Taking Confucian spirituality seriously (by Ping-cheung Lo)

By Ping-cheung Lo |

Spiritual Formation in the Wider Sense

When I was a young Christian, I was told by a well-respected pastor and seminary teacher that there are two views on the composition of a human being: dichotomy (body and spirit), or trichotomy (body, soul, and spirit). The spirit is that part of our being that can get connected with God. That explains why churches, Chinese churches in particular, are fond of the words “spiritual” (屬靈) and “spirituality” (靈性、靈命). A Christian book is called “a spiritual book” (屬靈書籍), Christian music is known as “spiritual music” (屬靈音樂), a devout Christian is called “a spiritual person” (屬靈人), and so on. From this perspective, a Christian can dismiss Chinese culture for the lack of spirituality, as the term “spirituality” (靈性、靈命) did not exist in premodern Chinese culture. All they can see in Chinese culture is deplorable superstition; they don’t see any spiritual depth among the Chinese “pagans” and “heathens.” Many Western missionaries in nineteenth and twentieth century China were the first advocates of such a harsh view.

I submit that Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are not just philosophies; they are spiritual traditions that many Chinese are still very proud of. A Chinese Christian might wonder, how can that be so? These schools of thought do not even recognize the existence of “spirit” in human nature!

More and more scholars agree that confining “spirituality” rigidly to the life of the “spirit” (pneuma) is too restrictive (e.g., Ewert Cousins, Sandra M. Schneiders). Some evangelical writers agree; Dallas Willard is the best example of this broadened perspective. Part of their contention is that in the Bible there are several words that refer to the nonphysical part of human nature or our inner person. In the Old Testament, we have “soul,” “spirit,” and “heart,” whereas in the New Testament, there is one more word: “mind.”  These words should not be understood in a scientific manner, with precise definitions and mutual exclusivity. On the contrary, biblical writers often use these words in parallel and interchangeably. In the Bible all these four words are sometimes used to refer to our inner person or the core of our being. (I have consulted Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 2000; HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, revised and updated edition, 2011; and New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2006.) But among the four, the word “heart” is used in this sense far more extensively. In the Old Testament alone “there are 814 references to the human heart” (HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 2011, p. 368). A textual analysis of such usages is way beyond the scope of this essay; any interested reader can easily conduct such a word study with the help of an online concordance. Interestingly, the very well-known New Testament scholar N. T. Wright also focuses on the heart alone in his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (2010, 118-123).

Dallas Willard (1935–2013) is a distinguished American writer on Christian spirituality. For 48 years, he taught in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Southern California (1965–2013); hence, he has a broader horizon to articulate Christian spirituality vis-à-vis non-Christian spiritualities. His book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (first published in 2002) is an invaluable source for our reflection on Christian spirituality in the context of human spiritualities.

For Willard, “heart,” “spirit,” and “will” (or their equivalents) are words that refer to one and the same nonphysical dimension of human nature, with different emphases. “And heart refers to its position in the human being, as the center or core to which every other component of the self owes its proper functioning… The heart is where decisions and choices are made for the whole person” (pp. 23–24). With this broader perspective, Willard helpfully reminds us,

Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite “form” or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period…Now and throughout the ages this has been acknowledged by everyone who has thought deeply about our condition—from Moses, Solomon, Socrates, and Spinoza, to Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Oprah, and current feminists and environmentalists (pp. 12, 6).

Accordingly, Willard defines spiritual formation generally as the renovation of the heart, hence the title of this book. With this wider understanding, Christians can connect our discourse on spiritual formation with non-Christians by both establishing the discontinuity as well as continuity between Christian and non-Christian spiritualities.

We, very rightly, continually preach this possibility and necessity [of spiritual formation] from our pulpits. Disagreements have only to do with what in our spirit needs to be changed and how that change can be brought about… we can say, in a preliminary manner, that spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself (pp. 6, 15).

Willard provides a very helpful lesson for us to learn.  We need to articulate our gospel of the renovation of the heart contextually; Socrates, Spinoza, Freud, Oprah, and others would not ring the bell for East Asian peoples. We need to engage with East Asian spiritualities, first and foremost, by acknowledging their historic contribution to the cultivation of the human interior life. Without such contributions, Chinese civilization would be in the same fate as Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations—they would be museum exhibits only. 

Willard generously admits this. “The shaping and reshaping of the inner life is, accordingly, a problem that has been around as long as humanity itself; and the earliest records of human thought bear eloquent witness to the human struggle to solve it” (p. 12). In a footnote to this sentence, Willard concedes, “There is, of course, an ocean of literature from Eastern thought on the formation of the human spirit” (p. 282). What a magnanimous and graceful acknowledgment! All Christians working in or for Asians should take this observation very seriously.

In an online essay, “Idaho Springs Inquiries Concerning Spiritual Formation,” Willard replies to a number of frequently asked questions. The eighth question is, “Isn’t spiritual formation a human project, equally well expressed in many traditions other than the Christian?” Willard replies, “Much that is good is to be found in every great human tradition of spiritual formation, and the Christian will do well to respect what is good wherever it is found. ‘Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’ (James 1:17, NIV). If we cannot afford to be generous, we possess little.” Theologically this view can be justified by the doctrine of “common grace.” God’s grace has been extended to East Asian peoples through Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist spiritualities, and we had better respect them. Disrespect reveals our cultural chauvinism.

We should not erect an artificial barrier to sharing the gospel of Jesus by insisting on a Western language that non-Christians in Asia are not familiar with. Jesus is the answer, yes, but to what questions? East Asian people have a rich tradition of spiritual formation in the general sense of renovating the heart. Historically, they place a heavy emphasis on self-cultivation (the cultivation of the interior self). Can the Christian gospel reply to their spiritual questions in their terminology so that the answer can make better sense to them?

In the rest of this essay, I will focus on neo-Confucian spirituality, a common heritage of the peoples in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Spiritual Formation in Neo-Confucianism

In the Song and Ming Dynasties, there were two rival schools of neo-Confucianism, the Cheng-Zhu (程朱) School and the Lu-Wang (陸王) School. Both schools agreed that the heart was the master of one’s life and placed heavy emphasis on the cultivation of the heart. In terms of subsequent influence, however, Zhu Xi (朱熹1130–1200) was widely acknowledged as the most influential Confucian thinker in the last 1,000 years for China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Part of his influence was due to the fact that he was instrumental in creating a much shorter canon of Confucian classics, known simply as the Four Books, which consist of the Analects, Mencius, Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean.

The Great Learning is placed as the very first book, instructing learners on what genuine learning is all about. In the preface Zhu Xi explains that in very ancient times, at age eight boys would start the “elementary learning” (xiao xue 小學). Then at age 15 they would be enrolled to “higher learning” (da xue 大學), which is about “the way of self-cultivation and governance of men through the fathoming of principle and rectifying of the mind” (De Bary and Bloom, p. 723;「窮理、正心、修己、治人之道」). However, in subsequent times there were no more sage-rulers; hence there was no more “transformation of the people through education” (jiao hua 教化). Consequently, the deterioration of personal morals and social customs became widespread. This short treatise, the Great Learning, is brought to the forefront to address this issue. For Zhu Xi, learning is not only an intellectual exercise; it is, above all, the learning to be fully human.

The first chapter of this treatise is subsequently very famous because Zhu Xi sums it up as the articulation of the “three intended learning outcomes” (pp. 725-726; 三綱領) and the “eight successive steps in cultivation” (八條目). The former consists of three goals of learning: (1) “clearly manifesting luminous virtue” (明明德), (2) “renewing people” (新民), and (3) “resting in the utmost good” (止於至善). The “eight successive steps” can be divided into four stages:

  1. Acquiring knowledge: investigation of things, extension of knowledge (格物、致知);
  2. Ordering of interior life: rectification of heart, making intention sincere (正心、誠意);
  3. Cultivation of personal life: self-cultivation, regulating family life (修身、齊家);
  4. Rendering public service: governing a state, bringing peace to all-under-Heaven (治國、平天下).

Since the time of Confucius and Mencius, rendering public service has been a firm commitment of Confucian teachings; there is nothing new in Zhu Xi’s exposition in this regard. What is new is the emphasis that a good public and social life begins, and only begins, with one’s interior life properly formed. Everything starts from the heart. In the commentary, Zhu Xi explicitly affirms that “the heart is the master of one’s person” (p. 727; 心者,身之所主也). However, the human heart is often malformed; hence the “rectification of heart” (正心) is called for. In his political writings the rectification of the heart is a constant refrain. Only if the heart is rectified can personal, familial, and social life be rectified.  Only when the emperor’s heart is rectified can his ministers’ hearts be rectified. Only when the entire imperial court’s hearts be rectified can the governance of the nation be rectified. Can we hear the loud and clear echo of the “renovation of the heart” here?

As for another short treatise, the Doctrine of the Mean, again, Zhu Xi clearly sets up his education agenda in the preface. In the very first paragraph, he reminds us that in very ancient times there was “The Message of the Heart” (xinfa 心法), a 16-word, four-phrase message from an ancient text (p. 732):

The human heart is prone to error. (人心惟危)
But the Dao-heart is subtle. (道心惟微)
Remain discerning and single-minded. (惟精惟一)
Keep steadfastly to the Mean. (允執厥中) (Ching, p. 114)

This cryptic saying exhibits a profound realism on the strife and turmoil of human interior life, that is, the conflict between the Dao-heart and the human heart. In the second paragraph, Zhu Xi elaborates on the complexity of the struggle of our inner being:

As I have maintained, the heart…is one and only one. But if we make a distinction between the human heart and the heart of the Way (Dao), it is because consciousness differs insofar as it may spring from the self-centeredness of one’s individual physical form or may have its source in the correctness of one’s innate nature and moral imperative. This being so, the one may be prone to error and insecure, while the other may be subtle and barely perceptible…

These two [tendencies] are mixed together in the square-inch of the heart, and if one does not know how to order them, the proneness to error becomes even more prone, and the barely perceptible becomes even less perceptible, so that the sense of the common good [impartiality] of Heaven’s principle [in the mind of the Way] is unable in the end to overcome the selfishness of human desires (De Bary and Bloom, pp. 732–733). 

In other words, the turmoil of society and of the warfare of the world that we know all too well begins with the turmoil and perpetual warfare within the human heart (the warfare between the Dao-heart and the human heart). The intended learning outcome of Confucian teaching is therefore “making sure that the ‘heart of the Dao’ is master of one’s self and that the ‘human heart’ always listens to its commands” (p. 733). A Chinese Christian cannot agree more and should add that our Bible speaks of the Dao too in the beginning of John’s Gospel.

In other writings Zhu Xi has another way of explaining this perpetual conflict; it is between the “nature of Heaven and Earth” and the “nature of psychophysical endowment” (天地之性、氣質之性). The goal of learning is “to transform the psychophysical endowment” (變化氣質 Chan, 1963, pp. 624–625). Again, do we hear the call for the renovation of the human heart?

For a Christian, such a struggle is all too familiar, reminding us of the famous passage in Romans 7. In an article entitled “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit,” Willard says early in this article, “The problem that confronts us here is not, we should note, one that is peculiar to Christians. It is a severe difficulty at the heart of humanity. It is the problem of not doing the good that you would sincerely say you intend to do, that you clearly wish you would do, and that you grieve over and regret not having done. It is a fundamental problem for all who see life clearly and think deeply about it.” So in conversation with an East Asian non-Christian who is cultured in Confucianism, a Christian does not have to start from the Bible. Instead, the conversation can begin with Zhu Xi’s program of spiritual formation.

Zhu Xi produced many writings that cannot be summarized in this article. I only want to draw our attention to a very succinct short treatise entitled Neo-Confucian Terms Explained (《北溪字義》), authored by Chen Chun (陳淳), one of Zhu Xi’s eminent students. It is divided into two parts, and part one consists of the following 14 terms: ming (命), nature (性), heart (心), feelings (情), capability (才), purpose (志), will (意), humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness (仁義禮智信), loyalty and faithfulness (忠信), loyalty and empathy (忠恕), one thread running through all (一貫), sincerity (誠), reverence (敬), respectfulness and reverence (恭敬). Please note that they are all terms relating to our interior life, and that is half of the book, half of the key terms in understanding Zhu Xi’s thought. The deep spirituality of Zhu Xi’s thought should not be missed.

For hundreds of years Korean lives (personal, familial, social-political) were guided by Zhu Xi’s instructions. The major spokesman of Zhu Xi was a Confucian intellectual Yi Hwang (李滉, 1501–1570), who is more commonly known by his title (號) as Toegye (退溪). One of his best-known works is the Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning (《聖學十圖》), published entirely in Chinese. In ten diagrams, with succinct explanation, he summarizes Zhu Xi’s thought on spiritual formation. It was presented to King Sŏnjo in 1568 on the eve of his retirement from public service. In the prefatory “Address to the King” Toegye explains why he chooses the diagram form to express his ideas. He hopes that each diagram is “to be made into a screen to be placed where Your Majesty spends his quiet leisure. And perhaps another copy might be made in a smaller format as a handbook which Your Majesty might always keep on his desk” (Yi, p. 33). Each diagram can serve as, in contemporary terms, a spiritual exercise.

If one takes up one diagram for consideration, he should entirely focus his attention on that diagram, as if he did not know there were any others; if one takes up one matter for practice, he should entirely focus his attention on that one matter as if ignorant that any other existed. Whether morning or night, there should be constancy; from one day to the next there should be a single continuity. At times one should go over [what one has learned] and become steeped in its savor in the restorative atmosphere of the early predawn hours when the mind is clear; at others he should deepen his personal experience of it, nurturing and cultivating it in his intercourse with others in daily life. (Yi, pp. 34–35)

Diagrams eight to 10, in particular, are practices for the formation of the heart. Below is diagram eight, “The Learning of the Heart.” Let us take a quick look.

To Become A Sage: The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning
Source: Yi Hwang, To Become A Sage: The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning, translated, edited, and with commentaries by Michael C. Kalton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 161. | Ping-cheung Lo
Ping-cheung Lo
(Source: 張立文主編,《退溪書節要》,北京:中國人民大學出版社,1989,頁50.)

At the center of the upper section is the “heart” (心) which Toegye specifies as “the master of the entire person” (一身主宰). At the center of the lower section is “reverence” (敬, rendered as “mindfulness” by the English translator) which Toegye specifies as “the master of the heart” (一心主宰). The entire lower section of the diagram is about two major types of cultivation “efforts” (工夫) of “reverence.” On the left-hand side (right-hand side in the Chinese diagram) is the summary of the negative method: human heart – > desires/lusts – > “overcome and return,” “recovering the errant heart,” “rectifying the heart.” On the right-hand side is the summary of the affirmative method: heart of the Dao – > principle of Heaven – > “preserve the Dao heart,” “nurturing the heart,” “exhaustingly realizing the heart.” This is a very accurate summary of Zhu Xi’s thought.

A Christian understands this way of thinking. There are two complementary approaches to Christian spiritual formation in Paul’s letters: put off the old self (negative) and put on the new self (affirmative). Furthermore, in this diagram the “master of the heart” is “jing” (敬, reverence, “mindfulness” in this translation). A Christian can raise the question of how this reverence arises and whether there is an object of reverence. A Christian can also propose that the Bible has a similar idea known as the “fear (敬畏) of the LORD.”

Toegye is not buried in history and long forgotten. The English translator tells us that “of all his writings [this book] has perhaps been the best known and most popular. It went through some 29 printings during the Yi dynasty, and now circulates in at least three modern Korean translations” (Yi, p. 24). Furthermore, today Toegye’s portrait is still on the 1,000 South Korean won banknote (equivalent to the American one dollar note); this shows how famous he is in South Korea. In other words, evangelism in South Korea does not have to start with “The Four Spiritual Laws”; that’s too American. Instead, one can start with the 1,000 South Korean won banknote.

Something similarly creative can also be thought about in other places influenced by Confucian culture. For example, in a previous essay I started by bringing our attention to a sensational bestseller Yu Dan’s Personal Takeaways from the Analects (《于丹〈論語〉心得》) in China in 2006. Part two of this book is entitled “The Way of the Heart” (心靈之道). A Christian should read it and use it as a bridge to talk about spiritual formation. Christians should be respectful of Chinese culture, as Dallas Willard reminds us, “If we cannot afford to be generous, we possess little.” One can contend that Zhu Xi’s ideas of spiritual formation are inadequate, but that is not the same as asserting that Confucianism has no idea of spiritual formation. 

This essay is a sequel to “Taking Chinese Spiritualities Seriously.”

WORKS CITED (most quotations are adjusted)

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Chen Chun. Neo-Confucian Terms Explained. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Ching, Julia. “Personal Cultivation.” In The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, 112–131. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore and Irene Bloom, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600. Second edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Willard, Dallas.  Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. 20th anniversary edition. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2021.

Willard, Dallas. “Idaho Springs Inquiries Concerning Spiritual Formation.” From The Great Omission. New York: HarperOne-Harper Collins Publishers, 2006. Accessed April 23, 2024, https://dwillard.org/articles/idaho-springs-inquiries-concerning-spiritual-formation.

Willard, Dallas. “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 1, no. 1 (2008): 79–87.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

Yi, Hwang. To Become a Sage: The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning. Translated, edited, and with commentaries by Michael C. Kalton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.



Originally published by ChinaSource. Republished with permission.

Dr. Ping-cheung “PC” Lo holds a PhD in Religious Ethics (Yale, 1990) and a PhD in Philosophy (SUNY at Buffalo, 1982). After completing a 31 year career of teaching and administration at Hong Kong Baptist University, he and his entire family relocated to Southern California in 2021. He taught for one year at Logos Evangelical Seminary before being recruited to be the first Academic Dean of the Chinese Studies Center at Fuller Theological Seminary (the Center was set up in 2021, replacing the China Initiative). He is concurrently appointed as the Dean and Rebecca Stephen Professor of Chinese Studies, offering one Chinese Studies course per year.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.