The Ru (Confucian) Idea of Self

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Ruism is among the most vocal in the intellectual history of East Asia to critique the Buddhist idea of “no self.” Therefore, one perspective to understand the Ruist conception of self is to see how it responds to Buddhist arguments for “no self.”

A whole is more than its parts, and its organizing principle, li 理, defines its self.

A usual Buddhist argument for “no self” runs like this: If people stand in line for buying tickets in a cinema, Buddhists will discern that there is really no such a “line.” Instead, merely people who comprise the line. Similarly, for soldiers that constitute an army, Buddhists will perceive that there is really no such an “army,” but merely soldiers composing it. Therefore, in a Buddhist view, except for parts that comprise a whole, there is no such a thing as a whole. In this sense, everything is dependent upon something else, and hence, no distinctive self of anything.

From a Ruist perspective, this sort of reasoning is deficient. Its response will be like this: in order that a line be a line, people need to stand to each other in a relatively fixed position so as to form a unique shape of their collective bodies. Similarly, a troop consists in far more than a bunch of soldiers who randomly join each other without any organizing principle to command them. In other words, for an entity to be identified as a self which can distinguish itself from other entities, it must have a principle to hold its components together, and then, relate itself in a certain way with other entities. In this sense, a whole is more than the accumulation of parts, and Ruism terms this glue of an entity to hold its components together as Li 理, translatable as principle, pattern or pattern-principle, which is definitely one of the most contrasting concepts of Ruism with Buddhism.

The ideal of personhood, towards which an individual constantly strives, defines their self.

Another powerful Buddhist argument for “no self” is that everything is changing, nothing is permanent, and thus, there is no stable self for any entity, including a human being. However, if a person’s changing and self-transformation always strive for a valuable and noble ideal, it is this ideal which defines their distinctive self. For Ruists, this ideal is considered as “sagehood” (聖). A sage, as I explained in my previous writings, is an extraordinary human that can spontaneously and effortlessly respond to objective situations, and hence, continually create a form of dynamic harmony concerning any context of living beings so that all involved beings can flourish together.

A very interesting rhetorical strategy in Ruist literature is that this ideal of sagehood is generally conceptualized as an imitation of what the entire cosmos, the so-called Tian 天, has achieved in the natural realm: Tian is an all-encompassing, constantly creative energy field which has naturally, without any deity standing behind the scene, endowed being to all entities that can possibly exist in the field. With this unbroken continuum of cosmic-humanity as its metaphysical kernel, in order to emphasize the difference between ordinary human beings and sages, Ruist teachings will highlight how perfect and effortless the creativity of a sage’s can be. However, in order to emphasize the difference between humans and Tian, Ruism will reiterate that even sages cannot achieve the same level of spontaneous creativity as Tian has. This implies that Ruists have a lucid awareness of both the ideal nature of sagehood, and the realistic situation of real human life: the ideal of sagehood is so sublime that would never be fully realized by any human being. But if such a sublime ideal points to what human individuals always strive for in their varying fashions, it is what defines their distinctive self.

Virtues make characters, which are the stabilizer of personhood through vicissitudes of human life.

Another way to think about a Ruist response to the Buddhist argument for “no self” is indicated as follows: yes, everything is changing, but in order that a thing can relate itself well with other things so that it can change and become together with them, there must be some generic features which define the mode of changes that it has to go through. In the human realm, these generic features of human behaviors are termed by Ruism as “virtues”(德, de), and it is the cultivation of these virtues that constitutes a stable set of characters that enables humans to comport themselves well so as to peacefully live through vicissitudes of human life.

For example, no matter how bad one’s father is, one needs to be dedicated to cultivating the virtue of “filiality” (孝, xiao). This requires at least these comprising virtues to work together: if one’s father is very bad, firstly, one must never give up their inner moral compass to follow or even indulge the father’s wrong doing, and secondly, this also means that one must try best to correct the father’s wrong doing, and thirdly, one must always show respect to their father so that one’s perseverance in caring for the father’s moral development does not undermine one’s other filial duties. Only through firmly embodying this virtue of “filiality”, a son can live through difficulties and vicissitudes in his parental relationship, and thus, find his self-contentedness in whatever situation he happens to enter.

Everyone has their unique talent, upon which one can build a career to serve both themselves and other human fellows.

This talent which defines the uniqueness of each person is termed as “endowment of vital-energy” (氣稟) which Ruism envisions one can naturally have when one is born, since the birth of a human being is thought of as being engendered by a special configuration of the evolving cosmic vital-energies which has been realized into the human’s inborn genetic makeup. Since each person is determined to have their unique talent, which demarcates themselves from others, the central purpose of education ought to allow everyone to discover and develop their talents in order that they can be employed to serve human fellows during the endless process of one’s self-cultivation to become a sage. In the school of Confucius’, it is said that he has taught 72 most talented students among more than 3000 through his entire teaching career, and among these 72, there were ten of them who were exceptional in varying areas: literature, speech, government, moral development, etc. (The Analects 11:3) Obviously, all these excellent students have their great potentialities to become a sage if each of them continually nurture and enrich their talents for that noble ideal.

In a word, every one of us has a unique talent, which needs to be discovered and developed to serve the noble ideal of self-cultivation, to become a sage. During the process, there are generic features of human personhood, those much-cherished virtues, which define a harmonious relationship of individuals with their changing environment so as to yield an optimal stableness of human life through its ebb and flow. And all these elements constitute the principle, the li, that integrates the components of an individual human life into an organic whole. This idea of self is what Ruism is ultimately distinguished from Buddhism, and as a Ruist practitioner, I would like to share it with you, and let you decide by yourself whether it works.