Rediscovering Confucianism with Dr. Rodney Taylor

SHIZUTANI SCHOOLin Okayama Prefecture, Japan. This 17th-century Confucian school is now a National Treasure in Japan. At night, the trees outside the school are lit for visitors. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

STATUE OF CONFUCIUS in Bejing.Are you Confucian? You may be leaning in that spiritual direction without even knowing it. Among the world’s great religious traditions, Confucianism is unique in a number of ways:

Most people misunderstand it: Over the past century, Western popular culture has made Confucius a household name—but most people, and especially most Americans, know nothing about this tradition. That’s unfortunate because Confucius’ teachings still shape life for more than a billion people worldwide. Want to understand Chinese culture? You can’t without understanding Confucianism.

Teachers debate whether it is a religion: Comparative-religion teachers disagree on whether Confucianism is a religion—or is strictly an ethical system. Dr. Rodney Taylor, one of the world’s great scholars of Confucianism, argues that this truly is a living religious tradition of great spiritual depth.

The full flowering of this religious tradition is all but extinct: That’s one major reason it is easy for writers on comparative religion to dismiss Confucianism as merely a branch of ethics. Cataclysmic events in Asian history over the past century have all but wiped out the vibrancy of Confucian life. Nevertheless, Confucius’ influence still can be seen in many aspects of Asian culture—such as its strong emphasis on education and pragmatic social engineering. Confucius certainly would have disagreed with many of the political choices made in China and other Asian countries over the past century—but the core of Confucius’ teaching emphasizes education as the key to rebuilding the world.

What are spiritual beliefs
in Confucius’ teaching?

If those are some of the cultural influences of Confucianism—and some of the practical problems we face in understanding the pure teachings of Confucius—then what are the spiritual hallmarks of this tradition whose influence ranks among the world’s greatest religions?

Rodney Taylor opens his new book, Confucius, the Analects: The Path of the Sage, with a story about his own experience years ago in meeting a modern Confucian sage in Japan who embodied “the living tradition” in full flower: Dr. Okada Takehiko, a man who had devoted his life to studying Confucianism and who truly lived that spiritual life. Rodney, at the time of their meeting in Japan, was a young researcher translating Okada’s work into English. He traveled by train to meet the elderly Japanese sage in his hometown.

Later this week, you will meet Rodney Taylor in our weekly author interview. About his life-changing meeting with Okada, Taylor says:

“He came to meet us at the train station and the very first thing he said to me after our formal greeting was this: ‘I believe the world is in a profound crisis of moral decline. What can we do about it?’

“I still remember that moment and his directness in asking this question. I realized in that moment that I was seeing the full living face of Confucianism.”

Why is that so? Because, as Taylor’s book explains in about 150 pages, this still-very-potent religion teaches that humans must confront the problems in our world. Unlike other popular spiritual teachings these days, Confucianism does not urge people to go off and find solace on their own. Confucius taught that ultimately the Heavens and the Earth are a good and just system. Throughout our lives—and especially through our diligent study—we should strive to understand this vast cosmic system. Then, our spiritual challenge always is to use our wisdom to restore the goodness in the world.

When Okada met this young translator at the train station, it was quite natural for the Japanese sage to immediately begin discussing plans for further study and further action to help bring the world back into a healthier balance.

In the opening pages of his book, Rodney Taylor writes: “Through our relationship, I came to understand that Confucianism is not a historical relic of a philosophical value system, but a living tradition of great religious and spiritual depth. The teaching of Confucianism can be summarized, as Okada explained to me, by suggesting that we must turn to live with the moral goodness inherent within us, just as the universe itself embodies goodness, and through that goodness we come to realize ourselves, our relation with our families, our society, our world, and the universe itself. As Okada would say, we simply need to realize the basic premise of Confucius’ teaching, his teaching of goodness, which is found in the text known as the Analects, the record of the sayings of Confucius. This teaching has played a central role in the life and cultures of East and Southeast Asia for the past 2,500 years.”

Who was Confucius?

In his new book, Rodney Taylor writes: “Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived in a time of increasing social, political and religious chaos, the beginning of the disintegration of the Chou Dynasty (1045-256 BCE) into a series of contending and competing separate states, a period in Chinese history called the Spring and Autumn (722-479 BCE). During Confucius’ adult life records indicate he held a series of minor government positions. He eventually rose as high as prime minister of the state of Lu before abandoning all official titles because of his disaffection for what he saw as the corruption of court life. Following his court experience, he traveled from state to state with a group of his disciples, attempting to convince the rulers of the states to return to the ways of the sages of antiquity and thus rebuild the moral virtue he saw as the governing principle of the early Chou Dynasty. After some fourteen years and little success in his venture, he returned to his native state of Lu.

“Aging in years, he gathered a great number of disciples as he turned exclusively to teaching the ways of the ancient sages. Confucius believed that the world could be restored to a time of peace and harmony if all people, rulers and commonors alike, would set aside their ways of selfishness and aggression and return to the teachings of goodness, the moral capacity of humankind that ultimately reflects the moral structure of the universe and is exemplified by the words and deeds of the sages recorded in the Classics. He believed it possible to invoke this change in both self and society because he had the record of the time of the sages when the world was at peace in the distant past.

“Not unlike other religious figures, Confucius strongly believed that there was a model of true goodness that had existed in the past, what we might call a golden age. Many have looked to such a time, and humankind has often built its hopes upon the capacity of a particular person or set of ideas and practices to successfully navigate a return to a time of greater purity and innocence. In a sense it is the quest for utopia and may be as basic to human nature as the quest for life itself. Every generation, it seems, looks to an earlier time, a beginning time, if only to reactivate the possibility of human potential and the goal of human transformation against the sheer weight of human inertia.”

Are you Confucian? You may be leaning in that spiritual direction without even knowing it.

READ PART 2: Our in-depth interview with Rodney Taylor.

Get a copy of Rodney Taylor’s book via SkyLight Paths.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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