The Religious Dimension Of Confucianism in Japan: Introduction,
 By Peter Nosco

Philosophy East & West
V. 48 No. 1 (February 1998)
pp. 1-4

Copyright 1998 by University of Hawaii Press




For many years, discussions of the religious dimension of Confucianism proceeded within remarkably narrow parameters. On the one hand such discussions tended with disappointing regularity to concentrate on the role of ritual within the Confucian tradition, regarding ritual performance as the principal basis for a Confucian religiosity based less on creedal principles than on sacralized action. And, on the other hand, discussions of Confucianism as a religion had a comparable tendency to disintegrate into tiresome quarrels over terminology, especially concerning what is meant by the term "religious." 

    This is not to say either that ritual is unimportant for understanding the religious properties of Confucianism or that one is ever justified in the careless use of terminology, but it is fortunate for those with a serious interest in these issues that the level of discourse on this topic has advanced meaningfully in recent years. In April 1996, a number of scholars whose work is at the forefront of this subject gathered at the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley for a day-long symposium on the theme of the religious dimension of Confucianism in Japan, and the four articles that follow in this special issue represent, in turn, revised versions of the papers presented at the symposium.[1] 

    There were at least five themes that emerged that day, and these are represented prominently in the articles that follow. First, we observed the centrality of teachings concerning the shin/kokoro (mind/heart), not just in Tokugawa Confucian discourse, but also in a number of the identifiable responses to Confucianism during the Tokugawa and early Meiji periods. Janine Sawada's article on Inoue Masakane (1790-1849) and lto Rokurobei (1829-1894), the respective founders of Misogi-kyo and Maruyama-kyo, devotes considerable attention to this question of the mind/heart, and in this respect her article represents a continuation of themes that Sawada explored in her important study of Shingaku, Confucian Values and Popular Zen.[2] 

    Through the work of Sawada and others whom she cites, it is clear that interest in the mind/heart is fundamentally characteristic not just of Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought in Tokugawa Japan but also, on the one hand, of those richly variegated movements that emerged from this tradition and, on the other, those that may more properly be understood as responses to the tradition. Further, to the extent that one may discern in discussions of the mind/heart a concern with either contemplative self-cultivation or an appeal to supernatural assistance for the recovery of an original goodness, one has glimpsed what many regard as a key element of the religious dimension in such discourse.




    Second, we shall see that numerous figures identified either directly or indirectly with Neo-Confucianism in Japan have asserted the general proposition that aspiring to achieve discipline over one's mind--an introspective and atomic activity-contributes directly to the suprapersonal goal of well-being, both socially and within the polity. This notion is, in fact, absolutely fundamental to Tokugawa social thought and has its roots squarely within both the Confucian and Neo-Confucian traditions. It is also one of the ways in which the intensely personal exercise of Confucian self-transformation remains ever linked to concerns that transcend the individual--or, as Mary Evelyn Tucker phrases this in her article: "cultivating the land and cultivating oneself become analogous means of creating harmonious Confucian societies and thus fulfilling heaven's mandate."

    A third theme that figures prominently in the following articles is the characteristically Confucian as well as traditionally Japanese understanding of the person as an individual-in-community both socially and cosmically. To quote Tu Wei-ming on this (as one of the authors in this issue does, in a note):

[T]here is agreement among virtually all of the Neo-Confucianists [that] man is a moral being who through self-effort extends his human sensitivity to all the beings of the universe so as to realize himself in the midst of the world and as an integral part of it, in the sense that his self-perfection necessarily embodies the perfection of the universe as a whole.[3]

In this regard, one might note that the otherworldly aspects of the religious dimension of Confucianism in Japan never obscure its this-worldly concerns. Conversely, the basic Confucian concern with achieving one's proper place within society and the contribution made to the harmonious operation of the cosmos by the correct situating of oneself again reflect the ever-present cosmological dimension of Confucian social and ethical discourse.

    A fourth theme represented both at the symposium and in the articles that follow concerns the ineluctable linkage between being a Confucian and possessing an appreciation for the canonical tradition of the Confucian classics, however defined. In John Berthrong's words, "As long as a person remained committed to regarding these texts as the essential core of learning, then the person remained within the Confucian tradition."

    That the texts of this canon have been most commonly styled "classics" in English, as opposed to scripture, may well be, as Berthrong observes, one of the reasons why Western scholars have long underestimated the spirituality of the Confucian tradition. This concern with recognizing the canonical dimension of the Confucian tradition likewise represents a shift away from the earlier tendency to challenge any definition of religion in discussions of Confucian religiosity, toward the more




recent concern with defining what is properly to be understood by a term like Confucianism. This, in turn, brings one to question and reconsider what precisely are those qualities and properties that have at different times and in different places characterized those who have styled themselves Confucians.[4]

    Fifth, one sees that, as Rodney Taylor asserts in his essay, the belief in the capacity of human beings to transform themselves in the direction of an ultimate or absolute--a conviction that he argues is shared at least in part by all true Confucians--is also central to that which distinguishes Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism as a religion. We have already noted that this emphasis on human transformation appears in a variety of guises in the essays that follow, but it is most prominent in the thesis of Taylor, who argues that "To be fully human is to be in relationship with others. Heaven represents that combined point in which self is in relationship with all other things. The Confucian religious tradition [thus] offers a means toward this ultimate relationship and provides a way in which the human condition may be transformed." Of course it is in this distinctively Confucian transformation of self that one may also discern on the one hand a concern with self-transcendence and on the other a concern with perfecting that which is imminent and inheres in the self.

    Other motifs emerge within the articles presented here, and one may discern in some of these the seeds of thought-provoking disagreement. For example, when Rodney Taylor writes that "To be fully human for the Confucian is to be fully religious," and when john Berthrong writes that "what makes a person a Confucian is not some kind of formal religious membership but rather a profound commitment to the canon itself as a repository of truth and right guidance," one finds therein an interesting fissure. For--and with apologies to both authors for this simplification of their thoughtfully argued positions--where john Berthrong would argue that, among those who over two millennia have styled themselves Confucians, some are religious and others are not, Rodney Taylor in contrast would argue that all Confucians are religious to a degree, and some more so than others.

    If one may take these two perspectives as representative of the range of opinion on this intriguing problematik, then it is hoped that when they are taken together with the other articles in this special issue, the thoughtful reader will discern in the pages that follow a significant "bringing together" of insight, and that this will itself contribute to something of an appreciation for current scholarly discourse on the topic of the religious dimension of Confucianism in Japan.

    Finally, all of us who gathered at the Institute that day wish to express our gratitude to Dr. Richard Payne, the Institute's Director, who deserves to be commended for the ecumenical spirit that inspired his decision to sponsor a symposium on Confucianism at the Institute. We




are also most grateful to Philosophy East and West and to its Editor, Roger Ames, for allowing PEW to serve as the medium for memorializing and disseminating the fruits of the symposium.




1 - There was an exceptionally lively and insightful discussion of each of the papers at the symposium, led by the respondents Michael Kalton, Tu Wei-ming, and myself, and in which all of the participants were engaged. These discussions proved most helpful to the revision of the papers for publication.

2 - Janine Sawada, Confucian Values and Popular Zen (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1993).

3 - Tu Wei-ming, Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1978), p. 95.

4 - For an exceptionally interesting example of disagreement on this issue, one would do well to look in the pages of this journal for the exchanges between Hoyt Tillman and Wm. Theodore de Bary in 42 (3) (July 1992), 43 (3) (July 1993), and 44 (1) (January 1994).