The Gongfu 功夫 approach to Cheng 誠 and Ziran 自然 : a Confucian- Daoist complementarity perspective
Date of Issue2017
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
This thesis will consist of three chapters exploring the value, practice, and implications of ethical spontaneity. Ethical spontaneity in this paper refers to the philosophical notion that one can act morally through spontaneous action instead of preset or deliberate moral principles, a notion that differs across Confucianism and Daoism. Chapter one will begin by outlining Peimin Ni’s proposed gongfu ethics to more fully explain what it means to be a gongfu master by acting through ethical spontaneity. Ni’s proposed gongfu ethics relies heavily on Confucian “cultivated” spontaneity, or the long-term application of habituated action and ritual resulting in a natural disposition to act morally. Although Ni’s notion includes and is also motivated by Daoist versions of spontaneity (自然 ziran), there is ample room to explore and compare the differences between the two methods. Daoist notions of ziran in the Laozi rely on what is naturally within us from birth by looking to an infant as the model sage; and the Zhuangzi’s concept of “forgetting” expresses a similar retreat from learned customs and conventions. I believe the gongfu practice can be best expressed by putting equal emphasis on Daoist spontaneity in parallel to Confucian spontaneity. These two ways of practicing spontaneity are often thought of as opposing and incompatible, but I intend to demonstrate the ways they complement one another. This will become clearer in chapter two by exploring the connection between heaven and human through the notion of cheng 誠. The grand evolution of the term cheng 誠 has evoked many different interpretations, but I argue that cheng entails ziran, thus demonstrating how Confucian and Daoist notions of spontaneity function together harmoniously. Chapter three will then use the Zhuangzi to address whether our actions will be anything like morality if our spontaneity relies on what is natural, to which the answer seems to be negative. However, this is actually not a problem when viewed though the amoral standpoint stemming from the gongfu perspective. I will refer to my methodology in this thesis as a Confucian-Daoist comparative approach which will broadly explore key points of spontaneity from the two schools as they appear across varying texts. By this, instead of consistently focusing on a specific Confucian or Daoist philosopher or text (i.e. the Lunyu or the Laozi), I will be extracting from various texts from each camp to give a comprehensive description of the general view of spontaneity since my aim is not only textual analysis, but also to demonstrate how this kind of ethic can work in the world. This is not in ignorance of the variances between Confucian and Daoist texts, but rather in an approach that draws from the key points across each tradition. Then, instead of advocating for one tradition over the other, I intend to demonstrate the complementarity between the Confucian and Daoist approaches to ethical spontaneity. I will use the Laozi and the Zhuangzi as my primary sources for Daoist notions of ziran, and the Zhongyong and Lunyu as my primary sources for Confucian notions of cheng. This is because I see the notion of ziran and the notion of cheng as having similar properties across the various texts: 1) they both demonstrate the connection between heaven and human; 2) they describe a transformative process; and 3) they are both self-completing. It is because of these three characteristics that I chose to use the Laozi the Zhuangzi, the Zhongyong, and Lunyu since we can see these characteristics most clearly displayed demonstrating the intrinsic connections between the texts.