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An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent

The situation is somewhat more complicated in the Chinese traditions. The idea of religious experience seems to be almost completely absent in the Confucian tradition; the social world looms large, and the idea of an ultimate reality that needs to be experienced becomes much less prominent. Before the arrival of Buddhism in China, Confucianism was primarily a political and ethical system, with no particular concern with the transcendent (though people who identified themselves as Confucians frequently engaged in Chinese folk religious practices). Nevertheless, meditation (and therefore something that could be called “religious experience”) did come to play a role in Confucian practice in the tenth century, as Confucian thought began to be influenced by Buddhist and Taoist thought. The resulting view is known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism retains the Mencian doctrine that human beings are by nature good, but in need of purification. Since goodness resides in every person, then examination of oneself should reveal the nature of goodness, through the experience of the vital force within (qi). The form of meditation that arises from this line of thought (“quiet sitting” or “sitting and forgetting”) are very like Buddhist vipassana meditation, but there is no value placed on any particular insight gained, though one can experience the principle of unity (li) behind the world. Success is measured in gradual moral improvement. The Taoist ideal is to come to an understanding of the Tao, the fundamental nature of reality that explains all things in the world, and live according to it. Knowledge of the Tao is essential to the good life, but this knowledge cannot be learned from discourses, or transmitted by teaching. It is only known by experiential acquaintance. The Tao gives the universe a kind of grain, or flow, going against which causes human difficulty. The good human life is then one that respects the flow of Tao, and goes along with it. This is what is meant by “life in accordance with nature.” By paying attention, a person can learn what the Tao is, and can experience unity with it. This picture of reality, along with the picture of how one can come to know it, heavily influenced the development of Ch’an Buddhism, which became Zen.