Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have there been any Confucian mystics?

Scholars of the history of religion rarely describe the Confucian tradition as a wellspring of mystical spirituality. But several important figures, particularly among the Neo-Confucians, spoke a language reminiscent of some of the great monistic mystics of other traditions. Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E.), a leading light in the Neo-Confucian School of Principle, saw in the practice of meditation a way of becoming one with cosmic harmony. One could draw instructive parallels between traditional descriptions of this type of meditation, and of certain qualities of the sage, and characteristics of “nature mystics” in other traditions. In Zhu Xi’s view, “silent sitting” promised the realistic possibility of experiencing unity with all things and all people. Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529 C.E.), a later exponent of the Neo-Confucian School of Mind, spoke of realizing one’s “true self” in a meditative quest for enlightenment. He identified cosmic principle (li) with the mind, so that discovery of the true self meant discovering the ultimate reality. Some discern parallels between Wang’s mysticism and that of the German mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327 C.E.).


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