“Before there was a Heaven and an Earth there was, in the final analysis, only li (“principle”)…There being li (“principle”) then there was ch’i (“energy”) and its flowing, traveling, and creative acts…”
Chu Hsi (1130-1200), Commentaries
“Bow deeply three times,” my father instructed my 8-year-old brother and me many years ago. “When your turn comes, you both take five steps forward to the table in front, and honor your ancestors by bowing.”
“I don’t see any ancestors…” I said. I had about as much interest in this ritual as I had in jumping off a cliff. “It seems so stupid that everyone has to bow before these candles and incense!”
“They are joss sticks, and they are to honor your ancestors,” my father corrected. “First Grandpa and Grandma will go and bow, and then your uncles, your mother and I, and then the grandchildren – you and your brother.” My father, usually an amiable person, directed us in a voice that would brook no argument.
Harmony in the Chu family prevailed. When our turn came, my brother and I went up there without a fuss and bowed three times. We did it every Chinese New Year for many years, until both my grandparents had made their transitions.
Little did I know then that 50 years later I would regard my upbringing, ancestor veneration and all, with loving appreciation; that I would revisit memories of such rituals with great curiosity; or that I would discover strong Confucian and Taoist influences in my family traditions and values.
Nor did I anticipate my most recent discovery, that a 12th-Century Chinese sage named Chu Hsi was one of the Asian forefathers of 20th-Century New Thought.
I found Chu Hsi while doing research for a book. I also came across something else — surprising and exciting — that left me no doubt that I had been divinely guided to my discoveries. More on that surprise later.
Chinese “New Thought”
In the 12th Century, a Confucian sage named Chu Hsi (also: Zhu Xi) developed what 20th-Century scholars have termed Neo-Confucianism, which was a very significant addition to Confucius’ original teachings recorded in 5th-Century B.C.E.
In his writings, Chu Hsi incorporated and synthesized ideas from several venerable sources: the writings of Confucius; key metaphysical concepts found in the I Ching; the cosmology and spirituality in Taoist texts; and (to a lesser degree) the tenets of Buddhism.
Today, what we call “Confucianism” is actually Chu Hsi’s Neo-Confucianism. Few Westerners realize that the ideas they attribute to Confucius actually belonged to Chu Hsi.
Although they lived more than seven centuries apart, remarkable similarities exist between Chu Hsi and Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science – not only in the development of their ideas and their conclusions, but in their interests and personalities, too.
Both were outspoken. Both were iconoclasts. Both were well-versed in the philosophy and spirituality of their respective times. Both saw beyond the material world of effect into the principle of Spirit unfolding through every life. And both explored and synthesized ideas from many traditions, creating a rich integration of metaphysics, spirituality and philosophy.
Confucian teachings, and then Neo-Confucian ideas, became the basis of Chinese culture, its civil service, and many of its important family rituals. Confucius saw the individual as an integral part of his or her family, village, province, country and world; he taught that each person had a responsibility to lead a virtuous and moral life, one based on respect for filial piety. Each person bore a societal responsibility to become “the superior man” through introspection, diligent study, and observation.
Chu Hsi stressed the creative nature of Spirit rather than the stillness of the Infinite elevated in Taoist and Buddhist teachings. Chu Hsi saw the great Creator as principle.
Infinity was described by the Chinese term “taiji” or “grand ultimate.” The concept of taiji first appears in the I Ching, the ancient philosophical text also known as The Book of Changes. Taiji, in Chinese philosophy, describes the eternal source and union of the two primary aspects of the cosmos, yang (active) and yin (passive).
In New Thought, these primary aspects are equivalent to two states of Mind: conscious (active) and subconscious (passive) Mind.
Like Religious Scientists, Neo-Confucianists did not believe in heaven and hell in the Christian sense; instead, they thought in terms of tien li (heaven mind) and shr li (earth mind) — both states of consciousness. Chu Hsi believed in an impersonal God made personal by its indwelling presence or principle in each person or class of creation.
The Neo-Confucian philosophers of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) further expanded that idea by associating taiji with li (“principle”), the supreme rational principle of the universe, the originating principle of the grand ultimate. Li is Mind, but it is also Law. In New Thought terms, Li (Cause) engenders ch’i (“vital matter” or the Effect), which is transformed through the yang and yin modes of development into the Five Elements (wood, earth, fire, metal, and water). Chinese cosmology sees these as the primary constituents of the physical universe.
Contrast this with what Ernest Holmes, seven centuries later, wrote in The Anatomy of Healing Prayer: “…we are not only surrounded by divine Presence, which responds to us as Person — we are surrounded by a universal Principle, which responds to us as Law…”
Legacy of the Three Great Traditions
The 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. produced China’s three greatest philosophers: Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the Buddha. Noting the importance of these centuries in Chinese thought, some historians compare 5th- and 6th-Century China with ancient Greece.
Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism, Confucianism and the metaphysics of the I Ching, were not always separate and distinct schools, but rather complementary at times. Confucianism incorporated key concepts of Taoism and the I Ching. Neo-Confucian-era paintings depict Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu drinking from the same vinegar jar and declare: “The three teachings are one!”
Ernest Holmes studied the three great philosophical and spiritual traditions of China: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, so it is perhaps not surprising that Science of Mind incorporates Eastern ideas. The works of Thomas Troward and Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected Eastern thought. The works of Confucius and Chu Hsi also influenced such luminaries as Wilhelm Reich and Swedenborg. Holmes certainly studied Confucius’ concepts of the principle of harmony and the practice of humaneness (ren), or agape, highly valued in Buddhism and Taoism, and the common themes of oneness with Source, the illusion of the material world, and the power and responsible use of positive thought.
Holmes undoubtedly saw the Hindu roots of Buddha’s teachings as well, and reflections of both in Emerson’s essays, which describe the “illusion of the material world, and the great ‘Oversoul.'” The Tao te Ching also may have influenced Holmes with its wisdom of opposites and the relationship between the Tao and each individual.
Neo-Confucianism has been heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy, which emphasized introspection but encouraged its followers to observe the unfolding of perfection and enlightenment through nature. True wisdom could be seen in contrasts of opposites: learning without speaking; action through non-action; and becoming more by doing less. The ultimate Oneness with Spirit was experienced in the great stillness, the sum of all creation in the great emptiness devoid of the illusion of the material world.
History suggests that a young Confucius met the old sage Lao Tzu and shared this with his students:
I know how birds can fly, fishes swim, and animals run. But the runner may be snared, the swimmer hooked, and the flyer shot by the arrow. But there is the dragon: I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today I have seen Lao-tzu, and can only compare him to the dragon.
Chu Hsi’s Emergence
For more than a thousand years, the study of Confucianism was known as “daosye” or “the way” (not to be confused with the way of Taoism). While much of Chinese philosophy had been studied and translated by the Jesuits and others, Chu Hsi’s writings were not widely translated by Western scholars until well after Holmes’ 1926 edition of the Science of Mind textbook was written.
Even today, while Chu Hsi is revered in China as one of its greatest Confucian sages, he is little known in the West. Chu Hsi was born in the mountainous province of Fujian in southern China. He was the son of a minor government official who had incurred the wrath of the emperor by opposing the tribute settlement with the warring Jurchens. The Song emperors bartered nearly 150 years of peace by agreeing to pay tribute to the Jurchens. During that period, there was a resurgence of philosophy as well as invention of gunpowder-propelled rockets; the first moveable type printing press; the compass; and the establishment of naval power through advances in shipbuilding.
As a child, Chu Hsi proved to be precocious in the study of classics; he passed the civil service exam with high marks at a very young age. An iconoclast, he was outspoken about the corruption of local officials, which relegated him to working in local temples rather than in higher government positions that he might otherwise have held. Losses sustained by China in earlier wars led Chinese philosophers such as Chu Hsi to question the moral strength of China’s leaders and to begin to reinterpret traditional Confucianism.
Open at the Top
Confucianism has evolved because it was open at the top, although much of this been a result of historical circumstances and political changes.
Historically, Confucianism, a term coined by the Jesuits in the 1500s, was born during the period that historians call “Summer and Autumn Period” of the Zhou Dynasty (700 BC-240 BC) – a feudal society governed by a relatively weak emperor and a large network of princes, dukes, relatives of the Zhou emperor, and allies. The hundreds of fiefdoms made for constant war, bickering and schemes to consolidate power. The larger fiefdoms became states, and the stronger states annexed or conquered smaller ones. Alliances were made and lost, and the strongest states even declared independence against the Emperor. Eventually, the strongest states fought against each other, and the feudal system splintered, opening the way for a new dynasty and philosophy that would unite the Chinese culture.
This was the world that Confucius inhabited when he postulated a system of harmonious, moral society that valued loyalty, filial piety, acceptance of and responsibility for one’s class in life, and the practice of humaneness (agape) and virtue from top to bottom. Confucianism, which stressed harmony, respect and honor, was anchored in rituals, especially at the family level.
Although Confucianism was reinterpreted every five or six hundred years by Chinese scholars, the impact of Chu Hsi’s Neo-Confucianism was enormous. Neo-Confucian philosophy became the basis of China’s civil service exam system, the first world’s first meritocracy; and of a harmonious and virtuous societal order with a Taoist-influenced spiritual cosmology. Life magazine’s 1998 special edition of The 100 Most Important People and Events in the Past 1000 Years included Chu Hsi, the father of Neo-Confucianism, in the top 50.
While Chu Hsi is given credit for the development of Neo-Confucianism, there were others who contributed to the synthesis of Confucian thought. Another competing school of Neo Confucian thought was presented by the great Mind philosopher, poet, and general, Wang Yangming (1472-21529), who equated mind with li, but taught that self- cultivation was based on intuitive knowing vs. investigation and diligent study.
In the 20th Century, amidst political and economic upheavals and wars in East Asia, New Confucianism was born. This latest revision of 2,500-year-old ideas incorporates not only Neo-Confucianist teachings but Western ideas. Like its predecessors, New Confucianism is partly a product of the politics and times of the China in which it arose.
Self-Reflection and Study
The Neo-Confucianists’ concept of self-introspection was equivalent to Religious Scientists’ experience of a spiritual journey. Confucian family rituals such as ancestor veneration served as reminders of the wisdom, love and support of the Great Ultimate; Religious Scientists participate in the ritual of Sunday services intended to remind them of the wisdom, love and support that indwells them. Heaven mind, seen in the study of nature, is a Taoist concept evident in Emerson’s observation that “nature always wears the colors of Spirit.” For Chu Hsi, developing the consciousness of heaven mind was not enough. True to his Confucian roots, he taught the importance of putting consciousness into action within the context of the greater good of society.
These qualities of the “superior man” were attained by diligent study — reading and memorizing the writings of Confucius, which have come to be known as The Analects of Confucius, The Confucian Canons (4 books), The Book of Rites, and the I Ching or Book of Changes. Neo-Confucian classics were revised but included The Analects of Confucius, which were directly recorded quotes from him; The Great Learning, extracted from The Book of Rites, which is an authoritative work on the process of self- cultivation; and The Doctrine of the Mean, another chapter from The Book of Rites, which enumerated important elements of metaphysical psychological theory and sagehood. A fourth book was the Works of Meng Tzu or Mencius (circa 200 B.C.E.), the first great Confucian scholar to reinterpret and enrich Confucianism. From the superior man came the path of true wisdom, or the path of the sage.
Neo-Confucianism and Asian Culture
Similar to the original development of Confucianism, Neo-Confucian philosophy came out of an era where the Song emperors were warring against fierce invading Jurchen tribesman, descendants of the Tartars of central Asia. With more than 100 years constantly at war with the hostile Jurchens, the Song emperors in 1127 abandoned the ancient northern capital at Kaifeng and settled in Hongzhou in the south, in an area roughly smaller than Eastern Europe.
Eventually, in 1279, all of China would fall to another invading tribe from Mongolia led by Genghis Khan, but even the “barbaric” Mongols and the Manchus from Manchuria who founded the Ching Dynasty in the 17th Century adapted Neo-Confucianism as a guideline for governing.
Neo-Confucianism also was adapted in the Tokagowa Shogunate (1603-1868) in feudal Japan and heavily influenced the samurai moral code of bushido, which stressed loyalty, morality, honor and responsibility. Since neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea were governed primarily through monarchies or dictatorships, Confucianism as first developed envisioned a system to create harmony and peace throughout the country, in local areas, within families and within the self, and subsequently as a system to bring stability to society. Current-day Confucianism or Neo-Confucianism in its entirety was embraced by Korea in the 1300s, and it remains an important part of both North and South Korean culture.
Aspects of Neo-Confucianism are strongly instilled in the Chinese and Asian culture today. For example, Confucius stressed the concept of guanshi, which carries the notion of “good will” and “relationship.” To the Western mind, friendship and relationship may hold value on a personal basis, but not necessarily in business, where another set of standards seem to apply. Western companies choosing to do business in China have learned the hard way about the necessity of cultivating relationships; the importance of face; and working through channels – all part of the original Confucian philosophy.
Coming Full Circle
Westerners might have some difficulty understanding why businessmen or the merchant class were at the bottom of the Confucian social order, below farmers and laborers. It was primarily because merchants made a profit at the expense of others, without concern for the greater good. There is much that we in the West can take away from the great Neo- Confucian philosophy in our own business practices and the focus on material outer wealth at any cost. Our economic system has led to individuals and corporations who narrowly focus on profit and stockholder interests without looking at the greater costs to society or to the environment.
The U.S. Congress has attempted to legislate corporate morality through Sarbanes Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, while at the same time being heavily influenced by the lobbying of the very corporate interests they regulate. What is needed is a vision of connection, global sustainability of resources, and cooperation that transcends more narrowly focused individual interests. To paraphrase Confucian wisdom: “Where we offer humaneness to others, we fill the world with harmony, prosperity and peace.”
Given the major changes in China, especially those that have brought economic and social progress, it is possible that New Thought, whose roots in Eastern spirituality were shaped by Western transcendalism, can enrich the long continuum of Confucianism. Confucianism has emphasized virtue, principal and societal harmony, while New Thought has emphasized Spirit expressing through universal laws by means of us. Seven hundred years later, Neo-Confucianism and New Thought arrive in the same place.
Finally, I mentioned near the beginning that I would reveal the greatest surprise of my research. Despite having more than a billion people, China has only 100 family clans. The English spelling of the names of these clans can vary widely. For example, Chu can be spelled Zhu, Chiu, Gee, Ju and other ways. Chu is the 14th most common name in China. The Chinese character for the Chu clan is “vermilion.” During my research for my new book, I established that Chu Hsi is a member of the Chu clan, as are the founding emperors of the Ming Dynasty, which adopted Neo-Confucianism as the state philosophy.
A large number of the Chus come from Anhui and Jiangsu provinces in southern China, where Chu Hsi’s family lived before his father was exiled. This area is also near my family’s ancestoral home. So I was led to wonder: When I was bowing to my ancestors every Chinese New Year, was I bowing to Chu Hsi?
I have realized anew the truth in the saying, “What you resist, persists.” Little did I know when I resisted our family ancestor veneration ritual that, 50 years later, as a Religious Science minister, I would have a special appreciation of indeed of what it is like to stand on the shoulders of my ancestors.
Rev. Ernest D. Chu is an ordained assistant minister at Religious Science Ft. Lauderdale. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Soul Currency: Investing Your Inner Wealth for Fulfillment and Abundance, to be published by New World Library in mid-2008. A graduate of Amherst College with a degree in History and Asian Studies, he was a graduate scholar and Moore Fellow at Columbia University’s Ph.D. program at the East Asian Institute. He has had a rich career as a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, an investment banking and venture capital executive, and founding member of nine startup companies, three of which went public. A member of the Board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, he led of one of its first delegations to China, where he was greeted by an uncle, then-Vice Foreign minister Zhang Wen-jin, who was one of the architects of normalization between China and the U.S.
Every Chinese New Year, our family would visit my paternal grandfather. After a six-course Chinese meal, we lit incense and joss sticks for the family ritual of honoring ancestors by bowing three times reverently in front of a special table. Grandpa called it ancestor worship. Today I know it to be “ancestor veneration,” but at the time it seemed almost sacrilegious