The Buddha and Confucius on “reciprocity” in social relations

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Buddha’s teaching on how suffering is the basic condition of life in the world and how it can be overcome, as summarized in the Four Noble Truths (Cattari Ariyasaccani), contains a message that carries universal relevance, transcending the specificity of the time and place into which he was born, in which he grew old, and from which he passed away. In contrast, the Buddha’s teaching on the proper mode of conduct in social life, given to people from all walks of life during his long career as the Venerable One, reflects the specificity of the time and place in which he was active.

Consider, for example, the Sigalaka Sutta, in which the Buddha instructs Sigalaka, the householder’s son, in the importance of worshipping the six directions: “And how, householder’s son, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers, and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and brahmins.”1

The last two directions the Buddha adds to the four directions of east, south, west and north clearly reflect the reality of the Hindu society of his day, with the Brahmin class occupying the highest station in the social hierarchy among the four castes. But did the Buddha grant a special status in society to the Brahmin class as the heirs to Brahma? That this was not the case is made clear in the Assalayana Sutta, in which the Buddha talks about purification with Assalayana, the Brahmin student. After a lengthy debate with this young student known for his intellect and knowledge, the Buddha succeeds in convincing Assalayana that what is important in a person is neither one’s birth nor spiritual learning, but whether one is virtuous and of good character. In fact, the key word that describes the proper mode of conduct in the relationship between the Brahmins and the lay people, as is true with the other five relations in the six directions, would be reciprocity: “There are five ways in which a man should minister to ascetics and Brahmins as the zenith: by kindness in bodily deed, speech, and thought, by keeping open house for them, and by supplying their bodily needs. And the ascetics and Brahmins, thus ministered by him as the zenith, will reciprocate in five ways: they will restrain him from evil, encourage him to do good, be benevolently compassionate toward him, teach him what he has not heard, and point out to him the way to heaven.”2

Given that the six directions summarize the Buddha’s idea on the proper mode of social conduct in his day, it is interesting to compare them with Confucius’ ideas on the same subject. In the five relations, Confucius talks about the proper mode of conduct in social life as represented by five social relations: between rulers and subjects, between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between older and younger siblings, and between older and younger friends.3 Here, too, the specificity of the time and place of Confucius’ day is clearly reflected in that the rulers-subjects relationship comes first. The question of establishing and maintaining social order was the primary concern for Confucius, living, as he did, in the middle of the turbulent time of Chinese history known as the Spring-Autumn period.

While both the Buddha’s six directions and Confucius’ five relations no doubt reflect the specificity of the time and place in which they led their lives, there is commonality in the messages they convey as they both address the vital question of how to establish and maintain social order and harmony. And both the Buddha and Confucius point to the importance of reciprocity in social relations, namely, quid pro quo deemed appropriate in any specific social relation, though its content may vary from one relation to another. In the case of Confucius’ five relations, rulers should be benevolent, subjects loyal; parents should be loving, children reverential; husbands should be good, wives listening; elder siblings should be gentle, younger siblings respectful; elder friends should be considerate, younger friends deferential. A similar idea about the importance of reciprocity is also expressed in the case of the Buddha’s six directions: one person performs his/her duties and obligations, while the other person reciprocates by performing his/her duties and obligations, where the contents of these duties and obligations are defined in the context of the Dhamma, as each person is expected to behave as a noble disciple.

Although the Buddha does not include the rulers-subjects relationship in his six directions, the proper mode of conduct in accordance with the Dhamma also applies to kings in his conception of raja cakkavatti, or the “wheel-turning monarch”, the just and righteous king who rules his kingdom with the Dhamma. This concept is recorded, for example, in the Anguttara Nikaya: “a wheel-turning monarch, a just and righteous king, who thus provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for all, is the one who rules by the Dhamma only. And that rule cannot be overthrown by any hostile human being.”4 Replace “Dhamma” with “Mandate of Heaven”, and this quote could well have been the words of Confucius.

What would the Buddha and Confucius have to say on the proper mode of conduct in social life in a democratic society? The fact of the matter is that they have very little to say on this. In this sense, their teachings do not go beyond the social realities of their time and place. After all, they are talking about the proper mode of conduct in social life as social philosophers, not as social reformers, though Confucius is known to have searched the land for a sovereign who would put his social philosophy into practice. As for the Buddha, it is to be noted that his talk about the wheel-turning monarch quoted above is a prelude to his talk about his own role as the just and righteous king of the Dhamma and as the Fully Enlightened One “who turns the incomparable wheel of the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma only.”5

We can, of course, speculate what the Buddha would have to say on the just and righteous government in a democratic society. We can surmise what the Buddha’s opinion on this subject might be from his dialogue with Ananda, recorded in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which he intended as a reply to the question put to him by the chief minister to King Ajatasattu of Magadha, who wanted to attack the Vajjians. Having heard from Ananda that the Vajjians held regular and frequent assemblies, the Buddha says: “Ananda, as long as the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.”6 Thus, “holding regular and frequent assemblies” seems to be one component of the Buddha’s idea of the just and righteous government that rules by the Dhamma in a democratic society. But beyond this, no further hints are available to us because the Buddha talks about the just and righteous government of a non-democratic country of his day.

We can further speculate what the Buddha would have to say on the proper mode of conduct in social life in a democratic society, which develops its own scheme of social stratification, if not hierarchy, based, for example, on wealth and family ties. Although the kinds of social relations may be different from those the Buddha observed in his day, it is unlikely that we would get any other answer from him than “reciprocity”, namely, quid pro quo deemed appropriate in any specific social relation, whether that relation is between elected officials and citizens, between employers and employees, or between merchants and clients. In any event, what is important for those of us living in the world of the twenty-first century is to have a clear understanding about what aspect of the Buddha’s teachings has the universality that goes beyond the specificity of time and place in which he delivered his discourses.

  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom Publications, 2005, pp. 116-117.
  2. Ibid., p. 118.
  3. See Confucius, The Analects, London: Penguin Books, 1979.
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi, op. cit., p. 115.
  5. Ibid., p. 116.
  6. Ibid., p. 138.

Master Chuang, the Buddha’s Chinese cousin?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Known as Master Chuang, Chuang Tzu is a Taoist thinker said to have been active in the fourth century B.C.E. This great Taoist master’s ideas about the world contain deep insights, which can be likened to the Buddha’s, and hence deserve reexamination using the rational approach of systems science. Like his master, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu sees the universe as an integral whole unified by Tao, or the Way: “Things ribald and shady or things grotesque and strange, the Way makes them all into one. … No thing is either complete or impaired, but all are made into one again. … This is called the Way.”1

Chuang Tzu realizes that we need knowledge of the world around us as a guide for behavior in our daily lives. The problem is, however, that our knowledge is uncertain because the object of our knowledge is uncertain: “Knowledge must wait for something before it can be applicable, and that which it waits for is never certain.”2 Our knowledge is also flawed in that it is customarily expressed in terms of words, which fail to capture the changing reality of the world: “Words have something to say. But if what they say is not fixed, then do they really say something?”3

Realizing that words are unreliable in capturing the true reality of the world, Chuang Tzu rejects the rational mode of inquiry, which would certainly include the scientific method, relying, as it does, on the language of logic and mathematics. The only way to acquire the true knowledge of reality is, therefore, to remove the conscious act of acquiring knowledge and to become one with the universe by pure reflection: “Hold on to all that you have received from Heaven but do not think you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all. The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not restoring.”4

Like the Buddha’s “direct experience”, Chuang Tzu’s “pure reflection” is another example of the intuitive tradition of Eastern thought. As such, it is not easily accessible to us moderns, who are accustomed to the rational mode of inquiry. However, rephrasing Chuang Tzu’s thought in the language of systems science may make his thought more intelligible to us, for behind his metaphors and parables there is definitely a system of thought amenable to rational examination.

Understanding complexity and change in the world is the starting point of inquiry for Chuang Tzu, as is true for other masters of Eastern thought. To contrast with the Buddha’s thought analyzed in “The Buddha’s Thought and Systems Science”, it is useful to interpret Chuang Tzu’s thought using the same analytical framework as an effort to make linkages between the two worlds—the latent world (L) and the manifest world (M). The latent world is the ground for all the manifest phenomena in the world around us. To a Taoist like Chuang Tzu, this is the world of the transcendent Tao. On the other hand, the manifest world is the world of our everyday experience, namely, the world of the immanent Tao.

Three C’s—“coherence”, “correspondence”, and “complementarity”—can be chosen to represent Chuang Tzu’s thought. These three C’s can be regarded as summarily expressing Chuang Tzu’s ideas about how the universe is constituted, including the nature of the linkage between the two worlds.

“Coherence” expresses the idea that the universe is a coherent whole in that the essence of all things is basically the same in the latent world, which is Tao. Chuang Tzu’s term for this basic oneness of all things in the universe is “Heavenly Equality”, for Heaven equalizes everything, including such things as right and wrong: “So the sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer.”5

“Correspondence” expresses the idea that all things in the manifest world are also ruled by the same essence that rules the latent world because of the correspondence between the transcendent and the immanent Tao. The only way we can get to the transcendent Tao is, however, through its reality and its signs, which the immanent Tao leaves in the manifest world around us: “The Way has its reality and its signs but is without action or form. You can hand it down but cannot receive it; you can get it but you cannot see it.”6

“Complementarity” expresses the idea that things in the manifest world cannot exist as distinct and separate entities; the existence of one thing implies the existence of its complement. As Chuang Tzu puts it, “Everything has its ‘that’, everything has its ‘this’. From the point of view of ‘that’ you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say, ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’—which is to say that ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other.”7

Compare this statement by Chuang Tzu with the following statement by the Buddha recorded in the Majjhima Nikaya: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.”8 The idea expressed by Chuang Tzu seems almost the same as the Buddha’s paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”—almost the same only because the “causes and conditions” part of paticca-samuppada is missing, which is behind the emergence of things in the manifest world. Does not Chuang Tzu also need his “causes and conditions” part if he is to explain the emergence of “this” and “that” in the manifest world? The answer is that Chuang Tzu already includes a “causes and conditions” part in his concept of Tao. This is so because Tao is a dynamic, evolutionary principle that gives rise to and embraces all things in the universe.

“Complementarity” was chosen as one of the three key terms to represent Chuang Tzu’s ideas about the universe because his words quoted above can be formulated as his version of “complementarity principle” as follows:

(CP-i)  x is an element of M if and only if ~x, its complement, is an element of M

(CP-ii)  {x, ~x} is a non-empty set if and only if there exists F, which maps Tao into M

Reexamining Chung Tzu’s thought from the perspective of systems science leads to the same conclusion derived with respect to the Buddha’s thought, namely, that everything in the world around us is devoid of its own separate and independent self and, therefore, that the world is basically empty. The formalism employed here is a bit strained because Chuang Tzu does not intend his ideas to be represented by a logical scheme. Nevertheless, Chuang Tzu’s ideas as expressed by (CP-i) and (CP-ii) represent the same idea as the Buddha’s concept of sunyata, or emptiness. Thus, (CP) may be termed the “complementarity principle” in Chuang Tzu’s thought. While calling Chuang Tzu the Buddha’s identical twin would be going a bit too far, considering the different times and places in which they were active, we may perhaps be justified to call him the Buddha’s Chinese cousin in view of the remarkable parallels that exist in the ideas expounded by these two giants of Eastern thought.

Needless to say, Chuang Tzu would object to all this as an example of the rational mode of inquiry that he rejects, for, to him, all things in the universe, covering both the latent and the manifest worlds, exist as a coherent whole. If there appear to be distinctions among things, it is because we impose our own rationally conceived distinctions on them. Making distinctions between “this” thing and “that” thing is arbitrary because of the complementary nature of things in the universe. The way to the true knowledge of reality in the universe is, therefore, to overcome our tendency to discriminate among things: “The sage…illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a ‘this’, but a ‘this’ which is also ‘that’, a ‘that’ which is also ‘this’. … A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way.”9

Note that Chuang Tzu’s “complementarity” also applies to the relationship between the object of knowledge and the knowing subject, for something exists in the world as an object of knowledge only because there is someone—a knowing subject—who seeks knowledge of that something. The rational mode of inquiry, including modern science before the advent of quantum mechanics, since it presupposes the existence of a knowing subject who is independent of the object of knowledge, must be rejected, as it violates Chuang Tzu’s idea that the universe is an evolving whole, of which we are an integral part. If we are an integral part of the universe, the only way to true knowledge is to become conscious of the fact that we are already participants in the cosmic process that unfolds around us. This is where the Taoist concept of wu wei comes in, which means “non-action” only when we become mindful participants in that cosmic process.

  1. Watson, Burton, Complete Writings of Chuang-Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 41.
  2. Ibid., p. 77.
  3. Ibid., p. 39.
  4. Ibid., p. 97.
  5. Ibid., p. 41.
  6. Ibid., p. 81.
  7. Ibid., p. 39. The original Chinese expression of “So I say, “that” comes out of “this” and “this” depends on “that”—which is to say that “this” and “that” give birth to each other.” is as follows: 「故曰、彼出於是、是亦因彼。彼是方生之説也。」
  8. “Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta”, Majjhima Nikaya 38.
  9. Watson, op. cit., p. 40.