Monday, December 21, 2009

Supreme Being, Absolute

Confucianism has an Absolute that is called Heaven. Obviously Heaven is a translation, but it's unlike many other Confucian concepts which are introduced to the West with their Chinese word and are then roughly translated. The Chinese word remains as part of explaining and naming the concept. Implied in this continued use of the Chinese word is that the translation is an inexact approximation of the concept.  Use of the Chinese word reminds you that you need to hold the concept loosely in your mind until you can build a context for it.

Li is explained using the Chinese word. Li is the concept of using ritual and propriety to honor family members, ancestors and rulers. Ren receives the same treatment, it represents the ideal relationship between two people.

Heaven, however, is often used without its Chinese name, Tien or Tian. Perhaps because Tien is a word with many interpretations. Sometimes when it is used as a pair with Earth as in, Heaven and Earth, it sound very much like the Heaven of Christian terms. I am not sure why the word Heaven is used in this way since it causes confusion in Western minds.

When Tien is used in a traditional folk way it is a spirit place where the ancestors are ruled over by a supreme ancestor (Shang Ti). (Smith 183) With the ancestors there, Heaven is a spirit rendition of our world, with its own version of influence peddling (take care and reverence your ancestors and they will help you). Ancestors can be influenced with money and favorite foods. This way of looking at heaven has roots that predate Confucianism. All Chinese religions refer to this Heaven and the ancestors in it. Huston Smith's take on Confucianism was that the balance in Chinese society had grown to cede too much control to Heaven. Confucianism brought Chinese thought back into the world; back to Earth. (185)

Heaven in Chinese history has a special connection to Kings and Rulers. The Kings were connected to Heaven in a way that others were not, making them a kind of nexus with Heaven. A King's ancestors were powerful semi-divinities in Heaven. Confucianism democratized Heaven a bit, giving more people access to their ancestors and a way to impact and connect with Heaven. A King's ancestors would be higher up in the hierarchy of Heaven then your ancestors but you still were connected. This access to Heaven was always a special responsibility of Kings and Emperors but was still available to all with identifiable ancestors.

Just as the Christian concept of a monotheistic God can range from the very personal to the highly theoretical, Heaven does also. Some Confucianists, now and in the past, regard Heaven as an ideal rather than actual, and ancestor worship as a way of connecting with their heritage. Tien is as plastic as Western concepts of God. One translation of Tien is "an impersonal force that watches over human affairs" (Fieser 160).

Neo-Confucianists of the Middle Ages mixed in more of Buddhism and Daoism into Chinese religion. The connection with Heaven still involved the ancestors but the way of connection was influenced by the idea of qi. Mencius, an early Confucian sage who lived between 400-300 BCE thought that by living a very good life of honor and right relationship one would create a "flood-like qi" that would "...fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a qi which unites rightness and the Way" (Armstrong 305). In other words, how one lived in right relation, with ren, created qi which connected one powerfully with Heaven. The ideal was a life that made the connection with Heaven a seamless continuum.

No comments:

Post a Comment