ConfuciusPrecepts of TaoismBuddhist No-SelfBuddhist EthicsIntegral ConsciousnessVedantaUniversal SpiritualityRobert Waxman



                                                       Six Essential Qualities in Confucianism


                                                   Robert Waxman




     In this paper, six ethical components in Confucianism are examined: xi, zhi, li, yi, wen and ren. Definitions are given to clarify the meanings of these Chinese word-symbols. Attainment of these qualities is essential for developing ethics and morals. Learning Confucian values is a conduit for those striving for perfection. Through patience and practice, one can achieve the highest levels of character. Primary goals in Confucianism include the assimilation of virtue and increasing one's capacity for to learn. The debate over whether goodness is an innate quality is reviewed. Questions relating to mysticism are addressed. The individual's spiritual goals are juxtaposed to Confucian ideals. Enlightenment in Confucianism is compared to higher states of consciousness in other Eastern traditions. The benefits and limitations of Confucianism as a world religion and philosophy are considered.


The Basis of Ethical Thought in Confucianism

     Chong (2007) contends that xi relates to one's capacity to "instill in oneself certain virtuous habits" and "the original good, evil or nothing" in human beings (2007). The concept of xi provides a starting point for learning and assimilating ethics, compassion, truth, and morality. Confucius posits that people must learn to act ethically because it is not an original part of their nature. Xi is the capacity for learning virtue, but every person proceeds at their own pace through practice.

     Zhi is the natural substance of which a person is made, but it is not an innate human quality. The individual acquires zhi through education (Chong, 2007). The meaning of zhi is "native substance" or "basic stuff" relating to building character traits through learning and practice (2007). As with xi, human beings are not born with moral goodness or badness. The desire for building moral character depends on self-motivation and the expression of xi through the quality of li (propriety or etiquette). 

     In the West, the concept of li is taught at finishing schools that train young people how to behave in accordance with the moral and ethical rules of the culture. Such schools promise to complete students' educations by teaching social skills for personal advancement in society. For those students who are truly learning through this manner of education; zhi is utilized for the expression of li. However, Confucius acknowledges that learned behaviors are easily mimicked, and consequently, only outer behaviors are affected without the development of inner values (Chong, 2007). If the assimilation of zhi is not genuine, the expression of li is hollow and without meaning. The attainment of zhi is imperative for students who want to develop a meaningful form of li within their moral belief constructs.   

     Li has another meaning pertaining to certain rituals within a hierarchical social order. In a society where everyone understands their responsibilities to the community, li is an essential attribute for motivating individuals to "behave, desire, feel, and act in required ways" (Chong, 2007). By acquiring li, one has a sense of fairness or equity.

     An example of an individual without li is a courtroom judge who follows the letter of the law and does not allow for special circumstances. These judges do not have a sense of equity or li. However, judges with li take into consideration all relevant matters and render opinions based on a fair interpretation of the law. Within organizations, corporations and institutions, those in a position of authority have daily opportunities to express qualities of li.

     Yi translates as "morality," but there are other meanings such as: "right action, duty, and righteousness" (Chong, 2007). According to Lau (2008), "yi is an essential concept in Confucianism that is defined as the standard by which all acts are judged." The essence of yi is influences the individual's behavior by expressing ethics, values, compassion, goodness, and honesty. Confucian rituals and rules of conduct are based on yi (2008). Therefore, yi represents the highest moral principles underlying Confucianism, and li is the expression of yi in everyday life. Perfection of yi principles are constantly practiced through li. By harmoniously expressing li, individuals create beauty, truth, and balance in their lives.

     Wen is described by Chong (2007) as "the icing on the cake or something that one does at leisure." These activities include music, poetry, and art that express virtue within the community. However, Confucius is critical of Chinese culture and art that lacks virtue:

Surely when one says, ‘The rites, the rites,' it is not enough merely to mean presents of jade and silk. Surely when one says 'music, music,' it is not enough merely to mean bells and drums...." The master said, "What can a man do with the rites who is not benevolent? What can a man do with music who is not benevolent? (The Analects, XVII: 11, III: 3)

     Confucius believes that one should not participate in creative pursuits unless moral themes are embedded in the creative form. Artistic expression should serve as an opportunity to teach and remind others of timeless virtues which are sometimes forgotten. When the arts reflect the six essential qualities in Confucianism, the community maintains its ethics, compassion, benevolence, and morality.  

     Ren is considered the highest virtue in Confucianism (Chong, 2007). Ren is defined as "the loftiest ideal of moral excellence, the most difficult of attainment, and the highest development of the individual's distinctive nature" (2007). Additionally, ren is associated with benevolence, love, humaneness, and the summation of all the other virtues. Examples of those possessing ren include great religious leaders such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and Confucius.

     The individual seeking to acquire ren desires to master the way of virtue, morality, compassion and love. Such individuals strive to attain the highest levels of moral perfection. Throughout history, only a limited number of people have acquired ren. In most cases, they have inspired others to achieve greatness. Through practice, patience and perseverance, everyone has the potential to reach the highest levels of ren.


Comparative View of Ethical Qualities

     In Confucianism, when individuals are born, they are not predisposed toward being a hero or a villain (Chong, 2007). Confucian philosophy rests on the notion that individuals must learn to behave ethically. However, many religious leaders and well-known philosophers differ with Confucius on this point. So, the stakes are high when discussing whether qualities of "The Good" (Plato, Laws) are innate or acquired through education. Consequently, it is important to understand Confucius's teachings on this topic.      

     According to Confucian scholar Giles (1906):

The Confucian Criterion: The keystone of the Confucian philosophy, that man is born good will be found in the following lines: "How mighty is God! How clothed in majesty is God and how unsearchable are His judgments! God gives birth to the people, but their natures are not constant; All have the same beginning, but few have the same end."


This excerpt from Religions of Ancient China (1906) does not sufficiently support Giles's conclusion that people are born with innate goodness. Confucius claims that human beings are brought into this world by God, but he is not stating that the goodness of God is born within them. He believes that each person has a different nature, and therefore, some individuals will not possess goodness. Hypothetically, if Confucius wanted to say that humankind is born with innate goodness, he would have said, "God gives birth to people whose goodness is constant." Instead, he states that peoples' natures are not constant and therefore, not inherently good.

     Confucius affirms that each person begins life with a clean slate (Chong, 2007). However, all lives unfold differently and progress at a pace in accordance with the assimilation of Confucian ideals. Therefore, Confucius's philosophy supports the notion that "qualities instilled with goodness" are acquired through learning and not as an innate quality (2007).



   Although mystical and metaphysical theories are not found in Confucianism, there are references to aspects of mysticism in the Confucian Doctrine of Man (Kupperman, 1971). This text speaks of the superior person who is calm, and the inferior one who strives to acquire material goods:

The superior man is quiet and calm, waiting for the appointments of Heaven, while the mean man walks in dangerous paths looking for lucky occurrences. (Legge, 1870)


     To support this point, in Analectics IX, Confucius states, "the enlightened are free from doubt; the virtuous free from anxiety; and the brave free from fear" (Kupperman, 1971). This reference to "a superior man living in a natural state of bliss" corresponds to the concept of enlightenment (nirvana) in Buddhism. This state of transcendence is found in the teachings of world mysticism as experiencing oneness with all things.

     Mystical inferences are also found in Taoism. Kohn (2004) points to "Masters of Wondrous Practice, Virtue, and Tao," who receive a mystical ordination for achieving the highest levels of understanding, selflessness, and compassion. The notion of "becoming one with the Tao" occurs when the entire community transitions to a higher mystical realm. For Taoists, achieving transcendence is accomplished by practicing Nei-Yeh or "inward training" that centers the vital energies and empties the mind (Creighton, 2001). Additionally, Taoists build a seamless connection between the "psychological, physiological, and spiritual aspects, while recognizing the interconnectedness of the heavens, the earth and human beings" (2001). This union of the higher and lower worlds links Taoism to the essence of the mystical experience. 

     In Eastern religions, and especially Vedanta-Hinduism, the primary goal of seeking transcendence or enlightenment is analogous to the concept of mystical communion between one's inner and outer worlds. Confucius emphasizes "the appointment of Heaven" as an enlightened state of being, which connotes the mystical theme of experiencing a higher realm of existence (Creighton, 2001).



     Confucius's teachings are a combination of Chinese religious thought and ancient philosophy. His legacy relates to the advancement of humanistic, rational, ethical and moral issues. He focuses on the importance of developing human qualities such as benevolence, generosity, love, compassion, and sincerity. His chose to abandon old Chinese traditions based on superstition, worship, metaphysics, and dogma. Instead, his ideology is straightforward, practical and understandable. Confucianism is a philosophy of life that encourages adherents to utilize their human potential for expanding the mind and maximizing their contributions to the community.

     The six Confucian principles of xi, zhi, li, yi, wen, and ren are a framework of ideals that allow individuals to become beings of pure, unlimited virtue. These six qualities are interconnected and dependent on each other for the assimilation of moral principles. Students of Confucianism must be sincere in their efforts to learn and must have a genuine desire to live the virtuous life. Accordingly, students need to express authenticity in words and deeds and maintain unselfish desires which increases their learning capacity. As students continue developing the quality of xi, they will increase their potential for learning and expressing goodness.

     Confucius claims that people are born without good or bad qualities, however, the unlimited goodness of xi influences human beings to live in service to others. Consequently, individuals assist the community first, before attending to their own needs. For those who govern, they must have a sense of equity and must govern themselves in the same manner. Additionally, loyalty to family and to family lineage are essential for maintaining one's honor.

     Through practice and patience, one finds contentment and enjoys a happy, peaceful, and productive life. Calm and content individuals are good teachers because they have reached a high level of understanding. All members of the community are encouraged to build on their personal advancements and move closer to perfection. Confucius had a vision for individuals to love their work and eventually, come to realize it is not work at all. By contributing to the community with peace of mind, all six essential qualities automatically assimilate into the individual's natural way of being.



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