Confucius and the Mandate of Heaven: Respecting Divine Beings and Spirits

Statue of Confucius outdoors among trees.

In ancient times, members of the Confucian school respected divine beings and spirits, and tried to understand and fulfill the mandate of Heaven. (Image: Russell Savage via Dreamstime)

In both Chinese and Western cultures, there is a belief in the Mandate of Heaven and the existence of divine beings and spirits. The West celebrates Christmas as the day a divine being was born into this world, while the Chinese acknowledge the Divine by careful consideration of auspicious days when choosing when to hold major events. Likewise, when it comes to spirits, in the West, there is Halloween, and in Chinese folklore, there is the Ghost Festival.

This belief in divine beings and spirits serves as a basis for people to recognize a longer continuity to their lives in the universe that extends beyond the time spent living in the human world. It is why people can accept the idea that their good and evil deeds will be rewarded or punished appropriately, and is the foundation for all traditional morality.

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Interestingly however, some people try to use the words Confucius spoke as evidence that he did not believe in divine beings or spirits, or that at least his attitude toward them was rather reserved, since he admonished people to: “respect divine beings and spirits, but keep away from them.”

However, Confucius believed in the Mandate of Heaven and said: “When I reached fifty years of age, I knew what the Mandate of Heaven was for me.” Since he believed in the Mandate Heaven, he was clearly not an atheist. If Confucius believed in the mandate of Heaven, then why did he speak in this way? What could be the explanation for these words of his about divine beings and spirits? Let us first look at two other things recorded in the Analects, a collection of what Confucius taught in his lifetime, as written by his students.

Confucius’ conception of spirits and Heaven

Confucius had an outstanding physique, being over 6.2 feet tall, and looked somewhat like Yang Huo, a well-known bandit who lived at the same time. One day, while traveling with his disciples, the people living in Kuang mistakenly took him to be Yang Huo, so he and his disciples were surrounded by the locals for five days.

At that time, all the disciples of Confucius were very nervous, but Confucius was extremely calm. He said: “After the death of Emperor Wen, the culture of the world has been corrupted beyond repair and Heaven has sent me to carry on and develop this culture. If Heaven wants the Chinese culture to continue, there will be no danger and the people of Kuang will not do anything to us.” Later Confucius and his disciples did get away unharmed. The story of the siege of Kuang shows Confucius’ firm and unshakeable faith in Heaven. It is evident that Confucius believed in the Divine.

Confucius knew that he would not be in danger as long as his actions aligned with the Will of Heaven.
Confucius knew that he would not be in danger as long as his actions aligned with the Will of Heaven. (Image: Rene Drouyer via Dreamstime)

Another incident has it that one day Confucius was seriously ill. His student, Zi Lu, prayed to Heaven for his recovery. When Confucius found out, he asked him: “What is the use of your praying? If it were really the case that a man could change the Will of Heaven just by asking, don’t you think I would have prayed for my own recovery long ago?”

The passage about Confucius’ illness is in fact a concrete interpretation of the Confucian way of respecting divine beings and spirits while keeping them at a distance. Respecting signifies believing. No one would respect something that they do not even believe in.

What does it mean to “keep them at a distance”? What Confucius did when he was sick was to “keep them at a distance”. If one believes in Heaven, then everything that happens in life can be understood as being the Mandate of Heaven. How can a person who believes in the Divine ask for his or her fate to be changed? One should show devotion through their actions — not just offer up words when they want something — and overcome the difficulties in life in order to fulfill their part in Heaven’s design with a happy mind.

When Confucius said: “When I reached fifty years of age I knew what the Mandate of Heaven was for me,” he did not mean that it was impossible for younger people to see their destiny with regard to worldly things such as money, family, career, and glory. Here, he is talking about a God-given mission. For Confucius as a seeker of the Right Way, after continuous cultivation and refinement of his behavior and character, he finally realized at the age of fifty the mission given to him by Heaven in this life.

Of course, as a man who had been entrusted with the task of passing on culture, he should believe in Heaven himself, and not burn incense, kowtow every day, or pray to ask God to bless him with a prominent position in society, wealth, health, and many children, but he should strive to be a better person according to the guidance of the Divine. This is the conception of divine beings and spirits that Confucius left to future generations.

A statue of St. Mary superimposed on a photo of gold coins.
A person trying to fulfill their God-given mission will not pray to ask God for worldly blessings, but will strive to improve their character according to the guidance of the Divine. (Image: Steveheap via Dreamstime)

There is an interesting statement by Albert Einstein. He said: “The more I study science, the more I believe in God.” As a man of science, he knew that science can only prove the existence of something, but not the non-existence of something. Therefore, if we cannot prove something exists now, we should not conclude that it does not exist. The fact that science today has yet to prove the existence of God is because science has not yet developed to that extent, not because God does not exist.

Confucius’ conception of the Mandate of Heaven

Confucius said: “The noble man has three fears: fear of the Mandate of Heaven, fear of the great man, fear of the words of the sages. The small man does not know the Mandate of Heaven, so he does not fear it; he flatters the great man, and scorns the words of the sages.” In ancient times, the true members of the Confucian school respected Heaven and believed in divine beings; only the small man was arrogant and did not know the Mandate of Heaven.

Confucius stated: “If I heard the Truth in the morning and died in the evening, I would have no regrets.” With his heart set on the Right Way, he worked hard to improve his moral character and finally reached the state of understanding the Mandate of Heaven.

Just going along and accepting the things that happen to you as being fated is passive, but attempting to carry out the Mandate of Heaven requires action. Fulfilling the Mandate of Heaven is a process of shouldering responsibility and living up to one’s innate commitment.

Translated by Audrey Wang

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