Ultimate Reality in Chinese Religion

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the manner in which world religions understand the divine. Today’s reflection engages the perspective of Livia Kohn on ultimate reality in Chinese religion.
Kong Fuzi (Confucius)
Kong Fuzi (Confucius)

While finding Kohn’s treatment of the complexities and uniqueness of Chinese religions insightful, I was again struck by the important role of texts in the development and practice of the religions this course has considered. This reflection seeks to note the central role that texts and textual appeals seem to play in Chinese religions, as alluded to throughout Kohn’s essay. The essay begins by noting that ultimate reality is often considered in philosophical, practical, and mythical ways (10), and that through these lenses religious claims about the resolution of the human predicament are made (11). In the Christian tradition at least, philosophical, mythical, and (though to a somewhat lesser extent) practical doctrines and exhortations are almost always recorded and appealed to within the context of a text (at least the ones that are influential in the long-run). This paradigm seems to hold true for Chinese religions as well, with Daoist texts and Confucian sages functioning as the best sources for thinking about Ultimate Reality in the Chinese context (12-13). Kohn also directs us toward considering the problem of language in conceiving of Chinese religions. Not only are there no terms that correlate to the idea of “ultimate reality” (11), but the language that can be used to point towards that idea is confronted by the paradox of Chinese thought, where “If it’s the Dao, you cannot see it; if you can see it, it’s not that Dao” (12). For practioners of Chinese religion, the experience of ridding oneself of passions, emotions, and individual consciousness and seeking to align one’s conscience with the order of the cosmos appears to serve as the path for realization the “Ultimates,” the pluriform ways in which the “unreal, invisible, and intangible” ultimate may be experienced (31).

Ultimate Realities (Neville)For those not actively seeking the “Way,” things are a bit more difficult. The differences in conceptions of the Ultimate come across perhaps most clearly in considering conceptions of conversion. While other religions conceive of a (relatively) personal Ultimate (Jesus, Allah, or even Brahman), who while transcendent nonetheless offer moments of immanence, Chinese religion locates whatever ultimate there may be in the process of transcendent transformation, where the issue is not so much one of transcendence/immanence but of transforming the self into non-self beyond this reality (22). This form of contemplating the ultimate is so foreign to the West that we ask “What is Truth?” while the Chinese ask “What is the Way?” (13). But even when asking the wrong questions and/or coming to the table unsure of how to interpret the abstract paradoxes of Chinese thought, both Westerners and the Chinese appeal to the sacred texts of the tradition, demonstrating that centering authority of the Chinese textual tradition. Broadening my question for this course, then, I wonder if ‘textuality’ or use of sacred texts is a necessary component of conceiving of the Ultimate? Even in the ‘problematic’ examples of Chinese religion and Buddhism we are considering this week, we note appeals to conceptions of the ultimate within the text. In large part, our entire course has worked with this theme (with the notable exception being Darsan). If textuality is a vital tool for conceiving of the Ultimate, then parallels and connections between religions’ use of texts may serve as a useful starting point, not only when encountering new and complex issues such those raised by Kohn in this chapter, but also when engaging the myriad of religious traditions across the world.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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