Tiyong, Interpenetration and Sincerity in the Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean

Paper Delivered at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Boston

Charles Muller

Toyo Gakuen University

            While there are a wide range of important differences in interpretation of doctrine to be seen even within any single school of East Asian philosophy, whether it be Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist, it is on the other hand possible to identify broad patterns within East Asian philosophy in a cultural comparative context, especially when, for example, the East Asian philosophical tradition is viewed in contrast with Abrahamic theistic traditions, Platonic-influenced Western philosophy, Brahmanistic philosophy, or the worldviews of modern natural science.

            When classical East Asian thought is juxtaposed with these other major thought-systems, among the most pervasive structures of philosophical thought that we can observe on the East Asian side, which show themselves in perceptions of the human being, the human mind, and human relations, are the two mutually inseparable archetypes of tiyong and interpenetration. As I have begun to argue elsewhere,[1] I believe that these two are vitally important for identifying a special East Asian philosophical worldview that relies on a distinct type of metaphorical language in describing the sliding scale of value-laden, but non-reified attributes ranging from the most extremely fundamental to the most extremely superficial, representing the gamut of the existence and experience of living beings. Most representative of these metaphors are (1) the various forms of botanical tropes that fall in the general class of "roots and branches," that describe the relation between the more fundamental and the more superficial, and (2) the metaphorical language that describes the bringing to perfection of an innately good core through, cutting, polishing, training, smelting, etc.--or in the case of Daoism and Buddhism, untraining, or de-conditioning.

            Recognizing the mutually inseparable tiyong and interpenetration as unique products of East Asian philosophy, it is my intention to show that regardless of the tradition to which any given classical East Asian thinker belongs, or what his personal inclinations, if he has come to be regarded by the tradition as someone noteworthy, then some variation of this conceptual combination can inevitably be discerned within the basic structure of his thought. Furthermore, the combination of tiyong/interpenetration can work as an extremely effective hermeneutical tool to reveal subtle differences in the personal positions of East Asian thinkers. But before we can begin to thoroughly argue these points, it is important that we identify some of the basic misconceptions that are generally associated with tiyong and interpenetration by Western interpreters.

           By far the most commonly seen mis-presentation of tiyong in works on East Asian thought is its characterization as a type of "polarity," or "dichotomy," both terms that denote separation, disjunction, opposition, or contradiction. While the primary purpose of the use of tiyong is in making distinctions, such distinctions are always made within the framework of an overall unity, and are not oppositional or disjunctive in character. The terms "polarity" and "dichotomy" do not accurately describe the relationship between the roots, or trunk of a tree, and its branches. Nor are they applicable for describing the relation between a living body and its activities, or the relationship between the basic potentialities of the human mind and its emotional and intellectual manifestations. When the terms ti and yong are used outside of a holistic locus, then the distinction being made is no longer one of ti and yong, and the discussion is removed from the realm of interpenetrated tiyong, into the realms of duality or monism.

           Another way of putting this is to say that the ti and yong aspects of anything must by definition, be mutually contained, or "interpenetrated." While the term "interpenetration" may seem to lack meaningful application when discussing the attributes of the mind of an individual person, its relevance becomes clearer when discussing the ti and yong of a group dynamic, of a society, or of the relationship between natural phenomena.

            Another problem, this time related directly to language, inevitably arises when this discussion is conducted in English, since the terms used to translate ti, usually either "essence," or "substance," are metaphysically loaded, and especially so in the North American postmodern intellectual climate, where the label of "essentialist" has become one of the greatest insults that may be laid upon a scholar. Therefore, students of East Asian thought must be aware that the essence referred to by ti are not metaphysical archetypes or Platonic ideas, but simply deeper, thicker, purer, more originary aspects of something, as in the roots and branches metaphor, as in the Daoist uncarved block, or as in the essence of a perfume.

            I am making a concerted effort to clarify this point, in order to correctly place this argument within the context of the recent spate of discourse on a perceived essentialism in East Asian Buddhism that has clear roots in tiyong thinking. Arguments made by scholars who lack an adequate grasp of the origins of these most fundamental structures of East Asian thought have been prone to make misguided judgments, which have gone to the extent of declaring that East Asian Buddhism is actually not Buddhism at all, but a poorly disguised form of Brahmanism.

            So what have the Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean to do with this? These two texts are vitally important for the role they play in defining the generally accepted East Asian view of the inherently good, and greatly mutable human being. They give the East Asian philosopher the basic groundwork for the description of the moral and intellectual properties of the mind, what conditions are necessary for these to be developed, and the extent to which a single mind shares with and has an effect on the other minds in the world. They describe a human mind that is originally pure, luminous, and equanimous. It is something to be sought and then manifested in the world of day-to-day activity to the greatest degree possible. But these texts do not describe this mind in a reified manner. There is no description of ultimate origin in an ontological sense; just an ever-changing array of relationships of phases of prior and subsequent, deeper and more superficial, all of which occur within the tiyong/interpenetration matrix.

            I have read in places that the interpretation of an essence-function framework into these early texts is viewed by some Confucian scholars as a Buddhistic or Neo-Confucian imposition.[2] But in the case of the Great Learning, it is hard to imagine what the roots-and-branches framework might possibly be if not the most obvious precursor of tiyong logic? It is an important first stage, wherein the botanic metaphor is used to express the distinction between the deeper and the more superficial, the prior and subsequent, the causes and the effects. It is also important as an example of the non-reified nature of this form of logic, quite different from the Indian atman/brahman model, as what is considered primary, or "root" in one case, may be secondary, or branch, in another, as we can see in the series of stages that outline the cultivation of the self.

            It is also difficult to see how one may assert that a tiyong worldview does not inform the Doctrine of the Mean. Here we have a description of the human mind, which, is distinguished into primordial and activated states. The primordial state, characterized variously as xing 性, or zhong 中, is something to be sought after or followed. It is the deeper and more fundamental aspect of something that is in fact a single whole, and has a position of relative priority, the role of a source (this is of course, the same general characterization of original mind as is found in Buddhism and Daoism). The mind in itself, before it demonstrates any of its emotive characteristics, is called centrality, and the mind that is observable when the emotions are functioning in due measure, is called harmony. Centrality is further defined as the "great root of the world," while harmony is its pervasive Way.

            This basic characterization found in the Doctrine of the Mean, where the single mind has two aspects, one unmanifest, and the other manifest, becomes the perfect archetype for the Chinese apprehension of Indian Buddhist teachings regarding a mind that is pure in its basic nature, but has the potential for impurity, or discordance, when it moves into activity. The pure, unmanifest aspect of the mind will be taken as its ti, or essence in the writings of East Asian Buddhists, and will be called foxing, or buddha-nature. And so, while the most important influences on Buddhism in terms of its so-called sinicization are usually attributed to Neo-Daoism, this way of explaining the character of the mind occurs much earlier--in these texts, and is something that becomes fundamental to all three systems of thought.

            The other aspect of both of these texts that stands out when placed in distinction to representative strands of Western thinking about human beings and their world is the high degree of interconnection, or "interpenetration" to be seen. Both texts typify an East Asian worldview that sees (in compared to a modern/Western perspective) a far greater potential for the qualities of a person's mind not only to be perceived by others, but for those qualities to have a direct and powerful effect on others. In the case of the Great Learning, one might be uncomfortable with using a term that has such esoteric connotations as "interpenetration," since the process of bringing peace to the kingdom that originates in the correction of one person's mind is explained rationally, in clearly distinguished stages. But actually, interpenetration, even as understood in its most rarefied Huayan expressions, means nothing else than the interlinking of separate phenomena, and need not be looked upon with such an air of mystery.

           The point, in terms of East/West comparative thought, is that it is considered possible for the moral influence of a single person (be it negative or positive), to permeate so thoroughly throughout the surrounding world, such that one is able to bring dramatic effect on others simply by virtue of that moral state. Even down to the present in modern East Asian countries, the influence of the exemplar on those with whom she or he comes into contact is perceived to be far greater than it is in the West. In the West, one has to do something to effect change on others. In the traditional East Asian view, effect may come without explicit activity, by the mere quality of one's character. Thus, the classical East Asian world is one possessed of a different type of transparency than has been traditionally understood in the West. And therefore, both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean instruct us that it is important that we are watchful over ourselves, not when we are in public, but instead, when we are alone.

           This leads us to the discussion of a concept that is of critical importance in both texts, and which is also a key as the expression of the experiential synergy of tiyong and interpenetration within these texts: that is sincerity (cheng誠), which has a very special place in the Confucian tradition as a conduit that connects the good core of our being with such a well-defined meaning into manifest expression.

           We can explain the reasons for the special character of the concept of sincerity through its close relationship to the tiyongview of the human being. Sincerity is a virtue that is readily understandable by all, but which by definition cannot include self-deception or pretense.[3] Sincerity is also not an attainment, such as that of intellectual knowledge, or a Mencian mental stability. It is nothing but the reflection of the purest part of one's mind to the members of the world around one. Someone who is in a state of sincerity is by definition expressing the purity of his or her innermost mind into functional activity--that is, fully manifesting the interpenetrated relationship of essence and function.[4] And if we accept the basic Confucian proposition that the human mind is at its most fundamental level good, then sincerity may be regarded as the most pure and direct form of the functioning of that goodness. Sincerity, then, has a strong "inside-to-outside" or "essence-to-function" orientation to its activity. It is the purest projection of the originally virtuous mind (which, in a Confucian context, we should not doubt call ren 仁). In this respect, sincerity is different from other Confucian virtues such as righteousness, filial piety, wisdom, and so forth that are often spoken of as being "cultivated." Sincerity, like ren, is not directly cultivated (at least in the Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean), but instead reveals itself when negative patterns of moral and intellectual behavior are removed. The commentary to the Doctrine of the Mean says:

Only the perfectly sincere person can actualize one's own nature (xing 性). Actualizing one's own nature, one can fully actualize the nature of others. Fully actualizing the nature of others, one can fully actualize the nature of all things. Being able to fully actualize the nature of all things, one can assist Heaven and Earth in their transformation and sustenance. Able to assist in Heaven and Earth's transformation and sustenance, one forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth.
Those of the next level straighten out their own twistedness. Being straightened, they can possess sincerity. Having sincerity, they can give form to their character. Their character having form, their sincerity becomes manifest. Being manifested it is luminous, being luminous it can function. Functioning, it changes; changing, it transforms. Only the most fully actualized sincerity is able to transform [people].[5]

           Again, sincerity is not something that is directly cultivated, but is instead attained on the removal of other obstructions, as in the Buddhist metaphor of the polishing of the originally clear mirror. Also, if we compare the degree of power implied in this understanding of cheng, it is quite different than its modern/Western counterpart of sincerity, which we, to begin with, perceive with a far more passive and materialistic orientation. A sincere person is always appreciated, but is it generally considered possible in our culture that she or he, by virtue of sincerity alone can "transform others"? But the power of fully actualized sincerity extends even further, as we read:

Once you are in the Path of fully actualized sincerity, you have foreknowledge of things. When a nation or clan is about to rise up, there are always omens of their fortune. When a nation or clan is about to fall, there are always omens of their misfortune. It can be seen in the milfoil stalks, tortoise shells and in the movements of the body. When good or evil fortune is imminent, the perfectly sincere person will without fail know of good or evil events in advance; possessing fully actualized sincerity, you are like a god.[6]

           Thus, when one becomes perfected in their sincerity, they have access to what seems like a superknowledge, but which, on the other hand, is notreally 'supernatural,'  since the signs of impending fortune and misfortune are plainly there, just waiting to be seen. The perfectly sincere person simply has enough blockages removed from his or her own vision to allow for awareness of these omnipresent signs. Again, the commentary to the Doctrine of the Mean says:

Sincerity is just 'perfecting' and the Way is just 'following.' Sincerity is the beginning and end of all things. Without sincerity there is nothing. Thus the Superior Man values the process of "becoming-sincere." But sincerity is not "just-perfecting"; it also means "perfecting all things." Perfecting oneself is jen. To perfect others, you need wisdom. The virtue of our nature is that it is none other than the Way by which inner and outer are merged. Thus we can always use it to set things right.[7]

           Hence, sincerity is the method, or the medium, by which inner and outer are unified. In this sense, sincerity can be seen as that quality which makes a person whole and unified within himself, and which also brings about his unity with the external world. This unity with the external world is not merely a passive experience or reception of the world, as the world becomes the field of the transformative power of an individual's sincerity.

Therefore, fully actualized sincerity is ceaseless. Ceaseless, it is eternal. Eternal, it is apparent. Apparent, it is far-reaching. Far-reaching, it is vast and deep. Vast and deep, it is high and bright. Since it is vast and deep, it can support all things. Since it is high and bright, it can cover all things. Since it is far-reaching and long-lasting, it can accomplish all things. Vastness and depth refer to the Earth. Highness and brightness refer to Heaven. Far-reaching and long-lasting refer to limitlessness. In this way, it is manifest without being seen, it transforms [people] without moving, and perfects [people] without effort.[8]

           The last line--"it transforms without moving and perfects without effort" is as deeply mystical and paradoxical as anything we will see in later Daoist and Buddhist texts. Transformation without motion and perfection without effort is possible because of its role of clearing the way for increasingly perfect reflection between essence and function. Cheng, then, is way of talking about the innately good essence penetrating the individual and her/his surrounding world.


[1]I have been working through this theme in a series of articles that I hope to develop into develop into a book. These articles include: (1) The Composition of Self-Transformation Thought in Classical East Asian Philosophy and Religion." Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 4 (1996), pp. 141-152. Also available on the Internet at http://www.hm.tyg.jp/~acmuller/indigenoushermeneutics.htm. (2) "Essence-Function (t'i-yung): Early Chinese Origins and Manifestations." Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 7 (1999), p. 93-106. Also available on the Internet at http://www.hm.tyg.jp/~acmuller/tiyung-earlyorigins.htm. (3) "Tiyong and Interpenetration in the Analects of Confucius: The Sacred as Secular: ." Forthcoming, Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 8 (2000). I have also discussed this topic in the introduction to my translation of The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment: Korean Buddhism's Guide to Meditation (SUNY Press, 1999).

[2]For example, as pointed out by Shimada Kenji in Shushigaku to yōmeigaku (Iwanami shinsho, 1967), p. 3-4.

[3]It is interesting to note that even in Daoist texts such as the Daodejing and Zhuangzi, which regularly poke fun at time-honored Confucian concepts such as altruism (ren仁), righteousness (yi義) and filial piety (xiao孝), sincerity is never on the list of unwanted reified constructions. Of course, none of the other Confucian values should manifest self-deception, but in the Daodejing they are perceived as externalized pretenses.

[4] Or, to use one of Sung Bae Park's favorite expressions, it is a function [yong] that fully manifests essence [ti].

[5]Zhongyong, commentary section 22-23.

[6]Zhongyong, commentary section 24.

[7]Zhongyong, commentary section 25.

[8]Zhongyong, commentary section 26.