Towards Great Understanding—The Wisdom of China

Those familiar with the religious history of China will know the expression ‘the three religions’ or ‘the three teachings’. It refers to Buddhism, Taoism and the Way taught by Confucius. Going back to ancient or medieval times, we can say that those with education in China would study all three.

The three teachings were competitive, each vying for pre-eminence; but the rivalry was good-natured, not belligerent. The Taoists were satirized for their alleged interest in occult powers and longevity, the Confucians for their seeming focus on externals, while Buddhism, unless inspired by illumined masters, was at risk of degenerating into worldliness and superstition or else was regarded as being chiefly monastic and with little relevance to people who worked in the world. But none of these frictions inflamed the emotions or led to ‘wars of religion’. On the contrary, each of the three ways was steeped in wisdom, and discerning minds knew how to savour the riches of each tradition.

What is common to these three great traditional streams is the teaching that our greatest potentiality as human beings is not dependent on what we achieve in the outer life. The real field of achievement is in the realm of our own mind. As we know, the path laid down by the Buddha, sometimes called the middle way, sometimes the noble eightfold path, is aimed at transforming the mind—of liberating it from the grip of desires, passions and egoism, so that in inner serenity, the freedom of nirvana may dawn on our understanding.

Confucius, too, has not only an outer teaching concerned with right conduct. His deeper aim is the purification of the mind and the expansion of our consciousness. He teaches that our mind needs to be led to the condition of complete sincerity. The will is to be used on the inner plane to foster good thoughts and good feelings and detect in ourselves any tendencies towards harming others and to quickly negate such promptings. In his book, The Doctrine of the Mean, 20:18, he writes: ‘Sincerity is the way of heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right and apprehends, without the exercise of thought. He is the sage and he naturally and easily embodies the right way.’

The third stream of wisdom, Taoism, is that transmitted to us through the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Again there is the advice to seek peace, tranquillity, wisdom and expansion of consciousness in the depth of one’s own peaceful mind. ‘In quality of mind it is depth that matters.’ ‘Always I hold fast to stillness; I cling firmly to emptiness.’ (Tao te Ching) In his book, Echoes of Japan, Hari Prasad Shastri includes an article on Taoist enlightenment, called Pan Jo. In it he quotes the saying about the stilling and enlightening of our mind: ‘Emptiness does not fail to illumine, and illumination does not fail to empty.’ He continues:

Pan Jo is emptiness and yet complete illumination. In spite of the myriad happenings, the sage is ever in the realm of immutability. He is inactive in his own experience and is active in opening the windows of the minds of others to infinite Light. The world is not a handicap to the sage. He possesses the world and so has no use for the world of men.

One of the great followers of Confucius, who lived about two centuries later about 300 BCE was Mencius. Again the focus of the teaching is on our state of mind. One of his sayings is: ‘I spend a lifetime in careful thought but not a minute in worry.’ This means he has trained his mind how to cope with life’s continual challenges and hardships without impairing the inner peace and poise of understanding. The way is not to ignore problems but to give them careful conscious attention as needed, and not to allow our mind to be overwhelmed by the mental activity known as worry, which is repetitive, fearful and fatiguing. He also said: ‘He who gets to the bottom of his own mind comes to know his true nature. Knowing his true nature he also knows the heavenly principle, God.’

This indicates the view of human nature which is more or less common to the three great religions of China, that is, our ultimate nature is not a collection of transient qualities—complexes, fears, hopes, desires and frustrations. Our ultimate nature is unlimited, unchanging and transcendent.

In early Buddhism this principle is given no name; later on in the Chan Buddhism of China, the precursor of the Zen Buddhism of Japan, expressions like true self, original face and Buddha-nature, came to be used interchangeably. A Chan text goes: ‘Your own self has nowhere to hide. When the worlds are destroyed, it is not destroyed.’

In the Taoism of Chuang Tzu, inner progress depends on sifting or separating out from this true Self—this ultimate principle of being in us—of negating, so to say, all experience and identifications with what is not our true self. One story tells of an elderly woman teacher who trains a seeker of Truth to progressively ‘put outside’ the forms and rituals of religion, the things of the world, and finally life itself. Thus he attained ‘the brightness of dawn’ and realised That which transcends all limitations and is one alone.

The same teaching is at the heart of the Upanishads. What remains after all negation is our true ‘I’, which in the Chinese teachings is called the heavenly principle within us. What then is this heavenly principle? It is something independent of body, mind and thought. It is the one great reality underlying the whole of nature, the substratum of all lives, of all realms, of all beings. Taoism calls it Tao, Confucianism may also call it Tao or heaven or the principle of nature. This principle is one of divine life energy, consciousness, being. It runs through the whole creation and is present and discoverable as the reality at the core of our own being.

The true use of the mind—and its ultimate purpose—is to realise that its essence is the deeper reality. At this level, it can hardly retain the name ‘mind’ for it is one with the All and one in all.
The Chinese wisdom is replete with sayings denoting the universal unity. ‘The whole of humanity is one family.’ ‘Heaven and earth are one finger.’ This is the basis of the morality taught by Confucius and the other great teachers: namely, the principle of the unity of life. It is also fundamental to the upanishadic wisdom:

One who sees all beings in the very Self and the Self in all beings, does not hate anyone, by virtue of that realisation. Isha Upanishad

How can we make real for ourselves such an idealistic vision of life and of the world? For it is surely more difficult to do so in modern times than it was in the time of the sages. Actually, it is never easy at any time and can at best attract a few earnest enquirers. Yet Confucius teaches: the path to wisdom is not far from any of us. One great point that comes through in the Chinese classics, is that this universal wisdom, this being at one with all, this feeling that one is the all, is the normal state of the mind of each and everyone, once we free ourselves from desires and other factors that cause inner disturbance. As we have noted, it is the ultimate Fact of our nature. As expressed by the Japanese Zen master, Hakuen: ‘All beings are from the very beginning buddhas. It is like water and ice. Apart from water, no ice. Outside living beings, no buddhas.’ Again, from the Chinese Zen tradition: ‘The way is not difficult of attainment. But it hides from a mind that is full of likes and dislikes.’

The life of our mind appears to have developed in a way that contradicts the underlying unity . The teaching of the sages is that this is a wrong development of the mind, a departure from the true unfoldment of experience that is our higher destiny. We can attribute this wrongness to our human self-will or to our habits of thinking, to our selfish outlook. But underneath all duality and conflict is the principle of absolute peace and oneness, one in all. This is the innate principle of our own being—the real thing—awaiting discovery within us. In the words of the sage Shri Dada of Aligarh, speaking in the early twentieth century: ‘Your mind is what you have made it. You can unmake it and remake it.’ ‘Wrong thinking has brought you into bondage for which right thinking is the only cure.’

The sages give us the means to harmonise our nature once more with the true position. Their teachings and practices help us to expand out of any artificial contraction of our understanding and to become, so to say, what we truly are—that is, to identify with the pure consciousness that is the root of the mind.

Our supreme duty according to this line of thinking is to ‘extend our knowledge’—a term used by Confucius. But what does it mean—to extend our knowledge? Many ancient Chinese people loved and respected learning. But by extending our knowledge is not meant increasing the range and quantity of the material we hold in our mind. Extending our knowledge has a partly negative meaning—something like removing the impediments to the full expression of the divine and complete knowledge that is already present in our centre. We remember that Confucius identified this supreme awareness with the innate nature of our mind. So the extension of knowledge means the lifting of the internal barriers and obstacles created by habitual ways of thought that are not in harmony with universal unity.

One of the moral implications of this teaching is that every human being has an innate understanding of what is good and what is evil. We may get guidelines from teachers, but they are basically teaching us something we already know at the most intimate level of our being. By extending our knowledge it means something like being alert to the suggestions—whether good or bad—that spring up in our own mind, and responding in a way that will deepen our wisdom and bring us true happiness. The idea is that we already recognise perfectly well what are the good suggestions and thoughts that arise in us and which thoughts are mischievous. If most people do not seem to live up to this interior standard or benchmark, the reason is given by the fifteenth century Confucian sage, Wang Yang Ming:

The ordinary man is not free from the obstruction of selfish ideas. He therefore requires the effort of extension of knowledge… to overcome selfish ideas and restore principle. Then the mind’s faculty of innate knowledge will no longer be obstructed but will be able to penetrate and operate everywhere.*

Therefore the seeker of higher wisdom—one who seeks to awaken from the dream of transiency—has to revive this inner and innate power of thought-recognition and quality-control, using it to the utmost. This is one meaning of extending knowledge.

So we should have no doubt about our capacity for this instantaneous insight into the quality and worth of our thoughts, and we should use our will in order to negate thoughts that are unhelpful and follow through the impulses which are good and helpful. For example, I may recognise that a certain person is in difficulties and that I am in a position to help. Then our good insight may worthily and quite naturally be translated into action. The right mind, according to Confucius, does this automatically, unself-consciously.

There are stories of how Confucius himself practised this precept. The gist of one of them is that the sage with a disciple one day was passing through a village where lived an old acquaintance. He found the man was in much reduced circumstances. Confucius told the disciple: ‘Untie one of my horses from the carriage and give it to my old friend. Let not my feeling of benevolence be limited to my thoughts or words only.’

The point here that the Confucian teachings are making is a view of human nature as being naturally inclined to feel and respond in a way that is good. If we do not follow through these intimations that arise within us for good, this does not mean that such a view of human nature is wrong, but that our consciousness has been eclipsed through selfish considerations.

The same applies to our handling of negative feelings. We all have according to this doctrine a sensitive detector within us conferred on us by heaven as part of being human. This means we know when a wrong thought arises and have the inner means to check such thoughts. For example, I may get a stupid thought that it would be fun to put something slippery on the pavement and enjoy the sight of people falling over. If I allow this thought to unfold, then it is as if I am ignoring my own sensitivity and, as we know, the tendency to ignore the good in us easily becomes habitual, and takes over as the norm.

On the other hand, we must understand that these teachings are not meant to forge in us a rigid ‘do this’ ‘don’t do that’ state of mind. The point is, if we are in harmony with our deeper nature, we will naturally do the right thing. Also, this teaching, which Confucius calls ‘the great learning’, is part of a dynamic spiritual path. Each form of self-training that is recommended is designed to be just right for our present stage of development, and calculated to lead us on to the next stage. For example we may turn again to Wang Yang Ming, to get some idea of the inner development that this course of life promotes. A disciple asked what does it mean ‘to make up the mind’? The teacher said:

It is simply the resolution, in every thought, to preserve the Principle of Nature (i.e. the idea of the underlying unity). If one does not neglect this, in due time it will crystallise in one’s mind and become what the Taoists call ‘the mystical conception of a sage’. If the thought of the Principle of Nature is always retained, then the gradual steps to the levels of the beautiful man, the great man, the sage, and the spirit man, are all but the cultivation and extension of this one thought.*

Another way of putting this is to suggest that first we apply will-power and alertness to refine and harmonise our mind, treating our play of thoughts not casually, but with some degree of caution. But this is not enough and we can soon tire of such a way and throw off the discipline. What really controls and transforms our mind is the attraction and influence of the higher wisdom—the innermost principle of nature. This wisdom, coming from the inspired teachings we find in books or hear from a reliable teacher, must become something that we love to hear about. We must recognise that the teachings apply personally to us. And we must appreciate the value of turning them over in our mind.

At first this engagement with the teachings will be like a strong serious interest, but there is still a sense of otherness—there’s me and the teaching. But in time the dividing line between our mind and this higher wisdom will dissolve. The faculty of wisdom will crystallise in our mind. It will reveal itself as part and parcel of our own being. Then, the more attention and reverence we give to this wisdom faculty in us, the more our knowledge will be extended in the deepest sense.

Meditation is part of this inner process and Confucius himself once wrote: ‘If only I could remain wordless and silent.’ But the inner force prompted him to action and to teach how to live in the world in a way that is inwardly progressive. In fact the great path is a whole-time affair. It should not be forgotten or dropped when we are alone. On the contrary the inner work called the extension of knowledge should be sustained, even intensified, when we are by ourselves. As for the active life, this too provides endless opportunities for creating harmony through good thoughts and feelings. To cite one more example from Wang Yang Ming, a disciple said: ‘One’s feelings seem to be all right when one is quiet. However, when something happens, they become different. Why is it?’ The teacher said:

This is because one only knows how to cultivate oneself in quietness and does not exert effort to master oneself. Consequently, when something happens one turns topsy-turvy. One must be trained and polished in the actual affairs of life. Only then can one stand firm and remain calm whether in activity or in tranquillity.

The great reality—the Tao, the heavenly principle underlying nature, is itself beyond both good and evil. It is transcendent, ever peaceful and complete. But the way forward is to seek the reality in our own being. The highest good is to be sought only in the mind. And we have learned that the revelation of our true nature as one with the infinite reality that underlies the universe, is a realisation which dawns in a tranquil mind, devoted to the extension of the higher knowledge in public life and private life, in vigorous activity or quiet meditation.

Let us end with the words of Confucius from his ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, chapter one, verse five:

Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and will flourish.



* Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings by Wang Yang Ming, trans. W Chan, Columbia University Press, New York, 1965, p 15.

* Chan, op cit.

This article is from the Winter 2020 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.