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Wang Ji 王畿 and Okada Takehiko 岡田武彦 on Classifying Wang Yangming's Disciples - An Overview



Professor Okada Takehiko in 1981


“The most influential school of philosophy in the Ming dynasty,” the modern New Confucian Carsun Chang (Zhang Junmai 張君勱, 1887-1969) wrote, “undoubtedly was that of Wang Shouren [Yangming]. He had followers in all the provinces and his influence was felt everywhere.”[1] The outlines of this movement were perhaps little understood in the West, until the 1980s, when sections of the late-Ming/early Qing dynasty scholar Huang Zongxi’s Ming ru xue an 明儒學案 (Case studies of Ming Confucians) were translated into in English. This project took more than a decade, with professor of religions Julia Ching serving as the chief editor. Ching explained that the Record is concerned with seekers whose “philosophies never lost sight of wisdom and, particularly, of a wisdom inseparable from a life of virtue.”[2] For them, life served as the “ultimate testing ground for the genuineness of his philosophy.”[3] That is why biography is so important for Confucian scholars. It reveals how their lives were the context and reason not only for the development of their moral philosophies but also for their commitment to improving the social order. In fact, many of the men studied by Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 lived in trying circumstances calling for heroism and self-sacrifice, their lives serving in some sense as an indictment of the times. Consequently, Ching believes that the Record complements Huang Zongxi’s Plan for a Prince (Ming yi dai fang lu 明夷待訪錄), “an outspoken critique of political despotism.”[4]


The translation is an abridged version of Huang’s work, which contains two hundred biographies of Ming Confucians as well as selected letters and records of discourses (yu lu 語錄). For disciples of Wang Yangming, Huang chose to organize them geographically, primarily by provinces but also by larger regions or master-disciple affiliation. Ching sought to include those recognized as the most creative thinkers in their time as well as to represent each school or branch of a school with at least one individual (extending across the length of the Ming dynasty). Twenty-three biographies belong to Wang Yangming and disciples of various branches of his school, fairly representing not only the ratio of members of the Wang school to those belonging to others but also the fact that his school dominated Confucian discourse during the sixteenth century. That list includes Wang Yangming; Xu Ai 徐愛, Qian Dehong 錢德洪, and Wang Ji 王畿 (the Zhezhong school 浙中王門=Zhejiang Province); Zou Shouyi 鄒守益, Ouyang De 歐陽德, Nie Bao 聶豹, Luo Hongxian 羅洪先, and Hu Zhi 胡直 (the Jiangyou school 江右王門=Jiangxi Province); Tang Shunzhi 唐順之 (the Nanzhong school 南中王門=Southern Metropolitan Region); Jiang Xin蔣信 (the Chuzhong school 楚中王門=Huguang Province); Mu Konghui 穆孔暉 (the Northern school 北方王門); Xue Kan 薛侃 (the school of Yue and Min 閩粵王門=Fujian and Guangdong Province); and Wang Gen 王艮, Wang Bi 王襞, Han Zhen 韓真, Xu Yue 徐樾, Luo Rufang 羅汝芳, Geng Dingxiang 耿定向, Geng Dingli 耿定力, Jiao Hong 焦竑, and Zhou Rudeng 周汝登 (the Taizhou school 泰州王門=Taizhou Prefecture, Jiangsu Province).


The Records of Ming Scholars is remarkably important because prior to its publication in 1987 few English-langauge works covered Wang Yangming’s School of Mind in any detail. One exception was Zhang Junmai’s The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought (published in 1962). He pointed out that, “Since each developed the master’s teaching in his own way, the physiognomy of the school took various forms, some of them fanciful to the extreme, thus causing decline and eventual collapse.”[5] For an outline, Zhang followed Huang’s geographical divisions, choosing men illustrative of “how Wang’s doctrines were developed and interpreted” from the following places: Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Anhui, Hubei and Hunan, north China, Guangdong and Fujian, and Taizhou. “All of these groups followed the banner of liangzhi,” he notes, “but each interpreted it in its own way.”[6]Liangzhi (commonly translated as “the innate knowledge of the good” or “pure knowing” or “the intuitive knowledge of the good”) is, of course, Wang Yangming’s principle tenet.


Zhang’s largely anecdotal and indiscriminate coverage of adherents quickly reveals that each group cannot be defined by a consistent philosophical position. The different direction taken by Wang Ji and Qian Dehong (two of Wang’s closest disciples), for instance, “only goes to show how deep was the split, even among colleagues of the same school of Zhejiang.”[7] Thus, Zhang writes, “It should now be clear that there are infinite possibilities in the interpretation of Wang Shouren’s leading idea of liangzhi. The reader will also begin to understand why the master’s teaching after his death became unrecognizably distorted by internal divergencies.”[8] As for the origin of divergence, Zhang found Huang Zongxi’s explanation useful:


The theory of the realization of liangzhi was formulated in his [Wang Yangming’s] last years. There was not time for him to make a profound study of this doctrine with his pupils. Thus, each pupil later interpreted it in his own way and in the light of his own subjective views. The students discussed it in as speculative a manner as one might at a gaming table. The result was that these discussions had little to do with Wang Shouren’s original ideas or with his original intentions.[9]


In other words, the analytical focus for establishing the distinctions between or explaining disputes among Wang Yangming’s disciples should be how each interprets liangzhi, and the reason for their variegated interpretations are to be found both in how Wang presented his central tenet and his followers’ individual idiosyncrasies.


As for classifying followers according to those “subjective views,” Wang Ji (1498-1583), one of Wang Yangming’s most important disciples, proffered a scheme at a gathering in Fuzhou, Jiangxi, in 1562. Zhang Junmai translated his statement as follows:


The idea of liangzhi was followed by every one of us. Who dared depart from it? However, we have unavoidably allowed our personal opinions to play on it. Some of us say “Liangzhi should remain in a state of utter calmness, neither shining with its light nor displaying it. Like a mirror, it is itself brightness which remains quiet, and when things are brought in front of it, it simply reflects their beauty and ugliness. If a mirror were busy emitting light, it would become clouded.” There are others among us who say: “There is no ready-made liangzhi, but only a liangzhi which needs cultivation, as gold ore in the mine needs melting, purifying, and beating before the gold can show its lustre.” Still others say: “Liangzhi starts only with operation. It cannot be found prior to activity. It has nothing to do with a so-called stage of pre-activity.” Some of us even say: “Liangzhi is in its essence desireless. If it does its work according to its nature it will agree with dao, and will not have to eliminate desire.” Another group says: “The knowledge of dao is divided into two parts. There is (1) the part of essence, which is to perfect one’s nature; there is (2) the part of operation, which is to put it into practice. Thus liangzhi has its essence and operation.” Finally, there are those among us who say: “The steps of learning must follow a natural order. The way to seek it is to begin with the root and to end with the branch. Once knowledge is acquired there will be no difference between internal and external. But realization of knowledge has a beginning and an end.” Such are the difference shades of meaning under which liangzhi has been understood, thereby providing a basis for classification.[10]


With these seven categories, Wang Ji had provided the first significant classification scheme for differentiating the essential differences obtaining among his master’s students, even if he did not clearly name names.


At a 1972 Wang Yangming conference held in Hawaii, Japanese philosopher Okada Takehiko (1908-2004) presented another scheme for classifying Wang Yangming’s followers, one derivative of Wang Ji’s, narrowing the camps down to three. “The Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming Schools at the end of the Ming and Tokugawa Periods” provided a brief synopsis of snippets of his Ō Yōmei to minmatsu no jugaku (Wang Yangming and late Ming Confucian learning), which was published in 1970 as a revision of his doctoral dissertation. In his book, Okada likewise provides a scheme for categorizing Wang Yangming’s followers, one derivative of Wang Ji’s six categories, but simplified it considerably. First, here are Wang Ji’s six categories, each given a title by Okada.


Wang Ji’s Six Categories:


1. Okada’s Title for Wang Ji’s Category: 歸寂 gui ji (returning to silence)


Wang Ji: 良知非覺照須本于歸寂而始得如鏡之照物明體寂然而妍媸自辨滯于照則明反眩矣


Zhang Junmai’s Translation: Liangzhi should remain in a state of utter calmness, neither shining with its light nor displaying it. Like a mirror, it is itself brightness which remains quiet, and when things are brought in front of it, it simply reflects their beauty and ugliness. If a mirror were busy emitting light, it would become clouded.


Another Translation: Liangzhi is not reflecting awareness. It must be grounded in returning to silence and only then will it first be acquired. Like a mirror reflecting things, when the clear essence is silent beauty and ugliness are intrinsically discriminated. If mired in reflection then the clarity becomes blurred.


2. Okada: 修證 xiu zheng (cultivate and witness)


Wang Ji: 良知無見成由於修証而始全如金之在礦非火符鍛煉則金不可得而成也


Zhang: There is no ready-made liangzhi, but only a liangzhi which needs cultivation, as gold ore in the mine needs melting, purifying, and beating before the gold can show its lustre.


Another: Liangzhi is not present in perfection now. It is only perfected after cultivation and witnessing. Like gold ore in a mine, without smelting and tempering it you cannot obtain it in pure form.


3. Okada: 已發 yi fa (after arising)


Wang Ji: 良知是從已發立教非未發無知之本旨


Zhang: Liangzhi starts only with operation. It cannot be found prior to activity. It has nothing to do with a so-called stage of pre-activity.


Another: The teaching of liangzhi is established from the perspective of what has arisen. It is not the fundamental aim of the unknowing prior to arising.


4. Okada: 現成 (present in perfection now; also, 直心 zhi xin=true mind)[11]


Wang Ji: 良知本來無欲直心以動無不是道不待復加銷欲之功


Zhang: Liangzhi is in its essence desireless. If it does its work according to its nature it will agree with dao, and will not have to eliminate desire.


Another: Liangzhi is originally without desire. If the impulse arises from true mind then nothing will not be in accord with the Way. It is not necessary to apply further effort to eliminate desire.


5. Okada: 體用 ti yong (essence-function or substance function; also 主宰 zhuzai)


Wang Ji: 學有主宰有流行主宰所以立性流行所以立命而以良知分體用


Zhang: The knowledge of dao is divided into two parts. There is (1) the part of essence, which is to perfect one’s nature; there is (2) the part of operation, which is to put it into practice. Thus liangzhi has its essence and operation.


Another: In learning there is a sovereign power and the flow of mental events. The sovereign power is that by which nature is established. The flow of mental events is that by which destiny is established. Thus, liangzhi is divided into essence and function.


6. 終始 zhong shi (end-beginning; also, 順序 shunxu)


Wang Ji: 學貴循序求之有本末得之無内外而以致知別始終


Zhang: The steps of learning must follow a natural order. The way to seek it is to begin with the root and to end with the branch. Once knowledge is acquired there will be no difference between internal and external. But realization of knowledge has a beginning and an end.


Another: In learning an orderly sequence is to be treasured. In seeking it there is a course running from beginning to end. Once acquired, there will be no [distinction] between inner and outer, but beginning and end are distinguished by the realization of knowledge.


Okada Takehiko believed these camps could be narrowed to three: the quietest or tranquility camp (歸寂 gui ji=Return to Silence); the cultivation camp (修證=Cultivate and Witness); and the existentialist or realization camp (現成 xiancheng=Present in Perfection Now).[12] As for which followers belonged to which camps, Okada’s scholarship spells this out in detail. For example, Nie Bao and Luo Hongxian belong to the first, Zou Shouyi and Ouyang De belong to the second, and Wang Ji and Wang Gen the third.


Regarding outstanding features of each, Okada’s “General Introduction (zonglun 總論)” states:


What the Present in Perfection Now camp advocates is to regard what Wang Yangming speaks of as liangzhi as the liangzhi that is present-in-perfection right now. They stress “forthwith present in perfection,” looking upon spiritual practice as an obstacle to the [mind’s] primordial essence [xin zhi benti 心之本體: the condition/state of mind’s ultimate/inherent reality] and discarding it. Furthermore, they identify the natural flow of my mental events directly with the primordial essence, nature, and destiny. Consequently, Yangming’s tenet that “everyone’s mind contains a sage” was prevalent among this Confucian camp. They believe that since liangzhi is perfectly present right now, should one fail to acquire insight into the identity of being and nonbeing then one will be incapable of acquiring insight into the true reality of liangzhi. Thus, they espouse the sudden enlightenment of “directly embracing it,” “immediate faith,” and “when one is solved all is perfect,” rejecting gradual cultivation. In comparison to seeking the primordial essence through [contemplative moral] practice, this is to directly apply effort to the primordial essence. Hence, this developed into the “primordial essence is [contemplative moral] practice. . . .”


The Return to Silence liangzhi camp believes that within what Yangming speaks of as liangzhi there is a distinction to be drawn between “the void and silent essence [xu ji zhi ti 虛寂之體]” and “the functioning of bestirred arising [gan fa zhi yong 感發之用].” This is very much like Yangming professing that “realizing the innate knowledge of the good [zhi liangzhi 致良知]” is a matter of cultivating the root and trunk so that the vitality reaches to the branches and leaves. Hence, this camp believes the fundamental aim of Yangming’s [tenet of] “realizing the innate knowledge of the good” is for one to establish the essence by returning to silence and realize the essence in functioning, that is, establish the essence to realize functioning. Only by so doing will one be able to comport with the general tenor of what Master Cheng means when he states that “essence and function derive from one source, the manifest and subtle are without division.” Thus, this camp regards the tenet of Yangming’s middle years—“emphasize stillness”—as the main objective of “realizing the innate knowledge of the good.” Although in its origin the Return to Silence camp’s philosophy was unavoidably partial to silence, thereafter it changed to personally realizing the void and silent genuine reality of the single essence of motion and stillness. However, because it regarded returning to silence as the main objective, this camp necessarily became distant from Yangming’s philosophy of mind, which is one rich with vitality and movement. . . .


The Cultivate and Witness liangzhi camp emphasizes that one should be capable of truly grasping the original meaning of liangzhi as Yangming spoke of it, as moral principle and also tianli 天理 [Heaven’s pattern, principle, or reason]. Also, one should be capable of truly understanding the essential spirit of what he means by saying that “the primordial condition is [contemplative moral] practice, and the [contemplative moral] practice is the primordial condition.” One absolutely must not misunderstand the fundamental objective of Yangming’s theory of “zhi liangzhi [realizing the intuitive knowing].” Scholars belonging to this camp made an effort to rectify two kinds of errors [among his followers]: the Present in Perfection Now camp’s straying and the bias towards tranquility among the Return to Silence camp. To do so, they point to the importance of tianli and nature and advocate seeking the primordial condition by exerting [moral contemplative] effort, which is in fact equivalent to the tenet that “practice is the primordial essence.” Consequently, without expecting that it would be so, this approach leaned closely in the direction of Song learning. As with the theory of the Return to Silence camp, it was difficult for this approach to fit with the direction of the development of Wang learning as well as contemporary intellectual trends. Thus, in the intellectual world of the late Ming, only the thought of the Present in Perfection Now camp appeared to really thrive, something that perhaps makes sense.[13]


Okada’s three categories and corresponding descriptions of their general features as well as of the philosophies of those placed in each have exercised a considerable influence on the East Asian scholarship regarding this sixteenth-century movement. Over the next few decades and into the early 2000s—partly as a consequence of China’s reform and opening, after which mainland Song-Ming lixue scholarship boomed—Okada’s work inspired other schemes. More generally, scholars residing in both the PRC and the ROC adopted different angles for understanding the movement, producing lengthy tomes that cast a conceptual net over it. Some scholars, however, hold the conviction that each follower was unique, rejecting the use of classification schemes. Regardless, Wang Ji and Okada Takehiko’s give some sense as to the nature of the Wang Yangming movement's terrain, most especially how strikingly profound the ideas and language are.


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[1] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 74. [2] Ching, Records of Ming Scholars, xiii. [3] Ching, Records of Ming Scholars, xiii. [4] Ching, Records of Ming Scholars, xiv. [5] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 74. [6] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 98. [7] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 103. [8] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 101. [9] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 99. [10] Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 2, 99–100. [11] Wang Ji does not use the term xiancheng in this passage, so Okada is attributing this position to the statement, which in fact describes common characteristics of followers holding this position. Qian Ming draws zhi xin from the passage. As for ti yong and zhong shi, these were simply the last two characters in the passage, which is why Qian Ming likewise chose a different word from it to represent it more adequately. See Qian Ming Yangmingxue, 110–111. [12] Okada Takehiko, “Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming,” 139. Here, I am using names given to the schools by Robert Wargo, the translator of this article. He uses the term “school,” but while this term holds for the followers of Wang Yangming as a whole, since the differences among them were not strictly defined and maintained by groups, it is better to think of these divisions as camps where a few individual followers shared some theoretical common grounds. [13] Okada Takehiko, Wang Yangming yu Ming mo, 99.

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