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Self in World Religions
Although religion is primarily a social activity -- even the most solitary and mystical of religious practitioners require an existing creed subscribed to by other people -- to a certain degree religion is required to define the self. In practice, the religious conception of selfhood can work in a number of ways -- either by setting limits to acceptable thought and behavior by the self by establishing doctrine or taboo, or else by defining the nature of that self in terms of those essential characteristics which relate specifically to religious practice (as in religions which hold to concepts of the soul or of an afterlife). From this standpoint it is worth surveying the concept of self in the various non-Western religions -- Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism -- to examine how they contribute to, or define, the self.
It is worth noting at the outset that Confucianism itself is not a religion, per se, but a set of first principles of social organization and behavior: there are no larger otherworldly implications to the Confucian precepts for the self. Instead, the self is defined in Confucianism by means of its relation to the larger social unit, and in terms of its social relationships. For Confucius, life consists of ethical principles: the central problem with humanity is anything which exacerbates human tendencies towards social disharmony. The Confucian system is one in which social order is paramount: Douglas Soccio defines Confucius not as a religious figure or philosopher per se, but as "the social sage" (Soccio 33). Confucius offers no prescriptions about deities or the afterlife, but instead gives rules of conduct -- in essence a manual of etiquette, which manages to raise etiquette to the level of a moral imperative. For Confucius, the goal for the self is to exist in the greatest possible harmony within society, which means adhering to specifically-defined social roles. In some sense, Confucianism places its most religious-seeming reverent attitudes towards the idea of education -- Confucius himself is presented as no more than a teacher (of right behavior, of rules of conduct, more than a teacher of moral inquiry) and good education is central to the Confucian concept of good behavior and for its fairly circumscribed sense of any the larger goals of human life. For Confucius the chief rule of life is chung-yung, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Western Classical idea of the Golden Mean: chung-yung literally means "centrality and universality," and it implies not only accordance with moral law but also a larger societal balance and harmony. The ideal self, according to Confucius, obeys the rules of chung-yung. There are several key concepts that must be understood in Confucius' system of behavior. The first of these is "li" usually translated as "ritual" or "rules of proper behavior" -- it denotes a concept of respect for the accepted forms of behavior, and an adherence to their right conduct. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, li comprises rules and behaviors "through which one expresses respect for superiors and enacts his role in society in such a way that he himself is worthy of respect and admiration" ("Confucius," n.p.) The ideal individual, according to Confucius, is not individualistic: he or she obeys the accepted traditions of correct behavior, raising etiquette to the level of moral duty. The proper role of the self is to be subordinated to this harmonious social behavior.
But in terms of relation to others, the largest Confucian concept for the self is "ren," usually translated as "goodness" or "virtue." The concept, however, is one which governs relations of the self with others: it is goodness or virtue as practiced in relations between the individual and the larger social order. The ideal self exhibits ren in terms of the "five relationships" established by Confucius: these are the relations of a parent to a child, of an older sibling to a younger sibling, of a husband to a wife, of an older person to a younger person, and of a ruler toward a subject. In other words, relationships which might risk a potential power imbalance are governed by right rules of conduct. Other Confucian concepts enlarge upon this view of the relation of the self to others. For Confucius, the ideal person would also exhibit a very traditional Chinese virtue, "xiao," which is the injunction to filial piety: the respect of children for parents. (A western parallel might be found in the Ten Commandments, with "honor thy father and thy mother." ) Similarly the Confucian concept of "Shu" is also close to most western ethical teachings -- it can be translated as "consideration" or "reciprocity," and indicates the basic notion of not doing unto others what you would not have others do unto you, as per the western idea of the "golden rule." But in terms of the larger social good, the Confucian concept of "wen" indicates a respect for the arts, or more particularly the "arts of peace." By this notion, Confucius encourages his ideal person to exist in harmony with society, and with useful or contemplative activity as exemplified in the arts -- the self here does not exist in a vacuum.
The Taoist conception of self has a certain amount of overlap with the Confucian, although it does have altogether a more obviously religious cast. For Lao-Tzu, the goal for the self is to exist in greatest harmony with nature and the natural scheme of things. The emphasis on harmony with a larger entity is similar to Confucius, but it is not defined socially and it ultimately takes on a much more mystical character. Lao-Tzu is also, crucially, deliberately vague in refusing to define goals specifically: to some extent, Lao-Tzu believes that part of the "Way" that is advertised in the title of his short scripture is being perpetually able to respond to what life presents on an ad hoc basis, and not according to ossified dogmatic precepts. As Soccio notes, Lao-Tzu himself states outright that it is impossible to capture the Way in mere words, but nonetheless offers his moral precepts as parables or poetic images. For Lao Tzu the central problem with the self lies in its attempts to exert a kind of control or even "will to power" over the way of nature: Lao Tzu sees all achievement as impermanent, and this recognition of the fundamental vanity of human endeavor accounts for the prominence in his worldview of the concept of "wu wei," or the path of least resistance -- perhaps better understood, as Soccio suggests, as the path in greatest harmony with nature and the natural course of events. "Wu Wei" represents, to a certain degree, Lao Tzu's solution for the central problem facing humanity -- the desire for strife and overreaching, and the sort of debased behavior that marked the societal collapse of Lao Tzu's own contemporary China, in what historians have termed the "Period of the Warring States," a time of nonstop violence and civil unrest. The ethical teachings of Lao Tzu reflect a reaction against this kind of societal chaos, and they preach a strong quietism, perhaps reflecting their origins in a time of civil war. This may be another sign of the fundamental difference between Lao Tzu and Confucius: in a time of societal collapse, the notion of defining selfhood by its right relation to society must seem fairly useless. Taoism therefore takes an inward turn, concentrating on the nature of the will within the self. However it is worth noting that, to the extent that Taoism has a definition of evil, it is located within the self, in the faculty of will. If the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or the path of least resistance, represents the ideal for the self, the "wei" in wu-wei stands for some concept of the human will, that aspect of the human personality which attempts to impose itself by force on others and onto nature. If "wu-wei" is the ethical ideal, "wei" represents more or less the Taoist concept of evil: this is any action that is performed not in accordance with the Tao, any action that is caused purely by the human assertive will, and any state of life that is marked by sufferings caused by these eleemnts of human willfulness. There is no metaphysical component to this Taoist conception of evil, however; as Hsu notes, if the human will is the chief obstacle to harmony with nature, and if such harmony is man's most desirable state, it makes sense that "all the sufferings in the world are supposedly man-made" (Hsu 307). But more than being manmade, they derive from this aspect of the self that tries to impose upon the external world. Yet it is crucial to realize that this aspect of the self in Taoism can even apply to behavior that, in many religious traditions, might seem like an ethical obligation. In terms of right action for the self, it is interesting to note that, in the Tao…[continue]
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