What have Western philosophers recognized in Buddhism?

Buddhist thought rejects ideas of substance or substances as entities that endure through time and change. Speculation about the eternity of the world, its infinity, or the connections between the soul or mind and the body are not considered worthwhile. In the Theravada schools of thought, perceptual experience is believed to justify mind-independent entities, but we do not experience them directly. Some commentators hold that there are independent entities, otherwise our inference from experience that they exist could not be justified. Furthermore, we do not control what we perceive, which suggests that things exist outside of our perception. Others distinguish between reliable and unreliable sensory experience. Some Buddhists believe that both minds and bodies are collections of transitory perceptions.

According to the Madyhamika School, there can't be individual objects because everything is dependent on everything else. However, enlightenment can result in an awareness of an underlying reality behind or beyond this flux. The Yogacara branch of this school holds that because there are no minds, there is no one to see the truth and no way to discover it. Given the lack of substances (which would include minds), all that exist are mental states. Our lack of control over perception or the apparent objectivity of things is merely the effect of our own memories.

It should be evident at this point that Buddhism has grappled with the same kinds of questions about what really exists as those that have held the attention of Western philosophers throughout history. One difference is that, with the exception of ancient stoicism and epicurianism, and perhaps contemporary Buddhism, Western philosophers do not have life practices directly linked to their intellectual beliefs. Useful sources for philosophical comparison include Masao Abe and Steven Hein, Zen and Comparative Studies (1997); Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism (1997); and Anil Kumar Sarkar, Buddhism and Whitehead's Process Philosophy (1991).

What is Confucianism?

Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.) was born in Shantung, China, where he advanced from poverty to an influential administrative post. He was a member of the Ju (the literal meaning of "ju" is weaklings), a social group of ritualists and teachers. Confucius and his colleagues and followers became members of the Ju-chia, the School of the Ju. They sought to develop and restore traditional ideals of concern for all living things and reverence toward other human beings by determining and following proper rules of conduct.

In 496 Confucius left his position to talk to rulers about the Ju-chia's doctrines. During a time when warlords were chaotically vying for control of the declining Chou dynasty, he sought to import moral principles and the traditional virtues into government. Confucius' thoughts were put together by his pupils in the Lun Yu, or Analects.

What is the Tao ?

The Tao, or "way," advocated by Confucius involves appropriately performing one's roles in the family and society according to jen, or loving respect for others. All are presumed to be equal in acting according to jen, and if all act in this manner, the whole of society and the world will be improved.

What was Confucius' influence?

Confucius was the most highly regarded teacher, moralist, and poet in Chinese history. Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.), the most prominent Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself, held that all human beings are born with moral inclinations. Mencius' teachings have persisted as the dominant form of Confucianism to the present time. Hsun Tzu (c. 312-230 b.c.e.) taught Confucianism as a way of following formal hierarchical social structures to achieve personal happiness.

For additional information on the teachings and history of Confucianism refer to: Xinzhong Yao and Hsinchung Yao, An Introduction to Confusianism (2000), and Chung-Ying Cheng, New Dimensions of Confucian and Neo-Confucian Philosophy (1991).

How is Confucianism relevant to contemporary Western philosophy?

Confucianism is conservative and does not appear to be based on individual autonomy or self-rule; its highest moral principle seems to be social conformity: to this extent it is not easily imported into Western moral, political, and social philosophy.

A statue of Confucius at the Confucious Temple in Suzhou, China (iStock).

A statue of Confucius at the Confucious Temple in Suzhou, China (iStock).

However, a number of contemporary moral philosophers have found some appeal in the Confucian egalitarian ideal of respect for all beings. Confucianism has also been received as an alternative virtue ethics theory, as well as for its utilitarian/consequentialist notion that correct behavior will maximize happiness.

Such comparative ideas, as well as contemporary interpretations and applications of Confucianism, can be found in the following sources: Bo Mou, Comparative Approaches to Chinese Philosophy (2003), Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (2006); Philip J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mengzi and Wang Yangming (2002); Bryan W. van Norden, Confucius and the Analects: New Essays (2002); and Kwongloi Shun and David B. Wong, Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community (2004).

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