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Essence-Function and Interpenetration: Early Chinese Origins and Manifestations

A. Charles Muller
Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 7 (1999)

This is the second in a series of articles on the role of the concepts of essence-function (t'i-yung 體用) and interpenetration (t'ung-ta 通達) in traditional East Asian religious and philosophical thought. The first installment of this series, entitled "The Composition of Self-Transformation Thought in Classical East Asian Philosophy and Religion." (Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 4, March, 1996), was a general introduction to the two concepts. The present article treats their appearance in the earliest Confucian classics, including the I Ching, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean, with a special emphasis on the elaboration of the role of the concept of sincerity.

これ は伝統的の東アジアの哲学的・宗教学的思想における「體用」(essence-function) と「通達」(interpenetration)という概念の役割について、のシリーズ二番目の論文である。このシリーズの一番目の論文「東アジアにおけ る人間完成哲学の構成」(東洋学園大学紀要、第四、1996年)はこの2つの概念に対して一般的な序論であった.今回の論文は易經、大學、中論を含む初期 の経典における「體用」、「通達」について特に「誠」の概念の役割の推敲に焦点を当てる.

I. Tao and the I Ching

An important component of the early Chinese world view, as we can glean through the earliest classical texts such as the Book of Changes (I Ching 易經 ) and Record of Ritual (Li-chi 禮記), as well as later Confucian and Taoist works such as the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu, was that of human beings and their world forming an organic, interlinked whole, the parts of which were continually bringing influence on each other in an interactive manner. This is set against the background of a general cosmogonic model shared in the indigenous East Asian traditions, in which "it is presumed that the world is generated through a process by which an originally undifferentiated whole divides into a primordial polarity, through whose interaction the world of differentiated phenomena is then generated."1 This stands in contrast to the broad Western model of the Greek-Judeo-Christian cosmogonic worldview, in which a singular, all-powerful divinity directly creates the world and its beings. The Mediterranean/Middle Eastern man had recourse in the form of prayer to his God, but was not seen as personally and directly affecting the events of the world in the organic way which was seen in East Asia.

The early East Asian philosophical world was possessed of a certain transparency. Existence was bifurcated into the two forces of yin and yang , with the two mixing together in an ever-changing complex series of transforming combinations. Compared to the much more highly developed Buddhist metaphysics which would come along later, the early Chinese explanations of the "mechanics" underlying existence tended to be somewhat vague and poorly defined—reflecting, perhaps, the degree to which interest in such matters was not taken with the kind of seriousness seen in other cultures (such as that of India, for example). Therefore the concept of a unifying "principle" would not really take on a its fully matured metaphysical articulation until the advent of the Buddhist li (). Nonetheless, there was an intuitive perception shared by all of the definitive early authors, in an invisible, formless, pervasive principle, the accordance or non-accordance with which had predictable consequences.

The most pervasive concept which came into usage to define this principle was the term tao , meaning the "way." Other related concepts included t'ien-ming (mandate of heaven 天命) and i (change ). The early Chinese tao, while differing at times to a great extent in interpretation between various later Confucian and Taoist schools, was nonetheless seen as a universally penetrating principle with which human beings had the clear option of either attuning themselves with or acting contrary to. In the Analects of Confucius, tao can be an individual's own particular path, but there are also clear signs of a developing understanding toward tao as a universal principle. Once the Tao Te Ching was composed, tao reached a new state in its role of definition of universal principle. In the I Ching and the Analects, tao, and more widely, the general concept of universal principle (which also includes t'ien-ming) has very clear moral connotations, which are intimately connected with the mind of human beings. Later on, when these ideas became re-articulated in Neo-Confucianism, the direct connection between the human mind and the mind of tao was be clearly established, but the precursors of these Neo-Confucian conceptions can already be seen here.

What we need to first grasp regarding the characteristics of this principle, is its degree of pervasiveness. The tao is contained and expressed in all the myriad things of the universe. It, in itself, cannot be apprehended by the human senses as such. However, its effects, or manifestations, or attributes (in the Tao Te Ching, called te ) are quite visible to those who know what they are looking for. Its ways of acting may be seen in the metaphors of the world according to the situation. Its flexibility and adaptability are compared to such everyday natural things as water, young plants, young animal and humans, etc. Its function tends towards harmony. Those who would embrace the tao are advised to take note of its function, especially since it, in itself, cannot be sensed, or described in words.

In its pervasiveness, the tao has two kinds of aspects. One aspect is its invisible, insensible, ineffable nature. This is the tao as it is in itself. This is also could be called the tao as essence. The other aspect is the tao as we see it in its activity in the world. Even though the tao in itself is not sensible or describable, we can confirm its action in examples of harmony, flexibility and naturalness that we see in the world. Or, in terms of a Confucian-oriented view, we can see the function of the invisible principle in terms of reward and punishment of good and evil behavior by heaven. In addition to this hidden, unmanifest, subtle aspect, the tao has a visible, manifest, tangible aspect. These two, can, following the terminology expressed above, be identified as "essence" and "function." Although the t'i-yung construction is only adopted as a formal hermeneutic structure per se several centuries after the writing of the major early classics, it may be nonetheless be regarded as a way of summarizing a wide range of prior terminology that reflects precisely this kind of structure, pervading all the major early philosophical texts. It is the texts that most clearly and consistently presented an essence-function/interpenetration picture of human beings and their universe that were to end up holding the greatest influence in the East Asian philosophical tradition.

The earliest text to offer a clear essence-function and interpenetrated view of the universe is the I Ching, the hexagrams of which were understood to be archetypal representations of modes of transformation throughout the existent universe, which penetrated and permeated that same universe in its entirety. This view is presented consistently in the Great Appendix (Hsi-tz'u chuan 繋辭傳) of Book of Changes, which says:

The Changes lack thought and lack activity. They are quiescent and unmoving. Nonetheless, their sensitivity completely penetrates the affairs of the entire world. If they were not the most spiritual thing in the world, how could they be able to do this? The Changes are the means by which the sage plumbs the depths and studies the incipient function of things. Knowing their depth, the sage is able to penetrate the will of all under heaven. Knowing their incipient function, he is able to accomplish the works of the world.2

In this short passage we can already begin to discern much about the nature of early Chinese thought in relation to the Changes, which are clearly described through the aspects of essence, function and interpenetration. "Quiescence" and "motionlessness," from the time of the I Ching, down to the latest developments in Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, will always be the characteristics of the expression of something in its aspect of essence. Yet paradoxically, despite this motionlessness, they are able to be fully present everywhere, without obstruction. This is because of their "spiritualness" (shen ), which connotes (1) a lack of material substantiality, and (2) a "supernatural" kind of activity, which is not easily comprehensible to the average, everyday mentality. So despite their quiescence in essence, in their function the Changes are fully present in all mundane activities. They also can be used by the sages, who through them, can penetrate to their depths (their essence) and at the same time express this accordance with them in being able to deftly handle all the worldly works (function), which, as an eminently responsible human being, the sage cannot avoid.

The invisible principle, which might be named in one place as the changes or in another place as the tao, is most importantly, for all of Chinese philosophy, something which is to be known by, and if possible, fully manifested by human beings. It is their endowment, as it is for all the creatures of existence. But people differ in their ability to apprehend it and partake in its marvelous function. The Hsi-tz'u chuan again says:

The movement between one yin and one yang is called the tao. Its continuity is goodness, its completion is its nature. The benevolent see it and call it benevolent. The wise see it and call it wisdom. The common people act according to it every day, but have no knowledge of it. Therefore the tao of the superior man is experienced by few. It manifests as benevolence yet conceals its functions. It stimulates the myriad things into activity, but does not share in the anxieties of the sage. Its abundance of virtue and great operation are superb indeed!3

Thus, the tao, although ever present, is perceived to different degrees and in different ways by people of different capacity. That which is actually only of one, indiscernible quality in its essential state, is understood in its function variously according to its perceiver. Thus, in this particular context, benevolence (jen 仁), wisdom (chih ) and non-relevance, can be seen as three different "functions" of the tao according to the perspective.

II. Roots and Branches: The Great Learning

The most common metaphor used to indicate essence and function before the invention of the t'i-yung terminology is that of "roots and branches (pen-mo 本末)." This early term would never really fade from usage, even after the invention of the t'i-yung structure, and would continue to be used in texts throughout the later developments in Neo-Confucianism, as well as Korean and Japanese Buddhism. The text that serves most effectively embed this metaphor in East Asian philosophical consciousness is the Great Learning (Ta-hs üeh 大學), originally a chapter in the Record of Ritual (禮記), one of the basic "five classics" of the Confucian tradition. As do many Confucian texts, the Great Learning has as one of its main themes the topic of bringing proper governance, and ultimately peace, to the realm. But the approach of this text toward this aim is decidedly essence-function oriented, or in this case—"roots and branches" oriented. One of the main aspects of roots and branches thinking is the stress on the proper evaluation of priorities. This way of thinking seeks to solve problems by correcting their cause at the deepest level, and then allowing such a correction to inexorably manifest itself at the most superficial. Thus, although the approach can be categorized as an "essence-function" or "roots and branches" approach, this never means an equality of the two in terms of value: in every case, the essential aspect is prioritized. Therefore, essence-function thinkers are often perceived by function-oriented thinkers to be "essence-only" thinkers, or perhaps "idealists." This, however, is merely a matter of perspective.

The Great Learning sees the heart of the problem in classical autocratic rule to be that of the spiritual condition of the person who is at the center of the realm—the king. If there is a rotten king at the center, it is going to be basically impossible to set things aright in the realm, no matter how well-conceived the government policies are. So the problem at hand is the correction of the mind of the ruler, and toward this purpose it is necessary to describe a program of spiritual rectification. This program of rectification, although being aimed in this case at the ruler, might be applied to any person seeking to correct destructive behavioral patterns.

There are clear reasons for the ruler-centric attitude of the teaching of the Great Learning and the other influential texts of the period, since, at the time they were written, the area of Han China was in a state of almost continual warfare and disturbance, wherein numerous petty rulers vied with one another for the upper hand, seeking to unite the realm under their singular control. The suffering that was brought upon the people was tremendous, as they, being mainly farmers, would at best, be forced to leave their homes and crops, and fight as conscripts in largely senseless wars. At worst, they would be killed or conquered, only to be suppressed by a new hegemon, who attended to their well-being no better than the previous ruler. Therefore, a common strand that runs through all the philosophical texts of the period, no matter what their school or metaphysical affinity, is a preoccupation the matter of bringing peace to a war-torn land.

The Great Learning starts off with the opening phrase:

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

From this passage we know that the kind of "learning" being discussed here is not merely of an academic nature, but has more to do with the process of personal transformation. An assumption is being made here that one is already in possession of "bright virtue" which needs to be actualized. The text continues:

When you know where to stop, you have stability.

When you have stability, you can be tranquil.

When you are tranquil, you can be at ease.

When you are at ease, you can deliberate.

When you can deliberate, you can attain your aims.

This passage, which teaches how to accomplish one's goals, uses a "roots-branches" scheme to place a priority on the attainment of a measure of mental stability before engaging in the work at hand. The next passage, presents the major proposition:

Things have their roots and branches, affairs have their end and beginning. When you know what comes first and what comes last, then you are near the Tao.

Much is contained in this short statement, as the writer is clearly stating the incomparable importance of being able to distinguish between the roots and branches of things. This means being able to clearly distinguish causes from effects; distinguishing the substantial and the superficial; distinguishing the disease from its symptoms. The person who is able to do this is accorded with the highest praise possible—closeness to the Tao.

Although the intellectual grasping of such a concept is relatively easy, its full personal actualization is not. If we pause for a moment and reflect on own lives, our relationships with those around us, in our families, at our jobs, in our classrooms, we can consider how often it is that the problems and misunderstandings that we have result from our not accurately discriminating the important from the unimportant; the causes from the effects. We should also take note here for those who understand essence-function thought as tending toward monism: it is clear that in any usage of essence-function, accurate discriminatory, discerning power is paramount to the task.

The text proceeds by elucidating the matter of governance from the branches to the roots.

The ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world first governed well their own states.

Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans.

Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.

Wanting to cultivate themselves, they first corrected their minds.

Wanting to correct their minds, they first made their wills sincere.

Wanting to make their wills sincere, they first extended their knowledge.

Extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things.

This is the hallmark "roots and branches" teaching, which is re-invoked time and again in later East Asian philosophical literature. What is implied here is that if a ruler wants to achieve lofty goals, he must first fully rectify his own character. The Great Learning would later be made a required text for the study in the Chinese and Korean imperial examination system, becoming as well a cornerstone text for the Neo-Confucian movement which would later arise. Regarding Neo-Confucianism, an interesting discrepancy would arise concerning the above passage. In an earlier edition of the Li Chi (wherein this text was originally contained), the two phrases, "sincerity of the will" and "extension of knowledge" were placed in opposite order. The most prominent systematizer of Neo-Confucianism, Chu Hsi 朱熹, regarded this to be a textual error and re-arranged them into the form seen here. However, a later important Neo-Confucian figure named Wang Yang-ming 王陽明, argued that Chu Hsi's determination amounted to a misunderstanding of the text, since it his understanding that making one's will sincere is more fundamental to the matter of human cultivation than is intellectual investigation. This is a matter that we can investigate at length when we look at Neo-Confucianism in depth. But we can take note that this difference in interpretation is, either way, still a matter of essence-function, wherein one interpreter felt "investigation of things" to be more fundamental, whereas the other felt "sincerity of the will" to be more basic.

From this point, the Great Learning proceeds in the opposite direction, showing how the effect of the fundamental transformation of one's mind can result in world harmony.

When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.

When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.

When the will is sincere, the mind is correct.

When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated.

When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.

When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.

When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.

The logic of the essence-function paradigm expressed in this passage should be obvious. There are, however, a couple of additional points we might take note of in regard to their relevance to the overall nature of the usage of this paradigm. First, is its moral dimension. While roots-and-branches logic can be applied to virtually any situation or entity that we can conceive of, its most important application in its connection with the East Asian religious and philosophical worldview is that of the moral cultivation, or the spiritualization of the individual. The source for such a moral development or spiritualization however, is never from the outside, but from within one's own mind, where the "bright virtue" is already fully present, even if less than fully manifested.

The second aspect to be noted here is the degree to which we can see the reflection of the transparency of this world view, or the possibility of penetration/permeation of the goodness of the mind of a single individual (in this case, the ruler), out to the entire land. One might dispute this interpretation, saying that what is reflected here is nothing other than a natural series of causes and effects, and that to interpret it as an example of penetration (or even worse "interpenetration") would be reading too much into it. But such an objection reflects a misunderstanding of the meaning of interpenetration, even in the most rarefied articulation of the concept in the later-appearing Hua-yen school of Chinese Buddhism. I.e., people tend to see interpenetration as either a kind of magical occurrence, or at least as something that seems to operate outside the domain of the natural laws of cause and effect. It is rather, precisely through the laws of cause and effect that interpenetration operates, although perhaps in a manner far more complete than is apprehensible through the human senses and conceptual faculties. We theorize and observe cause and effect as best we can, but as modern science tells us, human beings are capable of sensing only a mere ten percent of the physical world (not to mention the mental world), which means that for the most part, we don't actually know exactly how causes and effects are occurring.

The logic being expressed in the Great Learning, is quite different than that which is thought of or believed in modern/secularized/Western culture. Do most of us believe, for a moment, that if the president of the United States were to "investigate things," "extend his knowledge," and "make his will sincere," that it would result in "good government" and "world peace (well, perhaps nowadays, many can see begin to see the relationship)"? No doubt most would consider this to be a naive perception. The author of the Great Learning, an essence-function thinker, saw things differently. The text continues:

From the king down to the common people, all must regard the cultivation of the self as the most essential thing. It is impossible to have a situation wherein the fundamentals are in disorder (pen-luan 本亂), and the secondary matters are well-managed (mo-chih 末治). You simply cannot take the essential things (hou ) as superficial (po ), and the superficial things as essential.

This passage summarizes the theme of the Great Learning, clarifying the relationship between the fundamental and the secondary, pointing out the foolishness of not acting in accordance with this fact. The two terms that are used here are of common usage in essence-function language in all three East Asian traditions: that is hou, which means "thick," "rich," "dense," "deep," "heartfelt," etc. and po, which means, "thin," "insipid," "shallow," "trifling," etc.

The Great Learning also has a canonical commentary attached to it, which reiterates the basic roots and branches message of the text. Of particular interest to students of the Great Learning has been section six, which discusses the all-important matter of "sincerity" in some detail. The passage says:

'Making the will sincere,' means 'no self-deception.' Like when we allow ourselves to be disgusted by a bad smell or become infatuated with a beautiful face. This is called 'self-satisfaction.' Therefore the Superior Man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

When the inferior man is at leisure, there is no limit to the extent of his evil. But when he sees a Superior Man he will be ashamed; he will cover his evil and display his goodness. When people observe you, they see right to your core. So what's the use of being deceitful? Therefore we say: "internal sincerity expresses itself outwardly without obscuration." Therefore the Superior Man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

The Superior Man (chün-tzu 君子) is a model person who has made significant progress in the path of self-cultivation, by practicing the Confucian virtues of righteousness, loving treatment of parents, respect for elders, honesty with friends, etc. His basic attitude is one of fairness and self-reflection in all matters, in contrast to the "inferior man" (hsiao-jen 小人) whose basic attitude is one of selfishness and deception. This passage is important in a few ways. One of the most important points to be gleaned here is the way in which it clarifies unity, or mutual containment of essence (one's inner mind) and function (external actions). The inferior man, in his ignorance, believes that he can cover up his mean thoughts by putting on a nice exterior, and feels compelled to do so when in the presence of a virtuous person. But the commentator is letting us know of the perfect transparency with which one's true mind reflects itself on the outside, whether that mind be something admirable or despicable. Because it manifests itself so transparently, those who observe an inferior person do not need any special ability or training to discern a person's real nature. People are showing who they really are every instant, whether they realize it or not. Even if one is able to cover up his or her true nature for a period of time, if we observe long enough, eventually it will show itself.

Thus, the essence is wholly present in the function, and the function wholly presents the essence. It would also be the same to say that they mutually contain each other, or that they "interpenetrate" each other." Here then, we have a powerful first example of the reasoning behind our earlier statement, that the concepts of essence-function and interpenetration are mutually independent, or, we might say, two different ways of reflecting the same view of reality.

III. The Doctrine of the Mean: Sincerity

A text which is closely related to the Great Learning in terms of origin and content, has also been a longtime favorite of students of classical East Asian philosophy, and not only those from the Confucian tradition. This is the Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung 中庸), which, like the Great Learning, was also originally a chapter in the Record of Rites, but because of its special quality, was set aside for special study as an independent text. The text starts as follows:

What Heaven confers is called "nature." Accordance with this nature is called the Tao. Cultivating the Tao is called "education." That which is called Tao cannot be separated from for an instant. What can be separated from is not the Tao. Therefore the Superior Man is cautious in the place where he is not seen, and apprehensive in the place where he is not heard. Nothing is more visible than the hidden, and nothing is more apparent than the subtle. Therefore the Superior Man is cautious when he is alone. When joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure have not yet arisen, it is called chung (equilibrium, centrality, mean). When they arise to their appropriate levels, it is called "harmony." Chung is the great root of all-under-heaven. "Harmony" is the penetration of the Tao through all-under-heaven. When chung mean and harmony are actualized, Heaven and Earth are in their proper positions, and the myriad things are nourished.

The message being presented here is quite in resonance with that given in the commentarial passage of the Great Learning, especially in regard to the fact that one's inner mind naturally expresses itself on the outside. When people think that they are hiding what is going on inside, they are only kidding themselves, and not recognizing the transparency of the world for what it is. What is expressed somewhat uniquely here though, is the distinction of two levels of the operation of mentality. The "mean" here refers to the mind as it is in its essence, when it is still, in a primordial state which is not yet associated with differentiation or activity. When, however, such a balanced state is expressed in activity, it is called "harmony." Implied here, is that if the emotions arise to an improper level, it would be non-harmonious. Thus, the original, essential state of chung, when arisen to the level of function, has two general possibilities.

The Doctrine of the Mean, like the Great Learning, also has an influential commentary attached to it, also attributed to Confucius. One of its passages reads as follows:

I know why the Tao is not practiced. The intelligent go beyond it and the dull do not reach it. I know why the Tao is not manifested. The 'good' go beyond it and the unworthy do not reach it. There is no one who does not eat or drink, but there are few who really have 'taste.'

The reason that the intelligent go beyond it and that the dull do not reach it is because both intelligence and dullness are extremes in function. Here we can see the beginnings of a clear distinction between what we might call "wisdom" and "knowledge" or "intelligence." The latter two terms are concerned with knowledge of phenomenal things—knowledge of function. A person may be broadly learned, possess a strong memory and quick to grasp points. This might well have nothing to do, however, with their ability to know what is the right thing to do in the matter of human relationships, or their ability to perceive inner, religious truths. It is the same with a person who is normally regarded by others as 'good.' Such a person may exhibit goodness as part of their general function, but still be out of touch with the true essence of goodness.

What is described here then, is certainly not something that is specifically "Confucian." The Taoists make the same sort of charge when they advise people to abandon "wisdom" and "sagacity."4 And the Buddhist tradition, especially the Zen Buddhist tradition, also warns clearly against falling into the trap of knowledge, which becomes an obstruction to the truth. Also, looking at the matter from another point of view, the writer here is warning against being caught up in the concept of "being wise" or "being good," since being wise and good are only functional manifestations, and have nothing to do with the essence. The essential Tao is not governed by wisdom and goodness, and therefore acting in accordance with it the Tao does not especially mean that one will act in a predictable manner according to the norms of commonly accepted values. There is a line from the Analects that well-reflects this attitude:

When the Tao prevailed in the state, Ning Wu Tzu showed his intelligence. When the Tao declined in the state, he played stupid. Someone might be able to match his intelligence, but no one can match his stupidity. (Analects 5:20)

"When the Tao prevailed in the state" means that there was fair and just rulership. At such a time, worthy men would naturally come forth and offer their services in the administration. "When the Tao declined in the state" means that the rulership was evil, decadent and corrupt. If a worthy person were to appear and speak his mind during the reign of a corrupt rulership, he could be sure to suffer an undesirable fate. Therefore, Ning Wu Tzu more than simply smart. He was aware enough of the reality of the situation around him such that he could adjust himself accordingly. This means that his awareness extended much deeper than the phenomenal "function" of things. He knew what was really important, and was therefore able to avoid useless trouble.

Another extremely important topic which is taken up in the Doctrine of the Mean as well as the Great Learning is the primacy of the practice and development of sincerity (ch'eng ). It is especially instructive to pause here and note the degree to which this quality is valued in all three Buddhist traditions for its role in character development, its role in manifesting one's true innate goodness, or (in Buddhism) as an indispensable quality in the religious practice which is geared toward enlightenment. Even in Taoist texts such as the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu, which regularly poke fun at time-honored Confucian concepts such as altruism (jen 仁), righteousness (i ) and filial piety (hsiao ) and just about every other major Confucian value that one can think of, sincerity is never on the list of unwanted reified constructions. It is unassailable.

I propose here, that there is a reason for this, related closely to the essence-function character of the world-view and programs for self-actualization contained within these traditions. Sincerity it a virtue that by its nature cannot include self-deception, falsehood, selfishness or any other kind of pretense. It is also not any sort of attainment, such as that of academic knowledge, or mental stability. It is nothing but the reflection of the purest part of one's mind to the members of the world around us. A person who is in a state of sincerity, is de facto, expressing the purity of his or her innermost mind into functional activity. And if we accept the proposition which will be posed at length in the pages that follow—that the three traditions are one in their belief that the human mind is at its most fundamental level good, then sincerity may be regarded as the most proper form of the functioning of that goodness. Sincerity, then, moves in two directions. From one point of view it might be seen as the correction reflection of the originally virtuous mind in into the realm of function. But from the other end—from an "outside-in" perspective, it can be seen as a form of spiritual cultivation which leads to an ever-growing illumination of this essence. These characteristics of sincerity no doubt have much to do with the unusually prominent role it plays in the religious cultivation of systems which are strongly essence-function oriented. Therefore, the commentary to the Doctrine of the Mean says:

Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. Making oneself sincere is the Way of Man. If you can be perfectly sincere without effort, without a mindfulness to its attainment, and walk embracing the Middle Way, you are a sage.

The enlightenment that comes from sincerity is our own nature. The sincerity that comes from enlightenment is called "education." If you are sincere you will be enlightened. If you are enlightened, you will be sincere.

Only the perfectly sincere person can actualize his own nature (hsing ). Actualizing his own nature, he can fully actualize the nature of others. Fully actualizing the nature of others, he can fully actualize the nature of all things. Being able to fully actualize the nature of all things, he can assist Heaven and Earth in their transformation and sustenance. Able to assist in Heaven and Earth's transformation and sustenance, he 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 manifest 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].

Let us note well the power being acknowledged in the quality of sincerity, a concept that we well understand in modern culture, but that we no doubt perceive in a much more passive way. A sincere person is always appreciated, but it is not generally considered that she or he, by virtue of sincerity alone can "transform others." But the far reaching power of fully actualized sincerity goes 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,5 tortoise shells6 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.

Thus, when one becomes perfected in their sincerity, they seem to have access to a kind of superknowledge, not unlike that possessed by the Buddha in the Buddhist tradition. Yet it is not really treated as a 'supernatural' ability, since it is clear that the signs of impending fortune and misfortune are already there. The perfectly sincere person is merely possessed of enough sensitivity to be aware of these things.

Sincerity is just 'perfecting' and the Tao 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 Tao by which inner and outer are merged. Thus we can always use it to set things right.

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, but 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.

The last line—"it transforms without moving and perfects without effort" is as deeply mystical and paradoxical as anything we will seen in later Taoist and Buddhist texts. Transformation without motion and perfection without effort can only be possible due to the deep unity of sincerity with the essence. If sincerity were a primarily function-related value, it could not operate in this way.


1. This general Chinese view of world-generation is noted by Peter Gregory in his translation of Tsung-mi's Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity. See page 192. Return to text

2. Hsi-tz'u chuan, Part one. For other English translations, see Legge, Yi King, 370, and Wilhelm I Ching, 315. Return to text

3. Hsi-tz'u huan, Part one. See Wilhelm 297-99 and Legge 354-6. Return to text

4. See the Tao Te Ching, chapter 19. Return to text

5. Used in I Ching divination. Return to text

6. An ancient method of divination where tortoise shells were heated over a fire until they cracked. The cracks were read according to their patterns to diagnose a situation. Return to text