Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Confucianism

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Within the Confucian tradition, there are rich resources for understanding how Chinese culture has viewed nature and the role of humans in nature. These are evident from the dynamic interactions of nature as expressed in the early classic Yi jing (Book of changes), to the Han period integration of the human into the triad with heaven and Earth, to the later neo-Confucian metaphysical discussions of the relationship of principle (li) and material force (qi). This does not imply, however, that there is not a gap between such theories of nature and practices toward nature in both premodern and contemporary East Asian societies. China, like many countries in Asia, has been faced with various environmental challenges, such as deforestation, for centuries. Thus, this is not to suggest an idealization of Confucian China as a model of environmental ideas or practices. This is an exploration of how Confucian thought contributed to the Chinese understanding of the relationship of humans to nature. China's complex environmental history would need to be examined for a fuller picture of the social and political reality of these relations. In addition, the spread of Confucianism would have to be traced across East Asia to Korea and Japan.

Confucianism, along with Daoism and Buddhism, has helped to shape attitudes toward nature in the Chinese context. These attitudes have changed over time as the three primary religious traditions have interacted with each other in a dynamic and mutually influencing manner. While distinctions have been made between various schools in these traditions, there has also been coexistence and syncretism among the traditions. Indeed, it is fair to say Confucianism and Daoism, in particular, share various terms and attitudes toward nature, although they differ on the role of humans in relation to nature. Confucians are more actively engaged in working with nature, especially in agricultural processes, while Daoists are more passive toward nature, wanting to experience its beauty and mystery without interfering in its rhythms.

Confucianism has conventionally been described as a humanistic tradition focusing on the roles and responsibilities of humans to family, society, and government. Thus, Confucianism is often identified primarily as an ethical or political system of thought with an anthropocentric focus. However, upon further examination and as more translations become available in Western languages, this narrow perspective needs to be reexamined. The work of many contemporary Confucian scholars in both Asia and the West has been crucial for expanding the understanding of Confucianism.

Some of the most important results of this reexamination are the insights that have emerged in seeing Confucianism as not simply an ethical, political, or ideological system. Rather, Confucianism is now being appreciated as a complex religious tradition in ways that are different from Western traditions. This is because Confucianism is being recognized for its affirmation of relationality, not only between and among humans but also between humans and the natural world. Confucians regard humans as not simply individualistic entities but as communitarian beings. It is this emerging understanding of the religious, relational, and communitarian dynamics of Confucianism that has particular relevance to the examination of Confucian attitudes toward nature. Some of these attitudes may be characterized as:

  1. Embracing an anthropocosmic worldview.
  2. Affirming nature as having inherent moral value.
  3. Protecting nature as the basis of a stable agricultural society.
  4. Encouraging human self-realization to be achieved in harmony with nature.

Anthropocosmic Worldview

The contemporary Confucian scholar Tu Weiming has spoken of the Confucian tradition as one based on an anthropocosmic vision of the dynamic interaction of heaven, Earth, and human. He describes this as a continuity of being with no radical split between a transcendent divine person or principle and the world of humans. Tu emphasizes that the continuity and wholeness of Chinese cosmological thinking is also accompanied by a vitality and dynamism.

This view is centered on the cosmos, not on the human. The implications are that the human is seen as embedded in nature, not dominant over nature. The Confucian worldview might be described as a series of concentric circles where the human resides in the center, not as an isolated individual, but as embedded in ever-expanding rings of family, society, government, and nature. The moral cultivation of the individual influences the larger circles of society and politics, as is evident in the text of the Great Learning, and that influence extends to nature, as is clear in the Doctrine of the Mean. All of these interacting circles are contained within the vast cosmos itself. Thus, the ultimate context for human flourishing is the 10,000 things, nature in all its remarkable variety and abundance.

Indeed, in Confucianism there is recognition that the rhythms of nature sustain life in both its biological needs and socio-cultural expressions. For Confucians, the biological dimensions of life are dependent on nature as a holistic, organic continuum. Everything in nature is interdependent and interrelated. Most importantly, for Confucians nature is seen as dynamic and transformational. These ideas are present as early as the classical texts of the Book of Changes and the Book of Poetry and are expressed in the Four Books, especially in Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning. They come to full flowering in the neo-Confucian tradition of the Song (9601279) and Ming (13681644) periods, especially in the thought of Zhu Xi, Zhangzai, Zhou Dunyi, and Wang Yangming. Nature in this context has an inherent unity, resulting from a primary ontological source (Taiji ). It has patterned processes of transformation (yin/yang ) and is interrelated in the interaction of the five elements (wuxing) and the 10,000 things. Nature's dynamic vitalism is seen through the movements of material force (q qi ).

Within this Confucian worldview, human culture is created and expressed in harmony with the transformations of nature. Thus, the leading Confucian of the Han period (202 bce220 ce), Dong Zhongshu, developed a comprehensive synthesis of all the elements, directions, colors, seasons, and virtues. This codified an ancient Chinese tendency to connect the patterns of nature with the rhythms of humans and society. This theory of correspondences is foundational to the anthropocosmic worldview where humans are seen as working together with heaven and Earth in correlative relationships to create harmonious societies. The mutually related resonances between self, society, and nature are constantly being described in the Confucian texts. This early Han correlative synthesis, along with the institution of the civil service examination system, provided the basis for enduring political rule in subsequent Chinese dynasties. This is not to suggest that there were not abuses of political power or manipulations of the examination system, but simply to describe the anthropocosmic foundations of Confucian political and social thought. These Confucian ideas spread across East Asia to Korea and Japan and today are present in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore as well.

Nature Has Inherent Moral Value

For Confucians, nature is not only inherently valuable, it is morally good. Nature thus embodies the normative standard for all things. There is not a fact/value division in the Confucian worldview, for nature is seen as the source of all value. In particular, value lies in the ongoing transformation and productivity of nature. A term repeated frequently in neo-Confucian sources is "life-life" or "production and reproduction" (sheng sheng ), reflecting the ever-renewing fecundity of life itself. In this sense, the dynamic transformations of life are seen as emerging in recurring cycles of growth, fruition, harvesting, and abundance. This reflects the natural processes of growth and decay in nature, human life, and human society. Change is thus seen as a dynamic force with which humans should harmonize and interact rather than from which to withdraw.

In this context, where nature has inherent moral value, there is nonetheless a sense of distinctions. Value rests in each thing in nature, but not in each thing equally. Differentiation is recognized as critical; everything has its appropriate role and place and should be treated accordingly. The use of nature for human ends must recognize the intrinsic value of each element of nature, but also its particular value in relation to the larger context of the environment. Each entity is considered not simply equal to every other; rather, each interrelated part of nature has a unique value according to its nature and function. Thus, there is a differentiated sense of appropriate roles for humans and for all other species. For Confucians, hierarchy is seen as a necessary way for each being to fulfill its function. In this context, then, no individual being has exclusive privileged status. The processes of nature and its ongoing logic of transformation (yin/yang ) are the norms that take priority. Within this context, however, humans have particular responsibilities to care for nature.

Protecting Nature as the Basis of a Stable Agricultural Society

With regard to protecting nature, the Confucians taught that what fosters nature is valuable; what destroys nature is problematic, especially for a flourishing agricultural society. Confucians would ascribe to this in principle if not consistently in practice. Confucians were mindful that nature was the basis of a stable society and that without careful tending imbalances could result. There are numerous passages in Mencius advocating humane government based on appropriate management and distribution of natural resources. Moreover, there are various passages in Confucian texts urging humans not to wantonly cut down trees or kill animals needlessly. Thus, Confucians would wish (at least in principle) to nurture and protect the great variety and abundance of life forms. Again, it may be noted that this did not always occur in practice, especially with periods of population growth, military expansion, economic development, and political aggrandizement.

However, the goal of Confucian theory to establish humane society, government, and culture inevitably resulted in the use of nature for creating housing, growing food, and establishing the means of production. In this sense, Confucianism can be seen as a more pragmatic social ecology that recognized the necessity of forming human institutions and the means of governance to work with nature. Nonetheless, it is clear for Confucians that, in principle, human cultural values and practices are grounded in nature, are part of its structure and dependent on its beneficence. In addition, the agricultural base of Confucian societies across East Asia has always been recognized as essential to the political and social well-being of the country. Confucians realized that humans prosper by living within nature's boundariesthey are refreshed by its beauty, restored by its seasons, and fulfilled by its rhythms. Human flourishing is thus dependent on fostering nature in its variety and abundance; going against nature's processes is destructive of self and society.

Self-Realization in Harmony with Nature

For Confucians, harmony with nature is essential; societal well-being and human self-realization are both achieved in relation to and in harmony with nature. The great intersecting triad of Confucianismnamely, heaven, Earth, and humanssignifies this understanding that humans can only attain their full humanity in relationship to both heaven and Earth. This became a foundation for a cosmological ethical system of relationality applicable to spheres of family, society, politics, and nature. The individual was always seen in relationship to others. In particular, the person was grounded in a reciprocal relationship with nature.

Nature functions in the Confucian worldview as great parents to humans providing sustenance, nurturing, intelligibility, and guidance. In return, nature requires respect and care from humans. Human self-realization is achieved by fulfilling this role of filiality toward heaven and Earth (nature) as beneficent parents who have sustained life for humans. This idea of heaven and Earth as parents is first depicted in the early classic of the Book of History and is later developed by thinkers such as Kaibara Ekken in seventeenth-century Japan. Humans participate in the vast processes of nature by cultivating themselves in relation to nature, by caring for the land appropriately, by creating benevolent government, and by developing human culture and society in relation to nature's seasons and transformations.

Human self-realization implies understanding the continuities of nature in its daily rhythms and seasonal cycles. Yet humans also recognize that these orderly patterns contain within them the dynamic transformations engendering creativity, spontaneity, and openness. This is the challenge for humans within a Confucian context: How to live within nature's continuities and yet be open to its spontaneities. Thus while nature has intelligible structures and patterns, it also operates in ways to produce and encourage novelty.

With regard to establishing human culture and maintaining institutions, the same dynamic tensions are evident within the Confucian tradition. How to be faithful to the pastthe continuity of the traditionand yet be open to the change and innovation necessary for the ongoing life of the tradition. Achieving self-realization for the Confucians required a creative balancing of these two elements of tradition and innovation against the background of nature's continuities and changes.

In the Confucian tradition there exists underlying patterns of cosmological orientation and connectedness of self to the universe and self to society. Indeed, one might say that Confucianism as a religious tradition is distinguished by a concern for both personal groundedness and cosmological relatedness amidst the myriad changes in the universe. The desire for appropriate orientation toward nature and connection to other humans is an enduring impetus in Confucianism. Indeed, this need to recognize and cultivate such relatedness is the primary task of the Confucian practitioner in attaining authentic personhood.

This relatedness takes many forms, and variations of it constitute one of the means of identifying different periods and thinkers in the tradition. In China, from the classical period of the Book of Changes to the Han system of correspondences and the Neo-Confucian metaphysics of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate, concerns for cosmology and cultivation have been dominant in Confucian thought. In Korea one of the most enduring expressions of this was the four-seven debates that linked the metaphysics of principle (li) and material force (qi) to issues of cultivating virtue and controlling the emotions. These debates continued in Japan, although without the same intensity and political consequences. Instead, in Japan the effort to link particular virtues to the cosmos became important, as did the expression of cultivation in the arts, in literature, and in practical learning. In this manner, one's cultivation was shared for the benefit of the society in both aesthetic and practical matters. Thus, in varied forms throughout East Asian Confucianism, the human is viewed as a microcosm in relation to the macrocosm of the universe,

Naturalistic Imagery of Confucian Religiosity

Self-cultivation in this context is seen as essential to develop or to recover one's innate authenticity and one's connection to the cosmos. It is a process filled with naturalistic imagery of planting, nurturing, growth, and harvesting. It is in this sense that one might describe the religious ethos of Confucianism as a dynamic naturalism aimed at personal and societal transformation. This means that the imagery used to described Confucian religious practice is frequently drawn from nature, especially in its botanical, agricultural, and seasonal modes. Thus to become fully human one must nurture (yang ) and preserve (cun )that is, cultivatethe heavenly principle of one's mind and heart. These key terms may refer to such activities as nurturing the seeds of goodness that Mencius identifies and preserving emotional harmony mentioned in the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong ).

In Mencius there is a recognition of the fundamental sensitivity of humans to the suffering of others (IIA:6). This is demonstrated through the example of an observer's response on seeing a child who is about to fall into a well. Mencius suggests that the child would be rescued through activating the instinctive compassion of the observer, not by promising the rescuer any extraneous rewards. Indeed, to be human for Mencius means to have a heart with the seeds (or germs) of compassion, shame, courtesy and modesty, right and wrong. When cultivated, these will become the virtues of humaneness, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. When they are developed in a person they will flourish, "like a fire starting up or a spring coming through" (IIA:6). Thus the incipient tendencies in the human are like sprouts or seeds that, as they grow, lean toward becoming fully cultivated virtues. The goal of Mencian cultivation, then, is to encourage these natural spontaneities before calculating or self-serving motives arise. This begins the art of discerning between the Way mind (daoxin ) and the human mind (renxin ).

In a similar manner, the Doctrine of the Mean speaks of differentiating between the state of centrality or equilibrium before the emotions (pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy) are aroused and the state of harmony after the emotions are aroused. This balancing between the ground of existence (centrality) and its unfolding process of self-expression (harmony) is part of achieving an authentic mode of human existence. To attain this authenticity (cheng ) means not only that one has come into harmony with oneself but also that one has achieved a unity with heaven and Earth. Thus the identification of the moral order and the cosmic order is realized in the process of human cultivation. Self-authenticity is realized against the backdrop of the sincerity of the universe. This results in participation in the transforming and nourishing processes of heaven and Earth.

In Mencius, that self-cultivation is seen as analogous to the natural task of tending seeds and is thus enriched by agricultural and botanical imagery. Moreover, in the Doctrine of the Mean this cultivation is understood within the context of a cosmological order that is pervasive, structured, and meaningful. The human is charged to cultivate oneself and, in this process, to bring the transformations of the cosmos to their fulfillment. It is thus possible to speak of early Confucianism as having religious dimensions characterized by naturalistic analogies of cultivation within a context of cosmological processes of transformation. All of this, then, involves a religiosity of analogies between the human and the natural world.

The Book of Changes was also a major source of inspiration for spiritual practice and cosmological orientation for the neo-Confucians. This was seen amidst the transformations of the universe celebrated as production and reproduction (sheng, sheng ). For the neo-Confucians it was clear that many of the virtues that a person cultivated had a cosmological component. For example, humaneness (ren ) in humans was seen as analogous to origination (yuan ) in nature. The growth of this virtue in humans thus had its counterpart in the fecundity of nature itself. To cultivate (hanyang ), one needs to practice both inner awareness and outer attention, abiding in reverence within and investigating principle without. This requires quiet sitting (jingzuo ) and extending knowledge through investigating things (gewu zhizhi). To be reverent has been compared to the notion of recollection (shoulian ), which means literally to collect together or to gather a harvest.

Thus, from the early classical Confucian texts to the later neo-Confucian writings there is a strong sense of nature as a relational whole in which human life and society flourishes. This had implications for politics and society that were evident throughout Chinese history, even if the ideals of the tradition were not always realized in practice.

See Also

Confucianism, overview article and article on the Classical Canon.


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Mary Evelyn Tucker (2005)