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Archetypes of Wisdom. Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 2 The Asian Sages: Lao-tzu, Confucius and Buddha. Learning Objectives. On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions:. What are the qualities of the sage? What is Tao? What are Yin and Yang?

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archetypes of wisdom
Archetypes of Wisdom

Douglas J. Soccio

Chapter 2

The Asian Sages: Lao-tzu, Confucius and Buddha

learning objectives
Learning Objectives
  • On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  • What are the qualities of the sage?
  • What is Tao?
  • What are Yin and Yang?
  • What is the Golden Mean?
  • What is Humanism?
  • What is Li?
  • What is Jen?
  • What are the Four Nobel Truths?
  • What is Bodhisattva?
  • What is Nirvana?
greek mythology
Greek Mythology
  • Before the first Western philosophers, the most important view of life was the mythical one expressed in the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems attributed to the Greek poet Homer (c. Eighth century B.C.E.).
  • Mythology is not sheer fantasy, but the product of a desire to understand. Mythology offers primitive explanations of natural phenomena, human history, and the gods.
  • Science and philosophy grew out of the failure of mythology to provide rational justification for the workings of natural phenomena and human history.
  • One function of mythology – shared by philosophy – is to help in the Search for Happiness, to convey ideas about living well and being a good person.
overview of classical themes
Overview of Classical Themes
  • Although the ancient Greeks’ mythological accounting of events ultimately failed, it implied two principles produced by the desire to find explanations.
  • These principles marked a major advance beyond the mythological characterization of nature and society.
    • 1) There is a difference between the way things appear and the way they really are.
    • 2) There are unseen causes of events.
the sage
The Sage
  • The sage, a therapeutic figure who combines religious inspiration with extraordinary insight into the human condition, is the oldest of the philosophical archetypes.
  • The English word sage is derived from the Latin sapiens, meaning “wise.” The term has been used to refer to masters associated with religious traditions and to the wise elders of a group or tribe. Sages understand and teach the requirements of a good life.
  • Sages tend to be humanists who believe that human intelligence and effort are capable of improving conditions in the here and now.
  • Our survey begins with three of the most influential sages of all time – Lao-tzu, Confucius, and Buddha.
the tao
The Tao
  • In ancient Asian cosmologies, all events were said to be interconnected.
  • The harmonious interaction of all things was referred to as the Tao.
  • While the word literally means “way” or “path,” the Tao cannot be precisely defined or “named.”
  • It is variously translated as the source of all existence, principle of all things, the path of the universe, or the moral law.
yin and yang
Yin and Yang
  • In this cosmology, Heaven and Earth form a single reality, in which nature consists of two opposing but inseparable forces, comprising a sort of Heaven-Earth.
  • These are the forces of yin and yang.
  • Yin (the passive element of Earth) is weak, negative, dark, and destructive.
  • Yang (the active element of Heaven) is strong, positive, light, and constructive.
  • Together they form a perpetual balance whose interplay constitutes the natural order of things.
lao tzu
  • Lao-tzu (c.575 B.C.E.), the first great Asian sage,

wrote the Tao te Ching (or The Classic of the Way and the Power).

  • Its opening lines tell us that absolute dogmas and theories pale beside living itself, beside the ever-flowing Tao.
  • The Way cannot be adequately captured in words thus Lao-tzu must often express himself in paradoxical fashion.
  • The Way is not a concept to be grasped cognitively or logically.
  • Lao-tzu advises that we prefer yin to yang.
  • Lao-tzu’s ideas are best captured in the Doctrine of wu wei.
confucius the social sage
Confucius – The Social Sage
  • Confucius (551-479 B.C.) is the Latinized name of K’ung Fu-tzu, a legendary teacher who vainly sought political office so that he could initiate a series of governmental reforms.
  • A collection of his conversations, known as The Analects, is the single most influential book of Asian Philosophy.
the tao of confucius
The Tao of Confucius
  • If there is no fixed division between yin and yang, Heaven and Earth, the natural and the supernatural, then the way of the universe - the Tao - cannot be understood analytically (i.e., in terms of individual parts or objects).
  • Instead, Confucius felt that the Tao could best be realized through training and the learning of social customs.
  • In the Analects, Confucius confines his teachings to the proper course of human conduct.
the period of warring states
The Period of Warring States
  • Civil Wars, lasting more than 500 years, led Confucius to focus on practical, rather than theoretical, questions.
  • Instead of, “What is the truth?”, his concern became, “Where is the Tao?” or “Which is the proper Way?”
  • Therefore, in his Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius addresses the need for a balance between human conduct and the Tao.
  • This was a radical departure from traditional Chinese emphasis on spirits and gods. The emphasis here is on humans.
  • Humanism is the name given to any philosophy that emphasizes human welfare and dignity.
  • In general, humanism is based on the belief that human intelligence and effort are capable of improving present conditions.
  • Confucian humanism stressed the learning and preserving of social customs. For that reason, concern with personal growth and governmental order – what we might now call the relation between the individual and the State – became most important in the teachings of Confucius.
the golden mean
The Golden Mean
  • For Confucius, learning the Tao means learning how to moderate human affairs, how to keep them in balance by finding the Golden Mean, or point of equilibrium.
  • We can get a fuller sense of his teachings about the Mean, by learning a few Chinese terms used by Confucius:
    • Li – a sense of propriety, how things ought to go.
    • Te – the power to affect others without using physical force.
    • Chun-tzu – the morally superior person who has both “li” and “te.”
    • Hsiao-jen – the base or vulgar person who thinks only of himself, and lacks both “li” and “te.”
the buddha
The Buddha
  • The original meaning of Buddha in Sanskrit is the “awakened” or “enlightened one,” and refers to Siddhartha Gautama (c. 560-480 B.C.E.).
  • Living in his father’s palace, in what is today Nepal, Siddhartha was protected from the outside world.
  • He had no sense of poverty or suffering, until he learned from his servant, Channa, that “there is no escape – old age, sickness, death – such is the lot of all men.”
  • This “opened Siddhartha’s eyes” and set him on a journey in search of answers to life’s most troubling questions (to which he found no satisfying answers).
  • Tiring of gurus and ordinary sages, Siddhartha settled in a grove of trees on the outskirts of an Indian village, forming a small community with a few other seekers.
  • Attempting to gain control over his own mind, he became an ascetic – that is, a person who turns away from pleasure and severely limits their desires in order to achieve salvation or peace of mind.
  • For six years he meditated and fasted, concentrating on his original questions. But still he found no answers.
a middle path
A Middle Path
  • In his efforts to subdue his body, Siddhartha nearly destroyed it.
  • Realizing that ascetic self-denial is not an adequate way of life, he began to honor his spirit by honoring the body housing it.
  • When the others were disgusted that he had begun to eat again, he learned that one must not worry about what others think if wisdom is to be found.
  • But having realized that his body was an important instrument in his search, he realized that the Way cannot be found by either indulgence or denial.
  • We must walk a Middle Path.
the awakening
The Awakening
  • While sitting under a fig tree one day, a young woman gave Siddhartha a golden bowl of rice milk, saying he reminded her of a figure she had seen in a vision.
  • When he finished the milk he threw the bowl into the river, where it miraculously floated upstream (symbolizing that his teachings go against the currents of ordinary thinking).
  • “Here I shall remain until I am answered or dead,” Siddhartha said. This he did, sitting and fasting, until 49 days later, in May of 524 B.C.E., he was “awakened.” Buddhist tradition refers to this as “the greatest event in human history.”
  • From that point on, the tree became known as the Bodhi Tree – the Tree of Wisdom.
  • According to Buddhist teachings, it is impossible to “explain” the awakening.
  • A rough idea might be that the individual sees him or herself and all of life as part of an unending process of change, that the universe is a system of interconnected inseparable parts, composed of all varieties of life forever moving from one form to another.
  • Siddhartha had reached a state of bliss and utter detachment called nirvana.
  • This is a state of emptiness or “no-thing-ness,” where the individual ego is annihilated, and so, released from suffering.
the bodhisattva
The Bodhisattva
  • Siddhartha now faced an important decision – remain in the state of nirvana or share his vision with others.
  • At last, the “Great Heart of Infinite Compassion” prevailed, and the Buddha chose to remain among the people.
  • One who does this to help others is known as a bodhisattva among some branches of Buddhism.
  • A bodhisattva is not a “savior,” or one who intercedes for others, but an enlightened being who voluntarily postpones his own nirvana to help other conscious life-forms find “supreme release.”
karma and dharma
Karma and Dharma
  • It is easy to confuse terms that sound alike.
  • Karma refers to “the law of moral causation, to acts of the will expressed in thought, word, or deed.” Good or bad karma thus results from our own actions, and should not be confused with fate or predestination.
  • Dharma, on the other hand, refers to “the cosmic order of the universe.” Our task is to see that our lives – and those of all creatures - reflect that order.
the four noble truths
The Four Noble Truths
  • The Buddha’s basic teachings:
    • 1. Suffering is the condition of all existence.
    • 2. Suffering comes from being self-centered.
    • 3. This egocentrism can be understood, overcome, and rooted out.
    • 4. This can be done by following a simple Eightfold Path of behavior, which brings a change in outlook.
the eightfold path
Right Understanding

Right Purpose

Right Speech

Right Conduct

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Mindfulness

Right Meditation

The Eightfold Path
the buddha s legacy
The Buddha’s Legacy
  • Ultimately, Buddha calls on us to adopt a way of life, rather than “having a philosophy” as we understand in the West.
  • One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that we must find a way of living a meaningful life in the absence of absolute answers.
  • In contrast to Western notions of “one, true God,” who is distinct from his creatures, for Buddha – and Asian sages generally – “all is one.”
discussion questions
Discussion Questions
  • Based what you’ve read so far, can you think of any contemporary examples of sages?
  • If you can, what specific qualities or teachings impress you as sage like?
  • If you can’t, why do you suppose you can’t?
chapter review key concepts and thinkers

Tao (or Dao)


wu wei










Siddhartha Gautama




Four Noble Truths

Eightfold Path


Chapter Review:Key Concepts and Thinkers