Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Confucianism

Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Confucianism

tree of life spiritual teachings

More than a millennium before Christ a people known as the Shang or Yin lived along the Yellow River in China. We know very little about these people. But what we do know tells us they were developed in writing, technical skills and that their civilization was very old.

About 1100 B.C., they were conquered by a neighboring people known as the Chou. The Chou Dynasty became the longest dynasty in the history of China. The fame of this dynasty rests on the fact that they developed an extensive written literature and new insights into philosophy.

In the sixth century B.C., a burst of intellectual energy gave the Chinese people matter for their thought for over two- and-one-half millenniums. This began with Confucius, 551 – 479.

Confucius came after five centuries of Chou kings who started strong but deteriorated in character and ability as they became more prosperous.

The fierce conflicts and war between the many feudal states in China led to the establishment of the first absolute monarch, the Emperor of China. Many of those who had had favored positions in the old feudal system were jobless and discontented; Confucius was one of these.

Before we can study Confucius and his teachings, we must look at the period which preceded him. Our knowledge of this period comes from the Book of Odes. These are poems. Some are from the Shang period; some are love poems and poems of feeling; and others comment on the Chou government, both complimenting and criticizing it. Confucius is said to have edited the Book of Odes. It is certain he learned much from it.

The Book of Odes came from an oral tradition. By the time it was written, it left no emotion untouched. Confucius quoted from the Odes often. He once quoted to his students:

My little ones, why don’t you study the Odes? Poetry will exalt you, make you observant, enable you to mix with others, provide an outlet for your vexations; you learn from it immediately to serve your parents and ultimately to serve your prince. It also provides wide acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, and plants.

The Odes follow the deterioration of the kings. There were too many political jobs, tyranny developed and disorder became common. To add to this, natural calamities came to the people.

Before the Shang Dynasty, the gods were animistic and known from myth. The spirits were divided between the good (shen) and bad (kwei) spirits. Animism led to a concern with the dead.

Veneration of one’s ancestors became of prime importance in the lives of the people and took on a religious significance that is still followed to this day.

By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1700 – 1100 B.C.), there arose a belief in an exalted being known as Shang-Ti. The lesser gods and spirits were still worshipped, however.

With the advent of the Chou Dynasty, an “impersonal” deity emerges, known as Tien, or Heaven. Later, only the Emperors were able to sacrifice to Heaven at the Summer and Winter Solstice festivals. And it followed that the importance of the gods you worshipped corresponded to your social position.

The people revolted against the gods about mid-point in the Chou Dynasty. The common people were aware of the evils which had come their way and could see no other reason than the gods had failed. Their rites and prayers were not heard. Some people became so disgusted that they went off to isolated places to brood. Many of these poems are the product of this brooding.

By the time of Confucius the Odes stated the nature of the evil that was affecting the people. Two schools of physicians arose to heal the sickness. One was the mysticism out of which the TAO TE CHING took form. The other was Confucius, who proposed the moral cure for an evil society.

Confucius was born during this time about 551 B.C., in the province of Shantung. From the ages of seventeen and twenty-two he had worked out his philosophy and had become well-known as a teacher of the ancient writings. Confucius had not the intention of starting a new religion, but of bringing people into the full realization of the old, its utility, beauty and truth. In 517 B.C., he went to the capitol and visited with Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism. After fifteen years of teachings, between revolutions and political intrigues of those who were envious of him, he rose to a leading position in the kingdom with two of his disciples. But the intrigues caught him and he was removed from office in 496 B.C.

For the next thirteen years he wandered through China. He then returned to the province of Lu where after the death of his two disciples he continued teaching with even greater followings.

“All his teaching was devoted to practical morality and to the duties of man in this world in relation to his fellow man. In it was summed up the wisdom acquired by his own insight and experience, and that derived from the teaching of the sages of antiquity. He sought to attain a happy tranquility throughout the Chinese Empire which could, he believed, be attained by the observance of the five obligations of human society: (1) Those between sovereign and minister; (2) father and son; (3) husband and wife; (4) elder and younger brother; and (5) between friends. It was, according to his teaching, incumbent upon all to perform the reciprocal duties arising from each relationship. In his teachings there is a strong feudal leaning which advocates almost unlimited authority for the sovereign over the minister; for the father over the son; the husband over the wife; the elder brother over his younger. Subordination to superiors he looked upon as one of the greatest of all essentials for the existence and proper conduct of the state. To these must be added virtuous conduct among all and upright dealing among friends. The education of the young he declared to be the foundation of the welfare of the state…. Confucius’ ideal of government was a paternal disposition wisely and honestly directed and administered. This position he modified by the assertion that a ruler’s maintenance of power should depend upon his just and upright conduct and his honest endeavor to make his government good.” (The Encyclopedia Americana).


Confucius did most of his teachings in the towns and cities of China. The mysticism developed in the mountains and more isolated regions. The masses were crowded together and to them Confucius spoke. Confucius himself felt he was divinely appointed to speak of moral virtue, and no more.

The concept of God was not stressed, for it was being worked out in other teachings of the time, namely Buddhism and Taoism.

From Chinese mysticism had come the idea of the Way — represented by the word Tao. To them this was an old sign with new meanings. They said nothing could exist without the Way:


Something there is, whose veiled creation was

Before the earth or sky began to be.

So silent, so aloof and so alone,

It changes not, nor fails, but touches all:

Conceive it as the mother of the world.


I do not know its name.

A name for it is “Way”.

Pressed for designation,

I call it Great.

Great means outgoing,

Out-going, far-reaching,

Far-reaching, return.


The Way is great,

The sky is great,

The earth is great,

The king also is great.

Within the realm

These four are great:

The king but stands

For one of them.


Man conforms to earth.

The earth conforms to sky.

The sky conforms to the Way

The Way conforms to its own nature.

The Way of Life: Lao Tzu, No. 25


Confucius could not use the Way. He saw that the people understood it wrong. To them it was keeping the gods happy with rites and rituals here on earth. But the evils which had happened led many to look for a new conception of the Way. Confucius said that one should be very strict about observing rites and sacrifices, but, he said that his life was also a prayer. This was revolutionary for China. It meant that unless ones’ life was moral, in other words a prayer, all the rites and sacrifices would not amount to anything.

Confucius laid down a Golden Rule of reciprocity:

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

As mentioned before, this Rule was to guide the five obligations of human society.

Ritual was used by Confucius as intercourse between God and man, and therefore between man and man. It was an etiquette which controlled man’s relations with his fellows. Ritual was an outward or visible sign of the inner goodness.

A man must be pragmatic. Even in ritual Confucius said, “Absorption in the study of the supernatural is most harmful.” The proper attitude was “to devote oneself earnestly to one’s duty to humanity, and, while respecting the spirits, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.” And it was pragmatic to carry out all of one’s religious duties.

But to the ring of his inner disciples were taught the truths of Creation, the illumination and advancement of that illumination, the mystic teachings of the ages, and the reality of God. One of his later disciples remarked, that it is hard, nearly impossible, to hear the truths as told by the Master.

Eventually elaboration led to set codes of conduct. A master had to know 3,300 rules of conduct. This often took so much energy that little time was left for developing moral character.

To Confucius, li, or “propriety” meant conformity to the five obligations. This must begin with the family. Confucius explained its significance when he said:

“The principles of li and righteousness serve as the principles of social discipline. By means of these principles people try to maintain the official status of rulers and subjects, to teach the parents and children and elder brothers and younger brothers and husbands and wives to live in harmony, to establish social institutions . . . Through this principle of rational social order (li) everything becomes right in the family, the state, and world.”

He later said,

“It is not possible for a man to teach others who cannot teach his own family, for from loving examples of one’s family, the whole of society becomes loving; while from the ambition and perverseness of one man, the whole state may be led to rebellion and disorders. Such is the nature of influence.”

Confucius saw the flaw in this when he said that “there well may be men who are superior but not good.” It was hoped that by using the Way, honest and just men would run the government. But it often happened that they were gentlemen, and scholarly, but little else!

Confucius did not systematize his thought. He did not define the source of the moral force which gives man character (te). He stressed piety, but did not speak of God except in the sense of heaven, and even here he did not elaborate. This was not his way.

In preparation for the teachings and Teachers to come Confucius gave his disciples knowledge of God through the use of color, sound, and the forces of Nature. Only the most evolved students were taught this! To the people he taught, he said, “Let us leave the heaven to the angels and the sparrows,” and, “while you do not understand life, how can you know about death.”

Confucius’ greatness was that he gave China a lasting discovery into the moral nature of man. Through service, all desires were channeled into an understanding of right actions which was man’s role while on earth. Out of this came a massive humanism which served as a code of conduct for China. He was, so to speak, the Moses of China. He showed men how to be better and do better where they were. Peace and order in society were developed into an elaborate pattern of civilization. It was able to withstand numerous invasions by foreign races.

Confucius’ teachings were common sense. For the deeper excitements of the spirit the Chinese people found Buddhism and Taoism. Confucius, then, provided a code of moral conduct which enabled man to serve – this unending bending of oneself toward the pleasing and serving of another in a way as to allow that person being served to obtain his freedom.

Confucius collected, edited and re-wrote the classics of the Chou period. By doing this he set the standard for Confucian orthodoxy and built the classics of Chinese literature.

The five classics of Confucius are:

  1. Yi-Ching or Book of Changes: This is a book of divination. Confucius commented on it and re-arranged it. It also contains the theory of Yang and Yin in words and symbols. Circumstances are always changing. One must know this and change accordingly as Yin and Yang achieve balance. There must be a tie between attitude and circumstance. One’s balance must be maintained for error is working against circumstance. If error succeeds, imbalance results.
  2. Shu-Ching or Book of History: This is the history of the “Sage Kings” of the golden age.
  3. Shi-Ching or Book of Odes
  4. Ch’un Ch’in: This is a record of the events in the reigns of the kings in the province of Lu where Confucius lived.
  5. LiChi or Book of Rites: This is a collection of writings on ceremonies and rites.

We also have the Four Books which are:

  1. The Analects: A collection of the Master’s sayings
  2. The Great >Learning
  3. The Doctrine of the Mean: Collected by his disciples
  4. Mencius: The great disciple and successor of Confucius.



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