Overcoming Ego and Transforming Self in Confucianism & Taoism

Confucianism and Taoism are two similar philosophies or religions mainly found in China. They also have a history of teachings about the “self” and overcoming this entity in order to realize a greater union with reality.

(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)
Confucianism and Taoism are two similar philosophies or religions mainly found in China. They also have a history of teachings about the “self” and overcoming this entity in order to realize a greater union with reality.
Wikipedia notes this about Confucianism,

Confucianism revolves around the pursuit of the unity of the individual self and the God of Heaven (Tiān 天), or, otherwise said, around the relationship between humanity and Heaven. The principle of Heaven (Lǐ 理 or Dào 道), is the order of the creation and the source of divine authority, monistic in its structure. Individuals may realise their humanity and become one with Heaven through the contemplation of such order. This transformation of the self may be extended to the family and society to create a harmonious fiduciary community.

Here we already see similarities to the other religions we have explored. There is a pursuit of oneness, union, or nonduality with God, this God being monistic, or being single in nature. All things emerge from this single principle. Seekers can become one with this divinity through contemplation, and this involves a kind of transformation of the “self.”
There are many names or terms used to describe the God of Heaven. Huángdì or “Yellow Deity” is one that is noted is “the model of those who merge their self with the self of the supreme God, of the ascetics who reach enlightenment or immortality.” So there is this idea of a merging of self with a greater self, even God, becoming one, and this is what grants an awakening or “eternal life.”
Furthermore, “by transcending the surface [of things], one realises the self-nature (自性神 zì xìng shén) of himself and of all things.” There is a sense of transcending a lower phenomenal nature, to realize a higher nature that identifies itself with all things. This higher nature is already within us, but is not realized until there is a transcendence of the phenomenonal nature. Continuing,

Tian [Heaven] is the ontological substance of reality, it is immanent in every human being as the human nature (ren); however, the human being on the phenomenal level is not identical with its metaphysical essence. Mencius stated that the one who can fully realise one’s heart–mind can understand one’s nature, and the one who can understand one’s own nature can know Tian. This means that Tian is within the human being, but before this last comes to realise his true heart–mind, or know his true nature, Heaven still appears transcendent to him. Mou cites Max Muller saying that a human being itself is potentially a God, a God one presently ought to become, to explain the idea of the relationship of God and humanity in Confucianism and other Eastern religions. What is crucial is to transcend the phenomenon to reach Tian.

According to Tu Weiming, this transcendence involves a diving within, “the more man may penetrate his own inner source, the more he may transcend himself.” By transcending the phenomenal self, we may “reach the true self, which is the divine.” This is the “ultimate self-transformation.” Tu notes how our self is usually problematic, but that the true self is not far away: “we are not what we ought to be but what we ought to be is inherent in the structure of what we are.” Huang notes that “Heaven bids and impels humans to realise their true self.”
Taoism is similar, with a greater focus on naturalness, and the natural order.
The Tao (or Dao) is the fundamental principle or source of all that exists. It is noted, “Taoists seek ‘perfection’, which is immortality, achieved by becoming one with the Dao, or the rhythms of nature.” To achieve this oneness with the Tao involves a change in self-identity and a liberation from ego: “one has to identify with the Tao; this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.” This is described as a return to a prior state, one’s original nature, before the “imprint of culture.”
It’s noted:

Human beings are seen as a microcosm of the universe… As a consequence, it is believed that deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.

Through understanding oneself, one’s original true nature, one comes to understand the universe itself. By aligning oneself to the laws of nature, one comes to know those laws as one’s self, the Tao.
Like Confucianism, the Tao is not something separate or far away from us, but it is a transformed self that finds oneness with the natural order:

…the Tao is not transcendent to the self nor is mystical attainment an escape from the world in philosophical Taoism. The self steeped in the Tao is the self grounded in its place within the natural Universe.

Thus, in Confucianism and Taoism we find similar ideas of overcoming an ego-self identity and realizing one’s true self-nature and identity as One and the same with God, Tian (Heaven), Tao (Nature), the principle that is one’s deepest and most grounded original nature, and is the nature of all things.
In the next post I’ll summarize and conclude my thoughts in this series.
To be continued…

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