Home > Culture Exchange > Feature
The Heavenly Way and the Human Way
2004/10/27

By Wang Keping

Having never worshipped the godhead, China's population is generally regarded as atheist. Religion is not, however, an alien concept. People frequently exclaim "Good Heavens!" (tian na) and "Good Lord!" (lao tian ye a). To their mind, tian -- Heaven -- is perceived on the one hand as the supreme force that rules the universe, and on the other as the spiritual entity to whom they bring their cares and worries. They call out to Heaven on encountering something unexpected, mysterious or unprecedented, often as a way of letting off steam. On occasion, however, oaths, or vows to pursue a purpose, are made in the name of Heaven, making it an unseen witness, adding impetus to accomplishing the task at hand.

From a philosophical point of view, Heaven as a spiritual entity has ethical significance within Taoism and its principle of tian dao -- the Heavenly Way. There are various concepts of the Heavenly Way, two of which represent the fundamental Chinese view of spirituality and moral values.

The first concept is rooted in Taoism and its philosophy of acting in accordance with nature. From a Taoist perspective, the Heavenly Way is natural law. It is hence spontaneous, letting everything be what it is, or become what it can be naturally, without interference or influence. It is regarded as the heart of the universe because it benefits all things without causing harm. As defined by Lao Zi: "The Heavenly Way resembles the drawing of a bow. When the string is too high, lower it. When it is too low, raise it. When too taut, slacken it. When too loose, tighten it. The Heavenly Way reduces excess and supplements insufficiency." A bow is drawn in order to shoot an arrow, and aimed towards the target. The Heavenly Way is believed to be just in a way similar to the correct drawing and aiming of a bow. By holding fast to the principle of doing the right thing one never goes astray. Within the concept of the Heavenly Way exists unconditional equality, and therefore justice. Its principle of shunning extremes of strength and weakness, dominance and repression, wealth and poverty and abundance and dearth are relevant to social order. Eliminating social gaps, and preserving order and stability, it is perceived as a force that maintains harmony and equilibrium.

Within Taoism, The Human Way is in complete contrast to the Heavenly Way as it "further reduces the insufficient," its emphasis being on "excess." In this context "the insufficient" and "excess" represent the two main social classes. The "insufficient" is the underprivileged stratum that lacks the means to maintain life. "Excess" is the privileged stratum with abundant living resources. In contrast to the justice, fairness and equality advocated by the Heavenly Way, within the Human Way "the insufficient" take on all manual labor and are condemned to toil in order to make ends meet. The "excess" have the power to exploit "the insufficient," and consequently become richer and more powerful by ensuring that "the insufficient" remain the underdogs. The Taoist concept of the Human Way is therefore comparable to the law of the jungle, prevalent within modern civilization. A generally accepted norm of conduct, the Human Way encourages the greed and desire for material possessions, exploitation, and class discrimination that ultimately culminates in social disorder. What, then, perpetuates this negative Human Way? The power and social structure of the institutional system; possession and distribution of wealth as determined by the economic paradigm; and the competitiveness and selfishness inherent in human nature. All this constitutes the fountainhead of class stratification and social differentiation.

The second concept of the Heavenly Way is within Confucianism. As defined in The Doctrine of the Mean and Harmony (Zhongyong), "Sincerity (cheng) is the Heavenly Way; Reflecting on sincerity is the Human Way. Thus utmost sincerity is unresting. Because it is unresting so it perdures. Because it perdures so it goes far. Because it goes far so it is all-embracing. Because it is all-embracing so it is lofty and bright. Being all-embracing is the means by which it supports things; being lofty and bright is the means by which it protects things; going far is the means by which it accomplishes things. The way of heaven and earth may be completely summarized in one phrase: Its making things is without duplicity; its generating things is unfathomable." Sincerity is hence the basis of the Confucian Heavenly Way and Human Way. Sincerity denies duplicity. It forms a principle proceeding from the Heavenly Way that encompasses the virtues of being unresting and perduring, all-embracing and far-reaching, lofty and bright, and supportive and generative. Sincerity enacts all these virtues and nurtures without claiming reciprocal merit or gain.

Reflecting on sincerity within the Confucian Human Way is beneficial in itself. It involves comprehension and contemplation of the nature of sincerity and an appreciation of its actual practice. From a human point of view, sincerity is at the basis of the five constant virtues of human-heartedness, righteousness, reciprocal etiquette, wisdom, and trustworthiness. It can be said to be the principle underlying morality. Sincerity is in turn preserved by human-heartedness, implemented by righteousness, promoted by reciprocal etiquette proprieties, nurtured by wisdom and justified by trustworthiness. The etymology of cheng, sincerity is xin, trustworthiness. The Chinese character xin consists of ren (a person) and yan (words), meaning the person matches the word and vice versa. It denotes moral interaction by representing a person of honor and words of truth. A person of honor keeps their promise and attaches importance to reality. Words of truth confirm reality and signify knowledge. This gives rise to integrity of deed and word (yan xing he yi), or synthesis of knowledge and practice (zhi xing he yi).

From both the Taoist and Confucian point of view, the Heavenly Way is above the Human Way. It provides a frame of reference and guide for the human pursuit of self-sublimation. According to Taoist expectations, the Human Way is negative but can be sublimated and transformed into the Sage Way (sheng ren zhi dao) if it acts according to the principles of the Heavenly Way. The Sage Way "acts for others but never competes" (wei er bu zheng). Working on the supreme principle of equaling Heaven, or the Heavenly Way, the Sage Way nurtures others, helping them to develop without expectation of fame or profit. Its actual practitioner is the sage free from egoism, who is therefore pure and innocent. This mental state is perceived within Taoism as the source of absolute spiritual freedom.

From a Confucian perspective, the Human Way is positive as it follows the principle of sincerity in order to merge with the Heavenly Way. Its ultimate purpose is that of becoming a sage. The sage is bestowed with a sense of mission and social commitment, prepared to do his utmost for the good of the whole regardless of personal interests. He will sacrifice everything to "prepare the mind for the universe, establish the Tao of morality for the people, carry forward the teachings of preceding sages, and pave the way for ever-lasting peace in the world (wei tiandi li xin, wei shengmin li dao, wei wangsheng ji juexue, wei wanshi kai taiping)." The human mind that has successfully prepared itself for the universe is one with enhanced cognition, conversant with the law of the universe through sustained and consistent investigation of all things. It is therefore a universal mind that has transcended egoism, making it fit to enact moral codes of conduct for all people and things.

The Heavenly Way is symbolic. The Sage Way is idealistic. The Human Way gains value and significance upon embracing them both. Yet, achieving the ideal of sageness is no easy matter. Seeking it is like drawing a cake to sate hunger. Pursuit of this ideal nevertheless connotes acknowledgement of the need to stress and promote the virtues of selflessness and sincerity that are so conspicuously absent in today's profit-oriented and duplicity-ridden society.

Suggest To A Friend:   
Print