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Module Assignments

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  • Study the assigned curriculum — both Parts 1 and 2.
  • Submit your essay (or your contracted alternative), which must include thoughts on both parts of each module.
  • Your peer exchanges are due two days after your essay is due.

The essays are designed to be meaningful exercises of self-exploration (reflections) rather than busy work (summaries).

The practice of philosophy is a major goal of your essays and exchanges. This practice promotes and supports independent, creative and original thinking.

Essays Due by 11:00 PM on Mondays and Thursdays.

  • Your essays need to be a thoughtful “journal-like” reflections.
  • Essays must address both part 1 and part 2 of each module’s curriculum.
  • A good reflection is one that I could not have read before. This is because it is the essay that only you could have written — due to your unique set of life experiences.

Minimum Requirements

  • Essays are not summaries. That is busy work.
  • Summaries do not receive credit because they do not require serious thought — simply the ability to record information.
  • Your essays must be more than 700 words to receive credit and be eligible for a C, more than 800 words to be eligible for a B, and more than 900 words to be eligible for an A.
  • Your assignments are not eligible for A’s if they require proofreading.
  • Assignments that are partial (not meeting minimum requirements) do not receive partial credit.
  • Late assignments are not eligible for credit.

Essay Prompts

You are not required to use the following prompts, but they may help you think about what you are studying:

  • What did you learn? What surprised you and/or caused enough doubt that you were inspired to do a little research and fact checking?
  • Did you find any specific ideas confusing or difficult?
  • Did you have an emotional response, negative or positive? Do you know why?
  • Have you had any experiences you are willing to share with our class that help you relate to and understand any of the material in this module?
  • Did this assignment contain any “awakening” ideas, those that inspire you rather than depress you?
  • Did you find any of the ideas surprising? Why?

Final Assessment Prompts

You do not need to use these final assessment prompts either, but they may help you put what you are studying this semester into a larger perspective.

  • Can you give an example or two in your essay that demonstrates you were engaging with, and thinking about, our curriculum in a serious way?
  • Did you study everything required or did you rush and skim?
  • Did you find yourself thinking about class content when you did not have to, such as finding yourself discussing ideas with friends or family?
  • Did you seek clarification about class material that confused you? If not, why not?
  • Have your studies contributed to any increase in self-knowledge (how you understand the world and your place in it) or a deeper understanding of one’s current world view?



Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is almost as old, but it tends to be less conservative and more open to adaptation then the “Way of the Elders.” These Buddhists wanted to be more open to lay people and they wanted to be able to incorporate some of the teachings that surrounded them, such as Taoism in China and the native Bon religion in Tibet.

Even though there were different emphases and practices between the two types of Buddhism, the defining difference is really a textual one. The Mahayana Buddhists accept more literature as scripture.

What makes these sutras so interesting? “These scriptures start from a universal rather than a historical perspective, holding that there is a universal true reality everywhere – known variously as the Void, Nirvana, Buddha-nature – that is capable of being realized by anyone. Gautama Buddha realized it at the moment of his enlightenment, and so he manifests it and comes from it – but there are an infinite number of other Buddhas, too, and in a deeper sense everyone is actually an unrealized Buddha. Any means of attaining this realization is acceptable insofar as it works; the gradated practice of Theravada may be dispensed with, and techniques of devotion, chanting, even quasi-magic, brought in from bhakti yoga and folk religion, can be employed” (MPMF, p. 141.) So you can see that this type of Buddhism is pretty universal and accommodating to new and different practices.

One of the most profound changes happened in regards to what is called a bodhisattva. In Theravada Buddhism, the goal was to reach enlightenment. With the emphasis on monasticism, the focus would often be on the individual becoming enlightened. There was not so much emphasis on how this might influence others or be part of a compassionate plan for service.

In other words, if there was no check on the system, some people might accuse Theravada Buddhists of being selfish, only concerned with their own enlightenment, and not concerned about the world and all of the suffering that was in it. Mahayana Buddhists wanted to correct this tendency.

“The bodhisattva is on the way to Buddhahood but holds back at its very threshold out of compassion for the countless beings still in ignorance and suffering; the bodhisattva dwells both in Nirvana and in the phenomenal world, having the power and reality of both. As a borderline figure, he or she also imparts grace and receives devotion” (MPMF, p. 141.)

How did Mahayana Buddhists justify this teaching? They did it by understanding where the Buddha was coming from. That is, after enough disciples of the Buddha were able to realize enlightenment for themselves, they were able to understand his teaching from the “inside,” so to speak.

What they discovered can be described as awareness, mindfulness, wakefulness or consciousness. The focus moves from the historical Buddha to a state of consciousness and what we can do to facilitate this greater awareness. In other words, if something helps you find enlightenment then it is good, if it holds you back from enlightenment then it is, obviously, more of a problem. The Buddha is understood to have lived at a certain time and place. If other ways, not taught by the Buddha, are seen to be helpful, then it is assumed that the Buddha would approve.

The Bodhisattva

The bodhisattva is to Buddhism what avatars and gurus are to Hinduism. That is, they are a living example of everything we wish for. They show us it is possible, and therefore, they offer not only teachings and practices, but hope as well. These are the great enlightened beings who could disappear into Nirvana, but who decide to stay and help. They refuse to fully enter Nirvana until everyone else goes in ahead of them. In this sense, they are great symbols of compassion.

As a result of this, the bodhisattva is the central element of Mahayana Buddhism. In fact, most Buddhists of this persuasion take a bodhisattva vow. This means they dedicate the fruit of their practice and their own enlightenment to the welfare of other beings.

“Virtually everything that is distinctive and of general interest in Mahayana is related to the bodhisattva and the bodhisattva’s path. To understand this class of being, his or her meaning and methods, is to have the surest key to understanding Mahayana teaching, symbols, and practices” (MPMF, p. 145.)

The nature of Buddhist focus becomes compassion rather than enlightenment, service rather than wisdom. But it is only a change in emphasis. It is not that enlightenment and wisdom are no longer of extreme value, for they are, but the perspective has changed.

The bodhisattva teaches by example the importance of the reality of emptiness. The bodhisattva shows us that it is possible to live a life of compassion and joy, while at the same time, continually letting go of everything. The paradox of caring deeply about everything while understanding that nothing matters is brought to life: the paradox of trying to end suffering with all of one’s being, while at the same time understanding that suffering is an illusion. These things are almost too hard to grasp, and that is why we need bodhisattvas to demonstrate this truth to us.

Chan Buddhism

If Buddhism combined with Shamanism in Tibet to form Vajrayana Buddhism, then what would happen if it moved to China and combined with Taoism? Out would pop Chan Buddhism! Chan is better known under its Japanese name, Zen. It comes from the Hindu word for meditation, dhyana. Zen is also the form of Buddhism you are most likely to think of if you picture a person sitting in the lotus posture on their cushion meditating.

One of the interesting things about Zen is that it relies least on the scriptures. What it wants is a “direct seeing” into the nature of reality, and to facilitate this intuitive leap into nonduality you need a master to help you. Often the master uses humor to get you to have this breakthrough.

“A Chan master was once asked what the “First Principle” is. He replied, “If I told you, it would become the Second Principle!” (MPMF, p. 155.) Sometimes they use koans, which are puzzling questions used to frustrate the ordinary mind to the point where it will finally “break open” and allow this direct awareness, this pure seeing to shine forth.

This work with a master is traced back to the Buddha himself, who is said once to have held up a flower and smiled. Only one monk of many who were there smiled back because in that moment, he “got it.” What did he get? The whole teaching! Everything all at once. Chan traces itself back to that moment. The Buddha’s giving the monk “the flower and smile conveyed a universe of wisdom indefinable by any words or books” (MPMF, p. 155.)

Of course there is an irony here. On the one hand, the enlightenment is “sudden,” but on the other hand, there is a good chance that the monk experiencing sudden enlightenment has been practicing for many years. Part of the suddenness is that the experience, we are told, is like waking up in the morning. One moment you are dreaming vividly and it seems so real, and the next moment you are awake and the dream is gone. Does anyone teach you to awake? No, you just do it.

Taoism and Confucianism

It is traditional to study Taoist and Confucianist philosophy separately, because they have different founders and are in many ways, very different. On the other hand, it can be a problem to separate them in an academic way, because most Chinese people practice them together. That is, a person growing up in China would have been Confucian in their family and social responsibilities, and Taoist in their more personal awakening practices. And even that division rings false.

Very simply, they would have been both Taoist and Confucian, and we need to remember this if we are to truly understand these religions of China. In addition, China has a long history of Buddhist philosophy. It is good to keep in mind that many Chinese people had a third strand to their religious view, that of Buddhist ideas and practices.

Philosophy in China

Many, if not most, of the philosophies we will study in this class, are the ideas and practices of people who have been moved, or at least been influenced, by the migration of ideas. We saw how Hindu philosophy was impacted and partially created by the Indo-Europeans. Buddhist philosophy has traveled throughout the world, adapting and changing the peoples and cultures that it has met.

We all know how big a role immigration has played in the American story. With China we encounter something different. “One of the most distinctive features of the Chinese mentality is its feeling that the Chinese people and the soil on which they live are inseparable and have been together as far back as tradition goes” (Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, Seventh Edition, [Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002], p. 181. Hereafter referred to in the lectures as MPMF.)

There are no stories of the ancient people of China invading China and taking it over from another people. They seem to have always been there. “Consequently, a sense of place, of the cycles of nature, and of lineage were fundamental to the religious outlook of the earliest known Chinese, as they have been ever since” (MPMF, p. 181.) The land impacts all indigenous religions. China’s relationship to its land will be no different.

The earliest philosophy of China was the Shamanist one we find all over the world in the prehistorical period. This is a time when people are closely connected to nature and magical rites to control the earth and the weather, and things of that kind.

“The cultural line that led to Chinese civilization began around 4000 B.C.E. in tiny villages in the Yellow River basin where millet, vegetables, and pigs were raised. One of the oldest motifs of Chinese religion is the Earth-god. The central sacred feature was often a stone or mound, like a concentration of the forces of the soil into a central focus. These mounds are the ancestors of the city-god temples of today, as well as the great Altar of Heaven in Beijing, built like an artificial mountain where the emperor offered worship at the Winter Solstice. Worship was also offered very early to the spirits of rivers and of rain, the latter immemorially represented as the dragon, for the rivers and rain bless the fertile earth with moisture” (MPMF, p. 181.) And as with all nature-based philosophies, there was an openness to and relationship with the feminine that is never entirely lost in Taoist philosophy.

One of the areas where we can still see the connection with early philosophical ideas is in the respect the Chinese people have for their ancestors. Many of the earliest philosophies seem to have felt that the people we love who die can influence our lives for better (or worse!), and therefore, it is important to respect them and do the necessary rituals to keep the peace.

“In burial and ancestrism, continuity of the three identity-giving factors of family, ancestors, and place was emphasized. Burial, the return of the tiller of the earth to its bosom, has always been very important in China” (MPMF, p. 181.)

Perhaps people felt that just as a seed must be buried to sprout into a new plant, so people must be buried correctly to be reborn in the afterlife. All we know for sure is that the first signs of spiritual attitudes in human beings are usually found at burial sites.

Many of us may be familiar with the great pyramids in Egypt. You find similar customs in China, where great care was taken to assure the dead, especially the mighty, of a good afterlife. No expense seemed too great or costly.

“The concern with burial goes as far back as Chinese culture. Neolithic farmers buried children in urns under the house and adults in reserved fields. In the first period of real civilization, the Shang era, great pits were dug in the earth for the burial of a king. In what must have been a scene of incredible barbaric horror and splendor, the deceased monarch was interred brilliantly ornamented with jade, together with the richly caparisoned horses who had borne his hearse, hundreds of sacrificed human retainers and prisoners, and a fortune in precious objects” (MPMF, p. 182.)

Scholars have learned a great deal about these past times from archeological digs in China, where they have uncovered enormous wealth that was preserved for ages.

Some of the most profound ideas in Chinese philosophy and religion have their roots in these earliest cultures. “The Shang Dynasty and its successor, the Zhou Dynasty, lasted from about 1750 to 221 B.C.E. The basic motifs of religion in these eras represent in developing from the fundamental ideas of Chinese religion and philosophy” (MPMF, p. 182.)

The Chinese did not have a personal monotheist God, but they did have a sense of a great and mysterious force, perhaps something like the Hindu Brahman.

Probably one of the first things people noticed in this world was that underneath the constant changes in life, there seems to exist a pervading order and law. The seasons followed one another, and the same stars could be watched at night. “The thinkers of those days talked of a supreme ruler or moderator of the universe, Di or Tian, usually translated as “Heaven,” who gave rain, victory, fortune or misfortune, and regulated the moral order. All things ultimately derived from Tian, but it was more a personification of natural law than a real personality and was not directly worshipped; Heaven was like the high god of many archaic peoples – understood as being remote” (MPMF, p. 182.)

Most tribal people had this sense of a high god or ultimate ruler, but in terms of everyday relationships, people found gods closer to home. This makes more sense than we might at first think, if you grew up in a monotheistic Western culture. For example, many of us might know that our boss has a boss who has a boss all the way up to the Chair of the Board of our company (or school in my case).

For most of our regular interactions and for things such as job evaluations, we deal with the next person “up” from us. We may have never even met some of the people higher up in the company who we ultimately work for. I imagine it was something like this for peasant people. Who had the most influence and impact on your life? Your immediate ancestors first, and then the local gods and goddesses, and only eventually did you think or concern yourself with the ultimate authority.

Once you had honored your ancestors, who did you turn to next? Most of the local gods seem to be representatives of nature. “Other gods, lesser but more accessible to worship, were those of sun, moon, stars, rivers, mountains, the four directions, and localities. These were given offerings, some seasonally, some morning and evening. Above all were the ancestral spirits, treated to meals and remembrance and expected to intercede on behalf of the living with Tian” (MPMF, p. 182.)

What becomes clear is that there was a perceived hierarchy of being, from the human and natural world to the ancestors and then the forces of nature, until eventually you reached the top of the pyramid, where you found Tian.

Closely associated with these early magical rites were the attempts of people to control their futures, or at least be informed about what to expect. “The Shang era is most famous for divination with the “oracle bones.” The procedure was that kings would ask their ancestors questions, and the answers would be determined by cracks made in a tortoiseshell when it was heated over a fire. Thousands of these shells, with the questions and sometimes the answers inscribed on them in an archaic form of writing, have been preserved” (MPMF, p. 182.)

In shamanistic philosophy, one of the tasks of the shamans was to foretell the future, help people avoid disasters and seek out good fortune. This interest even continues today, in the modern interest in astrology and psychic phenomena, as well as sprouting in secular concerns, such as trying to foresee what the stock market is going to do or looking ahead to what the weather will be like in a few days.

While scholars do not know as much as they would like to know about early Chinese philosophy, they know enough to help us discover certain principles in modern Chinese thought that go all the way back to the dawn of history.

“Divination, the seasonal cycle, and ceremonialism all suggest one basic principle that has run through Chinese thought from the beginning – that the universe is a unity in which all things fit together. If humanity aligns itself with it, all will fit together for us as it does for nature. On this assumption, traditional Chinese lived with the turning of the seasons, and in their ceremonies strove to make life into an image of their harmony. Divination is based on the same worldview, for it presumes that if the world is a unity, each fragment of it – like a tortoiseshell – must contain clues to what is happening or will happen in other parts” (MPMF, pp. 182-183.)

This perceived unity would be fundamental to Chinese thought in both Confucian and in Taoist philosophy. The ultimate goal will always be to find a way to bring one’s own life into harmony with this greater unity. That is the place of contentment and serenity.

The Tao – Foundational to Confucian and Taoist Philosophy

Before the formation of what has become known as Confucian or Taoist philosophy, the Chinese had the concept of the Tao. “The unity in which all things fit together harmoniously is called the Tao” (MPMF, p. 183.) Both of these traditions refer to it.

The differences between them consist in how they perceive we can best work with the Tao, not whether the Tao exists. Perhaps it is simply a more philosophical understanding of the early belief in Tian. Tian and the Tao seem closely related.

While the Tao is not personal like the God of the Bible, it does become the great focus. “Tao – how to know it, live it, and construct a society that exemplifies it – is the great theme of Chinese thought and the religious expressions closely related to it” (MPMF, p. 183.)

What is interesting is that Confucian and Taoist philosophy come up with such different approaches. That is when it is important to remember that the Chinese people never fully bought into only one approach. Most of the people seemed to realize that it was only in using both approaches together, that one could best live out this sought-for harmony.

While you could not have a personal relationship with the Tao the same way you could have a personal relationship with the gods in devotional Hindu philosophy, it was believed that you could come to know the Tao by studying it in the three places it was most readily observed.

“In asking how to get back on the track of Tao, the Chinese believed there were three realms where Tao could be experienced: nature, human society, and one’s own inner being. The question was: How are these to be lined up, with what priorities, and with what techniques for ascertaining the “message” of the Tao?” (MPMF, p. 183.) In many ways these are still the questions of any earnest seeker after the truth.

Just as there have been many seekers, so there have been many answers. For various reasons, these answers, which became schools of thoughts and philosophies of life, eventually sorted themselves out into the two basic approaches we are studying, Taoist and Confucian ideas and practices. What are these differences?

“The basic difference was that Confucianists thought the Tao, or Tian (the will of Heaven), as they often called it, was best found by humans within human tradition and society and so was explored through human relationships and rituals and by the use of human reason. The Taoists thought that reason and society perverted the Tao, that it was best found alone in the rapture of merging with infinite nature and the mystical and marvelous” (MPMF, p. 183.)

Even today, we can often divide people by their temperaments into introverts and extroverts. Perhaps the earliest division was based on something similar, because it seems certain people find meaning in interaction with others, while some people need more time alone in quiet and solitude to find what they are looking for. Those seeking solitude would find themselves leaning in the direction of Taoist philosophy, and those needing to interact and serve others would look for community life in Confucian philosophy.

More specifically, even those leaning in one direction or another will often apply certain religious teachings to parts of their life and other teachings to other parts of their life. This is another reason why people in China tended not to be “Just one way,” because even those who love solitude must sometimes interact with others, and those who love people will find themselves alone at times.

“In the lives of most people, features from all sides would have a place. Confucian attitudes would undergird family and work ethics; Buddhism would help to answer questions about what happens after death; a dash of Taoist color would meet esthetic and spiritual needs in family and personal life. (It has been said that Chinese officials were Confucian at work and Taoist in retirement)” (MPMF, p. 184.)

This is really not so strange. Many of us work in one field, and as a result of this emphasis, we seek out hobbies and pastimes that are very different. We have one way of interacting with our fellow employees and another way of interacting with our families. This is not necessarily a situation of inconsistency, it is a different emphasis of what is important and valuable in different situations.

This will become clearer as we proceed with our study. So far we have been thinking about early Chinese tradition and some of the common ground, such as the Tao, shared by all Chinese thought. Now it is time to look at these two different traditions in detail, and we will start with Taoist philosophy then move to Confucian philosophy.

Fundamentals of Taoist Philosophy

Confucian philosophy (as we will see), puts a great deal of stress on living a virtuous life. Sometimes this can seem like too much of a burden. Where is the joy? Where is the mysticism? Where is the transcendence? Taoist philosophy comes along like a breath of fresh air and lets people know that there is a way of nature that is just as important, if not more important, than the way of social relations. Taoist philosophy speaks to another side of the Chinese character and sensibility.

“It is the side that feels for communion with nature and aspirations of the mystic rapture, imaginative works of art and letters, rebellion against social conformity, inward fear of evil, and love for gods. This side affirms the needs of personal life against the demands of structured society, and it affirms the place of the feeling, symbol-making, nonrational side against the cool, word-oriented rational side. In China, all this side has danced about under the broad umbrella of the Taoist tradition” (MPMF, p. 196.)

Because of these qualities, Taoist philosophy has more appeal to many modern people than Confucian ideas and practices. As we will see, either tradition on its own tends to lack the very balance that both are seeking, but together they work very well.

Because Taoist philosophy is so open to different ideas about reality and it embraces so much, it can be quite confusing to a novice. Taoist practices have divided up into a more popular religious form and into a more philosophical form.

“As one would expect from this, Taoism has been many things to many different people and has taken an immense variety of forms over the centuries. It has included hermit poets, temples with lavishly robed priests burning clouds of incense before resplendent gods, and “underground” secret political societies. It has ranged from nature mysticism to occult quests for immortality to the rites of spiritualists who call up the dead” (MPMF, p. 197.)

Taoist ideas include everything that might fall under traditional spirituality, but they also include things that many of us would call superstitious and magical. This is because Taoist ideas and practices include the way of philosophers, as well as the way of the common people and their folk religion.

“Some commentators have talked about a ‘pure’ philosophical Taoism and a ‘degenerate,’ ‘superstitious’ religious Taoism. But such presuppositions get in the way of real understanding. It is more instructive to comprehend how all of Taoism forms a unity of experience around a single pole, focusing on the feeling-oriented, nonrational side of life. Here it is simple to move rapidly from mysticism to occultism to revolution and back, and from ‘nature’ to the most elaborate religious robes and rites, so long as they express something imaginative and personal. Taoism in China is really a tapestry of countless strands of folk religion, ancient arcane going back to prehistoric shamanism and private vision” (MPMF, p. 197.)

In some ways, it makes a great deal of sense that if the Tao is the great and ultimate mystery that contains all of life and more, then it will also embrace as many different ways of relating to it as there are people.

Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching

Where does Taoist philosophy come from? We know that the idea of the Tao goes back to pre-historical times and is foundational to both Taoist and Confucian philosophy. “Taoism’s supposed founder is the sage Lao-tzu. Appropriately for such a romantic tradition, he is more legend than fact, and his very name suggests anonymity, for Lao-tzu just means “The Old Man.” Stories say that the bearer of this epithet was an older contemporary of Confucius” (MPMF, p. 198.)

There are even stories of Confucius and Lao-tzu meeting, and that while Confucius found Lao-tzu fascinating, he was not sure how one could actually live out the values being propagated by Lao-tzu. We will see why in a moment!

While we cannot be sure of the historical fact of Lao-tzu’s existence, we have not only a name but also a story. “Lao-tzu was, according to tradition, a “dropout.” It is said he was an archive keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court and a popular fellow who kept a good table. But he became disgusted with the grasping and hypocrisy of the world, and at the age of 80 left his job, mounted a water buffalo, and wandered off to the West. At the Western portals of the empire, the gatekeeper is reported to have detained him as his guest, refusing to let him pass until he had recorded his wisdom. So the Old Man wrote down the book called the Tao Te Ching and then departed in the direction of Tibet, becoming mysteriously lost to the world” (MPMF, pp. 198-199.)

This is a perfect ending to this story, because if Taoist philosophy is about anything, it is about being intuitive and spontaneous, and not simply doing what people expect. To drop everything and leave society, especially a corrupt society, for a closer relationship with nature is an excellent example of Taoist philosophy in practice.

The Tao Te Ching is an amazing book, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about. Scholars continue to study and debate whether it was meant only for individuals or for society as a whole. Was it meant only for hermits leaving the world behind them or is there a practical use for all people? There are parts addressed to leadership. That would make it obvious that it was to be put to use in society. And yet, how could one really lead a society to put these principles into practice?

“In sum, the origin of the Tao Te Ching is as mysterious as its meaning; each reader must get from it what he or she can” (MPMF, p. 199.) People have learned very different things from it. It is a beautiful and mystical book and I hope that you will enjoy and learn from it.

What is the Tao Te Ching about? It is a book about the Tao, that universal way or track down which all the 10,000 things roll, and which is their substratum and the only lasting thing there is; the name Tao Te Ching means something like “The Book of

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