A Catechism Of Ruism (Confucianism): 'Three Sacrifices' (三祭, sanji)

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(Han Emperor Gaozu venerating Confucius in a sacrificial ritual in 195 B.C.E)

In reading my previous essays, readers may already have recognized that there are major differences between Ruism and the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More careful readers may also have realized that there are perhaps less huge, but still conspicuous differences between Ruism and the other two major ancient Chinese religions: Daoism and Chinese Buddhism. Because of these differences, it is hard for a Ruist to fully accept the western definition of 'religion,' and then to tell people straightforwardly that Ruism really is a religion.

However, as a comprehensive way of life, Ruism includes its own distinctive religious dimension. In this sense, a Ru not only reads his or her foundational books, critically thinks over everything and earnestly engages with individual, family and social management. And a Ru also performs religious rituals.

Traditionally, there are three distinctively important Ruist religious rituals, which are called "The Three Sacrifices" (三祭, sanji): Sacrifice in celebration of Tian (天, Heaven), sacrifice in celebration of distinguished teachers such as Confucius, and sacrifice in celebration of one's ancestors. Ru take these three sacrificial ceremonies especially seriously because they are thought of as symbolizing three roots: Tian is the origin of every creature in the world, teachers are the basis for human civilization, and ancestors are the source of individual human life and families(大戴礼记・礼三本). Through constant performance of these rituals, Ru can express and nurture their feelings of 'gratitude' towards all these 'roots,' and then, to a certain degree, return to these roots in order to integrate their lives as a whole.

Nevertheless, the standard method of calling these rituals 'sacrifices,' a western term again, has already clouded the nuances of meaning that these Ruist rituals intend to convey. 'Sacrifice', in a typical western understanding, assumes the existence of something 'sacred'. This may either be lesser deities such as spirits and ghosts or a supreme deity such as a god. Also, 'sacred' means 'to be set apart'. When people perform rituals of 'sacrifice,' they understand the space and time as holy, and thus consciously separate it from the normal, 'secular' rhythm of human life. For these sacrificial rituals, propitiation or petitionary prayer is usually practiced: if people do something wrong, they are hoping that the deity to whom offerings are sacrificed will forgive; if people want something more, they pray that the deity will permit to them what they are petitioning for.

Unfortunately, none of this works for Ruism. If there is anything in Ru sacrificial rituals which vaguely conveys this western idea of 'sacred,' it is only the concept of Tian. As I explained earlier, Tian is the all-encompassing constantly creative cosmic power which brings everything in the universe into being. In this sense, Tian is that dimension of reality which conditions the other realities while itself not being in any way conditioned. Because of the transcendent status of Tian's creativity, it can ideally be separated from other dimensions of reality and thus, considered to be 'sacred'. However, be that as it may, there are still restrictions that we must keep in mind when the term 'sacred' is used in thinking about the Ruist celebrations of Tian. First, Tian is not a deity. It is a power, a field, a continuous act without any actor behind the scenes. In this sense, Ruists believe that the only way for humans to engage with Tian is to know the pattern-principles (理, li) of cosmic changes within Tian (a pattern-principle refers to any dynamic and harmonious way in which a set of cosmic realities naturally fits together) and then to respond to them appropriately so that a distinctive form of dynamic harmony can be realized in human society. Therefore, for a Ru to perform the ritual of sacrifice in celebration of Tian, neither propitiation nor petitionary prayer is part of the ceremony: If a Ru does something wrong, he or she repents to himself or herself and corrects it by himself or herself. If a Ru wants to do something more, he or she must consistently contribute his or her own effort in addition to whatever objective conditions are occurring within Tian, many of which may not be totally controllable by human beings, in order to try to create their desired outcome. In a word, there are no personal characteristics of Tian which can accommodate any of those practices based upon theistic ideas. Of course, this does not deny that people can still use theistic images and language to evoke their feelings towards Tian so that the ritual can be performed more conveniently and sincerely. Actually, if we look into the traditional prayer texts which were used by Chinese emperors to perform the ritual of sacrifice in celebration of Tian, it was theistic language which was used. However, we also have to acknowledge that throughout the entire Ru tradition, in Ru's ordinary spiritual life, this theistic tendency for understanding Tian is subordinated. Such theistic language and images are mainly thought of as having liturgical use so as to facilitate people's convenient and sincere expression of religious feeling. In other words, if a Ruist virtuoso is spiritually mature enough not to resort to such theistic languages when performing a ritual, then he or she can easily give them up.

Second, because of this distinctively humanistic commitment in performing Ruist sacrificial rituals, Ru do not typically think that the ritual can be separated from the ordinary, secular rhythm of human life, that is, the celebration is not understood as 'sacred' in the sense of 'separation' described above. Since Tian is not a deity, its creativity is neither anthropomorphic nor anthropocentric. In a Ruist conception, things just continually and spontaneously emerge from the natural processes of cosmic change, and Tian's creativity doesn't particularly focus on what is of interest to human beings. Accordingly, as I said above, the way for human beings to engage with Tian is to try to realize dynamic harmony within the human world. Therefore, everything done by human beings in a distinctively human way can still be regarded as 'sacred' in the sense that it will then be a concrete, peculiar manifestation of Tian's creativity. For example, in some religions, people shaking hands with one another may be thought of as 'secular,' since it appears to have nothing to do with supernatural deities. However, for a Ru, it is in fact 'sacred,' since this is a demonstration of civilized human behavior and thus, is a unique human manifestation of Tian's creative power. By the same token, the 'sacredness' in celebrating Tian is also down-to-earth and secular since it decisively impacts human life in the here and now, rather than life in some other world or in a next cycle. If we understand all these ambiguities surrounding the words 'Sacrifice' when it is used to depict the Ruist religious rituals of sanji (三祭), we will be amazed by how rationalistic and humanistic a Ruist's life is during the process of his or her search for spiritual integration.

As concerns ceremonies of sacrifice in celebration of one's ancestors, Ruists do not believe that one's ancestors are disembodied supernatural beings who live their lives in another dimension, and thus continue to maintain their full spiritual agency. No, this is not the case. Instead, during the ritual, we express and nurture our feelings of gratitude, we try to continually cultivate ourselves according to the moral and cultural influences left by our ancestors, and thus to concentrate on human life here and now: To make the world better, make it more lovely. As for the ceremonies of sacrifice in celebration of Confucius, Ruists do not believe that he is any sort of deity. He is a distinguished teacher for all committed Ru. During this ritual, we honor his teachings, rather than his person, so that what he taught can be continually practiced and brought to fruition by human society. This definitely does not preclude an individual Ru from determining that some of Confucius' teachings may be not appropriate to contemporary life. A Ru must think the problem over critically, and then revise and improve in some appropriate way whatever is inappropriate to modern life. To repeat, concerning ceremonies of sacrifice in celebration of Tian, Ruists do not believe that Tian is a personal God. We neither propitiate it nor pray to it in a petitionary way. However, as the origin of all the creatures and things in the universe, we express our feelings of gratitude, awe and piety towards it, we worship its inexhaustible, transcendent creative powers, and then, being galvanized by its powers, we determine to take good care of the entire cosmos in our distinctively human way.

Because of the richness and complexity which Ruist sacrificial rituals show us, although traditionally they are translated as 'The Three Sacrifices,' I suggest we begin using different terms when referring to them. These would be simply ceremonies to worship Tian, ceremonies to venerate Confucius and other distinguished teachers, and ceremonies showing devotion to one's ancestors.

Bin Song is active in the Facebook group, 'Friends from Afar: a Confucianism Group.'