Unlike the Western religious practices that favored the mortification of the flesh, the East Asian spiritual thought has always advocated balance and harmony. Confucianism and Eastern spirituality believed that if people cultivate justice, harmony, and virtue in themselves, it will be reflected in all areas of their lives. In a similar manner, if a ruler exhibits virtues, his subjects will emulate him and will draw inspiration from his noble example. Although all world religions value harmony, as well as virtue and justice, Confucianism and Eastern philosophy seems to place it on the basis of every sphere of human life.
It is difficult to single out the most important characteristic of East Asian thought because justice, harmony, and virtue are crucial. However, harmony seems to be closely associated with the other two more than the others. Due to the peculiar characteristics of Asian religious thought, the Asians do not make a clear distinction between spiritual and universal human values. Therefore, “the Way of Heaven and the Way of Humans are always related in one form or another” (Yao, 2000, p. 169). Harmony implies that the relations between people and Heaven should be interconnected and balanced. An individual cannot succeed only in one and claims that he or she reached a harmonious state: “the Way of Heaven and the way of humans are fulfilled in each other and the realization of each of these ways supports the other” (Yao, 2000, p. 170).
For Asian people, something harmonious does not mean it is even or uniform. To harmonize means an optimization of differences, rather than uniformity or conformity. According to the East Asian philosophical thought, the condition of harmony implies equilibrium and balance (Magagna, 2015). It means that over time something, or someone, remains stable and all differences are balanced. In terms of social groups, it means that different opinions and interests are taken into account. In family, it may refer to assuming different social roles by one person. In a personal dimension, it means that different characteristic and traits are developed.
While Western spirituality tends to profess the supremacy of mind over body and spirit over mind, the East Asian thought strived to harmonize mind and emotions, desires and possibilities, the self and other interests. The ancients believed there should be no imbalances in human life. It does not mean that all Asians are perfect but the rationale behind their philosophy is harmonious and balanced. Another aspect of the concept of balance and harmony is that everything should stay in the middle. It does not mean mediocrity or average. On the contrary, the middle way signifies an appropriate blending (Magagna, 2015). A good metaphor for the Confucian understanding of harmony is a flute because the ancients believed music is the ultimate manifestation of harmony (Yao, 2000, p. 146). Additionally, “music is believed to reflect harmony as well as create harmony through touching the human heart and adjusting our conduct” (Yao, 2000, p. 146).
Furthermore, harmony should not be confused with identity. Confucians believe that a harmonious person is “producing something new” (Yao, 2000, p. 171). The comparison of harmony to music signifies that different elements should be taken in different quantities and, as a result of balanced proportions, something new will occur. For example, if a person learns how to balance his/her emotions and desires, deeds and thoughts, a harmonious personality will emerge.
Harmony can be manifested in various ways. The most important ones are virtue and justice. The concept of harmony is the essence of virtue. Unlike the Western religions that esteem high self-sacrifice, the Eastern thought propagates “not self-sacrifice but a social obligation” (Magagna, 2015). If there is a virtue of family responsibility, it should be counterbalanced by the virtue of responsibility to self. A virtue balances self-interest and others’ interests. In a similar way, the past, the present, and the future should be harmonized and valued equally. Without virtue, human life cannot be harmonious. The ultimate manifestation of a harmonious and balanced person is wisdom (Magagna, 2015).
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Given that Asians are communal nations and do not value individualism as high as in the West, it can be said that justice for them is to perform mutual obligations. The principle of reciprocity is valid in the interpersonal relationship: parent-child, men-women, ruler-ruled, boss-employee. The concept of “tit for tat” is similar to the Biblical “an eye for an eye.” Moreover, justice can be registered by correct human feelings. Honor and shame can indicate whether the principle of justice is violated or not (Magagna, 2015).
Harmony is represented through the concept of Yang and Yin, which is the synthesis of two, unlike forces or phenomena. Even being depicted in black and white, Yang and Yin are not oppositions; they symbolize harmony and balance. In contrast to the popular, mostly Western, understanding that Yang and Yin symbolize the opposition between male and female, the Eastern application of it is wider and deeper. Harmony should be present in all spheres of human life, such as physical and spiritual health, social life, personality, and political life. The ancients believed if a person eats the wrong types of food or thinks dark thoughts, he or she cannot be harmonious and the balance of Yang and Yin would be disrupted. In such a situation, different practices could help such as acupuncture to correct the flow of energies. Additionally, diets should correct the imbalance in the body, as well as furniture, should be displaced according to feng shui.
As for personal development, harmony can be reached through self-cultivation. Self-cultivation refers to the entire human person and includes the balance of heart and mind and harmonious development of the body. An individual should not only fill oneself with knowledge but make an effort to practice what he/she knows. Therefore, the balance between what is known and what is practiced is important. Further, rational and emotional responses should be symmetrical, as well as psychological and physical. Thus, physical fitness can be practiced through fung fu, physical health can be assured through correct eating and harmonious living, while psychological well-being should be achieved through self-realization. The mind is strengthened and developed through spiritual teachings, spiritual practices and rituals, and Confucianism and Taoism.
Furthermore, the virtue of harmony is directly connected to politics and social life. Without harmony, neither individuals nor states will live peacefully. According to Confucius, unharmonious people should be held responsible for chaos and disorder (Yao, 2000, p. 172). Similar to the two types of music (peaceful and aggressive), there are two types of people. Confucius believed that peaceful music calms people down and teaches them harmony and balance, while violent and aggressive music excites people and they bring chaos into their lives (Yao, 2000, p. 172). In a similar vein, people who do not cultivate the virtue of harmony cannot produce harmonious relations and live in harmonious environments. Thus, in order to be harmonious, people should be active, have a desire to change something around them and inside them, self-realize and self-cultivate, and find out more about the world. Due to the fact that very many things depend on harmony, Confucius called it the “Central Harmony” implying that it is “closely related to nature, politics, ethics, and daily life” (Yao, 2000, p. 172).
In social life, harmony is manifested in the requirement for hierarchy. Hierarchy is necessary not to make one person dominate over the rest. On the contrary, the ruler’s ability to persuade and show an example is a prerequisite for a leading position. A harmonious leader demonstrates his virtue through a balance of interests and times. If he is able to convey harmony to society, it means that he is virtuous and harmonious himself. Additionally, the interests of the ruler and his subjects should be balanced, which leads to harmony. Furthermore, the concept of a harmonious society requires institutions and policies to be developed in accordance with nature, as a minimum requirement, and in balance with cosmic power, as a requirement for the sacred (Magagna, 2015).
Thus, politics is a problem of synthesis too, rather than dualism or opposition (Magagna, 2015). Western understanding of Eastern wisdom often concentrates on harmony and it gives a one-dimensional view of the philosophy. However, a virtue of harmony does not imply that people or states can be free of conflicts or confrontations. Conversely, oppositions and conflicts are inherent to human life because both, the good and the evil, are present. Therefore, harmony is not “a static identity, in which everything holds to its status quo and nothing is to be changed” (Yao, 2000, p. 178). Harmony appears as a result of conflicts and disputes successfully solved and refuted. A creation of conflicts and then subsequent reconciliation is an eternal circle of human life. A harmonious individual is able to participate in the life of society without withdrawing from conflicts. Instead, one should learn how to be good at solving problems.
Confucianists believe in the ontological interdependence when all participants of reality are interconnected and dependent on each other. As was mentioned earlier, there are different types of interaction: between parents and children, human roles, heart and mind, the creative and receptive energies Yang and Yin, etc. (Magagna, 2015). In terms of societal structures, the interdependence and a resulting harmony can be seen at three levels. The first level is social: an individual should strive to live in harmony with other people and society on the whole. The second level is familial: family members have mutual responsibilities and without performing their duties no harmony can be achieved. The third level is the macro-level of the state and its establishment: a harmonious government is able to establish harmony and conflict-free society (Yao, 2000, p. 179).
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It is not accidental that Asian mentality places harmony at the basis of all the other virtues, while virtue and justice are the consequences of it. During the governance of Mao, the leaders of the country decided that harmony is a wrong way of being and opposition should be exercised more. They thought that evil should be confronted and people should be inactive struggle. Only in a struggle people could realize themselves and find fulfillment and happiness. However, such type of thinking led to the disastrous Cultural Revolution and eventually the Chinese leaders realized that Confucius was right and people should better strive for harmony, rather than struggle (Yao, 2000, p. 189).
Through the given examples it is evident that justice, harmony, and virtue take a central part in the East Asian spiritual and philosophical thoughts. It is important to exercise harmony and other virtues at all levels, from personal to macro. A harmonious ruler inspires people to be harmonious; in turn, a nation of harmonious people will bring their country to flourishing and glory. As soon as people find balance, they will be able to grow in their virtues and harmony.