The Buddhist roots of Confucianism

Defenders of Chinese Confucianism tend to ignore or downplay the influences of Buddhism on the development of Confucian thought and philosophy but the evidence tells a different story.

In China, and indeed throughout much of the world, Confucianism is typically presented as an expression of a native system of ideas, developed independent of external cultural influences over two thousand years. It is privileged as the true representation of Chinese cultural ideals and values, and an integral part of traditional Chinese social and cultural identity.

“Despite being vilified in China for much of the twentieth century, over the past three decades various aspects of Confucianism have been rehabilitated,” says Professor John Makeham, Director of the China Studies Research Centre at La Trobe University. “Diverse interest groups both within and outside the Chinese academy have favoured Confucianism over other forms of traditional thought and philosophy, touting it as the principal exemplar of indigenous Chinese thought and so best suited to nation- and state-building.”

“This emphasis, in turn, feeds an assumption that Chinese philosophy is a hermetically-sealed tradition or set of traditions that can be understood and adjudicated only by reference to its own ‘internal’ norms and premises. But to regard Confucianism this way is to ignore the important contribution of Buddhist thought to its intellectual makeup.”

Professor Makeham has been leading a study into the Buddhist roots of Confucian philosophy, funded by two ARC Discovery Projects. Introduced into China more than two thousand years ago, Buddhist philosophy has shaped the development of indigenous Chinese traditions of religion, philosophy, art and literature.

“Defenders of Chinese Confucianism tend to ignore or downplay the influences of Buddhism on the development of Confucian thought and philosophy but the evidence tells a different story,” says Professor John Makeham. “From at least the fourth century onward, Chinese philosophy has been fundamentally shaped by constructs derived from Indian Buddhism.”

A particular focus of his current research is the pivotal role of the Buddhist text Treatise on the Awakening of Mahayana Faith in the construction of modern forms of Confucian philosophy, an influence widely ignored by contemporary scholars.

“The debt that New Confucianism owes to the Awakening of Faith is philosophically and historically significant.” says Professor Makeham. “It provided thinkers with the conceptual tools to develop the most creative ontologies and epistemologies in modern Chinese philosophy. I believe it will become increasingly necessary to acknowledge and, indeed, to celebrate and to enhance the hybrid quality of Chinese philosophy, and its rich legacies, if Chinese philosophy is to thrive in a rapidly globalizing world.”

Find an expert

Search our experts database.