Care for Environment – Confucianism

Statue of Confucius in China
Statue of Confucius in China

Confucianism sees its primary role to be the promotion of education designed to enable people to become truly human. Its purpose is the cultivation of a virtuous, responsible and caring person. Learning to be genuinely and fully human is an end in itself. Simultaneously it is also a dynamic and transformative process of self-realisation, social engagement and cultural creativity…This process is set within the greater context of humanity and Heaven…Confucianism sees humankind to have a deep and cosmic significance. This significance manifests itself in partnership with both Heaven and Earth, forming the classic Chinese trinity of Heaven, Earth and Humankind, together manifesting the true embodiment of nature itself.

Confucians know that the earth is alive. We observe its presence, appreciate its beauty and participate in its creativity. We therefore share its richness and fecundity with all life on the “Blue Planet”…However, humanity has repeatedly abused this beautiful gift by exploiting it recklessly, ignoring the Confucian notion of balance and harmony…This world is a precious heritage passed on to us from our ancestors and it is a resource entrusted to us by numerous generations yet to come…The sense of “awe and reverence before the universe” is prompted by our aspiration to respond to the ultimate reality that makes our lives purposeful and meaningful. Whether we come from a creationist or evolutionist perspective, we are indebted to “Heaven, Earth and the myriad things” for our existence. To repay this debt we cultivate ourselves so as to attain our full humaneness amidst the wonder of existence. — Confucian Statement on Ecology: Professor Tu Weiming for the International Confucian Ecological Association, on the occasion of Confucianism joining the Alliance of Religion and Conservation in 2013.

As education and literacy spread in China and scholars became influential as ministers of state, philosophers also began to flourish. In the late sixth century B.C.E., two of the greatest philosophers of all time emerged in China: Laozi, the founder of Daoism, and Confucius, whose philosophy and religion came to dominate China for more than two millennia.

Wooded Mountains at Dusk (dated 1666). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.The founder of the Confucian tradition was the sage-teacher K’ung Fu-tzu (551-479 B.C.E.), whose name was Latinised as Confucius by Jesuit missionaries. Born into a time of rapid social change, Confucius devoted his life to reestablishing order. This involved a program embracing moral, political, and spiritual components. His principal teaching in the Analects emphasises the practice of moral virtues, especially humaneness (jen), sincerity (cheng), and filiality (hsiao).

Confucian thought was further developed in the writing of Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.) and Hsun-tzu (298-238 B.C.E.). A Neo-Confucian revival in the 11th and 12th centuries led to a synthesis of the earlier teachings. The major Neo-Confucian thinker Chu Hsi (1130-1200), designated four texts as containing the central ideas of Confucian thought: the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and Mencius. These texts and Chu Hsi’s commentaries became the basis of the Chinese civil examination system, which endured for nearly 600 years. Neo-Confucian thought and its practice of self-cultivation spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Today, China once again looks to its Confucian tradition as a unique cultural inheritance.

Kung Tzu asked: “Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?” Confucius said: “Perhaps the word “reciprocity” — do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you. —Confucius, The Analects, XV:23.

The Triad

The Doctrine of the Mean describes the power of sincerity that emanates outward from the human heart to the cosmos itself. When people cultivate their authentic nature, they are said to affect the rejuvenating forces in the natural world. In realising one’s authentic self, a person forms a triad with Heaven and Earth.

Only people who possess absolute sincerity can give full development to their nature. Able to give full development to their own nature, they can give full development to the nature of all beings. Able to give full development to the nature of all beings, they can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Capable of assisting the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, they may, with Heaven and Earth, form a triad. —The Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung), from The Book of Ritual (Li Chi) Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition.

If you do not Interfere

In the Confucian tradition, Mencius, a disciple of the grandson of Confucius, ranks second in importance to Confucius. Mencius’s book focuses on the innate goodness of humans and emphasises the seeds of virtue that need to be cultivated through education. Mencius was a strong advocate of a human government that allowed both the people and the land to flourish.

If you do not interfere with the busy seasons in the fields, then there will be more grain than the people can eat; if you do not allow nets with too fine a mesh to be used in large ponds, then there will be more fish and turtles than they can eat; if hatchets and axes are permitted in the forests on the hills only in the proper seasons, then there will be more timber than they can use; then in the support of their parents when alive and in the mourning of them when dead, they will be able to have no regrets over anything left undone. —Mencius, D.C. Lau, tr.

Like Mencius, Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) emphasised the innate goodness of the human mind and heart. He underscored the feeling of commiseration in the human that would naturally flourish in the practice of humaneness (jen) extended to other humans and toward all living and nonliving things.

The great person regards Heaven and Earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. Therefore, when he sees a child about o fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity (jen) forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species [as he]. Yet when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals [about to be slaughtered], he cannot help feeling an “inability to bear” their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings [as he is]. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things [as he is]. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. —Wang Yang-ming, Inquiry on the Great Learning (16th century) in Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition.

Humans can make the way great

The most comprehensive virtue in the Confucian tradition is jen or humaneness. As comprehensive compassion it is like a vital energy that nourishes the life force in all things.

The dynamism and adaptability of humanity enable us to enter into a variety of reciprocal relationships within our environment and to form an intricate network of communication with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things. Nothing in the cosmos lies outside the orbit of human sensitivity. The human ability to respond helps us to interact sympathetically with nature rather than try and dominate it. —Tu Weiming, Commonality and Centrality: An Essay on Confucian Religiosity.

Humaneness as the principle of love is comparable to a tree and a spring of water.
It is like the will to grow, like the seeds of peaches and apricots.
It is like the vital force of spring.
For humaneness, as constituting the Way, consists in the fact that the mind of Heaven and Earth to produce things is present everywhere. — Chu Hsi on humaneness (jen), 12th century, in Wm.Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition.


Describing the essential kinship of all being with Heaven and Earth and suggesting that compassion is the highest expression of that kinship, this inscription on the western wall of Chang Tsai’s study was enormously influential in Neo-Confucian thought.

Heaven is my father and Earth my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I regard as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions. —Western Inscription, Chang Tsai (1020-1077) Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition.


Lotus in June.
Lotus in June. Photo by Cheng Feng.

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