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dmattwads

Religious Confucianism

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What exactly is the religious aspects of Confucianism? About all I vaguely know is there are temples, incense, and priests, but what is the purpose? What do they do? Why do they do what they do?

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I am by no stretch a scholar and am still acquainting myself with the basics of the Confucian tradition.

 

To answer very broadly, and with much possibility of error, the Confucian religious outlook starts with the understanding that humanity forms a triad with heaven and earth; that Heaven has imbued humanity with certain innate dispositions (called "sprouts" or "shoots" in Mencius) toward virtue; that by cultivating these sprouts we can realize our full humanity and simultaneously encompass or mirror the cosmos, and influence it accordingly.

 

"Heaven" (Tian) is a key concept here that can take on different meanings depending on context, sometimes within the same sentence, but in its most fundamental sense Heaven is roughly analogous to the Dao of Daoism- pervasive, dynamic, generative. Perhaps it has a more involved role in the Confucian cosmos. Sometimes it is personified as Shangdi, especially with reference to the Odes and other ancient texts, but usually it is more vague (I hesitate to say "impersonal" because like the Dao I think it transcends such categories).

 

Confucian ethical cultivation takes many forms, from statecraft and study to the arts (e.g. painting, poetry, music). Various forms of "quiet sitting" meditation have been part of Confucian practice for a long time. In conjunction with all this, the Yijing (Book of Change) is key both from a theoretical and practical standpoint in the way Confucians cultivate themselves in relation to the cosmos.

 

There are also gods and spirits. There doesn't seem to be a clear line between the spirits of deceased mortals and other spirits. The general principle, found in the Book of Rites and also alluded to in the analects, is that a person should sacrifice to the spirits of one's ancestors and one's locality- sacrificing to spirits outside these bounds is termed "flattery" or "obsequiousness" by Confucius. The boundaries have moved over time. For instance, sacrifices to the spirit of Confucius were originally done only by his descendants, but were eventually deemed the right of every follower of his Way. Local cults could become more widespread by popular custom or imperial decree.

 

Sacrifice directly to Heaven was in imperial times supposed to be reserved to the emperor. I'm not sure how strictly or consistently this was maintained through the ages. Now that the emperor is gone I suppose the restriction is defunct.

 

I have never been in a Confucian temple but from what I've read the specifically Confucian ones will be dedicated to the Sage himself as well as his disciples and other figures relevant to the Way (e.g. later philosophers like Zhu Xi or legendary figures like Fu Xi). The "priests" will be scholars trained in the rites and classics. Videos of some of these rites can be viewed online. They will start with inviting the spirit(s) to attend, an animal sacrifice, escorting the spirit(s) into the temple. Strictly choreographed dances will be performed with stately music. Petitions are read out and burnt.

 

Home ritual for venerating ancestors follows a similar pattern, though of course simplified. Zhu Xi wrote a guide to family rituals that popularized formal ancestor worship among all levels of Chinese society and which remains influential today.

 

There is a Confucian Church that was founded in recent times (past 100 years or so) consciously organized as a structure parallel to Buddhist, Daoist, and Christian congregations, but I don't think the majority of Confucian temples are affiliated with them.

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On 2020/4/11 at 3:58 AM, dmattwads said:

What exactly is the religious aspects of Confucianism? About all I vaguely know is there are temples, incense, and priests, but what is the purpose? What do they do? Why do they do what they do?

 

Confucianism is not a religion. Temples are used to show respect of the teacher.  But recently, Taiwan government doesn't show respect of the teacher. They try to attack teachers for some political purposes.

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Showing respect to the teacher, by summoning the teacher’s spirit and  making sacrifices and prayers to the spirit, seems pretty religious to me. I recognize there is lots of debate about what constitutes “religion” and whether Confucianism can be called a religion- I’m not really interested in that as it doesn’t actually tell you much about what Confucianism is. But there is more to it than just a nod of respect. 

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