THE BLOG
01/25/2016 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Catechism of Confucianism: Sagehood (聖人)

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Human beings have an instinct to worship. We tend to want to find something that is absolutely reliable. Once we think we have found it, we devote our whole life to it, and perhaps we then feel safe, hopeful, and all aspects of our life thereby become meaningful. However, one of the greatest tragedies in human life is that exactly that thing which we have decided to worship may not be so deserving as we had hoped. It turns out that it is partial and limited. Once the far more vast and elusive aspects of reality infringe, if we continue to be fanatic about the finite thing we have worshiped, our God will have become a demon. It will blind our eyes, numb our limbs, and eventually tear our life into pieces.

When I was 12 years old and entered my junior middle school in 1993, my schoolwork began to be tested at least every three months. When the day of a test came, I would be given a unique number and directed to a different classroom. One weird thing about the test was that there had been always a couple of minutes before the test that were extremely quiet. At this moment, the teacher was waiting for the exact time to distribute the test papers, and all students were seated and prepared. What made these moments even weirder to me was that I began to pray. As in almost all the other junior schools in China at that time, in every classroom there was a big picture of Chairman Mao hanging right over the middle of the blackboard. At the young age of 12, I didn't exactly know who Chairman Mao was or why his picture was hanging there. Not only that, but nobody had taught me how to pray. Even so, I began praying. I prayed to Chairman Mao asking his help in giving me a high score on the test. Whether that prayer really worked or not, so far as my memory can tell, throughout my whole junior education I always did the same thing before each test.

Nevertheless, when I went to college and read books that may sound heretical from the point of view of Chinese Communism, I was totally disillusioned. I began to realize what had actually happened to the Chinese people before and during the Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Chairman Mao, and I also became acquainted with some aspects of his personality. This disappointment made me aware that my persistent juvenile behavior of praying to Chairman Mao was in fact disgracefully and regrettably naive, and it also propelled me to come to a spiritual conclusion: no matter how great a human may seem to be, he or she can never be worshiped as a God. This leads to the key topic here: the Confucian ideal of 'Sagehood' (sheng-ren, 聖人) and its practicality.

'Sagehood,' in the strictest philosophical understanding of early Confucianism, is the human incarnation of the operations or behavior of Heaven. Heaven (tian, 天), for Confucianism, is an all-encompassing constantly creative cosmic power. It produces the condition of dynamic harmony (he, 和) using a way of spontaneous and effortless non-action (wuwei, 無為) throughout the entirety of the universe. Correspondingly, a sage is thought to be a human person who always does the right thing: a sage can spontaneously respond to various situations so as to continually create conditions of dynamic harmony in the human world throughout his or her entire life. In other words, with the concept of 'sagehood,' all the unambiguous and absolutely good features of cosmic creation from the realm of Heaven are incarnated and personified in the always ambiguous and relative realm of human activities. And then this personification of Heavenly creation is taken to be an ideal of human personality for which the process of Confucian moral self-cultivation is continually striving.

But how could such a thing be possible?

In the Analects, during conversations with his students, Confucius never claimed to be a sage. On the contrary, he said the only virtue by which he could distinguish himself was that he never stopped learning, and thus was always trying to improve himself (Analects, 7.2, 7.19). Not only did Confucius deny that he was a sage, he even denied that the legendary Sage-Kings, Yao (堯) and Shun (舜) (who lived long before the time of Confucius and were unanimously extolled as sages by early Confucians), had fully attained sagehood, either (Analects, 6.30, 14.42). However, just as happened to the founders of other major world religions, Confucius was not exempt from having to undergo a process of 'deification' made by his followers shortly after he had passed away. In the Mencius (5B), Confucius' life was likened to the performance of a complete symphony: it was considered to be harmonious from the beginning until the end. In Zhong Yong (中庸, ch. 30), Confucius was said to be comparable to the heaven and the earth so that for him "all things are produced and developed without injuring one another."

In fact, this instinctive human impulse to idealize an outstanding human person never ended during the whole of Confucian history. In Neo-Confucianism, under the challenging Buddhist slogan, "Everyone can become a Buddha," Neo-Confucian philosophers began to systematically argue that "Everyone can become a Sage." Perhaps because it sounded too outlandish to claim a person to be a sage throughout his or her entire life, the discourse of 'sagehood' in Neo-Confucianism is obsessed with the sagely moment of human life, which is quite similar to the Buddhist emphasis upon 'enlightenment' (wu, 悟). For Zhu Xi, this moment is characterized by a sagely omniscience through which all the qualities of all the things in the world and all the operations within human mind-heart are known. For Wang Yang-ming, it is a mysterious union felt by human mind-heart with all under Heaven, and a correspondingly sagely omnipotence through which all things-in-becoming in the cosmos can be appropriately responded to. In this way, the traditional Confucian program of moral self-cultivation became paraphrased as one about how a human could attain and maintain these sagely moments, since the human condition in these moments was considered to be so perfect as to place the person on a par with Heaven itself.

But again: how is this possible?

My answer to both questions, whether a human can become a sage and whether there is a sagely moment when nothing appears to need to be changed or improved is 'No.' In my view, the 'Yes' answer not infrequently suggested by the tradition is deeply misleading. As contemporary Confucian practitioners, we ought to recover the original teaching of Confucius and thus nurture a much more realistic attitude toward 'Sagehood.'

First, I do agree that human life can have sagely moments. This can happen when we are so well-disciplined in some ritualized activity, such as meditation, music, martial arts, calligraphy, dance, family gatherings, etc. At a single moment, because we have already thoroughly grasped all those skills which may be needed, we may be able to align both our minds and our bodies to the thing which we are pursuing, and a consequent feeling of unity may extend far beyond it because everything in the universe is potentially interconnected within our performance. This 'flow' experience is a momentary realization of the Confucian ideal of 'Sagehood.' We have used the least energy and effort to accomplish this superb performance, and our life in the moment is in a relationship of dynamic harmony with all that is interconnected within the given situation.

However, even in this moment, the achieved sagehood still remains partial and limited. For the dimensions of human life which we dedicate to a particular activity are simultaneously confined to that activity. If we are a good musician, we are not automatically a good father. Furthermore, even in the same area of ritual performance, things keep changing. In dancing, dancers may have different partners; in calligraphy, not every brush, every piece of paper, even every room is the same. This implies that in order to maintain a superb level of ritual performance, practitioners must always keep disciplining themselves. In other words, no matter how great our performance is in a specific area and at a particular moment, the achieved status of 'dynamic harmony' cannot encompass every dimension of human life, let alone all the other moments and all the other areas throughout the entirety of our lives.

Second, in Confucian terms the 'flow' experience which I describe here is to be construed as a feeling of unity between humans and Heaven. In this Confucian understanding, humans are continuous with Heaven since we are an organic subfield which is integral to the constantly creative cosmic power. However, humans are not identical with Heaven. The finite capacity of human creativity is far less than the all-encompassing capacity of the creativity of Heaven. This of course means that human beings can never realize an overall condition of dynamic harmony in the human world with the superior ease of the cosmic creation which is being brought about on a daily basis by Heaven! One illustration of this is that during the process of attaining and maintaining any condition of dynamic harmony in the human world, we are actually radically dependent on other things. In order to play good soccer, we need good weather. In order to write beautiful calligraphy, we need at least a sound sleep. Even in the most distinctive Confucian institution, the family, we need a fine cooperation among all family members in order to decrease chafing and so increase harmony. In other words, efforts expended by humans, and objective conditions provided by Heaven, are equally indispensable to the realization of dynamic harmony in the human world. As human beings, we are obliged to try our best in this regard, but any result will still be radically dependent on elements beyond our human control.

In conclusion, sagehood, construed as a continuous, spontaneous response of a human being to various situations in order to create the conditions for dynamic harmony in the human world, is the ideal of Confucian moral self-cultivation. It can be realized momentarily and partially if we are extremely well-disciplined in some specific area of human life. However, it cannot be realized fully. The notion of a sagely moment is a great contribution in the sense that it lets us 'taste' the beauty of the ideal so that we can know that our ideal is not an entirely unattainable fantasy. Another uplifting consequence of such moments is that they also make us aware of the permanent tension between the infinite ideal of sagehood and our always finite human condition. Understood in this way, the value of an ideal for human life such as Confucian 'sagehood,' does not consist primarily in its realization. As an ideal it presents an eternal enticement to always go beyond any fixed form of human creativity, and thus drives us to continuously create the conditions for the realization of dynamic harmony in the human world. As for me, I say, "The more of that, the better!"

Bin Song is also the founder of Boston University Confucian Association (www.bostonconfucianism.org) and is active in the Facebook group "Friends from afar: a Confucianism Group": https://www.facebook.com/groups/confucian.friends/