08/16/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

The Simple Life: Confucius as Taoist?

As with every religious tradition, there are often stereotypes associated with the founder or just with the tradition in general that frequently belie the subtlety or complexity of a worldview to the detriment of a full understanding of its teachings and practices.

Let's begin with a swiping view of the religious and philosophical roots of Chinese culture. If for purposes of this discussion we limit these stereotypes to that of Taoism and Confucianism, we find ourselves often in a realm of mutually exclusive images, suggesting highly contrasting views of the world and of the human role in and with that world.

At the level of stereotypes Taoism is all about Nature and the relation of humankind with Nature. The point will frequently be made that humankind is at its best when it has forsaken all that makes it uniquely human and embraced the Way, Tao, which is envisioned at the natural coursing of things. Going along with this image is a sense of stepping outside of human endeavors and the roles and responsibilities of the individual in human society.

By contrast Confucianism is seen and often described as focused almost exclusively upon the human endeavor. It is all about humanity.The Confucian path is seen as the development of self and society in which human fulfillment is measured by the culmination of the human potential in relation to others and in society in general.

Though such images might frequently be found in popular accounts purporting to represent the quintessence of Eastern wisdom, the history and the intellectual context of each tradition suggests a far more complex and nuanced interpretation.

Taoism is simply not all about Nature anymore than Confucianism is all about society and to treat them in this fashion is simply to succumb to the stereotypes of a popular persuasion.

Taoism has a lot more to do with human society than the oft-quoted stereotypes of the Taoist mystic who has renounced all attachments to the world for the splendors of living with Nature.

In turn, Confucianism has a great deal more to do with Nature than the popular image that suggests a tradition strictly and totally bound by the limits of human society and the role of the individual in relation to family and society at large.

Since I write my blog with reference to Confucianism, let me suggest that Confucianism has a great deal to say about Nature and sees the human endeavor as fitting into the larger coursing of the Way as humankind harmonizing with the ways of Nature.

It is for this reason that it has been fair and reasonable to begin to discuss Nature and religion or ecology and religion as a part of Confucianism just as the same relation is seen as part of virtually every religious tradition. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim as Series Editors of "Religions of the World and Ecology," the 10-volume series from Harvard, have brought the issue home to the world of scholarship and beyond in now a general appreciation of humankind contemplating his/her relation to Nature at large.

Here, I simply want to call attention to a passage in the Analects of Confucius where Confucius is extolling the simple life, the life of Nature if you will, a description one might more anticipate being found in one of the collections of early Taoist writings than the foundational work of the Confucian tradition.

"The Master said, 'With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow, I still have joy amid these things..." (Analects VII:15)

Confucius sounds more Taoist than a Taoist! Is Confucius a Taoist? Not at all.

Confucius is simply saying that the simple life can be just as readily the foundation for ultimate meaning of self and the universe as the riches of all that society can offer. In fact, he goes on to suggest that such riches acquired without true humaneness offer the individual only a vacuous and delusionary sense of self.

Maybe then the simple life is the way to best find ultimate human understanding. A timely piece of advice for our own day and age, I must say. And this advice, from a Confucian no less!

So several conclusions might be considered:

First, in the matter of stereotypes, be cautious and don't succumb to popular and easy interpretations without a thorough understanding of the larger context out of which ideas and practices have arisen. It takes learning, lots of learning -- one of my favorite themes! Let's think through the richness of a worldview for a change, not be content with its simplest and easiest interpretation. Remember my favorite Confucius quote "Learning without thought is perilous" (Analects II:15), and let's get beyond thoughtless acceptance of those readily available stereotypes.

Second, on the matter of Confucius, consider Confucius as holding a very subtle understanding of the relation of humankind and Nature, not simply the stereotypical rejection of Nature with an anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview. Let's get beyond the stereotypes of both Confucianism and Taoism and every other religious tradition for that matter.

Third, consider the way in which Confucius is demonstrating in this passage the degree to which humankind can find meaning within the context of a simple life, one measured by a compatible and harmonious relationship between humankind and Nature. And listen to the call for a simple life and consider that call as a call of equal relevance to our own age.

I plan to address the topic of Nature and religion in subsequent blogs to specifically demonstrate the ways in which Confucianism has not only developed an environmental ethic, but a metaphysics and thus a cosmology that moves from anthropocentric to "cosmocentric" (universe-centered) where humankind is seen as part of the greater whole, not unlike a position of deep ecology! I know, it blows away all the stereotypes!!! Amen. Stay tuned!