The phenomenon of “three teachings in one” emerged in the Tang and Song dynasties. This had gradually become a cultural trend, and eventually reached its pivotal point in the Ming dynasty. As history has always evidenced, the integration and congruence of heterogeneous cultures are bound to be difficult. A case in point is Confucianism and Buddhism. The biggest difference lies in their respective ontology (Confucianism emphasizes concrete moral meaning; while Buddhism, dependent origination and the wisdom of the emptiness of True Nature) and the ultimate goal (Confucianism targets becoming a sage, while Buddhism, accomplishing Buddhahood). Therefore, whether it is Confucianism’s introduction of Buddhism into its tenets or vice verse, both teachings mainly start the integration process with cultivation of the mind and character. This study intends to reveal similarities and differences between interpretation of practice by a Buddhist and a Confucian and consequently cultural implications of these variant interpretations. The focal points of the Confucian Wang Yangming and the Buddhist Ouyi Zhixu’s interpretation of the Great Learning’s theory of practice consider the following four aspects: “investigating nature,” “achieving the utmost knowledge,” “being sincere with thoughts” and “rectifying the mind.”
The interpretations of Wang Yangming and Ouyi Zhixu regarding the four aspects just cited indicate that they had both placed great importance on the practice of “introspection.” Since their theories are both limited by the ontology of their individual school of tenets, the seemingly common practice of introspection appears to be partially incompatible between the two interpretations. From their ordering of the stages of the mind rectifying practice, it is obvious that Yangming tries to highlight the control of moral subjects (achieving the utmost knowledge). The “knowledge” that Yangming wants to achieve refers to the “innate conscience,” a capability of discriminating between good and evil. Only through achieving this knowledge can one begin to investigate nature, and being sincere with thoughts and thus rectifying the mind. “The four are actually the one and the same practice,” Yangming argues, with achieving the utmost knowledge as the most direct and fundamental work. Other mind cultivation aids such as mediation are only skillful means to achieve concentration of the mind.
On the other hand, Ouyi Zhixu, although like Yangming in setting “knowledge” as the basis of manifesting virtues, nevertheless contends that knowledge is obscurely covered without being allowed to reveal its true nature until the mind is transformed into wisdom through the work of “investigating nature.” He proposes as the starting point to break free from the bondage of both ego and phenomena, and eventually achieving the stage of seeing the emptiness of “I” and “phenomena.” By using Buddhist terminology, Ouyi Zhixu tries to interpret the Great Learning’s theory of practice with the essence of Buddhist teachings which he considers as the main and consequently ascribes Confucianism a secondary role. He sees a sequential difference between Confucianism and Buddhism, while at the same time claiming the non-duality of the two teachings. This cultural discrimination of teachings is the most prominent feature that highlights the integration and congruence process of Confucianism and Buddhism.
Ouyi Zhixu (蕅益智旭); Wang Yangming (王陽明); the Great Learning (大學); Rectifying the mind, being sincere with thought; achieving the utmost knowledge; Investigating nature