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Anthropology

Part Two: Buddhism and Confucianism

   
Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) developed a complex and insightful understanding of the human condition.

The Starting Points:  The basic fact of the universe is the law of Karma. Simply stated, karma is the law of cause and effect. It is the result of willful actions.  Over the course of time, good actions will result in a good personal situation.  Bad actions will result in a bad situation.  As with Hinduism, the results of one's deeds may not be apparent in a single lifetime. The individual is born time after time in a cycle of life-death- and rebirth known as samsara.

Somewhat, paradoxically, the Buddha taught that there is no such thing as a permanent self. This is the doctrine of an-atta: the “not self.” What we perceive to be a unique, enduring self or personality is merely an abstraction of a complex of energies and activities that are constantly changing and “becoming.” The main point that the Buddha was making is that nothing - including - the self is permanent.  Rather things are always changing.

The Human Problem:

The Buddha stated the human problem in a set of teachings known as the Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering (dukkha). By this, the Buddha simply meant the life is unsatisfactory. People cannot be satisfied for long with any situation or condition.
  • Cause of suffering is selfish-desire (tanha).  Human beings cling to the notion of permanence and want things to stay the same.  This desire is the cause of suffering.
  •  If selfish desire ends, suffering ends.  The end of selfish desire is known as nirvana: an egoless state of bliss,
  • One ends suffering by following the eightfold path
View of Humanity

 The last of the four noble truths implies that human beings can save themselves.  Thus, the Buddha seems to have had a rather positive assessment of human nature: Human beings have the ability within themselves to achieve Nirvana.

The Cure:

As noted above, the Buddha believed that his teachings known as the Eightfold Path provided a way for individuals to overcome selfish desire and suffering.  We will consider the eightfold path in a later unit.  For now, be aware that an important part of this path is meditation. Through calming the mind and cultivating mindfulness, one can discover the truth of the Buddha's doctrine of impermanence. 

 
Confucianism
 Confucius lived in China between 551 and 479 BCE. His analysis of the human condition focuses on the relation of individuals to society.
Staring Point:

Confucius believes that the social rites and values of the “Golden Age” of ancient China are the embodiment of the laws of Heaven. These social rites and patterns of behavior crystallized what is right. Following these social rites, known as li, produced a humane spirit of mutual respect and courtesy that led to the establishment of a peaceful and profoundly just society. These patterns of behavior were based on the concept of shu – mutual respect and reciprocity which Confucius summed up in the saying: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

The Human Problem:

Through ignorance or forgetfulness, the correct patterns of behavior are abandoned. The result is chaos and injustice and the abandonment of jen (the virtue of seeking the good of others). Without correct patterns to constrain human beings, each individual pursues a course of self-interest and shu (mutual respect) is lost.

View of Humanity: 

The Confucian view of humanity is optimistic. Human tend to forget and need to be reminded or educated about correct patterns of behavior. Humanity’s practices may have grown corrupt, but humanity itself was not yet corrupt. An individual was as apt to do good as to do evil.

The Cure:

From the Confucian view of humanity, it follows that the human condition can be corrected by education. All social institutions (family, government, school, theater, etc.) must nurture traditional values. Li, the prescribed patterns of behavior appropriate to each situation and occasion, has the ability to shape behavior and character. Through learning and adopting correct patterns of behavior, each person finds his/her place in society, and society itself becomes just, peaceful and humane.  The most important of the Confucian virtues is filial piety: respect and honor for one's parents. For Confucius, the practice of li and the reform of society starts in the family and home.  The cultivation of filial piety will lead to the cultivation of correct patterns of behavior throughout all relationships.