended family that is humankind and between all beings that make up the universe. In the Tao te Ching, Lao Tsu once said, "...the Master is available to all people and doesn't reject anyone..." He also said, "...Every being in the universe is an expression of the Tao..." These two passages point to the realization that all people and all objects that make up the universe are connected. There exists between all beings a naturally reciprocal filial piety that binds them together. It is through the realization of this that we can come to a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be filial.
According to Confucius, being filial to our parents is the utmost expression of respect. This is an essential element in obtaining the title of chun-tzu, or noble person. However, filial piety is not a one-way street. Parents must also be filial to their children and to their parents. Both parent and child have a natural position and responsibility within the family; therefore natural filial piety is reciprocal. It is through recognizing and practicing filial piety in the family that a person will know how to act outside of the family. For in the Confucian tradition, it is realized that filial piety also exists between all beings. This is evident in the Confucian Golden Rule, which is sometimes referred to as the Silver Rule: "Do not do unto others what you would want them to not do unto you." As in Taoist thought, filial piety is something that naturally exists and is reciprocal in nature. To force filial piety into being or to intentionally practice reciprocal filial piety would be going against its true nature. Filial piety must be freely expressed for it to be truly realized.
When we look at the deeper meaning of filial piety as viewed from both Taoism and Confucianism, we may see that the two philosophies regard filial piety in much the same way. Filial piety is an essential part and is at the intersection of both philosophies. We must realize this in order to understand Taoism and Confucianism more clearly.
With regards to education, it may also seem that Taoist thought and Confucian thought differ greatly. In the Tao te Ching, Lao Tsu said, "...The more you know, the less you understand..." He also said, "...Not-knowing is true knowledge..." How can this be? It would seem that Lao Tsu was telling us not to think. On the other hand, in The Analects, Confucius once said, "...If one learns but does not think, one is lost; if one thinks but does not learn, one is in danger..." Again, these two traditions seem to contradict one another until we take a deeper look at how each philosophy regards education.
In the Western world, when we think of education, we generally think of schools and universities. These are the institutions through which we achieve our learning. In the Taoist tradition, institutions are regarded with suspicion. Institutions are viewed as going against nature by forcing people to be what they truly are not. However, for the Taoist, education is a solo quest without walls or boundaries. The Taoist seeks to understand the naturalness of everything as it exists in the present. Instead of trying to know each separate piece, the Taoist tries to understand the whole, for the whole is the Tao. For example, we can say that we know someone, but we do not understand them. But to say that we understand someone, is that not better than saying that we know them? In Taoism, the key is not to know something; the key is to understand it. One goes about this through self-education and transformation. This kind of education is also natural; it just needs to be recognized as such and developed to its fullest.
In addition, the Taoist is an educator in a sense. The Taoist teaches by example. Lao Tsu said, "...The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings..." Naturally, when others see one who is enlightened, they will realize it, and they will learn.
In Confucianism, too, it is self-education, and not institutional education, that is the most important. This may seem to contradict the stereo type of the Confucian scholar who studies the classics for years, takes the exams, and works on society, and it does. However, according to Confucius, people must first recognize themselves and their potential. This is at the heart of Confucian education. Confucius believed that in order to know about anything else in the world, we must first know our selves. Then people must educate themselves as to how they fit into the world around them. This is the beginning of Confucian knowledge; it is obtained when both the learning and the thought processes work together.
The Confucian master, like the Taoist master, is also a role model for society. By knowing his place in the world around him, and by following the way of the chun-tzu, the Confucian teaches by example. Others recognize him as such and will learn from being around him.
Therefore, when we look at the deeper meaning of education, we may see that Taoism and Confucianism consider education in much the same way. We must know the importance of self realization and understand how we fit into the whole. We must teach others by example. This is a very important form of education. In this way, we will be better prepared for the greater education that is life itself.
Regarding enlightenment, again, it may seem that Taoist thought and Confucian thought differ greatly. For the Taoist, enlightenment is a process of realizing, following, and becoming one with the great Tao. On the other hand, Confucianism is generally thought to not deal with anything that is not concretely in this world; its concern is humanity. When we take a deeper look at what it means to be enlightened, we find that these two philosophies are seeing eye to eye. In taking this deeper look, let us look at transformation as the way to enlightenment.
To the Taoist, enlightenment is a continual, constant process. This enlightenment is first obtained by gradual transformation of the self until the Tao can be realized. Gradual transformation is obtained by following the way of the Taoist as passed down from generation to generation. The same is true in the Confucian context. Confucianism is not a static, unyielding philosophy concerned only with human interactions and the workings of good government. These are merely aspects of that which lies at the center of Confucian philosophy. At the center you will find that transformation of the self gives rise to all other Confucian ideals and, ultimately, to enlightenment. In Book I of The Analects, Confucius says, "...It is upon the trunk that the gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows." This Way that Confucius refers to is the same as the Taoist Way: the Tao. It would seem that Confucius is recognizing that the attainment of the Tao is the ultimate achievement. If so, then both Taoist thought and Confucian thought place the Tao at the center of their philosophy and as their goal. The difference between Taoism and Confucianism may be seen in the different words chosen to express enlightenment.
Enlightenment through transformation seems to be an essential part of both Taoism and Confucianism. Only through gradual transformation of the self can one obtain enlightenment. In this way, nature will take its course, and we will realize the Way.
In conclusion, it would seem that the two competing philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism have more in common than previously acknowledged. Concepts of filial piety, education of the self, and enlightenment through self transformation seem to reside at the center of each of these traditions. Granted, Taoism and Confucianism are entirely different systems; however, realizing that they do have similarities, the two philosophies seem much less different. Perhaps there are Confucian Taoists in China who already know this.
Koller, John M. & Koller, Patricia Joyce. (1998). Asian Philosophies, 3rd Ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Mitchell, Stephen. (1988). Tao te Ching. N.Y.: Harper & Row.
The Analects of Confucius. Trans. Arthur Waley. (1989). N.Y.: Vintage Books.
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contents (c) 2001 Shawn Ford/ Webb-Ed Press