In the review below, we draw on the earliest writings of followers of these three traditions. The interested reader can find more detail in Lin (1949), Chan (1969) and Fung (1985).
Confucianism originated about 600 years before the Christian era in the east of present-day China (Shangdong province). Its founder, Confucius (551–472 B.C.), came from the landed classes. He wrote two books: The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. There are two other seminal works of Confucianism, the Confucian Analects edited by his disciples and the Works of Mencius written by Mencius (372–289 B.C.), an important contributor to Confucianism. These “Four Books” deal with a number of subjects, such as politics, ethics, law and education; one of the main topics is how to live a good life.
View on life
The pivotal idea of Confucianism is ‘Jen’. In the simplest sense, ‘Jen’ means a feeling of compassion, i.e. concern for the well being of others. Confucius said, ‘Jen’ means “to love fellow-men”, and “where there is ‘Jen’, there is man”. ‘Jen’ is the essence of man, and it is almost equal to ‘virtue’. If someone has ‘Jen’, it is implied that he has ‘virtue’, and if someone has ‘virtue’, it is implied that he has reached the conditions required to live a good life. Followers of Confucianism must bring Jen into their own society, into their social relations. Every activity should be carried out in accordance with virtues such as benevolence, duty, property, intuition and trust, and every man can live up to the virtues and thus live a good life. Confucius said: “Is benevolence so far away? If I want benevolence, then benevolence is here!” The quality of your life rests in your own hands.
Advice for a good life
To live a good life one should live up to the virtues. Confucius describes the following ones: “There are learning extensively, and having a firm and sincere aim; inquiring with earnestness, and reflecting with self-application: virtue is in such a course” (Legge, 1971, p173). So, a positive attitude towards learning is central to virtue, the more knowledge one has, the closer to virtue one gets. Learning should be a part of every place and every thing. Learning is the first necessary condition of a good life. As Confucius said,
“There is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning—the beclouding here leads to a foolish simplicity. There is the love of knowing without the love of learning—the beclouding here leads to dissipation of mind. There is the love of being sincere without the love of learning—the beclouding here leads to an injurious disregard of consequences. There is the love of straightforwardness without the love of learning—the beclouding here leads to rudeness. There is the love of boldness without the love of learning—the beclouding here leads to insubordination. There is the love of firmness without the love of learning—the beclouding here lead to extravagant conduct” (Legge, 1947, p156).
So the more a person learns, the more he has a good life.
Confucius enumerated more virtues in The Great Learning: to investigate things, to keep your thoughts sincere, to rectify your heart, to cultivate yourself, to regulate your family and your village, to govern your state rightly, and to make the whole kingdom tranquil and happy. In his view a people’s quality of life bears close relation to the quality of their government. Confucianism promotes benevolence on behalf of the ruler. A ruler’s good name and good life comes from the quality of life of the ruled. Confucius said:
“At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning, at thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right” (Legge, 1947, p8).
Confucianism accepts society and advises its followers to engage in it, a life of active involvement is deemed better than passive distance. Positive action and thinking things over, is seen to enable the individual to lead a good life.
So, for Confucianism, knowledge, learning, responsibility, duty are important values. Social values are also important, in particular friendship and family. The same is true for tolerance, dialogue, new ideas and thoughts: it is also important to give up older ideas. A man should reflect upon himself every day. Reflection is important: it is the precondition for improvement of oneself.
When we lead a simple, normal and rational life, then we can have a good life (Guoqing, 2001b, p3). Life is worthwhile and we should be careful to preserve it and live long. Death is to be ignored, and also life after death. Confucianism recommends that people deal with reality ‘here and now’, and not to dwell on illusory troubles (Guoqing, 2001a, p82). Yet when death is imminent they should accept it.
Confucianism underlines the importance of the rule of law, of government and communities; these social environments are of central importance for the good life of the people. For Confucianism, the ideal society stresses merit and virtue. Morality is a main requirement for a good life, not only for individuals but also for community as a whole. The humanities, arts, sciences and technology can also help us to reach a good life, but morality is more important. Confucianism does not embrace the idea of democracy: it advocates meritocracy; society should be ruled by wise men with virtues but not by the people.
Taoism, another important philosophy of ancient China, was also founded in the sixth century B.C. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was a slightly older contemporary of Confucius. His main work was the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing). Zhwangtze was another important Taoist philosopher who wrote Chuang-tzu.
View on life
In his History of Chinese Political Thought: During the Early Tsin Period, Liang Chichao observed that the fundamental difference between Taoistic and Confucian philosophies is that Confucian thinking centers around men, and Taoists thinking around nature (Chichao, 2000, p73). Taoism and Confucianism have to be seen as two distinct responses to the social, political and philosophical conditions of life in that era. Whereas Confucianism is greatly concerned with social relations, conduct and human society, Taoism has a much more individualistic and mystical character. Confucians believed that humans can realize their own ends, through their own ability, power and effort, while Taoists believed that the laws of nature are all-powerful. ‘Tao’ existed before man and is eternal and un-changeable. For Taoism, people should keep the balances between human beings and Nature, between individuals and society, between oneself and others. Everybody has an identity and independence, an own individuality, dignity and freedom. People should not change the natural order, called Tao, but should follow it. Taoism asked people to take care of the natural world, to become a part of nature. Their bodies and their hearts should belong to nature.
Taoism holds that life is limited and temporary and that it is impossible for people to understand the truth of the world and that of human beings themselves. Knowledge always limits the view of people, alienates from the truth of the world and violates the Tao. So the best way to have a good life is to follow the ‘Tao’, the ‘Law’ of nature. This will make people happy. Tao is everywhere. So Laotze said:
“There is a being that is all-inclusive, existing before heaven and earth. Calm indeed, and incorporeal, it is alone and changeless. Everywhere it functions unhindered and may be considered the mother of all creation. I do not know its name, but I characterized it as ‘Tao’” (Laotze, Tao The Ching).
Advice for a good life
In comparison to nature and Tao, man is weak and insignificant. In Zhwangtze’s words, “A man in the universe is like a pebble or a twig in the mountains. As such he can only obey nature. He may be useful in a small way, but it is beyond him to originate anything”(Zhwangtze, Autumn Water).
Life is useless for every other thing but itself; man is useless to others and himself. Taoism asks people not to be concerned about matters of birth and death. It is better to forget the truth of the real conditions of life, and the truth of the human condition. No knowledge, no worries, nothing to wait for, nothing to be worried about. This is the natural condition of happiness. It is not necessary to be perfect or complete, “Great perfection seems incomplete, but does not decay. Great abundance seems empty, but does not fail. Great truth seems contradictory; great cleverness seems stupid; great eloquence seems awkward”(Laotze, Tao The Ching). But no social condition could limit our efforts to be happy, we can lose anything in society, but still be happy.
Taoism distinguishes two levels of life, one is the natural level or inner life, and the other is the social level or public life. “Live peacefully and delight in your own society, dwell within cock-crow of your neighbors, but maintain your independence from them”(Laotze, Tao The Ching). Taoism pays more attention to private life than to societal life, where people’s life is near to nature and far from communities. Under the conditions of nature and privacy, Taoism focuses on the art of personal living, but not on the art of social life. Taoism advises people to avoid involvement in public life. As Laotze said,
“Health or reputation: which is held dearer? Health or possessions: which has more worth? Profit or loss: which is more troublesome? Great love incurs great expense, and great riches incur great fear. But contentment comes at no cost. Who knows when to stop does not continue into danger and so may endure long” (Laotze, Tao The Ching).
The more you give up outside matters, the more you gain inner peace. When you gain the meaning of life, you give up the words of life. When you realize the truth of the world, you have no longer to worry about your limited and temporary life. Tao rules everything. When you have Tao, you will be a truly happy person.
As can be seen, Taoism and Confucianism have different perspectives on what makes for a good life. Confucianism stresses learning, but for Taoism the fundamental condition is Tao. Tao means nothing, in reality: we cannot find Tao; the more we want to capture Tao, the more we depart from it. We cannot find the real conditions of a good life in the outside world; we can only derive them from our inner world, from our spiritual condition. LaoTze says: “An excess of colour blinds the eyes; an excess of noise ruins the ear; an excess of condiments deadens the taste”. So if a person wants to keep his mind peaceful and calm, it is better he avoids situations that might stimulate him. LaoTze states, “If one does not see desirable things one’s mind would not be disturbed”. So people have to resist seduction, temptation and interferences from the social and political world. In this Taoism is against civilization and against modern technology. LaoTze says,
“When sainthood is abandoned and the learned are outcaste, robbery will cease; when jades are thrown away and jewels destroyed, pilfering will not occur; when mementoes are burned and seats broken, the people will become simple and honest. When the bushel is smashed and the scale bent, the people will have no quarrels” (Laotze, Opening Trunck. Cited from Chichao, 2000, p78).
A simple life is the best life. Taoism argues against the development of wisdom in people. For Taoism, children are the happiest and most healthy human beings.
Taoism also differs from Confucianism with respect to the kindness of the ruler. As Laotze said, “Manage a great nation as you would cook a delicate fish. To govern men in accord with nature, it is best to be restrained”. And: “when government is lazy and informal, the people are kind and honest, when government is efficient and severe, the people are discontented and deceitful” (Laotze, Tao The Ching). For Taoism, rulers should do nothing for their people. If rulers “take no action, and the people nurture each other; make no laws, and the people deal fairly with each other. Own no interest, and the people cooperate with each other. Express no desire, and the people harmonize with each other”(Laotze, Tao The Ching). Taoist philosophy prefers the conditions of anarchism, asceticism, individualism and naturalism. The arguments run against collectivism and make a plea for individualism. “We are each unique, and therefore valuable. Although the sage wears coarse clothes, his heart is jade” (Laotze, Tao The Ching). The rule of law is not necessary for government. “Do not control the people with laws, nor violence nor espionage, but conquer them with inaction” (Laotze, Tao The Ching). The laws of nature, the Tao, are supposed to be sufficient for people. Nothing else is needed to live a good life.
So, according to Taoism, things are said to create “unnatural” action (wei) by shaping desires (yu). The process of learning the names (ming) used in the doctrines helps one to make distinctions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, high and low, and “being” (yu) and “non-being” (wu), thereby shaping desires. To abandon knowledge is to abandon names, distinctions, tastes and desires, and thus spontaneous behaviour (wu-wei) will result.
For Taoism the most important matter is individual freedom.
“The more morals and taboos there are, the more cruelty afflicts people. The more guns and knives there are, the more factions divide people. The more arts and skills there are, the more change obsoletes people. The more laws and taxes there are, the more theft corrupts people” (Laotze, Tao The Ching).
People are advised to follow the laws of nature and to avoid societal norms: people should wait for nothing, should desire nothing. When you give up all things, you have something left, that is happiness.
Taoism is not a tolerant philosophy. It stresses freedom, but this freedom does not include the freedom of choice. Knowledge, learning, responsibility, duty and other social values are considered unimportant. The same is true for friendship, family and other social ties. Taoism lacks tolerance and dialogue. Difference is not allowed, the philosophy stresses the importance of discipline. New ideas and thoughts are to be limited.
Taoism agrees with Confucianism on the importance of reflection. Both philosophies want people to care about their real lives. But Taoism takes a very different route to achieve this aim: it does not stress the importance of the rule of law, of government and communities. The social environments of people are not considered important for the happiness of people. Taoism only cares about the natural condition of a good life. The ideal society is a native society. Morality is considered to be the distortion of peoples’ natural and native life, and will only decrease happiness. Taoism lacks the idea of democracy. It argues against knowledge, science and technology, these are seen not as the means to enhance the quality of life, but as obstacles to a good life.
In a nutshell: Taoism is a negative philosophy of social life, but a positive philosophy of natural life. Confucianism states that happiness is possible if you embrace life, learn and put in a lot of effort. Taoism is more pessimistic: happiness is possible, but only if you are wise enough to realize that you can do little about it. The good life can be reached if you cease to try to make things better for yourself.
Buddhism originated in Northern India about six hundred years before the Christian era. Its founder was Buddha Gautama (560–480 B.C.), also known as Shakyamuni “the sage from the tribe of the Shakyas”. The historical Buddha was an Indian prince, who left palace and family to gain spiritual enlightenment. Buddhism was introduced into China around the time Christ was born, having travelled along the silk-road, and later to some extent, into Southeast Asia. After a few centuries of assimilation, Buddhism evolved into many sects in the Sui and Tang Dynasties and became localized. During this process the indigenous cultures of Confucianism and Taoism were blended with Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism has had a great influence on traditional Chinese ideology and art.
View on life
Buddhism teaches that all phenomena are impermanent and interdependent; the world is continually in flux, coming into existence and passing away, conditioned from one moment to the next by interrelated phenomena. Buddhism focuses on suffering because only by understanding a problem can a solution be found. The more we adhere to a belief in a self, the more pain we feel. All of the Buddha’s teachings are a means to experiencing liberation from a self-centred existence in which suffering is inevitable.
Buddhism has Four Noble Truths: (1) All life is characterized by suffering, (2) Suffering originates from craving, (3) The complete stopping of craving can stop suffering, (4) Finally the fourth truth consists of the steps that must be followed along the Noble Eight-Fold Path to stop suffering: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The end result is attainment of Nirvana, a state of saintliness, that is characterized by perfect inner peace, enlightenment and the abolition of all wants.
For Buddhism, the world as we see it is an illusion, which conceals the true reality beyond. All the phenomena of the universe perceived by an individual sentient being are manifestations of the mind. Whenever an individual acts, speaks, or even thinks, the mind of that individual is doing something and that something will produce results, no matter how far in the future. Therefore, the existence of an individual is made up of a chain of causes and effects.
There are three basic concepts in Buddhism, Karma: the force behind the chain of causes and effects. Karma is the assumption that the status into which one is reborn after any death is determined almost automatically by an accurate balancing of merits and demerits accumulated as a result of good or bad deeds during previous lives. Samsara: the wheel of birth and death. Living creatures experience many lifetimes. After each death, they are reborn into another state. Nirvana: the state of saintliness. This is the state where one has broken free from the wheel of birth and death. Having reached Nirvana you can die and do not have to be reborn, thus you escape from the suffering that is the essence of living. Classic Chinese Buddhism is a religion, an ideology, a philosophy and a way of life.
Advice for a good life
Classic Chinese Buddhism expects people to look for happiness in their own hearts; they should give up all outside relationships. Relationships bind and limit the individual. Buddhism recommends people to turn their attention to their personal, inner worlds, and to give up every illusory desire of happiness. Instead they should focus on the spiritual enlightenment. No actions, no movements, but mediation. For this kind of unworldly Buddhism, everything is the same and everything is nothing. So doing something is the same as doing nothing. The difference is not important. Knowledge is also not important. Friendship is nothing, nor is family. Yet Buddhism still asks people to be tolerant and kind, to bear the pain and sorrow in the world. The Buddhist has to give up every thing, including one’s own happiness.
For classic Chinese Buddhism, there is not much value in knowledge, learning, responsibility, duty, nor in friendship, family or other social ties. Tolerance is important, conversation is important, difference is also important. Meditation and self-consciousness is the first condition for a good life. Individuals should reflect upon themselves every day. Reflection is the precondition for improvement of oneself. People need not hope for a long life, they should always care about death and life after death.
Thus Buddhism does not stress the importance of the rule of law, the government and communities, nor does it stress the importance of the humanities and arts, and it argues against science and technology as a means of improving life. Knowledge is not a necessary condition of a good life. Buddhism also lacks the idea of democracy. In short, this Buddhism is another negative philosophy of life, and is even more negative than classic Taoism. Taoism allows for the possibility of having a happy life following the rules of nature, but for ancient Buddhism the ultimate goal is to escape from the cycle of death and re-birth.
There is much variation in Buddhism and the above description of early Chinese Buddhism does not fit all of it.
The three ancient Chinese schools of philosophy hold very different views of life. The advice they give for a good life differs accordingly. This holds true for almost all aspects of life, such as social success, intimate ties and morals. An overview of the differences and similarities between the three philosophies regarding advice for a good life is given in Table 1.