East Asia's Unexplored Pivot of Metaphysics and Hermeneutics: Essence-Function/Interpenetration

A. Charles Muller

Toyo Gakuen University


We have arrived, in recent times, to a phase of heightened self-reflection concerning the nature and content of American modes of interpretive scholarship in relation to their object, the East Asian religious tradition. Such intensified reflection within the field has helped bringing about a degree of overcoming of the limitations of certain prior methodologies, allowing us to identify and eliminate patterns of inquiry which lead to exaggeration, naivete and or ignorance regarding the object, which occur as the result of the unconscious bias created by perception limited by the confines of our culturally defined interpretive paradigms.

Much of the energy and orientation for this new reflective mood has its roots in the field of literary criticism, the discipline which gave birth to the spectrum of postmodernistic theories of interpretation and analysis, which have as their vaunt-courier, deconstruction. The field of East Asian religion has also benefited from new influences out of the social scientific areas, most notably sociology and anthropology. Postmodernistic strategies have helped us to become aware (among other things) of "centrisms" (ethnocentrism, phallocentrism, etc.) operating in our interpretive strategies, while social scientific approaches have often exposed our tendency to be mythologistic in blind acceptance of the claims of the representatives of the foreign tradition being studied.

Prior to this most recent phase, during our first century of interpretation of the East Asian religions, we have been strongly influenced by historical/philological methodologies utilized by East Asian, and especially Japanese, scholars. This is especially true in the field of East Asian Buddhism, where a common ritual in the authentication of one's scholarly merits has been a period of study in Japan (or other East Asian country) preferably under the wing of a prominent scholar of the native culture. But while the value of personal and scholarly maturity gained while studying within the environs of a foreign culture cannot be overstated, this does not mean that such an experience provides us with an initiation into anything like an original or traditional "Japanese" or "East Asian" scholarly method, since Japan and the other East Asian countries in the course of their period of modernization ended up basing their new humanities scholarship primarily on European positivistic methodologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. No value judgment is intended here, but we should be aware that the assimilation of a "traditional East Asian" approach to interpreting its own tradition by Western scholars cannot have occurred on a significant scale by way of direct contact with modern East Asian scholars.

The scholarly permutations of our new-found American reflexivity, which include such modernistic and postmodernistic interpretive strategies as Feminism, Marxism, Derridaism, Foucauldianism and Barthesiansim, as well as a general demand for wider interdisciplinary awareness, all deserve praise for the breadth of scope that they have added as approaches to both the texts and the living religions themselves. Nonetheless, if we ask whether or not any of these approaches have brought us closer to communication with indigenous categories of approach to the field, our answer must remain mostly, if not completely, negative. In our efforts at the apprehension of the East Asian religious tradition, we have yet to see a serious and sustained work which does not rely almost exclusively on Western interpretive schema, whether they be modernistic or postmodernistic in nature. If anything, the postmodernistic movement has led us even further away from the possibility of attempting to interpret the East Asian traditions on their own ground, as American humanities graduate programs tend increasingly to advertise themselves as places where Asian students may come and learn (Western) postmodern methodologies for the purpose of interpreting their own cultures.

Exclusive reliance on Western modes of interpretation need not in itself be harmful. But it appears as if it can be, as we can see a distinct tendency in recent works on East Asian religion, and especially East Asian Buddhism, to regard the object of study in a disparaging manner. To, for example, wrap up the texts of the entire East Asian Ch'an/Sŏn/Zen traditions as being little other than rhetorical devices, or to report on the East Asian religious traditions by concentrating on examples of how poor East Asian Buddhists supposedly were at grasping the implications of their own writings. Or, on the other hand, to suggest that now that ten percent or so of the East Asian canon has been rendered into English, it is time to stop expending our energies in the effort of translation and interpretation, and rather devote ourselves toward the investigation of living traditions. Over its first century of existence, Western scholarship on the East Asian religions has tended toward two extremes: naive acceptance (seen during earlier periods of scholarship) or a subtle, but nonetheless perceptible arrogant downlooking, in which the leading figures of the tradition are seen as being wholly preoccupied with sectarian motivations, and either hopelessly simple-minded or untrustably deceptive.

This is all in spite of the fact there are obvious and consistently repeated patterns of indigenous metaphysical formation and interpretive strategy that are found with a high degree of correspondence throughout the three major traditions, over a wide span of time, ranging from the Chou to the Ming, Chosŏn and Tokugawa periods. These patterns are wholly non-sectarian in their nature and can be seen as operating throughout every aspect of the East Asian religion--and not only the textual tradition. It is also the case that the apprehension of and usage of such principles can shed significant light on the philosophical/religious content of the tradition, especially in view of the fact that they represent distinctively "East Asian" categories--of metaphysics, ontology or hermeneutics as the case may be, which set them apart from other cultural traditions. If one approaches these texts using such paradigms as the basis of one's hermeneutical perspective, many new and profound meanings are revealed, and further pervasive patterns in East Asian religious thought may be readily identified, not just at the textual level, but at the level of modern living religion. These may be applied as well in broader realms such as cultural comparison.


I will speak here then, of a set of intertwined concepts which are crucial for a thoroughgoing understanding of the three East Asian philosophical/religious teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The first, "essence-function (Ch. t'i-yung Kor. ch'e-yong; Jpn. tai-yū)," is already well-known to scholars of traditional East Asian thought, although the concept has not, to my knowledge, received concentrated and sustained treatment in any form of modern scholarship, Eastern or Western. When one properly understands the inner dynamics of the operation of essence-function, it becomes apparent that it is something that never operates without the presence of its necessary counterpart, "interpenetration" (Ch. t'ung-ta 體用; Kor. t'ongdal; Jpn. tsūdatsu). The simultaneous operation of these two, when brought into play in the domain of conscious effort towards the improvement of the religious awareness of oneself and his/her others, invites attention to a third seminal concept, which I provisionally label here "study-as-practice."

The Indigenous Informing1 Principles: Essence-Function and Interpenetration

T'i-yung ("essence-function")

The translation of the sinitic concept of t'i-yung into English as "essence-function" is one that needs a bit of clarification, especially in regard to the first part of the term, t'i (體). The character t'i originally referred simply to the physical body as an assemblage of its parts. In the philosophical context however, the first articulation of which is traditionally attributed to Wang Pi (王弼, 226-249)2 it refers to the deeper, more fundamental, more internal, more important, or invisible aspects of something: any kind of being, organization, phenomenon, concept, event, etc. Its usage in the major East Asian thought systems is mainly centered in the realm of human affairs or human psychology--with t'i referring to the human mind, especially the deeper, more hidden dimension of the human mind--the mind as it is before entering into the realm of activity. In terms of the objective universe, t'i is used to express the deeper, more fundamental or invisible aspect of things, the "principles" of things, as opposed to their more outwardly manifest, phenomenal aspects.

The translation of t'i with the English word "essence" becomes more problematic in recent times, as the English term in its philosophical usage has strong dualistic connotations attached to it. "Essence," as it is used here, must be purged of any kind of dualistic Platonic/Christian connotation of an other-worldly, unchanging nature, or an eternal "logos" or "idea" which is of a higher order and distinct from the manifest world. It does not refer to a reified hierarchical signified/signifier relation, nor to an eternal ātman-like soul, or brahmanistic substrate. The present usage of the term "essence" is best understood according to its everyday common sense applications, rather than through specialized Western metaphysical connotations. We can then use the definition of "the most important, crucial element."3 A good metaphor is also provided by the concept of "a concentrated substance which keeps the flavor, etc. of that from which it is extracted"4 or "an extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form,"5 in the sense that t'i has strong connotations of density (hou 厚).

T'i is paired with the term yung (用), which has the basic meanings of "usage," "activity," "function," or "means." In the present context, it carries all of these meanings, but also such connotations as "apparent," "manifest," and "external." Together, t'i and yung refer to the internal/external, hidden/manifest, fundamental/superficial aspects of any person, thing, or situation. One of the most serious misinterpretations of the t'i-yung formula that is seen repeatedly in its connection with its mention in Western works is when it is characterized as a "dichotomy" or "polarity," as these are both terms which denote an intrinsic separation and/or opposition which are not implied in the term's application. The point of the usage of t'i-yung is not to indicate separation, but rather to indicate intrinsic unity between two things, or two aspects, which might, from an unenlightened point of view be seen as distinctly separated, or of unclear relationship. The metaphor of perfume is a good starting point for understanding the non-dualistic character of the essence-function structure, as the concentrated nature, the "essence" of the perfume is always intrinsically unified with the most distant perfumation of its odor. The emphasis is always on the continuity that exists between internal and external aspects, rather than on difference or opposition.

The t'i-yung construction is not static or reifiable, as what is taken to be t'i (more internal, of greater priority) in one situation might be regarded as yung (more external, of lesser priority) in another. For example, in the first chapter of the Ta-hsüeh (大學 Great Learning), there is a famous passage which lists the priorities of a ruler in the process of bringing peace to his kingdom in the form of matters of greater and lesser importance. In this list, each of the elements can be seen to be the "essence" of the matter which comes after it, and as the function of the matter which comes before it.6

Macrocosm and Microcosm


Despite the number of permutations in expression of the concept of essence-function, we may characterize its usage into two general (but greatly overlapping) paradigms. The first is that which is seen in the macrocosmic view, typified by the role of "essence" as Tao (道), or organizing principle of the universe, and "function" as the phenomenal activity of the Tao. A general view of Tao is evident in all forms of Chou period thought. Although there are significant variations among these, they agree to a certain level, of understanding the Tao to be a forming/informing principle of the behavior of human beings and/or nature. Most obvious in this usage is the Tao of the Tao Te Ching, to which one may become gradually attuned by various methods of shedding of cultural conditioning. As one becomes attuned to the Tao, he, as in the disfigured characters of the Chuang Tzu, becomes filled with virtue (te 徳)--his thoughts and actions become harmonious and natural (自然; tzu-jan). Although the methods and perspectives have significant differences, it is the case in both Confucianism and Taoism that the sagely king who is sensitive to the Tao will be eminently capable of rulership. If he pays due attention to t'i (his own mind, or the fundamental needs of his people), yung (harmony throughout the realm) will naturally proceed in a harmonious fashion. After the influx of Buddhism, East Asian religious thinkers, far from inclined to let go of this paradigmatic symbol, utilized the term Tao extensively in their re-articulation of Buddhism, where it came to be equivalent to the concept of enlightenment.

As Mahāyāna Buddhism became fully absorbed into the Chinese cultural sphere, its most basic ontological principle, emptiness (空; śūnyatā), became recognized as the East Asian Buddhist "essence," with form (色; rūpa) as its manifest function. This East Asian appropriation and transformation of Indian concepts is enacted in many of the so-called "apocryphal" texts, and is consummated in the Hua-yen metaphysics, as s`ūnyatā is subsumed in the sinitic category of li (理; principle) and form is expressed as an aspect of shih (事; events, phenomena).

As Buddhism rose to a position of predominance in the East Asian intellectual arena, Confucian and Taoist thinkers were compelled to compete with the foreign religion in the realm of metaphysics, and the Neo-Confucianism which developed after this time showed a greatly enhanced level of metaphysical sophistication, marked by Taoist and Hua-yen influences. But the Neo-Confucian metaphysics was more clearly than ever framed by the t'i-yung construction, as the explication of the categories of principle (li 理) and material force (ch'i 氣) formed the basis of the entire discourse of the orthodox Ch'eng-Chu school. The founding Neo-Confucians, most importantly the Ch'eng brothers7 and Chu Hsi (朱熹; 1130-1200) borrowed heavily from this Hua-yen paradigm in constructing their "new" metaphysical categories of li and ch'i. The Neo-Confucian articulation of these categories was done overtly and in great detail through t'i-yung language, and the same is true of the later debates that took place regarding the relationship of these two categories of li and ch'i to the human mind, most famous of which was the encounter that took place in Korea between T'oegye (ï ÞŸï Yi Hwang ï ï ï ï , 1501-1570) and Yulgok (ï Iï J Yi I ï ï ï ï , 1536-1584).

As Neo-Confucianism began to rise in stature and offer its own sophisticated metaphysical system, Buddhists were in turn forced to respond, and it was through this stimulus that exponents of "the unity of the three teachings" (三教合一) began to come to the fore. Among the "three-teaching" thinkers, those of greatest stature were Tsung-mi (宗密; 780-841) of China and Kihwa (己和; 1376-1433) of Korea, both of whom excelled in their early Confucian studies and later turned to Buddhism, but retained a deep respect for much of the content of their classical learning. Both men were also highly influenced by Buddhist essence-function and interpenetration metaphysics, and thus it is not surprising to find that t'i-yung and interpenetration were the hermeneutical principles by which these men articulated a unified view of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Yet the three-teachings thinkers also differed in their ways of comparing the three, and these differences can in turn be interpreted according to the particular understanding of essence and function which dominated their personal thought systems.


The second prominent usage of essence and function is that related to the traditional East Asian concept of the human being, which has its roots in antiquity, and which is described formally in the Chou texts. Even though it is only defined specifically with the ideographs t'i and yung for the first time in the early third century CE, an essence-function type of framework can be seen operating pervasively in the earliest Chinese classics. This view is that of human beings being equally possessed of an inherent nature of goodness as the foundation of the mind, but as differing greatly from each other at the level of function. Function, in this case, could indicate the person's physical appearance, facial expressions, speech and actions, as well as his/her thoughts. Thus, it is quite different from a simple mind/body or spirit/matter dichotomy. While there were occasional exceptions, in the prevailing intuition of the major thought traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, the human being was viewed as something inherently possessed of perfection, as highly mutable, and capable of consummating such perfection through following a certain course of action (or "non-action").

The presence of this inherent perfection is intimated in the early Chou works, and fully articulated in the Analects and the Mencius. Of central importance in these texts is the basic human quality of jen (仁; "humanity," "benevolence" in the Analects) which shows itself in various "functions" such as propriety (li 禮) and filial piety (hsiao 孝). The articulation of the relationship of the t'i and yung aspects of the human being expressed in these Confucian classics is important for the degree to which it is definitive for all three traditions. In this relationship, the goodness or inherent perfectibility of all human beings shows a strong "inner-to-outer" (or t'i penetrating yung) tendency. But there is also a vitally important outer-to-inner (or yung penetrating t'i) movement, as the originally pure t'i is to be brought to its fullest manifestation through proper yung. It is because of this fundamental conceptual view of essence-function in personal transformation that there is such a strong development in East Asian "study-as-practice" language of rich and diverse metaphors of "polishing," "training," "smelting," "purification," "accordance," "harmonization" (of, or with the essence), etc.

In the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu there is also clear implication for the human capacity for sagehood, but with its accomplishment through a more "hands off" and observant approach, and with a greater emphasis on harmonizing with t'i rather than external training of and through yung. The human mind in its pure nature is alluded to variously in the Tao Te Ching as the "uncarved block (p'u 樸), which in improper function ends up becoming fragmented in the form of "utensils" (ch'i 器), and the "newborn babe" (ch'ih-tzu ï ŎŽq), originally soft and pliant but which becomes in old age or improper function rigid and lifeless. The process of reaching to sagehood is a "return" (kuei 歸, fan 反) to this pristine state. Instead of attempting to embody Confucian norms such as benevolence, filial piety and respect for one's ruler, one is advised to free oneself from these worldly constructions.

The Buddhist religion owed a significant portion of its success in East Asia to its strong inherent affinities with this East Asian conception of the person.8 In the Buddhist view, sentient beings, although varying greatly at the level of yung, or manifest activity, possessed a pure enlightened Buddha-nature at the level of t'i, their essence. This "innate-buddhahood" aspect of the Buddhist dharma, although present in the Indian doctrine, had not received near the attention that it would draw from East Asian practitioners of the religion, who became preoccupied with the articulation of the relationship of the innate (pen 本) [t'i] and actualized (shih 始) [yung] aspects of enlightenment. When the Indian Buddhist religion became fully assimilated in East Asia, its doctrines, although not counter to the original principles of the religion, were largely re-formulated in terms of essence and function, as can be seen in influential apocryphal texts such as the Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith (大乘起信論; Ta-sheng ch'i-hsin lun), Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (圓覺 經; Yüan chüeh ching) and Sutra of Adamantine Absorption (金剛三昧經; Kŭmgang sammae gyŏng). Sutras and treatises of accepted East Asian origin such as the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經; Liu-t'su Tan-ching) as well as the works of numerous commentators to these texts also show a pervasive t'i-yung influence. The doctrines of the long-lasting schools which formed in East Asia, most notably Hua-yen and Ch'an, were also fully essence-function oriented.

The newly formulated doctrine espoused by the Neo-Confucians was a compound of various strains of essence-function thought which were derived from I Ching, early Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist sources, with the t'i-yung structure of the human being brought into play in such forms as the Neo-Confucian "mind of Tao (tao-hsin 道心)" which reflected the pure essence of humanity to be sought through Neo-Confucian practices such as "reverence" (ching ï h), and "the human mind (jen-hsin ï lï S)," mistakenly functioning and equivalent to the defiled mind of Buddhism. Most instructive in Neo-Confucianism is the degree to which the debates internal to the tradition are variations in interpretation of Confucian doctrine which lean to either the t'i or yung direction. This is the case in the debate between the Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy and the Lu/Yang-ming "school of mind" as well as that which occurred in the Korean "four-seven" debate between the schools of T'oegye and Yulgok.


In actual practice, the distinction between the above "macrocosmic" and "microcosmic" aspects of the essence-function framework is usually quite nebulous, as the apprehension of the universal Tao, was, in all time periods and traditions fully contingent upon its apprehension and/or consummation at the personal level. I.e., it is precisely in the mediating dimension of integral practice that the macro- and microcosmic were directly connected to each other.

The ability to metaphysically articulate this macro-microcosmic connection was especially enhanced with the advent of Buddhism and the influence of one of its most seminal t'i-yung texts, the Awakening of Faith, wherein the workings of the nexus between the universal Mahāyāna and the mahāyāna as the "mind of man" were reasoned out in great detail. The connections between universal and particular, intuitively well-grasped as early as the time of the writing of the I Ching, were expounded with rigor in the works of the Hua-yen patriarchs, in their li-shih (理事) scheme, and similar views constituted the central thread of the Neo-Confucian doctrine.

Such a view of intrinsic unity between universal and particular can be seen as closely related to the tendency of sinitic metaphysical discourse to be so fully connected with actual practice, as the phenomena of the universe as a whole were always seen to be connected to, acting upon, and receiving influence from the actions of individual persons. Thus, mere theoretical understanding was never accepted as sufficient when it came to such matters as the apprehension of the Tao. The non-dualistic understanding of essence-function also limited the extreme to which self-transformation, or religious practice, could acceptably be divorced from activity in the "real" secular world.9 This means that mystic absorption into the infinite was almost always considered to be inferior to the "marvelous function" of the true sage, who was deeply in touch with, and greatly valued his t'i, but who superbly manifested that t'i in his function within the world of everyday phenomena. Numerous early Confucian texts reflect this tendency, but it is probably most succinctly summed up in the adage from Chapter Twenty-eight of the Tao Te Ching which says "know the white (ï mï ï ï ï everyday world, manifest world, yung) but cleave to the black (ï ç‘´ï ï the essence, the tao, t'i)." Down through time in the three traditions, it was this balanced approach to religious practice which would be the most respected. It becomes particularly manifest in the Chinese Ch'an school (as well as in Korean Sŏn and Japanese Zen), where, despite the intrinsic mystic tendencies of the meditational schools, great value comes to be placed on "skillful function." Again, this is reflective of the meaning of integral practice, here adding the further connotation of yung being integrated with t'i and t'i being integrated with yung, in the course of a "practice" which is none other than daily living.

T'ung-ta (Interpenetration)

While the above-broached avenue to the examination of East Asian philosophical trends in terms of the t'i-yung construction might be a relatively unexplored one in the area of this field in the West, it is by no means a radically new theory or discovery. It is merely a recognition of that which has been expressed by the leading Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thinkers for over two millennia. As I will show, there are numberless writers and commentators whose works explicitly confirm the analysis that I will offer. Another part of my presentation, though, is a bit more novel, being an interpretation of East Asian thought that has not in the past been discussed by modern scholars, and only offered within the tradition much more implicitly. This is my hypothesis of the presence of the understanding of an "interpenetrated" worldview as being existent, and playing a prominent role in East Asian thought far earlier than is normally assumed.

The concept of interpenetration, indicated in Chinese by such terms as t'ung-ta (通達 Kor. t'ongdal; Jpn. tsūdatsu) and yü an-yung (圓融 Kor. wŏllyung; Jpn. enyū), is normally associated with the Chinese Hua-yen school of Buddhist thought, understood to be a Chinese enhancement of the Indian Buddhist concepts of pratītya-samutpāda and śūnyatā, stimulated by the metaphysical discourse found in the Avataṃsaka-sutra. While certainly benefiting a great deal from these Indian Buddhist constructs, the origins of the Hua-yen concept of interpenetration can be found in indigenous intuitions about the universe seen in the earliest East Asian writings. Furthermore, some sort of understanding of transparency which is highly reminiscent of Buddhist emptiness and interpenetration in fact must be operating if one is to thoroughly and correctly grasp the implications of the essence-function worldview. An understanding of penetration of inner by outer and vice versa is necessary for the apprehension of one of the more basic aspects of essence-function usage, that of the mind of the human being and its apparent manifestations. That is, in order for essence-function to work as it does, it is necessary to see the human being as a continūm from inner to outer. There are also numerous textual passages in the I Ching, Analects, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, etc., which, to be appreciated fully, necessitate an understanding of a worldview in which the thoughts and actions of an individual penetrate, and carry influence throughout the entire world, in a way that can only be compared to that seen in Hua-yen metaphysics.

The concept of interpenetration is indicated by the Chinese binome t'ung-ta , but is also commonly signified by the ideographs t'ung and ta by themselves. The basic meaning of t'ung (通), which has changed surprisingly little over three millennia of East Asian literary history, is to "go through," or "pass through." It especially possesses the connotations of passing, or going through a path, or moving along a course which is already opened and which merely needs to be traversed. The ideograph ta (達), is close in meaning, and is often combined with t'ung in Buddhist texts, but has an interesting and important etymological difference, as it originally signifies piercing through a barrier, or breaking open a passageway where there was none before. Thus, when the two are combined together as a binome, a complementary connotation is being created which indicates both passing through that which is already open, and piercing through that which has been heretofore closed.

T'ung and ta are ancient concepts to which strong philosophical overtones were added in early Confucian thought, notably in such texts as the Analects, Book of Changes and the Record of Rites. Especially relevant among these implications is the function of the mind of the sage, which is able to penetrate without limit in time and space. The sage's mind is capable of "penetrating to" (i.e., "understanding") the principles of things." Other shades of meaning include "to unify" or "be the same" in the sense of the dissolution of barrier. Both t'ung and ta could mean to "apprehend," "understand," "grasp," "permeate," "fill," or "influence." They were used adjectivally and adverbially to the same effects. The nuance of "penetration" (even if not always specifically indicated by the words t'ung and ta) is ubiquitous in all the texts which reflect the early East Asian intuitively transparent worldview. It is a basic underpinning of both the Great Learning (Ta-hsüeh 大學) and the Doctrine of the Mean (Chung-yung 中庸), in both of which the inner and outer aspects of the person are understood to penetrate each other such that quality of the person's inner mind is always discernible in his outer appearance.

The frequency of and variety of usage of these two terms in the classical texts is significant in understanding the worldview held by the ancient East Asians. As mentioned, t'ung and ta are used to indicate situations which are usually translated into English as "understand" or "to influence." But while we may render these words as such in English, their etymology indicates the fact that in the consciousness of their original users, such terms actually reflected the operation of some form of "penetration" or "permeation."

Interpenetration in Sinitic Buddhism

The classical pre-Buddhist intuitions of t'ung were rationalized and technicalized as they were used to facilitate Chinese expressions of Buddhism. The conceptual bases of t'ung in East Asian Buddhism could now be explained through the notions of emptiness (k'ung 空) and dependent origination (yüan-ch'i 縁起), since it is due to the lack of self-nature of things that they can mutually contain, reflect and comprise--or "interpenetrate" each other. Doctrinal classifiers such as Chih-i (538-597) used the term t'ung to refer to the type of Buddhist teaching that is "shared" or "understood in the same way" by students of varying predilections.10 The Sanskrit term for the supernatural powers of the Buddha or great Bodhisattva (abhijn~āh, literally "super knowledges") was also translated into Chinese as t'ung, indicating that the mind of the Buddha penetrates to all places.11

The most important development of the meaning of t'ung came with the emergence of Hua-yen philosophy, where the metaphysics of interpenetration/non-obstruction became the hallmark of the school. The key usage of t'ung is in the discourse of the third and fourth dharmadhātus ("reality-realms" 法界) developed by the early Hua-yen patriarchs. These are the realms of li-shih wu-ai (理事無礙 "non-obstruction between principle and phenomena") and shih-shih wu-ai (事事無礙 "non-obstruction between phenomena and phenomena," or "perfect interpenetration of phenomena"). In the third realm, the conceptually differentiated spheres of principle and phenomena (emptiness and form 空色) are shown to be mutually containing. Since they are mutually containing, it follows that individual phenomena also contain each other without obstruction.

In view of the lack of attention paid to this concept of pre-Buddhist interpenetration in prior scholarship, much care will be devoted to its exposition in the chapters that follow. But it will also be shown that interpenetration is more than just another unexplored category. It is the vitally important link which allows for the concepts of study-as-practice (explained below) and essence-function to manifest their complete meaning. Interpenetration possesses no ontological or metaphysical priority over the other two concepts, as each one of the three is vitally necessary for the proper enactment and understanding of the other two. They are endlessly intertwined. The only distinction that we might want to make at this point is to say that interpenetration and essence-function are more metaphysically-oriented categories and that study-as-practice represents their implementation in the arena of actual human relationships and self-transformation.

Study as Practice

I introduce the concept "study as practice" as an attempt to reflect an aspect of the character of the East Asian attitude toward a practice-engaged study, which is a manifestation in the realm of personal spiritual and academic training of the paradigms of essence-function and interpenetration. It is a reference to the character of religious practice in Confucianism, Taoism and East Asian Buddhism to be, from a variety of perspectives, non-dualistic and holistic and in considerable overlap with the concept of study. One of the foremost of the numerous aspects of the concept of integral practice is the intimate relationship of notions of personal transformation with the classical Confucian/Taoist/East Asian Buddhist12 concept of "learning" or "study," (hsüeh 學) wherein one's level of scholarly attainment was recognized to be greatly contingent upon the degree to which one had embodied (t'i-te 體得) the object of study. I.e., the classical East Asian conception of scholarship was intimately connected with what is distinguished in modernity as "practice." Or to look at it from the opposite side, the sharp distinction that modern scholarship makes between "study" and "practice" did not exist in such a manner for the East Asian classical thinkers. This understanding of "study" is evident in almost every branch of Confucianism, Taoism and East Asian Buddhism.

The primary objects of inquiry in the East Asian classical philosophical texts of the "three teachings" were the human mind and human behavior, and the most seminal of the Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist texts were written for the explicit purpose of bringing about reflection on the nature of the mind and one's actions, in order to reveal their purity and dross, such that the purity could be enhanced and the dross eliminated. Moreover, in the sense that the texts, whether the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching, Chuang-tzu, Awakening of Faith or Platform Sutra were considered to reflect the minds of the sages, they were understood to be agents of transformation in themselves. By studying the text with earnestness, one could embody its message such that his/her behavior might become penetrated by its underlying theme. In most East Asian philosophical streams, such embodiment of a text was a fundamental stage in the process of self-transformation.13 While this process was normally initiated by memorization of the text, memorization itself was not the final aim, but an important first step, a preliminary qualification allowing for the deeper investigation into the text and the apprehension of its principles. In this sort of "scholarship," the criterion of achievement was not the breadth of knowledge of facts that one held at one's command about a certain area, but the degree to which one had assimilated the teachings of the sages into his behavior. It is for this reason that the "scholar of broad learning (tuo-wen ï ï ï ï )" was, in all three classical traditions, considered to be of a lower level than one who could actually demonstrate the kind of insight and actions indicative of self-transformation.

Concomitant with this understanding of "study" as the process of attaining of a unity with its object, is the basic premise that such study includes a training and refinement of the person's character. This refinement, when assiduously carried out, contains the possibility of attainment of human perfection, since "perfection" (defined variously in different traditions) was considered to be an innate endowment of all persons.14 This view of the possibility of attainment of human perfection through "training" can be discerned in the earliest extant works of Chinese philosophical literature, such as the I Ching (易經 Book of Changes), Shih Ching (詩經 Book of Poems) and Li Chi (ï Xï L, Record of Ritual). Such a perspective continued to form the basis of the mainstream Confucian thought expressed in the Lun Yü (論語 Analects) and Meng-tzu (孟子 Mencius), as well as in the early Taoist literature. The possibility for the attainment of human perfection through refinement also served as an important basis for the strong East Asian affinity with the Buddhist religion when it was first introduced into the sinitic cultural sphere, and can furthermore be seen as a major point in common between sinitic Buddhism and the later-developing Neo-Confucianism.

Another connotation of this concept of study-as-practice is the high degree to which the process of personal transformation was related to the harmonizing of one's function with the realities of the mundane world. This tendency toward sacred/secular integration was a core component of the major streams of Confucianism and Taoism, and also made a significant impact in East Asian Buddhism, where, despite the importation of a highly mystical Indian tradition which placed significant importance on world-renunciation, a noticeable amount of stress (most notably in the Ch'an/Sŏn/Zen movement) came to be placed on one's ability to act without hindrance in response to phenomenal situations.


The chapters that follow offer a thorough re-reading of the seminal texts of East Asian thought, wherein East Asian philosophical and religious consciousness is perceived to be, while contained a wide array of differences and variations, at the same time penetrated by a single thread (i-kuan ) of essence-function/interpenetration and study-as-practice. We will start off by identifying the earliest manifestations of this way of thinking in early Chou works such as the I Ching and Li Chi. We will then proceed to analyze its more distinct appearance in the definitive classical Confucian and Taoist texts such as the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu. This discussion of classical Confucianism and Taoism together within the framework of these categories will lead us much further, and philosophically much deeper, in identifying key similarities as well as important differences between representative views of the two traditions.

Having conducted a thorough discussion of Confucianism and Taoism within this indigenous framework, we can embark on a revealing inquiry of the nature and consequences of the philosophical interaction between the major native thought-systems and the powerful incoming tradition of Buddhism, which did so much to transform the East Asian religious consciousness, and yet which was so transformed by its new philosophical environment. Especially important in this regard is an investigation of the writings which come to fore concomitant with the development of distinct East Asian philosophical schools of Buddhism, most important of which for our purposes are T'ien-t'ai, Hua-yen and Ch'an. Within the matrix of these schools, texts such as the Awakening of Faith and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, along with the commentarial writings of the Hua-yen patriarchs, offer us the clearest expression of a re-orientation of Buddhist thought along essence-function/interpenetration guidelines. This re-orientation is brought to further expression in the distinctive usage of essence-function/interpenetration frameworks in the writing of the Ch'an records.

The final major transformation in East Asian thought along essence-function/interpenetration lines is that seen in the development of Neo-Confucian thought, both in the orthodox Ch'eng-Chu lineages, as well as in various distinctive interpretations, such as the Lu/Yang-ming movement in China and that of T'oegye, Yulgok or Tasan in Korea.


1. The usage of the word "informing" here represents an attempt to convey the degree to which essence-function and interpenetration each possess two general aspects: they are formative principles, in the sense that they provide a metaphysical frame to the indigenous classical East Asian worldview. Yet they are also "informative" principles in the sense that they may be utilized as an interpretive frameworks--as hermeneutical models through which one may analyze East Asian classical texts. Return to text

2. In his commentary to the Tao Te Ching, entitled Lao-tzu chu . See especially his commentary to Chapter 38. The evidence that Wang Pi was the first to actually make usage of this construction is not fully conclusive. Return to text

3. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. Return to text

4. Webster's New World Dictionary. Return to text

5. The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. Return to text

6. This passage will be treated in depth in a later chapter. Return to text

7. Ch'eng Hao ( 1032-1085), Ch'eng I ( ; 1033-1107) Return to text

8. The bulk of modern scholarship on the historical growth of Chinese Buddhism has tended to attribute its success or failure to political fortunes. While there is no doubt that court relations were a major factor, too much attention to this aspect can result in the passing over of the great extent of metaphysical affinities between Buddhism and East Asian indigenous philosophies. These have been occasionally noted, but more as points of curiosity, or in the case of ko-i studies (ï iï ` "matching the meaning", an early translation methodology which rendered Indian Buddhist terms, such as s`ūnyatā or "emptiness," into Taoist equivalents such as wu ï ï "nothingness"), as points of misunderstanding of Buddhism on the part of Chinese would-be Buddhists. Return to text

9. Although a strong monastic system developed in East Asia, the practice of leaving home never became as culturally widespread as it had in India, and many East Asian monastic forms of practice (most notably in Ch'an) came to place strong emphasis on phenomenal activity. Return to text

10. Chih-i defines this term in his Ssu-chiao i ï l `. See T 1949.46.721 ff. Return to text

11. See Nakamura Hajime, Bukkyougo daijiten, p. 971a. Return to text

12. A distinction is being made here in that some of the characterizations made in this paper regarding East Asian Buddhism may possibly not hold true for Tibetan and South Asian Buddhism. Return to text

13. It is no doubt because of this understanding that memorization played such a central role in the instruction of all three major thought systems. We also might note that even in the so-called "bibliophobic" streams of meditational Buddhism in East Asia, meditation sessions and various other rituals included memorized chanting of seminal texts such as the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra. Return to text

14. While there were occasional thinkers in East Asian history who did not subscribe to this view of "innate sagehood," they remain by far an exceptionally small minority. Return to text