Sacred Books of the East

november 27, 2014

From Wikipedia: «The Sacred Books of the East is a monumental 50-volume set of English translations of Asian religious writings, edited by Max Müller and published by the Oxford University Press between 1879 and 1910. It incorporates the essential sacred texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Islam.»

Freely available as PDFs from and as plain text from


november 15, 2014

«Today too, despite the new, more considered attention given to Confucius, his place is still unsettled and his status unclear. For some younger people, the bitter disillusionment that followed the Cultural Revolution and the eclipse of Mao has left them looking everywhere, abroad and at home, for something to replace the god that failed. For others, heirs of the May Fourth movement and steeped in the anti-Confucian satires of Lu Hsun as they never were in the Confucian classics, Confucianism still lurks as the specter of a reactionary and repressive past, surviving in antidemocratic, “feudal” features of the current regime. The suspicion, among those who, forty years after “liberation,” still seek to be liberated, is that the new pragmatic policy in Beijing gives tacit support to the revival of a conservative ideology that would dampen dissent and buttress the status quo. Even the West’s newfound interest in Confucianism is, from this point of view, apt to be dismissed as hopelessly anachronistic. Indeed, for those still disposed to consider religions (perhaps now along with Marxism) as the opiate of the people, any sympathetic approach to Confucianism in the West seems to be a romantic illusion, a wishful idealization of China’s past on a par with other pipe dreams of Westerners seeking some escape into Oriental mysticism, Zen Buddhism, or transcendental meditation.»


«Confucius had already been derided for “fleeing from this man and that” (i.e., avoiding service to one ruler or another), when, as he was advised, he would do better “to flee from this whole generation of men” (i.e., to give up on political reform altogether). His response was neither to give up nor to give in, neither to retire from the scene in order fastidiously to preserve his inner integrity, nor on the other hand, to accept whatever office might be available simply for the sake of keeping himself politically occupied and comfortably provided for. Rather, peripatetically on the political circuit of ancient China, Confucius traveled the twisting road that lay between easy accommodation and total withdrawal.

Given this example of Confucius and his portrayal of the noble man, one understands how later Confucians would have had to stray rather far from the Master’s precepts if they were to fit Max Weber’s characterization of the Confucian as a gentleman politely accommodating himself to the status quo or rationally adjusting to the world in which he found himself.»


«The actual weakness of the Confucians then, seems not to have lain in a failure of advocacy, but in their indisposition or inability to establish any power base of their own. They could serve important functions for the bureaucratic state, by virtue of their literacy, their knowledge of history and ritual, and their high-minded ethos, but except on rare, momentary occasions, they faced the state, and whoever controlled it, as individual scholars unsupported by any organized party or active constituency. It is this institutional weakness, highly dependent condition, and extreme insecurity in their tenure of office (correctly diagnosed by Weber),and not any failure to uphold transcendent values (since they wer ehard enough on, demanding enough of, themselves), that marked the Confucians as ju (‘softies’) in the politics of imperial China.

In the mature dynasties, with the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Sung dynasty and after, the literati acquired an even stronger identity as bearers of high culture and transcendental values but did not succeed in overcoming this crucial handicap. Even when Neo-Confucianism became firmly established as official doctrine, with a key role in both education and the civil service examination system, Confucian scholar/officials remained exposed to the vicissitudes of a system that took advantage of their disciplined talents while keeping them in a condition of extreme dependency and insecurity – though whether in servitude or not is another matter.

The pathos of this situation for the conscientious Confucian – mindful of Confucius’s own persistent sense of mission, and refusing, in the face of extreme difficulties, either to give up or give in – had been touchingly expressed by the great T’ang poet Tu Fu (712-70), as he struggled to carry on his own political vocation when out of office and almost had to go begging for help from friends in different parts of the country. Here are two poems written in his last years:


Every quest is preceded by a hundred scruples; Confucianism is indeed one of my troubles! And yet, because of it, I have many friends. And despite my age, I have continued to travel. . . .
Wise men of ancient times would not expose themselves to any chance of danger; Why should we hurry now at the risk of our lives? . . .
Having come a long and hard way to be a guest; One can make few appeals without injuring one’s self-respect. Among the ancients, there were good men who refused to compromise and starved to death; There were able men who humored the world and received rich gifts. These are mutually exclusive examples; The trouble with me is that I want to follow them both!



On the river, every day these heavy rains – bleak, bleak, autumn in Ching-ch’u! High winds strip the leaves from the trees; through the long night I hug my fur robe. I recall my official record, keep looking in the mirror, recall my comings and goings, leaning alone in an upper room. In these perilous times I long to serve my sovereign – old and feeble as I am, I can’t stop thinking of it!»


«There is great irony in the Ming situation considering that it was in a real sense the first full “Neo-Confucian” period – the first in which nearly all educated men, from the beginning, re-ceived their intellectual and moral formation through Neo- Confucian teachers and a Neo-Confucian curriculum. Neo- Confucian texts served as the basis for state examinations, and even Ming emperors, whether as crown princes or after, were constantly lectured to by Neo-Confucian mentors. Yet by the almost unanimous verdict of historians, Ming rule has been adjudged the ultimate extreme in Chinese despotism. Lest one dismiss this as just a Western judgment, prejudiced perhaps by ignorance, cultural preconceptions, or a predisposition to denigrate the Chinese, it must be said that Chinese scholars themselves, by the end of the Ming, had already arrived at this condemnation.

Modern writers have sometimes explained this ironic outcome as an indication that Neo-Confucianism itself was to blame, that it bore the seeds of such despotism in its own “dogmatism” and authoritarian ways. Still others who find Neo-Confucians to blame do so for almost opposite reasons, citing their impractical idealism, naive optimism, and simple moralistic approach to politics that was altogether incapable of coping with the economic complications and Byzantine complexities of imperial politics. This latter explanation may be closer to the truth than the former, in that Neo-Confucian self-cultivation – the heart of its educational doctrine – put such heavy emphasis on the power of the individual moral will to master any situation. When, then, his ministers and mentors, with all the best intentions, seemed to lodge in the emperor ultimate responsibility for whatever went wrong in the world as the very necessary implication and consequence of imperial claims to absolute authority, it was an unbearable moral burden for the man at the top – “the one man” – to bear. There are signs that Ming rulers developed deep psychological resistance to this unequal situation, resenting being lectured to in such terms, and in some cases refused even to meet with their Neo-Confucian ministers for long periods of time -even years on end. A strikingly similar syndrome appeared in Yi dynasty Korea, where the same system of Neo-Confucian instruction for the ruler was adopted, sometimes with incongruous results.»


«But if autocracy in China both bred and stunted its own kind of liberal protest, it is noteworthy that these critics, prophets, and martyrs mostly came from among the Confucians-and in the cases just cited, specifically from the ranks of orthodox Neo-Confucians – not from among Buddhists or Taoists. The latter were, as we say, out of it, not engaged in the kind of struggle religion waged against Caesar in the West. In this respect Confucianism – not a teaching usually considered “religious” – performed the critical function Max Weber assigned to religion as the effective bearer of commanding, transcendental values in vital tension with the world, while Buddhism and Taoism, normally considered “religions,” rarely did so.»

Wm. Theodore de Bary, «The Trouble with Confucianism,» The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Delivered at The University of California at Berkeley May 4 and 5, 1988)