On Zhu Xi's Theory of Mind and Methods of Self-Cultivation
Excerpted from Smith, Bol, Adler, and Wyatt, Sung Dynasty
Uses of the I Ching (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990),
- ... [B]y the time of the Southern Song there was a growing disenchantment
with politics as the focus of Confucian moral activity (de xing).
The failure of the Northern Song political reforms and the threat of
military subjugation by northern tribes persuaded Zhu Xi and many of
his contemporaries that the prerequisite to solving the problems of
the Song was the inner cultivation of moral character by the literati
class. This was a return to the fundamental Confucian notions that moral
power (de, or "virtue") is superior to physical coercion ("laws
and punishments") as a foundation of government,(1)
and that without humanity or humaneness (ren) proper behavior
(li) is meaningless.(2) In the
Northern Song, the "external" measures of institutional and political
reform had been tried and had failed. Through Zhu Xi's efforts, the
debate over the source of values and the question of whether one can
know the Way had been won by the Cheng school, according to which values
are inherent in the Heaven-endowed moral nature and can be known and
put into effect by means of self-cultivation. For Zhu Xi self-cultivation
was the ultimate criterion of literati learning.(3)
The problems now to be faced concerned practice: how to know the Way
and how to put it into effect. This was a socio-political problem as
well as a religious one, for access to a Way rooted in heaven-and-earth
and human nature afforded literati a source of moral authority independent
of the state. Thus we find Zhu Xi concentrating on the inner life of
the individual, on the Great Learning's premise that "self-cultivation
is the root" of social and political order.(4)
Zhu's fundamental problematic, the basis of all his intellectual concerns,
was the possibility and the difficulty of attaining sagehood by means
of self-cultivation. It is in this context that we must situate his
approach to the Yijing [I Ching].
The problem of attaining sagehood in Zhu Xi's system is connected
with his theory of mind. We shall, therefore, briefly examine this
complex topic before we look more closely at Zhu's approach to the
The problem of mind
According to Zhu Xi, mind or mind/heart (xin) is composed
of qi, the psycho-physical substrate of all things, in which
inheres li, the principle or coherence or order or pattern
underlying the cosmos. The li of the mind is human nature (xing),
which is inherently good. The qi of the mind is the clearest,
most refined form of qi, but the degree of this clarity varies
from person to person. The sage is a person whose mind is composed
of perfectly clear qi; it is free of the obstruction or cloudiness
ordinarily caused by the mind's physical endowment (qizhi).
Thus the sage possesses complete knowledge of the moral pattern inherent
in all things, including his own mind. He therefore has perfect self-knowledge
and fully manifests the goodness of human nature. By acting as an
exemplar of human virtue the sage can exert a transforming influence
Every person has, theoretically, the potential to become a sage.
While those of us with murkier endowments of ch'i have less
chance of becoming sages than those born (by chance(5))
with clearer endowments, still each of us knows li to some
extent. Our knowledge of li, partial as it may be, is not essentially
different from the sage's perfect knowledge. To become a sage is therefore
a matter of purifying our qi, or "transforming the physical
endowment" (bianhua qizhi) by means of various intellectual
and spiritual practices. These methods of self-cultivation include:(6)
(1) "Abiding in reverent composure" (ju jing),
an attitude that orients and unifies one's activity, underlying and
making possible the following:
(2) "Prudence in solitude" (shen du), or extreme
care taken to heighten awareness of psychic phenomena (ideas, feelings,
intentions) in their incipient (ji) phases, at the point
when the unexpressed (weifa) mind first expresses itself,
(3) "Self-examination" (xing cha), to distinguish
the good psychic phenomena from the evil or selfish ones,(7)
(4) "Preserving and nourishing" (cun yang) the good
psychic phenomena, and the innate moral mind and nature of which
they are the direct expressions,
(5) "Conquering the self" (ke ji),(8)
or eliminating the bad psychic phenomena, such as selfish desires,
(6) "Quiet-sitting" (jing zuo), or meditation, conceived
as a quiescent phase in a daily cycle of activity and stillness,
when one collects oneself without banishing thoughts; a relatively
(but not totally) inactive period that nourishes creative activity,(9)
(7) "Investigating things and extending knowledge" (gewu
zhizhi), i.e. "completely fathoming the patterns of things and
events,"(10) both externally and
within oneself, eventually to arrive at a cognitive "interpenetration"
(guan tong) of all things, conceived as an enlightenment
(8) "Practice" (xing), to put into effect one's knowledge,
in effect to validate one's self-cultivation.
1. Analects 2:1, 2:3.
2. Analects 3:3.
3. See Peter K. Bol, "Chu Hsi's Redefinition of
Literati Learning," in John Chaffee and Wm. Theodore de Bary, eds.,
Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1989).
4. See Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi and
the Ta-hsueh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon
(Cambridge: Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies, 1986);
and Conrad Schirokauer, "Chu Hsi's Political Career: A Study in Ambivalence,"
in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), pp.162-188. For the Great
Learning see Chan, Source Book, p. 87. On the matter of intellectual
changes between Northern and Southern Sung see Robert P. Hymes, Statesmen
and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern
Sung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Hymes argues
that a development parallel to the one outlined here was the shift
in literati political thought and action from a national frame of
reference to a more local one (see especially pp.121-122, 132-135).
5. On the role of chance in the appearance of
sages, see Chu-tzu yü-lei (Chu Hsi's Classified Conversations),
comp. Li Ching-te (1270; rpt. Taipei: Cheng-chung, 1970), ch. 4, p.129.
6. See T'ang Chün-i, "The Development of
the Concept of Moral Mind from Wang Yang-ming to Wang Chi," in Wm.
Theodore de Bary, ed., Self and Society in Ming Thought (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 93-120.
7. The capacity to distinguish good and
evil was said to be an innate characteristic of the human mind, corresponding
to "wisdom," one of the Five Constant Virtues (or Four Virtues in
Mencius 2A:6). See Donald Munro, The Concept of Man in Early China
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), pp. 49-58.
8. Cf. Analects 12:1.
9. See Okada Takehiko, Zazen to Seiza
(Sitting-meditation and Quiet-sitting) (Tokyo: Ofusha, 1966).
10. Chu Hsi, Ta-hsüeh chang-chü
(The Great Learning in chapters and verses), in Ssu-shu chi-chu
(Collected Commentaries on the Four Books) (Ssu-pu pei-yao ed.), p.