Q: What are your professional and personal ties to Confucianism?
I began learning Mandarin Chinese in High School; I first encountered the teachings of Confucius and his identity as a teacher and not just a mythological figure of fun, like Charlie Chan, at that time. As an undergraduate I read the Analects and the Mencius with Prof. Henry Rosemont; he directed my mind into the language and the philosophy of the texts. I first traveled to Taiwan in 1969 and began study at Tunghai University. Later after becoming a monk in 1975 I first heard the Confucian Classics explained in a traditional, line-by-line exegesis, and heard Confucius explained as a consummate teacher of young minds. He has remained to my mind, a living paragon of virtue and wisdom. The “ism” that grew up around those teachings often concretize and rigidify the dynamism and vital heritage of the Confucius of the Four Books, the Zhou Yi and the Classic of Filial Respect.
Q: Your presentation was titled, “Learning Buddha-Dharma in America through a Confucian Lens.” How do you think the audience responded to your ideas? How were you hoping they would respond to your ideas?
It was gratifying to sense the excitement that my approach generated. I was taught to study Confucius “from the inside out,” that is to say, to identify the principles (dao li) that Confucius taught as existing universally in the human heart, latent and available to cultivate. Confucius as presented by the late Chan Master Hsuan Hua (Xuanhua Shangren), my teacher in religion, pointed to developing virtue in the Way (dao de) as the purpose of education, and as Confucius’s means to his end of a well-regulated and harmonious society. When a child is shown how to develop those virtues in his formative school years, he can bring those virtues to light as he or she matures and emerge as a well-rounded, humane person, as well as a responsible citizen and a compassionate individual with a global perspective.
Q: What new insights did you develop from the presentations at the symposium?
I gained insights from every presentation, (this is not hyperbole); some of the notions that seemed to struggle more with Confucian principles seemed to come alive the closer those principles arrived to actual daily experience in relationships.
Q: Many attendees provided positive feedback in regards to your ideas on filial respect. You said ‘piety’ does not convey the positive, heart-filling motive of ‘filial’, which is repaying respect. Could you please explain this again for the benefit of those who were unable to attend?
Translating the Chinese word xiao as piety is simply inaccurate. Piety is not the virtue contained in the notion of repaying kindness. One way of looking at this idea is that filial (rooted in the French root “fils” or “child,” begins with a relationship of child to parent. In order to become a person, every child, regardless of how harmonious or dysfunctional the relationship becomes, has still received their start in life from their parents. When you consider the amount of giving your parents have done to bring you to life, a natural response of an educated child is to wish to repay their kindness. Filial respect (not filial piety) arises from recognition of their kindness and a thought to pay it back. This primary virtue of repaying kindness is hard-wired in our human nature, it’s like a program on the “hard drive” of our nature, waiting to be booted up and to function. This primary virtue in turn catalyzes the function of all the other seven virtues Confucian education identified as foundational in an educated human: filiality, fraternity/sorority, responsibility, integrity, connection through appropriate relationships, righteousness modesty and a sense of shame. Filiality is not a Confucian principle, Confucius observed this principle inherent in human nature.
Q: How can the teachings of Buddha be compared to the teachings of Confucius?
From connection to one’s birth parents through repaying kindness, one extends that same connection to siblings and neighbors. As the nature develops, that same sense of connection can lead one to an awareness of “Identity in substance” with all living beings with whom we share the planet. Thus filiality can lead to Great Compassion, the highest expression of Buddhist wisdom.
Both Confucius and the Buddha (who were contemporaries) were working with the human mind, both were teachers who taught hands-on lessons in developing virtue in the actions of their students. Both identified principles in our nature that when developed, fostered the highest expression of humanity. Buddhism in the 21st century is on track when the teachings focus on developing humanity’s virtues to perfection. “Study with the Buddha but learn to become a human being. When one’s humanity is developed to the ultimate point, there is no other Buddhahood to accomplish.”
Q: In your presentation you discussed how Master Hua is setting up schools in America utilizing a Confucian based model of education. Do you think Master Hua is reaching his goal of creating scholar-practitioners? Do you think people are living up to the expectations of being able to not only explain, but also embody the principles of the text?
Time will tell, certainly, but at the moment bringing this model forward as a viable alternative to skills-based, specialized education that intends to train children for productive roles in the commercial marketplace, yes I think Confucius’s vision of education to understand and embody principle is still alive. Master Hua’s vow was to train scholar-practitioners who would be empowered to carry the vision of Confucius as a living teacher of the awakened mind back to China and to Asia. This vision is in progress!
Q: In your opinion, what are the steps required in order to restore social harmony in the modern world?
The first step is of course to restore harmony to my own mind. If my mind is chaotic and turbid, full of self and greedy desire, then any words I might share would only contribute to the modern world’s lack of harmony. The first step is to practice kindness in my heart towards myself and towards others whom I meet. Failing this, the foundation in humanity will not be on solid ground. “The superior person pays attention to his/her foundation; only when the root strikes deep can the Dao emerge.”