THE CONTEMPORARY CONFUCIAN HERITAGE AND THE ENVIRONMENT OF WORLDLY CONFUCIANS AND
- Author: KALTON MICHAEL C.
- Publish: Acta Koreana Volume 14, Issue2, p41~55, Dec 2011
In the eyes of Confucians such as T’oegye, Yulgok, Ki Kobong and Ugye, there were clearly two sorts of Confucians: their kind, practitioners of
tohak, and those somewhat scornfully referred to as “ sogyu” or ‘worldly Confucians.’ Historically tohakpractitioners and sogyuintertwined interdependently in complex and important ways. In the contemporary world, however, for the most part what continues and is flaunted with pride as the Confucian pedigree of economically robust East Asian societies belongs to the sogyu. The content of the new sogyulearning is largely business, economics, and engineering; humanities or classical learning are hardly the contemporary way to “get ahead.” And deep relational thinking and feeling may well be transformed by the very consumer ethos it now is instrumental in bringing about with such dedication and hard work. Insofar as the present western-inspired global market/consumer economy and its attendant dynamics and values is the central feature of what many describe as a “sustainability crisis,” the Confucian tradition has had little to do with shaping the dynamics or values of the system. But the heirs of sogyuworldly pragmatism now play a major role in the scale and speed with which the crisis unfolds and progresses. But while sogyuis a mighty heritage and presence in the contemporary world, tohakhas all but vanished. This paper will examine both potential creative contributions a revived tohakcould make to the contemporary situation, and also the potential for such a tohakrevival in East Asia. For the latter question, an examination of the way tohaktraditionally existed in critical interdependence with sogyuwill provide a window on what sort of conditions could possibly enable the emergence of a revitalized tohak.
Confucian , T’oegye , Yulgok , Ki Kobong , Ugye , Tohak , sogyu , S？ngnihak
In the January 15, 2011 issue of the
New York Times, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes as follows:
Among those who observe global economic trends, the various East Asian “tigers” have long attracted exactly this kind of attention. There is widespread agreement that this aspect of their Confucian heritage has played a critical role in the unmatched economic surge of East Asia. First the tigers, and now China, dwarfing in population, production, and consumption any consumer surge in world history.
Reverence for education is only half the story, however. In order to achieve such success children must study more diligently, parents must be able to demand more from them, and in turn must work harder to support and open up prospects for the children. Or better, prospects for the family. For the willingness to subordinate short term personal pleasures to the long-term well-being of the family makes possible the super-charged feedback loop of education and growing productivity that have distinguished the contemporary heirs of the Confucian tradition.
Modern individualism, with its focus on the fulfillment of what is perceived as a “personal” life emerged largely in the western world, and most especially in America. Confucians paid great attention to inculcating a deep awareness of life as a trans-personal flow through a matrix of interdependent relationships. The family, with children being considered literally extensions of the existence of their parents, was the paradigm of such relationships.
But while Confucians may have articulated these ideas with more refinement, reflection, and emphasis than most, such familial relationships have in fact been more the norm than the exception through most of human history. What turns this relational structure into an incredible force for economic transformation is the channeling of energies into education, a distinctive and potent feature of the Confucian heritage. Children supporting their families by spending their days picking through garbage dumps outside a Latin American slum are no less examples of filial piety than a Korean child going from school to a private study institute to spend another three or four hours cramming for entrance exams. But the trajectories into the future from these filial practices could hardly be more different.
There is a deep irony in this situation. I have elsewhere argued that the Confucian (and especially the Neo-Confucian) heritage of East Asia constitutes perhaps the world’s richest resource for contemporary humans seeking a deep self-understanding and sustainable fit within the interdependent community of life on earth. But that aspect of the tradition remains largely untapped. Meanwhile other aspects of the same heritage become in effect a kind of super-charger for the chainsaw of the global consumer economy as it slices deeply into the tree of life. Perhaps future technology will render this consumerism more benign. But at the present, the kind of self-augmenting feedback loop of production and consumption celebrated in double digit GNP figures by the fortunate heirs of Confucius is exactly the phenomenon we also recognize as a systemic “sustainability crisis” for the earth’s biotic community.
The aspects of the Confucian heritage now regarded with such envy by pundits such as Kristof receive little attention from contemporary scholars of the tradition. Indeed, they have carried forward so powerfully in part because they call for no special scholarly attention, no reading of classical texts or attention to erudite sources. Rather they belong to the deeper layer of assumptions about the nature of life in society and about what it takes to survive and get ahead in that life. Confucian societies were so steeped in understanding the critical interdependence of human life, and so habituated to seeing education as the privileged path to worldly success, these basic assumptions carried forward to put a “Confucian” stamp on the East Asian engagement in the competitive world of the global capitalist market.
In the pre-modern Confucian world, the civil service exam system served as the primary framework for competing for prestige and economic success. In the eyes of Confucians such as T’oegye or Yulgok or Ki Kobong and Ugye, there were clearly two sorts of Confucians: their kind, practitioners of
tohak, and those somewhat scornfully referred to as “ sogyu” or ‘worldly Confucians.’ Worldly Confucians studied hard to pass the civil service exams and carry forward the reputation, status, and material success of their lineage. While they absorbed Confucian learning and values, their overriding engagement with the mundane project nowadays referred to as “getting ahead” earned for them the “worldly” label—a term of course no Confucian would use regarding himself. TohakConfucians, in contrast, greatly prized intensive self-cultivation practices, deep reflection, and the kind of learning that transformed the character of the learner.
The civil service exam system was the anchor of Confucian societies. As the gateway to careers as officials in the all-important world of government service, it ensured that generations of the most capable and well-placed minds would turn to Confucian learning. And in turn this had the effect of giving Confucian discourse a hegemonic role in the shaping and functioning of government, which in turn supported the plausibility of Confucian examinations as the appropriate selector for admission to the circle of the elite.
Although they recognized this essential function of the exams, serious
TohakConfucians were under no illusions regarding the effects of this kind of system on both the motivation and the quality of learning of candidates studying for the exams:
T’oegye’s comments are a commonplace in the writings of morally engaged Neo-Confucians. But the critique cuts both ways, for to families looking to secure their position among the social elite,
tohakcould seem an unnecessary distraction:
The texts mentioned by T’oegye were pillars in the edifice of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation practice, but they had little to do with the examinations. The distress of the fathers and elder brothers of T’oegye’s time mirrors almost perfectly the feelings of contemporary families when their young might stubbornly want to major in humanities rather than business, engineering, law, or medicine. One must keep one’s priorities straight!
tohakpractitioners and sogyuintertwined interdependently in complex and important ways. In the contemporary world, however, for the most part what continues and is flaunted with pride as the Confucian pedigree of economically robust East Asian societies belongs to the sogyu. Free market global capitalism has been shaped by western sources, but as we enter the digitalized age of information, knowledge becomes the supreme resource, and the Confucian tradition that always identified learning as the key to a worthy life ( sogyuor tohak) has proved the most valuable cultural heritage a society can have. Combined with willingness to subordinate personal comfort to larger family well-being, it becomes an economic driver of unmatched potency.
The global market/consumer economy has arisen from western sources, and the Confucian tradition has had little to do with shaping the dynamics or values of the system. But the heirs of
sogyuworldly pragmatism now play a major role in the scale and speed with which that system grows and progresses, so East Asia and particularly the Chinese now play a major role in the sustainability crisis that is the shadow of capitalist consumer growth.
sogyuthus exacerbates the sustainability crisis by accelerating capitalist growth, in its more integral form, the Confucian and especially the Neo-Confucian traditions potentially offer a penetrating critique of the excesses of consumerism. Further, they are deeply versed in forms of cultivation that might mitigate the ill-fit of contemporary human societies with the community of life on the earth. It was chiefly the tohakConfucians, with their deep cultivation practice and care for the resources of the tradition, who took responsibility for the ongoing creative maintenance, development, and application of the tradition to an always changing socio-economic milieu. And it is tohakConfucianism that has largely disappeared from the contemporary world.
1Nicholas Kristof, “China’s Winning Schools,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 2011. 2T’oegye sŏnsaeng ŏnhaengnok 5.lla, B, 855. 3Ibid., 5.18b–19a, B, 858–859.
The contemporary intellectual world has an odd disjuncture between those who most deeply analyze our environmental sustainability crisis and those who shape the human economy which is at the core of the crisis. Contemporary environmental studies discusses in detail the complex flow of nutrition through the living web of an environmental system and analyzes the flows of matter and energy through which life continually creates and recreates the conditions for its own existence. And the study of economics does much the same in understanding the flows of matter and energy that create and maintain the market through which contemporary consumer societies create and recreate their existence.
Oddly, the economists pay great attention to the human manipulation of those flows, but scarcely recognize the origins (sources) of those flows and their destination (sinks) in that larger system we share with all life on earth—the system studied by the environmentalists. This impossible separation of a human economy from the larger complex economy of the entire web of life (all living creatures must
make a living, and therefore in a very real sense have an economy) permits the dream of unending economic growth and unmitigated consumption. Clearly the way we think scientifically about the system of life is woefully divorced from the way we frame and analyze the Market. But market thinking has become currently the paradigm that informs virtually every human organization and activity. An inclusive, holistic economics, such as espoused by the small group of Environmental Economists,4 would bridge that gap, but in the economic world theirs is an almost invisible fringe position. Sŏngnihak, in contrast, was deeply versed in thinking in terms of the holistic relational patterns that seem so difficult for the heirs of the modernist reductionist methodology that still dominates in most areas of scientific inquiry. Reductionism certainly has its place, but it becomes problematic when it causes people to overlook the implications of dynamic relational interdependence. Confucians long stressed such relational interdependence as the foundation for thinking about appropriate human relations, and nothing prevents a more contemporary reflection from extending the same modes of understanding inclusively to encompass the whole web of life. Ethics, inquiring into a fitting way of life, follows immediately from recognizing the relational matrix within which we exist and sustain our lives. Thus the sŏngnihakof T’oegye’s masterful Ten Diagrams moves immediately from holistic analysis of the all-inclusive patterning Supreme Ultimate in the first diagram to a second diagram explaining the ethics of a necessarily relational existence described in the Western Inscription.
At first glance, the movement here from cosmos to ethos or way of life is typical of pre-scientific thought, which often begins with human concerns and then reads them into the nature of the cosmos. Neo-Confucian cosmology or metaphysics of li is in fact a moral cosmology. So not surprisingly it yields an account of the moral patterning of our minds-and-hearts that correlates wonderfully with the patterning of the life force throughout the four seasons. And from relating our own inner lives to the life-giving cosmic pattern exemplified in the four seasons, we can easily proceed into a discussion of the factors that distort the life-giving responsiveness of our inherently good natures and go on to an elaboration of effective forms of cultivation to lessen or remove the distortion. Seeing this easy interchange, one might well suspect that we have here a reading of the universe that is little more than a projection of conventional human moral concerns.
Modern thinkers in East Asia as well as in the West have been inclined to dismiss such pre-modern ways of thinking as pre-scientific. It seems self-evident to them that one should begin with science. A mode of thought that begins with moral concerns and works into statements about the cosmos is backwards and can yield only the pseudo-science of an artificially moralized universe. No matter that we have never figured out how to move from scientific analysis to meaningful discussion of how humans are to live (ethics), one cannot read ethics into the universe.
My argument, on the contrary, is that the particular character of Confucian thinking makes it an exception to this objection. The objection is only a half-truth. Moving from the human to the description of the non-human is invalid only if one is dealing with what is uniquely human and then projecting it into a realm that is not human. But observations regarding human physiology, for example, can well be used to understand non-human physiology. Where there is sufficient continuity on both sides, one can cross the bridge in either direction. Confucian ethics—and especially its Neo-Confucian formulation—is based upon a premise that applies equally to the whole system of organic life, the premise that we exist interdependently within a network of relationships. It is the entire relational network that conducts life. Hence life flows to us from those relationships and in return should flow back from us into the relational web surrounding us.
Contemporary systems science looks at all systemic phenomena in terms of networked relationships, for that is the very nature of a system. And of the dynamic relational network we call the earth, certainly life itself is the most spectacular systemic emergence, and organic life itself has woven through dynamic feedback loops the further dimensions of systemic complexity we call environments and social systems (the uniquely complex environment woven by humans). Neo-Confucians likewise thought in terms of a single pattern weaving everything into a performance relating to everything else. That is, the world as they imagined it, even without important scientific concepts such as evolution, amounts to a world easily in continuity with the understanding of contemporary systems science.
sŏngnihakis a worthy project because an updated sŏngnihakcan show us how to bridge the world of systems science to the world of human ethics and self-cultivation. The central feature of that bridge is the question of life-conducing systemic relationships. Historically Confucians pursued their concern with life-givingness mainly in terms of inter-human social relationships in family and government, but in grounding that life-givingness in the life-givingness of the universe (earth) itself, they gave us a framework for seeing the necessary fit and continuity between the life-maintaining economy of the human community and the life-maintaining economies of the natural world. These are not two separate questions, but as they saw, a single, complex, interwoven dynamic in a single, whole, life-giving system.
That much, of course is already a common-place understanding among many contemporary environmental thinkers. But contemporary thought cannot push much further except to suggest a range of somewhat disparate and disconnected strategies. In the Neo-Confucian tradition, however, this was only the starting point for systemic thinking about the education and cultivation of the human mind-and-heart. We have thus far covered only the first two of T’oegye’s Ten Diagrams! And because they assumed the essential cultivation challenge revolved around becoming a fittingly life-giving person in relation with others ( 仁), the core concepts and insights of their over two thousand years of reflection still have much to tell us.
To begin with, instead of the Greek fascination with ideation and rationality, Confucians saw human activity as essentially a response to our ever-present relational situation. Accordingly they saw inherent feelings and inclinations as the leading component of the way we respond. This may seem basic to any systemic understanding of sense-informed activity, but actually this understanding is just now being hailed as a cutting-edge new insight in the world of western psychology and ethical thinking.5
But what kinds of feelings, and how do they inform our responsiveness? On one level, Korea’s famous Four-Seven debate went into this issue with un precedented depth. And on another level the question has been explored in the controversy between the two major schools of Neo-Confucian thought, the Cheng-Zhu school and the Lu-Wang school. Obviously there is much to be understood here, and contemporary psychology, assisted by new brain-imaging technology, may make even further advances possible. But the broadly shared Confucian consensus picked up on a polar tension expressed in terms of the Dao Mind and the Human Mind. As the paradigmatic passage in the
Book of Ritesputs it﹕“The human mind is perilous, the mind of the Dao is subtle; be discerning, be undivided. Hold fast the Mean!”6
Recalling that the Dao is the relational pattern woven throughout all existence, it is no surprise that the Dao Mind refers to the relational or social side of our instinctive makeup. Thus the Dao Mind is commonly associated with what Mencius described as the “Four Beginnings,” inherent inclinations that when fully developed become humanity, propriety, rightness, and wisdom. These feelings that equip us to act appropriately in all sorts of relationships are “subtle” in the sense that, unless carefully cultivated, they can easily be overshadowed by the equally inherent but stronger Human Mind. The Human Mind is comprised of feelings such as anger, fear, desire, and pleasure, that is, feelings that guide us to take care of our own well-being. This Human Mind is “perilous” in that it is forceful and easily triggered, so it can easily lead to an inappropriately self-centered mode of responsiveness that is in denial of the true relational flow of life.
Contemporary systems thinkers would agree that this analysis of the human condition picks up on some of the most basic system dynamics of being alive. Life exists only in terms of sources and flows that originate outside the individual organism. Evolution would soon deselect any organism that developed tendencies noxious to the relational environmental sources upon which it depends. Even competitive strategies must fit and complement the larger relational web, and selective pressure likewise rewards the emergence of overtly cooperative strategies and sociability. Contrary to the dominant economic image of humans as inherently self-centered profit maximizers, we have evolved as the most extreme example among primates of this sociability vector. We have been selected for and evolved responsive inclinations and abilities to work together that are so powerful our inter-human dependencies and prowess even obscure in the short term our continued dependence on the larger, inter-species web of relationships. Indeed, our systemic survival in the longer term depends upon the emergence of a form of Dao Mind again responsive to the encompassing web of life.
At the same time, we survive only as physically distinct, individual organisms. This demands an array of inclinations that will keep our individual selves intact— appropriately responsive feelings such as fear, anger, pleasure and desire. Insofar as these feelings guide often immediate situations of life and death importance, such as crossing a busy street or eating enough to maintain health, they are very strongly wired into our response system. Again, through natural selection and basic dynamics of life systems, the Human Mind is a fundamental feature of being human, but one we often find in tension with the Dao Mind.
So the environmentally educated and those versed in systems science share these insights with the Confucians. But only the Confucians made them the fundamental framework for understanding how human responsiveness gets distorted away from the deep life-giving dynamic that shaped our responsiveness in the first place. We must indeed take care of ourselves, but those inclinations easily run to excess and need watchful restraint; we spontaneously empathize with the difficulties and needs of others, but those feelings are easily overshadowed and need careful nurture and cultivation. This was the bedrock understanding upon which Confucians layered ethical reflection and self-cultivation practices for over two thousand years.
The special contribution of the
sŏngnihakanalysis was bringing this reflection to bear on the question of the appropriate, life-giving responsiveness of the mind-and-heart. They looked for a cultivation that could put the life of our feelings on a more spontaneously life-giving track. Though they were thinking mainly about inter-human responsiveness, the same question is systemically valid for our response to the whole community of life. And this, the question of sustainability, has become the central crisis of our era.
Sustainability is thus systemically the same question about life-giving responsiveness asked by Neo-Confucians, though on a more massive and forbidding scale. We are all too aware that a species that undercuts the very web of relationships from which its life flows becomes extinct. But so far, we do not seem to be able to correct ourselves. The broad lines of the cultivation question are very similar, but the depths of the challenge are more difficult. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years with strong interdependence among ourselves and relatively limited abilities to destroy other life on a large scale (although that too has been a problem). So the selectively evolved social inclinations the Confucians called “subtle” are perhaps super-subtle when we cross the line of our own species. How much we spontaneously empathize with or care for non-human life decreases rapidly as such life looks less and less like a human infant. Indeed, the potential shoots or sprouts of such inclinations may well be present (we see them actualized in more and more people these days), but they require even more careful nurture than our human-to-human sociability. And as many note, we have not even succeeded at the human-to-human very well much of the time.
4See, for example, Herman Daley, Beyond Growth. Daley has long been one of the foremost representatives of those who insist on whole-systems thinking in economics. 5See, for example, “The New Humanism,” By David Brooks, in the March 7, 2011 New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/opinion/08brooks.html?ref=opinion (accessed August, 28, 2011). 6Book of Documents, pt. 2, 2.15.
If there is any trove of wisdom, any lore of cultivation that might render humans more life-giving and responsive in their relation to their own systemic sources of life, it has never been more desperately needed than at present. Confucians aimed their cultivation at enhancing the sensitive responsiveness of the Dao Mind and habituating restraint regarding the inclinations stemming from the Human Mind. This Dao Mind/Human Mind window on the question of life-giving responsiveness casts the problem of contemporary consumer society in bold relief. The deepest scientific research on the responsive makeup of our minds-and-hearts proceeds today not from those concerned to deepen our cultivation but from those eager to sell us things. Human needs are inherently limited, but the consumer economy is premised on unlimited wants, and the advertising industry is indispensable as the tool to insure that ever growing production correlates with ever growing wants. Thus massive, coordinated global effort is spent cultivating and strengthening the Human Mind and its tendency to prioritize personal desires, pleasure, and comfort over other considerations.
We live immersed in a media world saturated with and shaped by the advertising money that supports it. We have even been persuaded to adorn our clothing with logos so we become walking billboards. Sports teams and their equipment are displays of what we might buy and consume. Simply put, the world of contemporary auditory and visual experience is shaped by the attempt to urge us to greater pleasure, convenience, relaxation, and stimulation. In a market economy, marketing becomes omnipresent. One can hardly appeal to the world of nature as an alternative, for nature too is marketed as an escape, a relaxation, a serene beauty for our eye and spirit.
Ease, pleasure, and convenience are not easily ratcheted back. They appeal deeply to our instincts for personal well-being. This Human Mind is already powerful even in the absence of massive efforts to strengthen its guiding role in our lives. Social or system-oriented motivation, the Dao Mind, seems weak by comparison. Indeed, the Tao Mind is subtle, the Human Mind perilous!
Thoughts about how we might transform into a more sustainable society reflect this difficult situation. We urge life-giving feeling and concerns for our fellow creatures, but these seem ineffectual in curtailing the dominance of convenience and comfort. Those who hope the Dao Mind will triumph most often anticipate some kind of new evolutionary leap in which life-giving concerns become predominant in our minds-and-hearts. But explanations are lacking as to how such an evolution will happen. Thus many more people anticipate that we will need a sufficiently large global catastrophe to make us fear for our own wellbeing. That is, fear trumps pleasure in the Human Mind, and finally widespread and more or less immediate peril is the only motivation that can lead us to transform from our consumption maximizing ways. But by then it might be too late.
In the absence of some kind of magical transformation of the human mind-and-heart, perhaps the best we might hope for is some kind of “soft landing.” Just as contemporary global culture fosters and strengthens the Human Mind side of our inclinations, so we would need the emergence of a global culture that is motivated to foster and strengthen the Dao Mind. Something would have to happen to motivate societies to give up dreaming of development as ever-growing production and consumption and instead encourage their populations to think of the enhanced flourishing of the entire community of life as the path to their own highest quality of life. If that “something” was sufficiently definitive to bring about a sustained cultural shift, but not so dire that it brings about systemic social collapse, we might have such a soft landing, an evolution that changes not the social-individual tension of the mind-and-heart, but changes rather the currents of culture which bring to the fore and prioritize some inclinations over others.
Few observers expect such a soft landing, though many would see it as a best hope. The problem is that consumer culture and the capitalist market system are so deeply entrenched it seems only a devastating downturn can dislodge them. What we need, however, is a softer catalyst that can nonetheless bring about a deep, long lasting, and eventually global cultural change. And for a softer catalyst to achieve that, there must be a society more sensitively or perilously on the brink of transformation, and that also systemically has ligatures throughout the global system. I propose that China is perhaps the only such society in the world today, that its Confucian heritage could facilitate a soft landing for the globe.
At present, for good reason, the eyes of the world are on China, which is undergoing phenomenal economic growth, rapid urbanization, and deep social change. It is the poster-child for the vision of development that sees capitalistic growth leading to a happy consumer society. The Chinese Communist government has in fact now openly premised its own legitimacy almost entirely upon such growth, and accordingly admits that social stability demands something like steady on-going 8.5% annual growth. If events make such growth not only unsustainable in the long run but impossible in the present, the situation would indeed become extremely unstable. Because the government of China is so perilously leveraged on legitimation by a form of economic growth that is highly vulnerable to conditions still far from catastrophic, it meets the conditions for responsiveness to a relatively softer catalyst of change.
Nationalism, always a potent force in the “Middle Kingdom,” has been strongly reinforced by international awe drawn by recent economic performance. Even architects are required to incorporate some distinctive “Chinese” feature into the daring new buildings which mark out a new urban skyline. This sets the stage for the kind of strategic move typical of governments in trouble. If conditions take a turn that make it look like rapid economic growth is a thing of the past, the government will be desperate to wean people away from their expectations of growth and to redirect them to a new reason to support the government. Especially if environmental problems contribute to those conditions—as seems highly likely—what better strategy than a rediscovery of the centrality of systemic life-givingness that is such a deep part of “our own” heritage, accompanied by an all-out critique of the blindness and devastation wrought by misguided “western” capitalist values.
I do not mean to be cynical here: sometimes profound truth can also happen to serve very self-interested purposes! Neo-Confucian
tohakinsights can indeed be revitalized as better, deeper, and more relevant to the current state of affairs than the consumer ethic. A government seeking to redirect public thinking and expectations could well launch a cultural shift that would again support both efforts at personal cultivation and creative thinking in a twenty-first century tohakmode.
For the purposes of the global system, we should note China’s role as the paradigmatic development dream. No matter that it would take three earths for the populations of China and India to live like Americans; this has been the shared vision of potential development that has been the stable underpinning of the entire international global order. But if China hits a wall, it makes the impossibility of this dream evident to all. In the search for a new vision, a new way of telling ourselves the deeper meaning of our societies, the moves that China makes are likely to have wide impact—especially as it will be seen as a radical critique of the unsustainable and unobtainable vision still represented by the United States. Neo-Confucian
tohakis unlikely to sweep the world, but it is entirely possible that its revitalization in China as a response to waning capitalism could inspire the rediscovery or invention of similar dimensions in other major world traditions.
Sung dynasty Neo-Confucians did not just revive the Confucianism of Mencius, they thoroughly recreated it in terms of the problems and challenges of their time. In the same manner, a revived
Tohakwould find ready sources in life sciences, and in environmental and systems thinking to carry the fundamental insights of earlier Confucians/Neo-Confucians to new depths. As global human society wrestles with a sustainability problem that challenges basic structures and values we have long taken for granted, new thinking and vision coming from the Tohakheritage may have an audience reaching far beyond East Asia.
Whether what I have described regarding China will ever come to pass is an open question: this is perhaps the best or most optimistic of many possibilities. But we can say major cultural transformations typically emerge from just such a convergence of deep lying and historically contingent factors. Although richly life-giving orientations can be derived from virtually any of the world’s great religious traditions, the heritage of
sŏngnihakand its tohakpractice has a unique symmetry with systemic environmental understanding and with the pressing needs of the contemporary world. That China might turn from its present deep embrace of market-oriented consumer values to revivify this heritage would be judged wildly improbable if it were just a matter of better ideas displacing less good ideas. In the short term, it is all too possible for blind and unsustainable notions to win out the real demands of the life system to which we belong. But at critical moments entire cultures can pivot on the exigencies of political survival, and conditions are such that such a juncture may bring about a “Confucian turn” in China. That might, in fact, be our best hope for a non-catastrophic transition to a more sustainable, life-conducting human presence on earth.