Compatibility among Different Civilizations

1. The formation, exchanges and dialogues of civilizations

The Chinese word for “civilization” is wen ming (pinyin for文明), which first appeared in the ancient classic I Ching (The Book of Changes). In Chapter Hexagram Bi, it says, “The interaction of firmness and tenderness shows how nature works; the realization of ‘cultural brightness’ (wen ming) tells how the human world should be. The observation into nature is to detect how things evolve over time; the contemplation over human world is to achieve a perfect cultivation of all.” The characteristic of nature is the transmutation between yin and yang, the interaction of firmness and tenderness; whereas human society features ceaseless self-improvement as is fulfilled in civilization, that is, the cultural brightness. By observing nature, we can understand how things evolve over time; and by observing society, humanity can be transformed and nurtured corresponding to the changes. Chapter Hexagram Guan of the same book talks about the relationship between nature and society, “When we contemplate the Godly Way (shen dao) of universe, we see how the four seasons proceed without error. The sages teach in accordance with it, therefore all people follow wholeheartedly and thrive.” In Chinese culture, shen represents the supreme good. Mencius said, “A sage is called shen when he reaches the point beyond our comprehension.” (The Works of Mencius, Jin Xin II) How the universe transforms and nurtures everything is beyond our knowledge, so it is named the Godly Way; and sages are those who are enlightened by and practice the Godly Way. Sages teach according to the Godly Way and assist the universe in transforming and nurturing everything. Subsequently, people are pleased and follow the sages wholeheartedly.

Then we can see two fundamental factors required to form a civilization: (1) the awareness of a transcending existence beyond our ordinary life, such as laws, rules of the universe, or the Way—such existence in the Chinese culture is usually called Tian, while in the Western culture God; and (2) the emergence of sages who have experienced such transcendence, on the basis of which different descriptions are facilitated to educate people so that they may work to the content of their hearts and live with an elevated state of mind. Therefore, it becomes evident that a civilization emerges at a time when the material and spiritual life of the people living in a particular region reaches a certain level. Such a civilization is epitomized in the appearance of sages and the dissemination of the scriptures of their teachings in the world.

A civilization usually comes into being in particular time and space, which, as a result, inevitably imbues the civilization with specific regional features as well as characteristics of the time. As such, the exchanges and dialogues of different civilizations exist in at least two dimensions: time and space. Once a civilization is formed, it is relatively stable. However, regardless of how advanced a civilization is, its vitality will become very weak and eventually wither away if it fails to transform in response to the changing conditions of time and space. Therefore, to some extent, it is a must for civilizations to develop and evolve. When we look at the history of the development and evolution of civilizations, it is not difficult to see that the changes of a civilization over time generally originate from the exchanges and dialogues of civilizations of different regions. In this sense, dialogues among civilizations serve not only as a shortcut to understand and an important pathway to enrich one’s own civilization but also a bridge leading to the perfection of other civilizations.

2. The compatibility between Buddhism and Confucianism

The compatibility between civilizations determines whether they can have successful exchanges or dialogues. When they are compatible with each other, they can live together harmoniously, complement each other, and bring out the best in each other. When they are not compatible, there will be clashes or exclusion resulting in the growth of one civilization at the expense of the waning or extinction of others. When we look at the history of communications among civilizations of different regions, it is easy to find that the Indian Buddhism’s influence on Chinese civilization, a nearly one-thousand-year process from the 1st to the 11th centuries, had set an example for the successful exchanges and dialogues between different civilizations. By virtue of such communications, Buddhism has become an entirely local religion of China and a substantial component of Chinese culture, which plays a key role in making Buddhism into a world religion. This demonstrates that Buddhism and Chinese culture are compatible. Furthermore, in the context that Confucianism is the mainstream Chinese culture, the compatibility between Buddhism and Chinese culture lies mainly in the compatibility between Buddhism and Confucianism. Specifically, it is expressed as follows:


2.1 Everyone is morally expected to be able to become a sage or a virtuous person. From the very beginning, Confucianism emphasizes establishing moral models such as the earliest ancient rulers of Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou. These moral paragons serve as the achievable examples for the later generations to live up to through cultivation. Such moral aspiration to be sages or virtuous persons forms the essential foundation for people to settle down and get on with their pursuit. It has also sculptured a national character of fortitude and self-confidence. When Buddhism was introduced into China, its idea that every living being can attain Buddhahood resonated with the Confucian thought that everyone can become sages like Yao and Shun. Furthermore, many Buddhist scriptures provide specific paths of practice to attain Buddhahood, which also offers an elaborative reference regarding how to become sages and virtuous people. This has provided the theoretical support for Buddhism to take root in China.

2.2 The basis and starting point of practice is to be filial. The practical path to sages and the virtuous in Confucianism is centered on the ethic in daily life, with filial piety towards one’s parents as its core. Filial piety towards one’s parents is taken as an unquestionable moral truth and is the basic requirement for a human being in Chinese culture. The practice of this moral principle concerns not only the self-cultivation of individuals and regulations of families, but also the governance of the whole country. In the old traditional Chinese society, all people ranging from the emperor to the commoner were occupied with one thing in common, that is, to fulfill their filial duties. When filial piety is well performed, a well-ordered world will be achieved. Hence, filial piety is deeply rooted in the Chinese thinking. When Buddhism was introduced into China, it consciously adapted itself to fit this feature of Chinese culture by placing emphasis on the elaboration and promotion of filial piety. Scriptures on this topic like The Sutra of Profound Gratitude towards Parents and The Sutra of the Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in the Past Lives won the heart of the Chinese people. Moreover, many traditional Buddhist services are closely related to the reverential worship of ancestors. For instance, the Ullambana Festival on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, honoring common people’s memories of the deceased ancestors, has lasted to the present and has exerted tremendous influences upon the Chinese people.

3. The compatibility between Buddhism and Christianity

Over the past 2,000 years, Buddhism has been spreading mainly in Asia, especially in South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. In the world today, the barriers to the East-West cultural exchanges are being gradually torn down with the advancement of global economic integration. Over the last 100 years, with the gradual spreading of Buddhism to the European and American continents, more and more people there have become extensively interested in Buddhism. The compatibility between Buddhism and Christianity are manifested in at least the following two aspects:

3.1 Doctrine on Original Sin. Both Jesus Christ and Shakyamuni Buddha have very profound insight into human nature. They see human nature as prone to contamination by ignorance and desires. Contaminated human nature needs to be purified and uplifted through the power of faith, which is also the reason why Christianity has baptism and Buddhism emphasizes taking refuge. Be it baptism or taking refuge, it represents not merely an external ritual, but also an internal sense of belonging, from which one’s spirit finds a shelter and room for its improvement.

3.2 Thought on Benevolence. To save humanity, God sent Jesus his beloved son to this world to take the sins of humankind as his responsibilities, which is God’s benevolence towards humankind. There are very similar situations in Buddhism. The Bodhisattvas, in order to save all sentient beings, choose to go through the measureless and boundless suffering like what parents would do for their children. If it is only for themselves, parents would not have to experience all the suffering, but they do it willingly for their children. Both Jesus and Bodhisattvas have such compassion.

It is through the Original Sin or insight into the imperfections of human nature, and through benevolence or experience of the saintly mind, that faith takes root in people’s hearts. Although faith is not everything of life nor does it completely replace the secular life, a life without faith is like a big tree without roots, which is bound to gradually lose its vitality.

4. The compatibility between Confucianism and Christianity Christianity was introduced into China as early as the Tang Dynasty, and has had some successful experiences over the past 1,000 years, but eventually it failed to be a popular religious belief as Buddhism which is known to every household in China. One of the reasons that should not be overlooked is its insistence on the attitude towards ancestors, sages and the virtuous. It is just an unquestionable moral truth and the fundamental of being a man for the Chinese to offer sacrifices and pay homage to their ancestors. At the same time, it is equally important to offer sacrifices to, and worship the sages and the virtuous, which stems from the tradition of respecting the teachers and their teachings. However, lacking understanding on this, Christian missionaries deemed such practices to be in fundamental conflict with the core Christian belief. Consequently, this posed a difficulty for the compatibility between Confucianism and Christianity. Nowadays, we are happy to see that Christianity has begun to place emphasis on the construction of family ethic in its dissemination in China. This is really good for its dissemination and development in China. Then, do Confucianism and Christianity share any common features?


4.1. The awareness of responsibility and undertaking. God does not create human beings to make them suffer. It is out of ignorance, greed and lust that people drive themselves into the abyss of suffering. Faced with this situation, God sent Jesus his beloved son into this world with the hope of alleviating the suffering and sins of human beings. Following the footsteps of Jesus, Christians undertake the responsibility of saving the world. Such a strong sense of responsibility is one of the reasons why Christianity can spread and be acknowledged worldwide. Such a sense of responsibility is just as strong and distinct in Confucianism. A very well-known sagely king, Tang of the Shang Dynasty in ancient China once said, “If, in my person, I commit offenses, they are not to be attributed to you, the people of the myriad regions. If you in the myriad regions commit offenses, these offenses must rest on my person.” (Confucian Analects, Chapter 20 Yao Yue, trans. James Legge) It means that offenses committed by a king are not caused by the people; however, if the people commit offenses, the king has only himself to blame. Later Confucianism further claimed that “perfect virtue is the burden which he considers it is his to sustain” (Confucian Analects, Chapter 8 Tai Bo, trans. James Legge) and advocated the pursuit of “wanting to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world” (The Great Learning, Chapter One, trans. A. Charles Müller), which are evidence of the Confucian aspiration to take the whole world as its responsibility. And as Confucianism developed, it went further to say that “every man has a share of responsibility for the fate of his country,” entrusting to each individual the responsibility of making the whole world prosperous.


4.2 The thoughts on rights and democracy. The formulation of the modern thoughts like human rights, freedom, equality, universal love is directly related to Christianity. Jus natural are at the very core of such thoughts. God created human beings and gave them the basic rights to life, property and pursuit of happiness, which are considered divine and inviolable. Based on the thinking of God-given rights came the thought that all human beings are equal before the law, and modern democracy thus took shape. In fact, many of the Confucian thoughts reflect their attention to the civil rights and public opinions. As stated in The Classic of History, one of the Five Ancient Chinese Scriptures, “Heaven hears and sees as our people hear and see; Heaven brightly approves and displays its terrors as our people brightly approve and awe.” (The Classic of History, Yu Shu, Counsels of Gao Yao, trans. James Legge) That is to say, the intention of Heaven is expressed through the intention of people, and the punishment from Heaven is executed through the punishment by people. Later Mencius said even more specifically, “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest,” (The Works of Mencius, Jin Xin II, trans. James Legge) putting the people before the ruler.


5. The contribution of Buddhism to contemporary world civilization: the construction of “the Culture of the Mind”

In today’s world, science and technology, as a form of human civilization, has become the mainstream of the development of civilization, which imposes an unprecedented impact on various patterns of traditional civilizations. However, a pattern comprising only of scientific and technological civilization is far from wholesome, because it by itself hardly involves any judgment on value, which is precisely the main focus of various traditional civilizations. Today, as we are here to engage in dialogues among different traditional civilizations, our aim is to explore the basis for a harmonious coexistence among various traditional civilizations as well as to consider the way to establish universal ethics in the context of globalization, so that we may be able to provide a clearer roadmap of judgment on value for today’s scientific and technological civilization.

The pursuit of happiness is an everlasting topic for humankind. In a time of increasing development of science and technology, when the basic needs for material life have been satisfied and as more people live abundant material lives, the lack of spirituality stands out in sharper relief than ever before. Without a rich spiritual world, the pursuit of happiness will eventually become an unattainable dream. In the aspect of understanding the levels of the spiritual world of humanity and the ways of improving the spiritual world, Buddhism has extremely rich resources to offer, which is the building of what we call “the Culture of the Mind” in Buddhism. This can be introduced in the following two aspects:

5.1. Awareness of the spiritual dimensions. There are levels in the spiritual world of human beings. Different people have different spiritual levels and their states of mind differ even on the same level due to their varied backgrounds of experiences and knowledge. Generally speaking, it includes four levels: (1) the realm of sensual organs, corresponding to the consciousness of the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and the body; (2) the realm of reasoning, corresponding to the mental consciousness; (3) the realm of introspection, corresponding to the manas consciousness; and (4) the realm of enlightenment, corresponding to the alaya consciousness. These four levels are sequential, with the latter level deeper than the former. Normally people live in the realm of sensual organs. As a result, the pleasure derived from the satisfaction of sensual cravings becomes an actual goal for the pursuit of happiness. Being strongly dependent on the external material world, this level of happiness is most dependent. In the realm of reasoning, the full understanding of the abstract verbal expressions and concepts, or the thorough understanding of thoughts, becomes an actual goal for the pursuit of happiness. At this level people always wish to understand the nature of everything. In the realm of introspection, contemplation and even analytical penetration into the nature of life become an actual goal for the pursuit of happiness. While in the realm of enlightenment, realizing the oneness between life and the universe becomes an actual goal for the pursuit of happiness. On the whole, the deeper the level, the more significant the revelation of the meaning and value of life, and the stronger the feeling of happiness.


5.2. Ways to uplift the mind. The spiritual world at different levels represents the self-fulfillment of a living being at different levels. Apart from defining these levels, Buddhism also provides methods on how to uplift the realm of life, namely, the Three Studies—Precepts, Concentration, and Wisdom. The Study of Precepts aims at regulating our sense organs, giving them some moderation when we enjoy the material life. Our needs for material life are limited, yet the craving is not. Our desires will never be satisfied regardless of how advanced science and technologies are and how abundant material products become. Appropriate moderation and self-restraints are the paths we must take to attain spiritual freedom and abundance. The Study of Concentration focuses on the returning to one’s inner serenity. When the mind is no longer disturbed by different cravings, nor constrained by various verbal expressions and concepts, man can gradually reach inner peace and freedom. In such a state, the light of inner wisdom will naturally reveal itself, which is the Study of Wisdom. In retrospect of the history of human civilization, it is not hard to find that it is the human wisdom that ultimately determines the height of civilization. In today’s era of highly advanced modern science and technologies, a highly advanced spiritual power becomes even more needed than ever to steer the development of science and technologies into the right direction.


6. Summary

The manifestation of a civilization is usually multilayered. To put it simply, there are three elements: economy, politics and culture. Culture, as compared with economy and politics, is usually an implicit power which imperceptibly influences the thinking patterns and psychic structures of people, and exerts a long lasting influence on economy and politics. In the context of globalization, the building of friendly relations among nations requires not only mutual respect in politics and mutual cooperation in economy, but more importantly, cultural exchanges. In the long run, whether human beings can exist harmoniously and achieve common prosperity is to a great extent determined by whether they have a deep recognition for each other. And the foundation of such recognition usually inheres in cultural traditions which manifest the spiritual life of humanity. Today, the Nishan Forum on World Civilizations held at the United Nations Headquarters is a rewarding attempt to further the mutual exchanges and harmonious coexistence among different civilizations and faiths, and its significance and value will be immeasurable.


① Speech of Ven. Xuecheng at the New York Nishan Forum on World Civilizations on November 11, 2012 at the United Nations Headquarters.


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