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date: 30 March 2023

Confucian Mysticismlocked

Confucian Mysticismlocked

  • Judson B. MurrayJudson B. MurrayWright State University


Confucian mysticism is a subfield in academic areas of study including Chinese thought, Chinese religions, Confucian studies, and comparative mysticism. Important topics examined in this subfield include, first, a view of the human self that is fundamentally relational, both in an interpersonal sense and because Confucians presuppose various correlations and an integration between, on the one hand, the matter–energy, capacities, processes, and activities comprising the self and, on the other, the elements, forces, patterns, and processes of the world it inhabits. One paradigmatic way Confucians conceptualize the interrelation between the self and the cosmos is their idea and ideal of the “unity of Heaven and humanity.” The Confucian mystical self, provided failings such as unbalanced emotions, selfish desires, and self-centeredness are effectively curtailed, contributes vitally to, because of its profound reverence for life, the generative and life-sustaining process of change that pervades and animates the cosmos. Second, practitioners use various techniques of religious praxis in combination to form multifaceted training regimens aimed at self-cultivation and self-transformation. Examples include a form of meditation called “quiet-sitting,” rituals, textual study, “investigating things,” self-examination and self-monitoring, filial piety, and “reverent attentiveness.” Third, training in these practices can achieve the different mystical aims, experiences, and transformations they seek, all of which relate to the overarching ideal of the unity of Heaven and humanity. These objectives, broadly speaking, include self-understanding, accurately grasping the “principles” of things and affairs, effortless moral virtuosity, “forming one body with all things” (and other types of Confucian mystical union), and exemplifying “sincerity.” Accomplishing them collapses the conventional divide separating several specious dichotomies, such as thought and action, self and other, humankind and nature, internal and external, the subjective and the objective, and moral ought and is. Fourth, the influence that precedent and tradition exert in Confucianism has prompted scholars to devote attention both to notable continuities and to intriguing innovations in comparing ancient mystical ideas, practices, experiences, and aims to later expressions and elaborations of them.

At present, much of the scholarship on Confucian mysticism contributes to efforts attempting to provide rich and nuanced analyses of the tradition’s core doctrines, practices, experiences, and ethical and religious aims, by viewing these subjects through the lens of Confucianism’s mystical and spiritual dimensions. Less scholarly attention has been devoted to identifying and explicating the possible contributions that studying Confucian mysticism can make to the scholarship on theories of mysticism and comparative mysticism. Scholars of mysticism have not yet availed themselves of the wealth of data, the possible additional perspectives on contested issues, and the new trajectories for future research that Confucianism offers to these fields. Also, few studies employ the definitions, categories, and theories that have been developed in the contemporary study of mysticism as a methodology for studying Confucian mysticism.


  • Mysticism and Spirituality

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