If Only Confucius Met the Buddha

In the latest movie depiction of the most turbulent years in the life of ‘Confucius’, there was a scene where Confucius spoke up for a sacrificial bird in court. There was a discussion over whether the bird, who bit off its main tail feather, ought to be killed as scheduled for the gods or liberated into the wild – since it seems pretty inauspicious that such an ‘offering-to-be’ is not incomplete. Now, the fact that there was killing intended is already inauspicious – for the bird! And the killer would create inauspicious negative karma for intentional killing too.

Confucius then seized the opportunity to speak against the custom of sacrificing humans for the rich and powerful who are deceased. When a minister expressed indignation against his proposal, Confucius remarked that since that minister is concerned, and that he is dear to the deceased, it would be more sincere if he could sacrifice himself! Indeed, true sacrifice must be of oneself or something from oneself; instead of external things, animals or even people. Of course, the Buddha does not advocate sacrifice of one’s life for minor purposes or when one is not ready like a well-trained Bodhisattva. The most immediate items to sacrifice, as encouraged by the Buddha, are our defilements of greed, hate and delusion.

It is a common misunderstanding that Confucianism is totally aligned with Buddhism – when there are a number of Confucian teachings that are anti-Dharma. For instance, in one scene, Confucius sees a lazing student and made a famous remark – that ‘rotten wood cannot be carved.’ Well, a human, being a sentient being, is not a block of wood. All sentient beings have the potential to change, to awaken their Buddha-nature. This might seem to be a minor point of difference but it is not, as it is unfair to label or to be labeled ‘rotten wood’ – especially when no one is ‘rotten’ all the way to the core. All the ‘rotten’ need to do is to chip away their defiled parts. This itself is already carving in process – to uncover the Buddha within. In fact, the more ‘rotten’ a person appears, the more should he or she be helped to discover Buddha-nature.

In the film, Confucius also advised rulers on warring matters that involved mass-killing, and advocated nationalistic pride of wearing one’s helmet… even if dying on the battlefield. Now, the Buddha would disagree on this pointless attachment to pride during one’s final moments. Such worldly attachment can severely disturb one’s peace of mind. In the worst case scenario, it might even lead to an unfortunate rebirth.

Interestingly, Confucius was shown to have dialogues with Lao Tze (Laozi; Laocius), the founder of Taoism. Lao Tze, who had already renounced worldly life to be a wanderer, urged Confucius to give up his mission of going against the grain of predominant ugly human-nature then. However, Confucius was bent on spreading his teachings of benevolence for kings and their people. It struck me that Confucianism is a thoroughly worldly set of teachings on ritualistic political and social conduct, that does not touch on deeper spiritual matters such as the afterlife, while Taoism in its earliest phase advocated non-contrived naturalistic individual conduct.

Taoism focuses on nature and Confucianism focuses on nurture. Buddhism, however, takes the Middle Path, and pays just enough attention on important worldly matters, while not forgetting the ultimate goal of spiritual liberation. Though the Buddha conversed with kings and queens, and advised them on all kinds of matters, he was clear about keeping a distance from politicising his teachings. Confucius, by the end of the story, finally relinquished politics after years of ‘banishment’ and disillusionment, and decided to focus only on teaching. Confucius is said to had remark that Lao Tze was profound and ‘dragon-like’. If only Confucius met the Buddha! [Please note that this article is a movie review, which might reflect the movie’s inadequacies.]