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Explain East Asian Ritual Theory and the Practice of Self-Cultivation

Free «Explain East Asian Ritual Theory and the Practice of Self-Cultivation» Essay Sample

Asia is the largest continent in the world. The continent has the highest population. Some countries such as China have a larger population than that of America. There are many traditions and customs that are handed down from generation to generation. An individual with Asian heritage is a person whose family originates from Asia. This essay describes the practices of self-cultivation and the theory of rituals from the East Asian tradition. This study seeks to understand various views on self-cultivation in the philosophy of Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhu Xi who were major contributors to the Confucian philosophy. The term self-cultivation, which in Chinese is Xiu-yang, means changing one’s mind and creating one’s character with a particular kind of philosophy or art. This term applies to three traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism); main goals of self-cultivation and every person’s aspirations are very different from all three traditions. Understanding comprehensively main features that constitute the Confucian culture helps to understand various traditional self-cultivation practices that serve psychotherapy functions for East Asians. These clients are mainly the Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans.


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Confucians advocate individualism that is self-ensemble. Individualism is whereby a person is seen to be embedded in a particular kind of boundary and social network of one’s self, which is sometimes extended and inclusive of significant others (Bell 15). This means that instead of encouraging a child to be self-independent, i.e. being a unique agent of action, Confucian tradition fosters self-interdependent individuals or what is known as relational self. This is in contrast with the Western culture, which advocates for individualism that is self-contained, whereby freedom of choice and human rights are strictly emphasized with a belief that there ought to be a clear distinction between one’s self and others.

Confucian learning focus is practical, but more essentially Confucian learning is also about the state of being (Bell 20). This state of being covers a person’s attitude to life, personal relationships, and a person’s view of oneself. According to the Confucian belief, all human beings are born similar ethically, but the physical environment contaminates them. Thus, education is essential to enable one to develop one’s unique ethical nature. The education that is advocated is what is known as self-cultivation. It is through self-cultivation that one achieves humaneness.

Zhu Xi’s view of self-cultivation is that when people are truly good, i.e. being well-disposed and very sensitive, people show their unique nature that is composed of one’s specific endowment of qi, one’s social environment, and family. All these yield a personality that is empirical and has potential for self-cultivation, success, and intelligence (Gardner 10). He believed that the difference in character, disposition, and aptitude for self-cultivation were due to variations in endowments of qi and environments.

In turn, Mencius considers counsel on friendship important in self-cultivation of people unlike Zhu Xi. This is because people always react to an outstanding person’s good works with their own good works being evident, but also the reverse can happen. He does a comparison of land, which has already been exhausted by cattle, to a man’s soul that has already been exhausted by evil (Gardner 26). He believes that as a child can learn the language of the community where it lives, the same way a person adapts to what is around him/her. Therefore, this makes Mencius deterministic, but it should also be noted that people can choose their environment that suits them. In terms of self- cultivation, he urges people to live in a benevolent environment where they can choose the kind of a person they want to be.

Mengzi, on the contrary, uses various metaphors in agriculture to bring out the model of self-cultivation. Mengzi believed that the self-cultivation process followed a natural process that would be uncovered when each self’s part was exercised in its right role according to its essential function (Bell and Hahm 18). The heart and mind, i.e. Xin, play an essential role in the process of self- cultivation. He goes ahead to say that if Xin is properly exercised, it helps in guiding the self from bad deeds towards the right ones. The fact that human beings are focused on doing the right things means that the human nature is good. Mengzi did not mean that human beings were perfectly and completely endowed with a good moral sense, but these were circumstances in life that made them good.

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Xunzi disagreed with Mengzi on the issue of human nature that would help one develop the character of self-cultivation. He believed that the human nature was bad as opposed to Mengzi. The debate between Mengzi and Xunzi marked the first documented disagreement of the Confucian tradition. Later on, they agreed on the issue after major discussions.

Wang Yangming was one of the most eminent and greatest thinkers who put much emphasis on internal self-cultivation. He rejected the heart and mind view of realizing one’s self. To Wang, the mind of a human is a standard of being wise and knowledgeable. Wang strongly believed that practice and knowledge were continuous and inseparable.

Yan Yuan advocated for learning because it was like Xunzi’s model. Just like Xunzi, Yan Yuan believed that moral self-cultivation was more of an outside than inside affair (Bell 37). In his opinion, a person acquired any virtue through concerted and repeated inculcation and practice, whereby the effect that was accumulated helped shape and transform the self. These views entailed attitudes towards traditional practices, norms, and models. Just like Xunzi, Yan was also culturally conservative.

Moreover, Yan did not agree with Xunzi’s view that human nature was bad (Bell 38). Yan explicitly defended and endorsed Mengzi’s theory that human nature was good. Another issue that Yan and Xunzi disagreed about was their respective views on roles played by intellect in the self-cultivation process. Yan accepted the classical text, but he did not appreciate Xunzi’s work. Therefore, at more advanced levels of self-cultivation, social norms and rituals play an essential role in enhancing person’s commitment to the Confucian way and shaping the self.

One of the oldest and the most unending Confucian rituals practiced in East Asia is Ancestor worship (Ebrey and Walthall 20). Ancestral worship refers to the ritual practiced in commemoration of, communication with, and sacrifice to deceased relatives. The practice is broadly practiced in the traditional East Asian religious life. One need not identify oneself with the Confucian culture so as to practice it though its roots come from the Confucian tradition. In some sense, being a Confucian means that one is an East Asian (Chinese) and to be a Confucian inevitably entails practicing ancestral worship.

The culture of Confucianism has influenced neighboring cultures such that ancestral worship has been spread across East Asia. Despite the recent repression of the Chinese traditional religious activity, ancestral worship remains a vital ritual for the Chinese community’s life, regions surrounding it, and the Chinese Diaspora (Ebrey and Walthall 25).

Li Yun offers one of the theories that focus its attention on Chinese assumptions about the ritual. As from any tradition that has come up with theories on ritual, these theories became widely contested and debated on. Thus, views presented on this theory are one among many presented by classical Confucian views.

Li Yun offers a presentation of a ritual as a human construction. Divine powers do not hand down a ritual, but rituals do define divine powers in as much as they define humans. One of the most interesting and enduring characteristics of any sacrificial practice in China from the past to the present is the idea that the human ritual domesticates a world otherwise deemed to be dangerous and capricious. Thus, many chapters in books of rites are based on this notion of sacrificial practice in theories on rituals. Li Yun primarily focuses on the human side of a particular human project. This is the way in which human dispositions are ordered by rituals, thus ordering human relationships with natural and divine worlds. According to Li Yun, rituals have been created by humans and it is a human project to construct the proper order of organizing and transforming the world through rituals.

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Further, Li Yun in his theory argues that humans are supposed to construct the world clearly and correctly from the transformative powers of rituals. This is because if rituals are done well, they create continuity among different phenomena, and if done wrongly, they have a negative impact. This becomes the reason this theory argues that humans in the world find themselves at birth as a result of discontinuity, i.e. the ritual was not done well.

According to Confucius, rituals are used as binding. They are ways of regulating the ruler and the subject and building respect between the father and the son. Rituals are also used for pacifying the elder and younger brothers, for harmonizing husband and wife, for setting up standards and regulations, and for establishing villages and fields. In addition, rituals are used for honoring the knowledgeable and the courageous, as well as for personally taking the merits.

Confucius points that Wu, Wen, Tang, Yu, Duke of Zhou, and Cheng were most effective figures who observed rituals effectively in East Asia. All of the six rulers were very keen on rituals by examining their trustworthiness, having humane punishments, showing consistency to the population, and manifesting if any transgressions were shown. If there were subjects who did not follow the rules, they would be drawn out of the position and the population would consider them as dangerous.

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Confucius provided a lengthy explanation of the nature of rituals. His theory states that humans have some pieces similar with the rest of the universe within themselves. Therefore, humans are believed to be the powers of heaven and earth and to have interaction of yin and yang, the joining of spirits and ghosts, and five subtle energies.

Humans have been formed as a result of the interaction of universe pieces. This becomes the reason why humans in their early state thought that rituals formed a part of a larger unit. The continuous invention of rituals was related to other sage’s invention that had humans lifted from the levels of animals (Warner 10). All of the inventions involved domestication of the natural world, but domestication involved placing humans in various relationships with natural elements.

In short, rights involve a kind of domestication of dispositions. Thus, rights play a role in inculcating dispositions that are domesticated and in defining the ways in which dispositions ought to relate with the rest of the universe. They define proper dispositions and relationship that humans ought to have with heaven, with the earth’s produce that they have taken, and with spirits and ghosts.

Besides, rituals give spirits their offices, define what the earth can properly appropriate, and help in inculcating filiation’s feelings through the ancestor worship. In short, the entire cosmos is linked via a set of subjective relationships that are embodied in the ritual. Due to this, human inventions form an initial part of the world fragmentation and it always constitutes the greater unity. It is for this reason that rituals are based on the great one that separated them and become heaven and earth. The revolution of ritual gave rise to yin and yang and later on became four seasons, which were then arrayed into spirits and ghosts.

Since pre-historic times, ancestral worship has been a very important part of lives of the Chinese. The Shang’s dynasty, which is among the earliest writings to be documented, outlines the ancestral worship among rulers in this dynasty. Confucians made the ancestor worship the main point of their spiritual and moral message during the Zhou dynasty. Many other Confucian texts refer to ancestor worship as a way of nurturing the virtue of filial piety (Xiao), as well as imparting harmony in the society. It is not clear whether the Neo-Confucians have maintained the belief in supernatural existence of ancestors, but their reverence to ancestral worship is a major element in the spiritual life (Bell 45). The rise of the Han dynasty, which greatly endorsed Confucianism, embraced ancestor worship as its official ideology. Ancestral worship got incorporated into the systematic thought of time, which took into account yang and yin.

Arts and archeological evidence outline that by the end of the Han’s dynasty Chinese people of nearly all levels were committed to ancestral worship (Bell and Chaibong 38). The major goal for ancestor worship was to ensure that a person’s dead relative remained an ancestor rather than a ghost. Ancestors were believed to have remote and benevolent supernatural powers rather than proximate and malevolent powers of ghosts.

From the Han’s text, ancestors began to be described as spirits (shen), which also means ‘gods’. During the Han’s dynasty, Confucians had a skeptic belief of gods, ghosts, and ancestors, but they never stopped supporting the ancestor worship. Regardless of the spread of ancestor worship throughout the East Asia, ancestor cult, which was formalized, was focused largely on classes that were ruling in the Tang dynasty. Later on, the Confucian reformer Zhu Xi came up with ritual manuals that played a role in popularizing and formalizing ancestor worship among lower classes. According to Confucian procedures of canyons, ancestor worship became popular among nearly all levels of the Chinese society by the end of the Song dynasty.



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Like many aspects of Confucianism, the ritual of ancestral worship became a major area of criticism and persecution during the Mao Zedong’s regime. At the time, popular Confucian rituals like the ancestor worship were rejected by the state and other community venues like village temples were destroyed or used for other purposes (Bell 60). Thus, to do away with the traditional practice of burying the dead, the cremation method was adopted. After the death of Mao Zedong, traditional ancestor worship continued. Whether in mainland China, East Asia, or elsewhere, ancestor worship did not cease to be a common practice.

Confucius is one of the first Chinese thinkers who came up with the program for moral self-cultivation. Self-cultivation tradition is one of the oldest practices in the world (Bell 54). Kongzi did not see himself as the inventor of the tradition. He saw himself as a person who defended the lineage that was established long ago.

Kongzi believed in sage hood and that old age was golden. This is because when sage kings ruled, people were able to live in a harmonious and flourishing society. Confucius believed that sage kings improvised a comprehensive social, political, and family system that collectively identified individuals in a larger cosmic order. Since their ways deeply reflected a unique pattern within the cosmos, it was regarded as a proper or fitting way to be.  This further means that it is the most satisfying and meaningful way to live since ‘this way’ follows natural patterns.

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Kongzi had a mission in life to propagate and preserve records that were detailed down by the world ordering sages. He later used these records as a benchmark for creating his program for moral self-cultivation. Confucians debated on whether Confucian learning brought forth tendencies of human nature or whether it provided a way of acquiring the human nature. Mengzi advocated for the first view known as the developmental model of self-cultivation. On the contrary, Xunzi advocated for the second view known as the reformation model.

Xunzi’s views seem to have much in common with Kongzi’s original vision. However, Kongzi saw human nature as more susceptible to reforms than Xunzi. Kongzi and Mengzi are bound by the same views. Kongzi is thus said to have come up with an acquisition model of moral self-cultivation. On the contrary, Yan Yuan sought a way of ensuring that self-cultivation would help in training and reshaping physical human body. He, therefore, tried to fight any good element or aspect of it that was separated from physical embodiment.

In conclusion, the essay has tried to explain the ritual theory in the East Asian theory and major supporting issues that Confucius gives on rituals. From this essay, it is evident that the major ritual that has been upheld by the East Asian people is ancestor worship that is still practices nowadays. Moreover, major issues regarding the issue of self-cultivation have been brought forward, which helps to understand how various scholars in the Confucian times viewed self-cultivation. This essay is significant since it helps with the comprehension of the theory of ritual and self-cultivation in the East Asian culture.

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