By Julia Ching
New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.
Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming. Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned. Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice. He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.
It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment. He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”
Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China. This, in itself, makes it a good read. But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty. This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest. Far from it. Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.
It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing. For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense. As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.” On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”
And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal. Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us. You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:
the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition. It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…
Sounds great, but how do we get there? Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences. “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born. To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.” If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me. I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”
But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered. Far from it. One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other. In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”
As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:
Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions… Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.
So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.
By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us. This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world. For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.” In his own words:
Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached [through] my humanity (jen). Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.
At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature. Ultimately, we’re all one and the same. As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power; Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao. Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven: I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things. People talk endlessly about rites and music; But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?
And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?
 Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.