The Confucian and Bertrand Russell


The Chinese Confucian would have thought that somebody like Bertrand Russell was an absolute fool because he deliberately chopped away at the basis of what he called false superstitious beliefs and left the ordinary man with nothing to guide him. Russell had his own ideals; they were highly abstract. The Confucian would have regarded Russell as very foolish. Russell says, “Well, they’re unhelpful and often destructive superstitions. Of course, you can have the sight of the worship of God. You could have other forms of worship. For instance: this – I think I have always felt that there were two levels. One, that of science and common sense and another: terrifying, subterranean and periodic, which in some sense held more truth than the everyday view. You might call this Satanic mysticism. I’ve never been convinced of its truth but at moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me”. Well, of course, that really would be destructive, that sort of belief, but that was written by Russell. Behind all this modern critical objectivity and the study of the effects, good and bad, of religion there was this – a Satanic mysticism. It hasn’t really been noticed by his biographers but it was published in the book of letters called “Dear Bertrand Russell”. “You might call this Satanic mysticism. I’ve never been convinced of its truth but in moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me”. There is, behind the apparently objective assessment, something else. The Confucian gentleman was quite well aware that people would worship. It would just depend on what they were worshipping, and they thought that the traditional forms of worship would be the superior one.

Torei said that reincarnation is a fact. He says you can be calm. You should control your actions by realising what the consequences of them will be in future lives. Then he says, now, the six paths, that’s these paths of animals and so on, and one of them is the human path and another, there’s a path in heaven and he says that these paths are not only things apart from this life. In a single day we are arising and sinking in them now. When the heart becomes straightforward and without sin, it is human. When anger arises against those who differ in their views, that is a demon. When there is sticking attachment to what I like, it is a hungry ghost. When thinking things over if the mind is closed, that is animal. If one is fully aware but cannot stop grasping and blazing up, attacking others and destroying things, that is hell. All this is said to be leaving the path of man and creating what becomes these grease and smears over the mind. When there is a time when one is not concerned about things, when his feeling becomes pure then, though his body is in the world of men, his heart is, so to say, sporting in heaven. Even so, this is not the end. He has to transcend and go above all the six paths and become a bodhisattva and then aim to become a buddha. When he speaks of the different paths there is a comment about those who practise for themselves and those who practise for others: the so-called lesser path and the greater path, but finally, he says, we must aim at buddha-hood. There is one nature of all the buddhas where the man has realised it, the one nature shines forth and at even the shadow of such a man the demons run in all directions.

One of the points in Buddhism is humility and it is hinted at in this text and brought out more clearly in some others. It is not necessary to practise humility. You only have to look a little wider at the facts then your pride will disappear. Any little successes we have are in a tiny little sphere and if we just look outside that sphere we won’t have difficulty with thinking of ourselves as great in any way. These things are based on illusions. It is not a crime to have some illusions but it is quite a disadvantage if they’re clung to. When I look up sometimes some of these difficult characters there is a book of Chinese Buddhist terms, a dictionary of them, about this (demonstrates thickness) thick. My book is thicker. I bought that when I was in my thirties and I was thinking of going into doing some translation in Buddhism. Apparently a great scholar had just died. Before he died he’d ordered the bookseller to rip up this dictionary and then interleave it with white pages so that you got a page of the dictionary and then a blank white page and then another page of the dictionary and then another blank white page and, of course, the thickness of the book doubled. Well, when I was looking for a dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms in my early thirties the bookseller I suppose knew his customer. He said, “This book is interleaved and it means when you are looking up things you’ll be able to write in additions and amendments”. I thought, ‘Yes, corrections. Corrections!’ It was a long time ago. Well, I use it a certain amount but it became embarrassing because I’d nothing to write in. I didn’t actually know anything at all and then a great Chinese scholar gave me rather a rare Chinese text which surfaces every few centuries according to Needham, but the editor of this last one, had put in, as an appendix, a glossary of the Chinese Taoist terms which are rather unusual. Some of them are Buddhist and some of them are not. When I saw this I thought ‘Oh, yes!’ so I started copying them in my book. These blank pages were so embarrassing. When I prepare for a talk I open this book and look at one or two of these entries and it makes me realise one’s pride turns into complete ignorance. You realise – it has a certain childish charm to it – that there is no basis there of anything at all.

© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: The Spur is addressed to a samurai who has faith

Part 2: The doctrine that everything is transient

Part 3: The facing inward of the Buddhas

Part 4: Keep up the right line of the meditation

Part 5: You practise with courage and sincerity

Part 6: The Cat and the Krait

Part 7: The Confucian and Bertrand Russell

Part 8: Picture of Bodhidharma