Wang Yang-ming

Catch yourself thinking.
–Allen Ginsberg

The influential neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-ming was influenced by Ch’an Buddhism throughout his life. And not just intellectually: He spent regularly time at Buddhist monasteries. So, it isn’t surprising to notice Buddhist echoes in his writings. For example, the second vow of the bodhisattvas: Delusions are countless; I vow to cut through them all.

That’s a tall order! In his Instructions for Practical Living, Wang emphasizes the need to be relentless in eliminating the delusion of self-centeredness: “This effort must be carried out continuously. Like eradicating robbers and thieves, one must resolve to wipe them out completely. In idle moments one must search out and discover each and every selfish thought for sex, wealth, fame and the rest. One must resolve to pluck out and cast away the roots of the sickness, so that it can never arise again. Only then may one begin to feel at ease. One must, at all times, be like a cat catching mice—with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [selfish] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out. Act as if you were cutting a nail in two or slicing through iron. Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape.”

Wang incurred the criticism of other Confucians, since he relativized the privileged place of the classic texts, rituals, and sages in a student’s formation. Instead, he stressed the human endowment of liang zhi (innate knowing of the good [Buddha nature?]), which allows one to decide right from wrong. Thus: “Each and every human mind has Kongzi within. However, afflicted by what they see and hear, they become confused and deluded. Now I point to your true original face, it is none other than liang zhi. Have no more doubts!” The challenge is to exercise innate knowing hundreds of times a day in reducing selfishness. What use is it to read Kongzi (Confucius) and Mengzi, and then badmouth others? What’s the point of adhering to rituals, and then be an impulsive consumer?

Wang urges, “We must polish and train in the actual affairs of daily life.” We must practice mindfulness in the context of our real concerns, issues, conflicts, neuroses, and preoccupations.


— Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation
— Wang Yang-ming, Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings, Wing-tsit Chan, trans.

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