In The Garden Of Confucian Wisdom

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Image: The opening from ‘Exegeses on the Book of Mencius’, government imprint of 1201-1204 C.E

While reading Sachiko Murata’s brilliant ‘Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light’, I was surprised to discover that Chinese Islamic authorities such as Wang Tai Yu or Liu Chih had been able to express the whole of their Islamic teaching and Dawah in purely Confucian terms, without any qualms or conflict. Surely not I thought!

However, after coming across more Confucian teachings, as presented by Yamin Cheng in his wonderful book ‘Islam and the Wisdom of Eastern Religions’, it became abundantly clear to me why they had indeed found it so easy to express Islam with purely Confucian concepts (and even language). 

‘A great man is one who feels that he belongs to a unity which includes the universe and the different kinds of beings…when a man sees a child about to fall into a well, he has the instinct of commiseration (same feeling as the child in that situation). This is the sense of human-heartedness and it is this which makes him and the child one. Still, someone may say that man and child constitute a unity only because they belong to the same species.

However, when a man sees trembling and frightened birds and animals and hears their cries, he has a sense of pity for them. It is this which makes him one with them. Or someone may say that this unity exists only because birds and animals in common with men have feeling and sense. Nevertheless, even when a man beholds falling trees, he knows pity – and it is this which makes him one with the plants.

Someone may say again that this unity is derived from the fact that plants, like men, are living organisms.

In answer to this, we may point out that even when a man sees stones and bricks being broken up, he feels pity. This constitutes his oneness with physical objects. This sense of oneness with the universe is a gift of nature and is conferred by Heaven. It is in itself bright and intelligent.’

– Wang Yang Ming, one of the four major Confucian Scholars (16th Century –  the others are Confucius himself, Mencius and Chu Hsi)

The same point is articulated beautifully by Mencius (4th Century BC)

‘All human beings (ren chieh) have a heart (hsin) that is unbearable (pu ren) of (the sufferings) of other human beings. The Former Kings (hsien wang) have a heart that is unbearable of (the sufferings) of other human beings, therefore it is capable of having a government (cheng) that has a heart that is unbearable of (the sufferings) of others.

By taking the heart that is unbearable of (the sufferings) of others, and making it the implementation of a government that is unbearable of (the sufferings) of others, administering (chih) the people (tian hsia) is as easy as putting it on the palm.

Therefore, as for saying that everyone has a heart that is unbearable (of the sufferings of others), it is this. Supposing a person were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well, he would certainly be moved to empathy, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wanted to win the praise of his fellow villagers or friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child.

From this, it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of empathy is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of shame and dislike is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of modesty and compliance is not human, and whoever is devoid of the heart of right and wrong is not human.

The heart of empathy is the beginning (tuan) of human-heartedness. The heart of shame and dislike is the beginning of rightness. The heart of modesty and compliance is the beginning of properly-ness. The heart of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.

All persons have these four beginnings just as he has four limbs. For a person possessing these four beginnings to deny his own potentialities is for him to cripple himself.

If a person is able to develop all these four beginnings that he possesses, it will be like a fire starting up or a spring coming through. When these are fully developed, he can take under his protection the whole realm within the Four Seas, but if he fails to develop them, he will not be able even to serve his parents.’

This is underscored by his conversation with King Hsan of the state of Ch’i: The king asked Mencius about the possibility of a ruler to become an ‘true king’ (meaning an ideal ruler). Mencius replied in the affirmative. He gave an example of when King Hsan could not bear to see the blood of an ox in a sacrifice and suggested a lamb instead. Concerning the kings action, Mencius said, ‘The heart behind your action is sufficient to enable you to become a true king…your failure to become a true king is due to your refusal to act, not to your inability to act.’

These teachings are further explained brilliantly and lucidly in Yamin Cheng’s short book ‘Islam and the Wisdom of Asian Religions’ available here: http://ibtbooks.com/product.php?cat=CR&pid=9789839541809

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