Eastern philosophy includes some of the oldest ideas on record about the nature of human beings, the cosmos, and the purpose of existence. After nearly four millennia, it remains vitally meaningful in many of its modern-day incarnations, and continues to guide millions of people in their search for wisdom and contentment. There are four ways to wisdom in Eastern philosophy: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism; in this guide, we will look at the principles and traditions of Taoism and Confucianism.
Taoism apparently began around 600 b.c.e., almost 800 years before Buddhism came to China. Although there is no one single founder of Taoism, the first and most important Taoist writing is the Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way and Its Power), which is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu. According to tradition, Lao Tzu lived around 600 b.c.e., although many scholars now say he lived centuries later. In any case, Taoist ideas were clearly in circulation by 600 b.c.e., when Taoists and Confucians first began to discuss their different views of life.
The ancient Taoists were recluses who believed that society is based on vain ambitions and hypocrisy. Their approach to life is to avoid conflict with others and to seek harmony with nature. Paradoxically, the wisdom that leads the Taoists to shun society also provides guidance for working effectively within it. Thus the Tao Te Ching speaks of the advantages of a solitary lifestyle, but also suggests ways of dealing with people and events so as not to get swept up and carried away by foolish hopes and fears.
By understanding and correcting the temptation to build yourself up and acquire what you don’t need, you can detach yourself from the superficial and selfish concerns of society and appreciate the natural, underlying rhythms of life as circumstances develop and change and give rise to new circumstances. This dynamic pattern is produced by the Tao, a mysterious principle that guides the flow of events in such a way as to nourish all beings. By learning to act in harmony with the Tao, it is possible to exert a positive influence on others or, alternatively, to find happiness in solitude.
Many Taoists came to believe that the benefits of the Tao far exceed mere happiness and harmony to include immortality. They believed death is caused by natural imbalance and can be overcome through various techniques of purifying the body. This belief gave rise to many legends about Taoist immortals. It also drew on, and contributed to, China’s rich tradition of mind/body health and fitness. This tradition continues today and includes ideas about diet and medicine and the exercise technique known as ch’i kung (qigong).
Confucianism is the ethical system created by the philosopher Confucius (“Master Kong”) around 500 b.c.e. Confucianism was the official philosophy of the Chinese empire for more than a millennium and formed the basis of the imperial administration in China through a long succession of dynasties, enabling the empire to maintain its rule. Throughout this time, the Confucian scholar-official, or mandarin as he became known in the West, represented the ideal of statecraft and civilization.
According to Confucian thought, the cultivation of the personal integrity of public ministers is vital for the stability of the government and the prosperity of the state. Those most fit to govern are those with the most wisdom, virtue, and benevolence. These qualities can be acquired through study and practice. Those who can demonstrate these qualities should be employed at high positions in government, regardless of who they are and where they are from.
Confucian virtue is basically a practical matter, geared toward effective leadership, yet Confucian thinking came to be heavily influenced by more spiritual attitudes stemming from Taoist and Buddhist ideas. In fact, with the growth and spread of the major Eastern ways of thought, many hybrids and variations have been formed and continue to be formed as they become adopted by different people and put to use in different ways. This flexibility, enabling new applications under constantly changing circumstances, is one of Eastern philosophy’s greatest assets.
Confucianism and Taoism are only two of the four ways to wisdom in Eastern Philosophy. To find out about the other two ways, check out the guide, Eastern Philosophy 101, Part 1: Hinduism and Buddhism.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eastern Philosophy by Jay Stevenson