The Oceanic Matter-Energy (浩然之气) - A Confucian Meditation: Foreword


Every world religion, including Confucianism, consists of three dimensions: the philosophical/theological, the institutional, and the mystical. Unfortunately, Confucianism is widely misunderstood along all three dimensions. In fact, Confucianism may be the most misunderstood religion in the world today, which is a great loss to human civilization. In this foreword, I will discuss some of the ways in which Confucianism is misunderstood, resolve those misunderstandings where possible, and explain the importance of reviving Confucian meditation to the restoration of Confucianism as a world religion.

The Philosophical/Theological
The relationship between theology and philosophy is complicated, but insofar as philosophical discourse is used to express an understanding of ultimate reality, the philosophical dimension of religion may be called theology. In terms of philosophy/theology, Westerners tend to view Confucianism through one of two lenses. The traditional lens tries to place Confucianism into an established Western religious category. The post-colonial lens, on the other hand, attempts to avoid the use of any Western terms to prevent any hint of cultural imperialism. As I will explain, I do not believe that either of these lenses is appropriate.

Confucianism has been a living religious tradition for more than 2,000 years. As such, it has frequently been reinterpreted using "alien" categories and theories. Although Confucianism has proved to be remarkably amenable to adaptation to new settings and situations through this interpretive "reverberation," it has retained a core that remains more or less stable through the ages. Specifically, the classics composed during Confucianism's primitive period--which I mark off as from Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.E) until the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E - 220 C.E)--serve as a philosophical center that has defined the heart of Confucianism up to the present day.

To re-interpret Confucianism for the contemporary world, it would be a mistake to wield a variety of Western categories without recognizing the fundamental differences between Greco-Christians and Confucian thought, as represented in the classics I mentioned above. It would be equally mistaken, however, to avoid Western terms altogether. Although there are major differences between Confucian and Greco-Christian thinking, there are also important parallels. To deny these parallels out of hand would deprive us of an opportunity to put Confucianism into dialogue with Western traditions. This kind of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue has the potential to modernize and refresh Confucianism as a global religion.

In my view, we should be both fearless about adopting Western categories and persistent in our commitment to the Confucian philosophical core. Through this process of re-interpretation, I am confident that a new understanding of Confucianism will emerge. The novel aspects of this new understanding will specifically address the concerns of the modern global context, just as previous re-interpretations of Confucianism addressed the specific needs of their own times and places. In my Huffington Post article A Catechism of Confucianism: Confucianism as a Religious Humanism, for example, I argued that Confucianism is a non-theistic, but nevertheless religious, humanism. In contrast with "theism" and "atheism," the concept of "non-theism" has a distinct advantage: vagueness. This ambiguity permits contemporary readers to appreciate that "Heaven," the all-encompassing constantly creative cosmic power towards which Confucians are faithfully committed, is both divine and non-personal. (My overall approach in A Catechism of Confucianism was to make Confucianism approachable to ordinary, educated, modern readers through this interpretive lens.) Now that I have discussed one of the major misunderstandings about Confucian philosophy/theology, I will turn my attention to the misunderstandings of Confucian religious institutions.

The Institutional
The misunderstandings about Confucianism on the institutional level are due, in part, to the historical idiosyncrasies of Confucianism. Unlike most other religions, Confucianism has had neither monasteries nor a professional clergy. Confucian virtuous-persons (君子) could serve their parents as a filial child in their family, preside as a clan patriarch, teach and intercede as a community leader, and take an official position in the government all at the same time. In this sense, the most important "religious" institutions were embedded in the family, community, school, and government. Viewed through a traditional Western lens, there is no clear boundary between the sacred and the secular. The unfamiliar approach to the blending of the "religious" institutions in the workings of everyday life becomes easier to understand in light of a central Confucian conviction: humans cannot approach transcendence by avoiding the real world.

After the collapse of its last imperial dynasty in 1912, however, China experienced an extremely strong anti-Confucianism that lasted from the 1910s until the 1980s. As a result, traditional Confucian institutions have either disappeared or been reduced to playing a tangential role in China's fledging modern society. This historical reality poses an imminent question for the contemporary revival of Confucianism in its new millennium: what is the appropriate form of the re-institutionalization of Confucianism? This question may seem particularly vexing to American proponents of Confucianism. Although American scholars have contributed excellent scholarship in recent years to promote the potential benefits of importing Confucian wisdom to American society, there are no functioning institutions in America which can be strictly defined as Confucian.

In my view, the historically intimate relationship between Confucianism and the government actually undermined the capability of Confucianism as a living religious tradition. In the contemporary global context, Confucianism ought to adopt, to a certain degree, the principle of the separation of church and state in order to render a healthier reviving form in its institutional basis. Contemporary Confucianism should build up its constituency on the basis of personal conviction and voluntary participation, while simultaneously helping to construct a dynamically harmonious human society through education and civic participation.

During my stay in America--with the help of my dear Confucian teachers and friends, Prof. Robert Neville, Prof. John Berthrong, Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, Dr. Yair Lior, David Schiller, and Maoqin Tang--I have organized a student group, the Boston University Confucian Association, which is registered as a religious group under the leadership of campus ministry in Boston University. During the academic period, the group holds weekly meetings featuring Confucian readings and a communal lunch. During the summer, the group practices Confucian meditation and Taiji martial arts. In addition, with the help of Ben Butina and Adrian Bye, who are Confucian friends living far away from Boston, I am also co-administering a Facebook group called Friends from Afar: A Confucianism Group. In only a few months, the group has already attracted more than a hundred members from all over the world. Our dialogue about Confucianism is usually quite active and inspiring. Through these institutional experiments, I hope I can continue to explore, and finally find, an appropriate organizational basis for Confucianism's revival as a world religion in America.

The Mystical
Compared with general knowledge of the philosophical and institutional dimensions of Confucianism, its mystical dimension is even less developed and more widely misunderstood. Mysticism, in my view, is an immediate, non-discursive and experiential engagement with ultimate reality, the knowledge of which is mediated by symbols and theories afforded by various religious traditions. Because of the non-discursiveness and immediacy of mystical experience, mystics are usually extremely individualistic. Although always nurtured in a cultural and theological heritage sustained by a particular religious community, the individual consciousness of mystics usually acts as a reformative, even subversive, power with a potential to reinvigorate the whole community on the basis of the individual's spiritual conviction born of the immediate experience of ultimate reality.

The greatest challenge to employing the category of "mysticism" to re-interpret Confucianism for the modern world is to rethink the role of the individual in Confucian ethics. It is an insipid stereotype circulated among cultural observers that the conception of the individual in the West is distinctively atomistic, whereas in the East the self is always relational. It is true that human communities (such as family, village compact, government, etc.) are treated by Confucianism as the only realm where a virtuous person can fulfill his or her spiritual commitment to ultimate reality. Confucianism has always taught, however, that while immersing one's life in a widening network of human relationships, human beings ought to simultaneously establish a correct relationship with "Heaven," and in this way, discover their genuine self.

Heaven, as I explained many times in A Catechism of Confucianism, is an all-encompassing, constantly creative cosmic power. Its inexhaustible creativity is what produces all the relationships among cosmic beings while simultaneously transcending them. Once a Confucian mystic knows, experiences, and feels united with the ontological features of the Heavenly creation, his or her genuine self will also be lived out within tangible human relationships while simultaneously transcending those relationships. In regard to the role of an individual in his or her family, for instance, his or her mystical experience of being together with Heaven could enhance the love that the individual feels towards his or her family. It could also set up a reliable ultimate standard to correct familial relationships when they go astray. More importantly, the mystical experience of Heaven can infuse spiritual meanings and powers into one's behavior within his or her family and, as a result, one can expand his or her familial love towards other families, communities, nation-states, the earth, and finally, the entirety of the universe. Although a virtuous person always exerts his or her personal creativity in the expanding human-human and human-cosmic relationships, this creativity also has an irrevocable dimension of solitude: I, my genuine self, stand, grow and live together with Heaven. In other words, the authentic status of an individual life can and must be both solitary and relational. In Confucian theology, these two dimensions of individuality are so intimately interconnected that the revocation or weakening of either of them would inevitably lead to a corruption of the other.

In Confucianism, this solitary dimension of individuality, together with its impact in the relational dimension, is established by a variety of mystical ritual performances. Among these rituals, meditation is one of the most important, and also the most efficient. The meditative tradition of Confucianism in its primitive period is mainly defined by Mencius's practice of "Oceanic Matter-Energy" (浩然之气) and "Night Matter-Energy" (夜气). In the Neo-Confucianism of the Song (960-1279 C.E) and Ming (1368-1644 C.E) dynasties--under the influence of Buddhism and Daoism--Confucians practiced and conceptualized meditation in a variety of ways. In the modern period, the Japanese Confucian Okada Takehiko is a distinct exemplar of Confucian meditation. Through Rodney L. Taylor's wonderful research of Takehiko's meditative practice, The Confucian Way of Contemplation: Okada Takehiko and the Tradition of Quiet-Sitting, English readers can catch a glimpse of how meditation was treated in Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism.

Nevertheless, for contemporary readers, one most frustrating aspect of Confucian meditation is how little is available regarding the method of meditation. In the primitive Confucian classics and other related texts-- such as Mencius, Xun Zi (荀子), Guan Zi (管子), Zhuang Zi(莊子), the Record of Rites (禮記), the Commentary of the Book of Changes(易傳) and the Zuo Commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annuals (春秋左氏傳)--one can find many phenomenological descriptions of how Confucian meditators felt during their mystical practice. In these sources, we can also find theoretical reflections about these mystical experiences and how Confucian philosophers have incorporated them into their philosophical system. These authors recorded very little about the method of practice, however, and this was not addressed during the Neo-Confucian era.

(One explanation for this lack of material on the specifics of meditation practice, promoted by Taylor, is that the Neo-Confucians were concerned that focusing too much on the method of meditation would make their contemplative practices seem too similar to Buddhism or Daoism.)

It is now time for contemporary new Confucians to recover the method of Confucian meditation, and to make it practical and edifying for individuals living in this simmering, seething modern world. In this blog series, The Oceanic Matter-Energy (浩然之气) - A Confucian Meditation, my primary goal is to make use of all relevant historical and philosophical resources to reconstruct the method of Confucian meditation defined by the Mencian term "Oceanic Matter-Energy" to revive the mystical dimension of Confucianism as a world religion. For my readers, I hope that after you practice the Confucian meditation of the "Oceanic Matter-Energy"--and also comprehend the related Confucian metaphysics and ethics--you will be confident in saying: even if there is currently no authentic Confucian institution, I can grow and live together with Heaven in my family and community, and thus, be my genuine self.

Bin Song is also the founder of Boston University Confucian Association ( and is active in the Facebook group "Friends from afar: a Confucianism Group":