Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

Has meditation been an important ritual activity for Confucians?

Confucian tradition has generally emphasized the need for a calm, contemplative approach to life. Few individuals can develop the habit of reflection without engaging deliberately in practices designed to facilitate that habit. Meditation has not occupied as prominent a position in Confucian spirituality as it has in Chinese Buddhism, but it is important nevertheless. Confucians who engage in solitary or group meditation usually sit on small stools, rather than on the floor in the lotus posture, as many Buddhists do. When Confucians meditate, they reflect on the underlying propriety and order of the universe. Cultivation of the ethical self for the purpose of contributing more conscientiously to society is the goal. Classical Confucian and Neo-Confucian writers describe meditation as “quiet-sitting” and “abiding in reverence.”

Unlike Zen meditation, Confucian meditation has a distinctly ethical emphasis. Some authors say the goal of meditation is to make a place in one’s mind for the human beings who constitute one’s own community—family, friends, associates. Not unlike a process of free association, this form of meditation gathers whatever comes to mind and allows it all to sift and settle naturally. “Settled nature” is the goal, a state in which the meditator is free from the agitation that arises from disordered relationships. Confucian meditation may sound quite unstructured, but it requires constant mental and emotional discipline. A meditator must be alert to abstract notions that distract from concrete ethical concerns, for it is often much easier to drift off into speculation than to confront life as one is actually living it.


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