Varieties of Spiritual Experience:
Shen in Neo-Confucian Discourse


From Tu Wei-ming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Confucian Spirituality,
vol. 2 (New York: Crossroad, 2004).

Joseph A. Adler
Department of Religious Studies
Kenyon College

Gongsun Chou asked,... "May I ask you, Master, in what do you excel?"
"I understand words, and I am good at nourishing my flowing qi."
Mencius 2A.2     

Preliminaries: Understanding Words

Both of Mencius' strong points are highly relevant to our inquiry into Neo-Confucian spirituality. We need to be very self-conscious about the words we bring to the Confucian texts (such as "spirituality") and the words we take from them in translation. Comparative studies always involve the potential risk of built-in biases caused by projecting foreign concepts onto the subject matter. In the present case, the entire project embodied in this volume is open to the criticism that the very concept of "spirituality" is problematic in the Chinese context. Basic dictionary definitions as well as common usage of the word "spirit" and its derivatives carry the clear implication of contradistinction from "matter" and "body," and this is simply and emphatically not true of the concepts we will be examining. The various Chinese terms sometimes translated as "spirit" or "spiritual" -- of these, shen is the most common -- are explicitly understood as being forms or modes of the qi that Mencius was skilled at nourishing. And qi, as many of its translations imply (psycho-physical stuff, material force, vital energy), clearly bridges the conceptual gap described (or constructed) by the terms "spirit" (or energy) and "body" (or matter). Thus we need at the outset to establish good grounds for retaining or rejecting such words as "spirituality," and for choosing which Chinese words they will translate.

In terms of etymology, it is probably qi that bears the closest resemblance to "spirit." The original meaning of qi was mist, or the vapor rising from a sacrificial offering;(1) "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath." Note also the various English words with the same root (respiration, inspiration) that still refer explicitly to breath, and the analogous words in Hebrew, classical Greek, and Sanskrit (ruach, pneuma, and prana) that similarly cover the range of meanings from wind and breath to spirit. And some modern colloquial usages of qi are similar to such terms as "high spirits" and esprit de corps.(2)

However, most uses of qi in Neo-Confucian discourse do not carry the religious implications that "spirit" in English would convey. In fact they tend to emphasize more the physical end of the psycho-physical spectrum, as in the key term qizhi zhi xing, or physical nature (as opposed to the moral nature). Also, qi is not commonly used as an adjective; thus if we translated qi as "spirit," we would have few, if any, occasions to use the adjective "spiritual." Shen, on the other hand, is used in ways that suggest all the variations: "spirit," "spirits," "spiritual," and "spirituality."(3) And since shen is understood to be the finest form of qi, it is implicitly related to breath or vapor.

Therefore, with the proviso that we think of "spirit" in a sense closer to its Latin roots rather than to its Cartesian dualistic usage as a completely non-physical entity or quality, I will use "spirit" in its various forms to translate shen. I will use "psycho-physical stuff" for qi when necessary, but in general I will leave qi untranslated, as it is becoming common enough in English to stand on its own. And finally, another word sometimes translated as "spiritual," ling, will be translated here as "numinous." Ling is used in compounds that suggest the spiritual efficacy of gods, ancestral spirits, and ghosts -- for example their power to effect the seemingly miraculous, to arouse awe, dread, and fascination.(4) Since this is precisely how Rudolf Otto defines "numinous" (a word he coined in his book Das Heilige [The Holy] in 1923), "numinous" serves as an apt translation of ling.(5)

In this chapter I will use the concept of shen, in its various forms, as a thread to link together four levels of Neo-Confucian discourse: cosmology, physiology, epistemology, and Sagehood. The boundaries between these categories, especially in the Chinese intellectual context, are admittedly fluid and somewhat arbitrary; in any case the focus of the discussion will be on their holistic inter-relationships in terms of shen and its related terms. I will argue that this religio-philosophical system is an elaboration of the fundamental Confucian belief that human values are rooted in the natural world, and that it describes a form of religious life best characterized as a system of ultimate transformation and ultimate orientation.(6) We will see that Confucian spirituality is not limited to the "interiority" of moral reflection and mental (or spiritual) cultivation -- although it is highly developed in those respects -- and that in no way does it exclude or even de-emphasize the body and the physical world. Indeed, the ontological continuity of body, mind, and spirit is the key to understanding Neo-Confucian spirituality.

Since we are interested here only in a general depiction of Neo-Confucian discourse, I will focus on the Cheng-Zhu school, which after the 12th century dominated the Confucian intellectual scene in China. I will use as one my chief source texts the Xingli daquan shu (Great Compendium on Human Nature and Principle, compiled by Hu Kuang in 1415), a 70-chapter classified collection of writings and conversations of the Cheng-Zhu school, covering the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368).(7) It was these thinkers, dominated by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), whose ideas were the basis of the civil service examinations from the 14th century to the early 20th, and who therefore exerted tremendous influence over intellectual life in China (including those who rejected their ideas) for roughly 700 years.

Spirit and Cosmology (qi, yin-yang, gui-shen)

The concepts of qi and yin-yang are well-known enough not to require much explanation here. Suffice it to say that qi, or psycho-physical stuff, is the substance of which all existing phenomena are constituted, including all the phases of matter, energy, mind (xin) and even the various forms of spirit (shen). The term is used in both a general sense, referring to the primordial stuff of which all things are composed, and more specific senses. For example, Zhu Xi uses both general and specific senses in one sentence, in reference to the human body: "The pure qi is qi [here meaning something like "breath"]; the turbid qi is matter (zhi)."(8) It is convenient, although over-simplified, to think of qi as a fundamental vapor that can condense into solid matter and disperse into finer and finer forms. It is much like the aer of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximenes, who claimed that it (like qi) was the fundamental substance or nature (physis) of all things.(9)

Yin and yang, whose root meanings are "shady" and "sunny" (or dark and light), are not substances or things but rather functional modes of qi. Yin is qi in its dense, dark, sinking, wet, condensing mode, and yang denotes the light, bright, rising, dry, expanding mode. Together yin and yang represent the principle of bipolarity or complementarity, which was almost universally considered in China since the Han dynasty to be the most fundamental ordering principle of the cosmos -- in Neo-Confucian terms, the most fundamental, universal li (principle, pattern, or order). Zhu Xi called this most fundamental, universal ordering principle "Taiji," a term with largely Daoist roots that had been used by the Northern Song Confucian Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073). Thus Taiji, as understood by Zhu Xi, is best translated as "Supreme Polarity" (although it is usually translated "Supreme Ultimate").(10)

Gui-shen, as a paired term going back at least to Zhou times (11th - 3rd centuries B.C.E.) refers to ghosts and spirits. Ghosts (gui) are unfriendly, dangerous spirits of the dead, especially those who died in unnatural or otherwise extraordinary ways, those for whom the proper burial rites were not performed, and those whose descendants have neglected them, leaving them with no proper place in the social order (which includes both the living and the dead). Spirits (shen) are those whose deaths were natural and properly observed, and whose descendants honor them properly with sacrificial offerings. In other words, these spirits are ancestors (zu, or zuxian).

But the word shen -- in the Song dynasty as well as the present day -- also refers to gods, of which there are several varieties. There are gods of nature (mountains, rivers, etc.); there are gods who were once powerful people -- and therefore also ancestors (e.g. Guan Yu, the famous warrior of the post-Han period(11)); there are household gods (e.g. Caojun, the stove god); there are bureaucratic gods (e.g. Chenghuang, the city god); and there is the master of them all, the Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi, or Yuhuang shangdi). All of these are shen, who were and are clearly and unambiguously worshipped as gods.

Then there are the spirits of the Confucian Sages (sheng) and Worthies (xian), such as Confucius and his chief disciples, and Mencius, who were installed in government-established temples and accorded special rites. (Later, the very Neo-Confucians we will be examining here would join them.) Whether these are to be considered gods, heroes, or ancestral spirits -- in this case not of families but of the class of scholar-officials -- is open to question. Functionally they seem to be parallel to the patron gods of various occupations (e.g. shoemakers, printers, dyers), who were also once historical individuals. But since the word shen covers them all, this is not a problem we really need to solve. In any case there will be no definitive answer, as different worshippers have different conceptions of them.

Confucius was famously reticent concerning ghosts and spirits, and the Neo-Confucians were very much aware of this. Confucius had said, for example, "Respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance" (Analects 6:20). And when a disciple asked about "serving ghosts and spirits" he replied, "When one is not yet able to serve other people, how can one serve ghosts?" When the disciple asked about death, Confucius said, "When one does not yet understand life, how can one understand death?" (Analects 11:11).

Statements like these do not mean that Confucius did not believe in ghosts and spirits; they reflect, rather, his attempts to redirect the attention of the literati of his day to the urgent social, ethical, and political tasks of restoring harmony to a society wracked by war and political strife. He felt that what was most urgent was the moral revitalization of the ruling class, and that the way to achieve this was not to court the favor of gods and ancestors but to revive the idealized Way or ways of the benevolent sage-kings who had founded the Zhou dynasty some five-hundred years earlier. While this Way included worship of ancestors and various gods, such worship without proper understanding and reverence was meaningless and ineffective, and even with understanding and reverence was no substitute for good government. So Confucius stressed learning, thinking, and moral self-cultivation as the key to good government and meaningful ritual. "If one is not humane (ren), what can he have to do with ritual? If one is not humane, what can he have to do with music [part of court ritual]?" (Analects 3:3).

But the Neo-Confucians went considerably further than Confucius in distancing themselves from popular worship of ghosts and spirits -- except for ancestral spirits, which will be discussed below. While not denying the existence of apparitions and ghosts, Cheng Yi, Zhu Xi, and their followers "rationalized" or "naturalized" them to a considerable degree. That is, they interpreted them as functions of the natural processes of qi, implying that at least some forms of ghosts and spirits lacked conscious, personal wills. In this respect they were in line with the rationalistic and sceptical traditions of Xunzi (3rd c. B.C.E.) and Wang Chong (1st c. C.E.). Zhang Zai, for example, said, "Ghosts and spirits are the inherent potential (liang-neng) of the two [modes of] qi."(12) Cheng Yi said, in a similar vein, "Ghosts and spirits are traces of the creative process."(13) Zhu Xi said, "The same principles (li) apply to human beings, heaven and earth, ghosts and spirits."(14) Chen Chun, Zhu Xi's pupil, said, "Ghosts and spirits are nothing more than the contraction and expansion, coming and going, of yin and yang qi. "(15)

As these statements suggest, the terms gui and shen were thoroughly integrated into Neo-Confucian "natural philosophy." They were even used in reference to such phenomena as phases of the weather, in which case they definitely lacked consciousness. Zhu Xi's explanation of the terms relied in part on the traditional etymologies of gui and shen, relating them to the homophones "returning" (gui) and "extending/expanding" (shen).(16) But he was primarily interested in correlating the terms with the most fundamental polarity, yin and yang, thereby making it possible to incorporate all aspects of spirit and spirituality into his comprehensive religio-philosophical system. For this he relied primarily on his Northern Song predecessors, Zhang Zai and Cheng Yi, arguing that the terms gui and shen could be used to describe impersonal, empirically observable manifestations of qi: According to Zhu:

Gui and shen are nothing more than the growth and dispersion of yin and yang.(17)

That which alternately contracts and expands is qi. Within Heaven-and-earth there is nothing that is not qi. Human qi and the qi of Heaven-and-earth are constantly interacting, with no interruption.(18)

Shen is expanding (shen); gui is contracting (qu). For example, the moment when wind and rain, thunder and lightning, first appear is shen. And when wind stops and rain passes, thunder stops and lightning ceases, this is gui.(19)

Moreover, since -- contrary to popular belief -- gui and shen operated according to the natural principle of yin and yang, they were capable (at least theoretically) of being rationally understood:

By the time we have attended thoroughly to ordinary daily matters, the principles governing gui and shen will naturally be understood.(20)

[Most] explanations of gui-shen take them to be uncanny. But the world itself has a moral principle (daoli). We cannot say that these [phenomena] are not unusual, [but neither can we say] that they are not regular aspects of the creative process.(21)

In Analects 7:20, it is said that Confucius "did not discuss the uncanny (kuai), force (li), disorders (luan), or spirits (shen)," with no distinctions noted among the four items. But Zhu Xi introduced a qualification. He said that the first three items

are not regular aspects of principle (fei li zhi zheng), and are definitely what the Sage did not discuss. [But] "ghosts and spirits are traces of the creative process" [quoting Cheng Yi]. Although they are not irregular (fei bu zheng) [i.e. they are "principled" or ordered], nevertheless they are not the goal of fathoming principle. There are things which are not easily understood; therefore one does not lightly discuss them with others.(22)

Zhu was willing to acknowledge the possible existence of bogeys, monsters, or uncanny apparitions (kuai), but he insisted that they are not outside the natural order (tianli):

For example, the Jiayu (Sayings of the Confucian School) says, "The monsters of the mountains are called gui and wangliang; the monsters of the water are called long (dragons) and wangxiang; and the monsters of the earth are called fenyang." All these are produced by confused and perverse qi and are surely not without li -- you mustn't stubbornly think they are without li. It's like the winter's being cold and the summer's being warm; this is the regular (zheng) li. But there are times when suddenly in the summer it turns cold and in the winter it turns warm -- how can we say there isn't a li for this! Still, because it isn't the ordinary (chang) li we consider it uncanny.(23)

It is clear that Zhu Xi was determined to show that everything that actually existed in the world -- or had at least been attested in books that he accepted as canonical or trustworthy -- was part of the natural/moral order (tianli/daoli). Some of the strange or uncanny phenomena that filled the Chinese popular imagination, such as ghosts and hauntings of various sorts, fell into this category for him. When it came to ancestral spirits, of course, it was not a matter of accepting or rejecting popular beliefs. Since ancestor worship had been incorporated into Confucian thought and practice from the very beginning, and had been philosophically elaborated in the doctrines of filial piety (xiao) and ritual propriety (li, originally referring primarily to ancestral sacrifice), the Neo-Confucians never questioned the real existence of ancestral spirits. But here too these spirits (shen) or ancestors (zu) were very nearly stripped of their personal identities. They were simply "traces of the creative process" or "the expansion and contraction" of qi.

Zhu Xi's explanation of death is a straightforward application of his basic theory of qi in terms of the yin-soul, or po, and the yang-soul, or hun, which are the yin and yang portions of qi in the body and mind. These were and are widely-used concepts in popular Chinese religion, although there are numerous variations of belief concerning their number and their natures.(24) Zhu's theory represents the simplest, most systematic version. He said, for example:

While humans have much qi, there must come a time when it is exhausted. When it is exhausted, then the hun qi returns to Heaven and the physical po returns to earth, and they die. When humans are about to die, the warm qi rises upward, which is called the hun ascending; the body down below gradually cools, which is called the po descending. This is why when there is life there must be death; when there is a beginning there must be an end. What gathers and disperses is qi.(25)

This might appear at first to be a rather mechanistic account that would preclude the ancestral spirits' having consciousness. Were this the case, then the efficacy of ancestral sacrifice would be called into question. But a naturalistic explanation based on qi did not preclude consciousness on the part of the ancestral spirits, because the prevailing view among the Neo-Confucians was that conscious awareness is in fact an attribute of the purest, finest grades of qi, which is what constitutes spirits. For example, as Zhu Xi's student (and son-in-law), Huang Gan, explained:

Human biology [lit. human life] is simply jing (vital essence) and qi. What constitutes hair, bones, flesh and blood is jing. What constitutes breath, cold, and warmth is qi. But humans are the most numinous (ling) of the myriad things;(26) they are not trees and rocks. Therefore their jing and their qi are full of spirit (shen). The spirit of jing is called po; the spirit of qi is called hun. What enables the eyes and ears to see and hear is the po; what enables this mind to think is the hun. Together, the po and hun are the spirit of yin and yang, and yet they are full of li. Only in the hun and po is there the fullness of li (moral order/principle).(27)

The Yijing says, "Jing and qi constitute things."(28) "Jing" means vital essence and blood; "qi" means warmth and vapor.... Vital essence and blood, warmth and vapor each have pure, numinous awareness (xuling zhijue) within them. The pure, numinous awareness of vital essence and blood is the po. The pure, numinous awareness of warmth and vapor is the hun. This pure, numinous awareness is not a pure, floating object. It is composed simply of abundant [or many] moral principle(s).(29)

"Pure, numinous awareness" (xuling zhijue) is thus characteristic of qi itself, at least in its finer phases, and is inherently moral. We shall return to this topic in the later. Suffice it now to suggest that it is the inherent capacity of consciousness in the finer forms of qi that make ancestral sacrifice efficacious. While a more naturalistic or mechanistic notion of affinity or resonance might account for the impersonal connection itself between the qi of the ancestor and that of the descendant during the rituals of ancestor worship, it is difficult to see how it would explain their efficacy (i.e. the ancestor's presumed awareness of and meaningful response to the petition, for example).

So, while in certain respects Neo-Confucian theories about gui and shen were reminiscent of the rationalistic and naturalistic theories of Xunzi and Wang Chong, most Neo-Confucians differed radically and fundamentally from these forebears in insisting on the linkage between the natural world and the human world -- in particular, the immanence and naturalness of human values (implied by "the fullness of li"), and the potential for consciousness in the fundamental substrate that constitutes all things in the natural world.

Spirit and Physiology (jing-qi, hun-po)

Analysis of the constituents of the human body had already had a long history by the time of the Song revival of Confucianism. Yin-yang and wuxing (Five Phases) theory had been applied to medicine as early as the Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic (Huangdi neijing, 6th century B.C.E.), considered to be the foundation of Chinese medical theory. In terms of tangible substances the fundamental concept was of course qi. But this term was also used in such dyadic terms as xie-qi and jing-qi. Xie is blood; jing, or "vital essence," is epitomized by sexual fluid (male or female). Both blood and vital essence represent the liquid, life-giving phase of psycho-physical stuff; qi in these pairs stands for the gaseous or energetic phase.

In various forms of Daoist meditation that had developed from pre-Qin times (in Huang-Lao Daoism) up into the Song, jing, qi, and shen (spirit) were the three primal substances of the body that were manipulated through visualization techniques to synthesize an immortal "Perfected Person" (zhenren).(30) While most of the Song Neo-Confucians disapproved of such practices, they were well aware of them and did not reject them entirely. Even such a partisan as Zhu Xi gave credence to the ability of some Daoist adepts to prevent the decomposition of their bodies after death by "nourishing their vital essence and spirit."(31) There were also scattered references to these terms in the appendices of the Yijing (Classic of Change), which were attributed to Confucius and were important textual sources for the Neo-Confucian movement. One of these passages (Xici A.4.2) discusses how the first primordial Sage, Fuxi, created the hexagrams of the Yi:

Gazing up he observed the heavenly patterns [the movements of the heavenly bodies]; looking down he examined the earthly order [geography]; thus he understood the characteristics of the dark and light. He traced things to their beginnings and anticipated their ends; thus he understood the meaning of life and death [as follows]: Jing and qi constitute things; the hun floating away constitutes their change [death]. In this way he understood the characteristics of ghosts and spirits.

Zhu Xi's comment on this passage gives us a summary statement of the relationships among the key terms:

Change (yi) is nothing other than yin and yang. Dark and light, life and death, ghosts and spirits, are all the alternation (bian) of yin and yang. This is the Way of Heaven-and-earth. ... Yin is vital essence (jing), yang is qi; these collect to become things. Spirits (shen) are expansion (shen). The hun floats away and the po descends. This dissipation constitutes the change [of death]. Ghosts (gui) are returning (gui).(32)

In a conversation with his students Zhu elaborates on the relationship of these terms:

The differentiation of the two qi [i.e. yin and yang, or dark and light] is equivalent to the circulation of the one qi. It is what is meant by [Zhou Dunyi's statement in the Taijitu shuo] "Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing yin and yang, the Two Modes are thereby established."

In humans, in terms of the [aforementioned] differentiation, the vital essence (jing) is yin and qi is yang; thus the po becomes the ghost and hun becomes the spirit. In terms of the circulation, dispersion is yin and growth is yang; thus expansion is the spirit and returning is the ghost.

Up to this point Zhu's explanation is little more than an array and clarification of the terms under the yin-yang principle of bipolarity. But his reference to Zhou Dunyi's "Explanation of the Supreme Polarity Diagram" in the first paragraph is the critical link to Zhu's more significant concerns. As he continues:

But the nature of the hun is activity (dong); thus just when it is expanding it is not without po, and yet it must have hun as its ruling [principle]. The nature of po is stillness (jing); thus when it is on the point of returning, it is not without hun, yet it must have po as it ruling [principle]. So, from the first there are not two principles (wu er li).(33)

What Zhu Xi does with these terms, in his published commentaries and in his discussions with students, is to integrate the bipolar terminology of jing and qi, hun and po, into his theory of li (order, principle) and taiji (Supreme Polarity). The Supreme Polarity -- i.e. the principle of yin/yang or the principle of polarity -- is a single, "non-dualistic" (wu er) principle of coherence, and as the most fundamental ordering principle it is fully inherent in all things, including the human mind. But more specifically, based on the writings of his 11th century predecessor Zhou Dunyi, Zhu stresses that the most basic, natural form of this principle -- the most basic form of polarity -- is activity and stillness (dong-jing). And according to Zhou Dunyi, the relationship of activity and stillness is not merely temporal alternation but metaphysical interpenetration.(34)

By relating all these spiritual-physiological terms, despite their various provenances, to this central conception and interpretation of li, Zhu is doing two things. First, he is synthesizing an intellectual system that incorporates (and perhaps co-opts) elements from Daoism and popular religion, thereby constructing a "respectable" Confucian alternative to these "heterodox" or "vulgar" (su) Ways. Second, in terms of the specific agenda of "learning to be a Sage" (shengxue) in his system, he is emphasizing here the crucial linkage between the metaphysical principle of li -- the single order that incorporates both the natural order (tianli) and the moral order (daoli) -- and the phenomenal world constituted by qi in all its forms. The significance of this linkage within the framework of this system is that it provides access by the functioning human mind (xin), which is also a form of qi, to the inherent goodness of human nature (xing), which is the principle (li) of being human. This is what is necessary in order to transform oneself into a Sage, and "spirit" (shen) plays a significant role in this process. Thus we shift to the possibly more familiar level of "spirituality" as the interior life of moral reflection and cultivation.

Spirit and Epistemology (xin, zhi, shenming)

As mentioned earlier, Daoist theories that were well-established long before the Song posited three primal "fluids" or substances of the human body: qi, jing (vital essence), and shen (spirit), which corresponded to deities known as the "Three Pure Ones" (San Qing). These substances could be manipulated and synthesized into guardian spirits and deities by means of various kinds of meditation, visualization, breath control, diet, and sexual practices. Thus by the time of the Song Confucian revival there was a considerable history of discussion of "spirit" (shen) itself as a psycho-physical component of human life, apart from the more personalistic notion of "ghosts and spirits" (gui-shen). But of course, in the eyes of most of the Neo-Confucians (at least after some early but serious dalliances with Daoism and/or Buddhism by many of them), the texts containing these discussions and the practices associated with them were highly suspect.

One text that was solidly canonical, though, was the Classic of Change (Yijing), which, in its Appendices attributed to Confucius, dealt with shen as a general quality of human qi. As mentioned above, these texts -- especially the Xici, or "Appended Remarks" (also called the Dajuan, or "Great Treatise") -- were important textual sources for Song Neo-Confucianism.(35) Zhou Dunyi, in particular, based much of his work on the Yijing, and Zhou was later declared by Zhu Xi to have been the first true Confucian Sage since Mencius.(36) Moreover, Zhou's discussions of shen are in the context of a theory of mind and the practice of moral self-cultivation as a means of transforming oneself into a Sage. It is not surprising, then, that much of the Neo-Confucian discussion of shen revolves around Zhou Dunyi and passages from the Yijing. But to understand these discussions we need first to look briefly at Neo-Confucian ideas about mind and Sagehood.

The self-realization, or self-transformation, that was known as "learning to be a Sage" in the dominant Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism was a process of realizing or actualizing the inherent goodness that constitutes human nature (xing), or the principle (li) of being human. This premise is based on Mencius, who had said:

He who fully develops his mind knows his nature; knowing his nature he knows Heaven. To preserve the mind and nourish the nature is the way to serve Heaven (7A.1).

What this involves is coming to realize -- i.e. to know (zhi) and to actualize in practice (xing) -- the Heaven-endowed (i.e. natural) moral potential that is inherent in all human minds in the form of feelings or dispositions (qing), such as commiseration with the suffering of others, shame at one's own faults, deference to superiors, and approval/disapproval of the actions of others (Mencius 2A.2). Because these feelings and the principles they embody appear spontaneously in the human mind, they were considered to be objective features of the natural world, which is to say they were "given" or "decreed" (ming) by Heaven (Zhongyong 1). To know and to actualize them in practice -- i.e. to realize one's own nature -- is therefore to know Heaven (tian), which is unconditioned and absolute, and to actualize the Way of Heaven (tiandao).(37).

Zhu Xi argued that it was very difficult to achieve self-knowlege directly. Since the mind is composed of qi -- albeit the most refined and pure qi -- this physical nature of the mind obscures or clouds one's self-awareness of the principle of the mind, giving rise to selfishness (si) and partiality or one-sidedness (pian). These are the basic Neo-Confucian "evils." It is because of the difficulty of overcoming the cloudiness of one's qi and achieving self-knowledge directly that Zhu, drawing directly on Cheng Yi, stressed "the investigation of things" (ge wu), including the need to rely on the wisdom of Sages recorded in the Classics, in his program for becoming a Sage. Thus Cheng and Zhu said that it is usually easier to perceive the underlying order or principles of things outside oneself, in nature, human affairs, and books. Then, in combination with self-reflection, one can extend these principles (tui li) to higher levels of generalization that comprehend the outer and inner realms, natural and human, fact and value.

The difficulty in achieving this integrated understanding of self and world was caused by the clouding or blockage of the fundamental nature (benxing) and the "moral mind" (daoxin) by the physical nature (qizhi zhi xing) and the "human mind" (renxin). Only in the mind of the Sage is the human mind congruent with the moral mind, the feelings and dispositions (qing) in line with the moral nature (xing).

As a solution to this problem, Zhu Xi adopted the doctrine of "transforming the physical endowment" (bianhua qizhi) from Zhang Zai and his nephews, the Cheng brothers. Zhang had distinguished the physical nature (qizhi zhi xing) from the nature of Heaven and Earth (tiandi zhi xing), saying that when the former was reformed the latter would be preserved.(38) The physical nature, according to this theory, is not in itself evil. But when the originally formless qi condenses, it gives rise to differentiation, opposition, and conflict, which in turn result in feelings, desires, and behavior that are selfish -- i.e. directed at private (ssu) instead of public (gong) ends -- and partial or one-sided instead of harmoniously in accord with the "mean" or the "centrality" (zhong) of human nature.(39) These tendencies result in part from the mere fact of the physical nature, since physical individuality itself -- the fact that we each have a body distinct from others -- naturally gives rise to egoistic or selfish desires. Thus there is an element of intractibility to the problem of evil. But there is also an aspect of the physical nature that can be changed; namely the clouding or blockage of the mind by its own endowment of qi. This blockage can be corrected by learning: "The great benefit of learning is to enable one to transform the physical nature by oneself."(40) Hence in Neo-Confucianism there is a moral imperative for learning, and the process of learning is a psycho-spiritual transformation that refines and clarifies one's qi.

But what is the connection between learning and qi? This question addresses the crux of Neo-Confucian spirituality. The answer is based on the often-acknowledged but insufficiently appreciated fact that the concept of qi covers the entire spectrum of body, mind, and spirit. As Benjamin Schwartz has put it, "... qi comes to embrace properties which we would call psychic, emotional, spiritual, numinous, and even 'mystical.'"(41) The qi that constitutes the mind is pure and invisible and circulates throughout the body, residing primarily in the heart.(42) This qi (like all qi) is inherently dynamic and is informed by li, or principle, which is to say that it is ordered. Thinking is the "movement of the mind;"(43) knowledge of external things involves the outflowing of mind-qi from the body to the thing, where it penetrates (tong) the thing and conforms itself to its principle or inherent order. This is the aspect of the cognitive process by which the mind is said to "respond to things" (ying wu) after being "stimulated" (gan) by them, and to "fully realize the principles of things" (qiong li).(44) According to Zhu Xi, "The learning of the Sages is to base one's mind on fully investigating principle, and to accord or conform with principle by responding to things."(45)

The distinctive feature of mind-qi is that, because of its exceptional purity and refinement it is capable of conforming itself or "responding" to any li, thus becoming further ordered, or ordered in greater detail, or on a higher level of complexity. Knowledge of a particular principle, then, is the ordering or conforming of mind-qi to that principle, so that when a principle is known it is concretely embodied by the mind. That is, when mind penetrates and responds (or conforms) to the order or principle of a thing, the mind itself is transformed in the process. This is how mind-qi, or the physical nature, is transformed by learning. The extent of this capability in a particular person depends on the degree of purity or clarity of his or her mind-qi. Thus, while every person is theoretically capable of achieving the spiritual clarity (shenming) of mind that characterizes a Sage (and a very few are even born with it(46)), differences in endowments of qi result in differences in the likelihood of achieving it.

Zhang Zai, the source of much of this theory, said:

By enlarging one's mind one can enter into all things in the world. As long as anything is not yet entered into, there is still something outside the mind.... The mind that leaves something outside is not capable of uniting itself with the mind of Heaven. Knowledge coming from seeing and hearing is knowledge obtained through interaction with things....(47)

Zhu Xi, commenting on this passage, interpreted ti wu (enter into things) as the mind flowing out of the body to penetrate external things:

"Enter into" (ti) is like humanity (ren) entering into all things with nothing left out. It refers to the principle of the mind circulating [as if] through the interpenetrating [network of] arteries and veins so that nothing is not reached. If one thing is not yet entered into, then there is a place not reached and the inclusion is incomplete. This means that there is something outside the mind. If there are selfish wishes separating the self and things into opposing positions, then even the utmost intimacy will not necessarily be capable of including everything.

Question on the meaning of ti (enter into). Reply: This is to place the mind within a thing, to dig into and perceive its principle. Its meaning in the case of "investigating things and extending knowledge" is not the same as the ti of ti-yong (substance and function).(48)

When the mind's capacity for psycho-physical intercourse with things -- its ability to penetrate, enter into, or pervade things, even in some cases the minds of others(49) -- is developed to the highest degree, it is called "spiritual" (shen), or "spiritual clarity" (shenming). Thus Zhu Xi said:

Mind is human spiritual clarity (shenming). It is that by which one embodies the multitudinous principle and responds (ying) to the myriad phenomena.(50)

Mind endows a person with "spiritual clarity" when its qi is purified enough to be able to penetrate all things and to conform, respond, or resonate with their principles. Shen in this sense is the finest, most free-flowing qi, with the capacity for unlimited responsiveness and penetration. The potential to be shen is inherent in all qi, but in humans it functions most clearly in the mind of the Sage.

Returning now to the mind of the ordinary person, let us see how our formulation of mental activity applies to Zhu Xi's well-known "supplement" to the Great Learning's section on "investigating things and extending knowledge," in which he describes what is often called the Neo-Confucian experience of enlightenment:

"The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things" means: If we wish to extend our personal knowledge, it consists in contacting things and fully investigating their principle. No human consciousness is without knowledge, and nothing in the world is without principle. It is only because there are principles not yet investigated that a person's knowledge is incomplete. For this reason the Great Learning's first instruction is that it is necessary to have the student contact all things in the world. By basing [this contact] on the principles already known, none will fail to increase and complete [his knowledge], and so to seek to reach its ultimate limit. When he reaches the point where he has exerted effort for a long time, one day [everything] will suddenly interpenetrate (guantong). Then the external and internal, subtle and gross [qualities] of all things will be apprehended, and there will be no unclarity in the total substance and great functioning of our mind.(51) This is called the investigation of things. This is called the perfection of knowledge.(52)

Elsewhere Zhu Xi describes the sudden "interpenetration" or "thorough comprehension" of all the aspects of principle one has gradually and laboriously come to know as a "liberating" event,(53) a "spontaneous awakening" requiring no effort,(54) a "broad interpenetration" by which one "increases to the limit" the principle contained in the mind,(55) and a "sudden bursting open into a spontaneous penetration."(56)

In terms of the model described above, this can be understood as the progressive conforming of mind-qi to the order or principles embodied in the things contacted by the mind. When the final connection or inference is made, a unified order instantaneously emerges, like a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place and transforming what was a chaotic jumble of forms into a coherent image.

This final step is more than a quantitative accretion of knowledge; it is a qualitative transformation of consciousness -- an enlightenment experience -- in two ways. First, whenever a new cognition results in the apprehension of a principle of a higher order of generality or abstraction, we can say that on that higher level there has been a transformation of disorder (or chaos) into order (as suggested by the jigsaw puzzle analogy above). This would apply to intermediate levels of awareness as well as to the final state described by Zhu Xi.

Secondly, the experience is, as Zhu Xi describes it, a "liberating" event in which the final obstruction to one's psycho-physical interpenetration with all things falls away. This freedom implies a moral transformation, for the absence of blockage in one's physical nature, with the moral nature no longer obscured, means that one is free of partiality and selfishness. This is not a freedom from worldly cares, but a freedom to participate in the cosmos -- "to assist in the transforming and nourishing processes of Heaven and earth" (Zhongyong 22) -- without sacrificing (in fact, to the contrary, fulfilling) one's essential humanity. It is an existential freedom that fulfills, rather than transcends, morality; the freedom described by Confucius when he said, "At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired without overstepping the rules" (Analects 2:4).

What Zhu Xi has described is an enlightenment experience and a soteriological act brought about by mental effort(57) -- although the final step occurs effortlessly and cannot be willfully attained ("if you try to rush it, you will not achieve it"(58)). The result is a kind of spiritual unification of the fundamental polarities that constitute (in Zhu Xi's thought) the human being: nature and feelings (xing/qing), moral mind and human mind (daoxin/renxin).(59) One of the symbols of that unification is the Sage.

Spirit and Sagehood (sheng)

On this fourth level of discourse, the Yijing and Zhou Dunyi again provide the source texts on which Zhu Xi constructs his synthesis. The Xici appendix to the Yijing, in a passage explaining the oracular function of the text, says:

The Yi does not think and does not [deliberately] act (wusi wuwei). Silent and inactive, when stimulated it then penetrates all situations under Heaven. If it were not the most spiritual (shen) thing under Heaven, how would it be capable of doing this?(60)

The Yi as an oracle is "spiritual" in part because of its transcendence of the ordinary conditions of temporality and causality. But this mysterious oracular ability is a form of knowing, and in that sense the Yi can be compared to the human mind. Thus Zhu Xi, commenting on the passage, says, "The mystery of the human mind, in its activity and stillness, is also like this."(61) And the same passage is the basis for section 4 of Zhou Dunyi's Tongshu, which discusses Sagehood. Here is that section, with some of Zhu Xi's comments:(62)

4.a. That which is "silent and inactive" is authenticity (cheng). That which "penetrates when stimulated" is spirit (shen). That which is active but not yet formed, between existence and nonexistence, is incipient (ji).(63)

[Zhu's comment on the second sentence:] That which is aptly responsive yet unfathomable is the functioning of the actualized order (shili).

b. Authenticity is essential (jing) and therefore clear (ming). Spirit is responsive, and therefore mysterious. Incipience is subtle, and therefore obscure.

[Zhu's comment:] To be clear and bright in body, with a will like that of a spirit, is to be "essential" and "clear." "To hurry without haste, to arrive without going"(64) is to be "responsive" and "mysterious." Although [in incipience] the order (li) has already developed, events are not yet apparent; they are "subtle" and "obscure."

c. One who is authentic, spiritual, and incipient is called a Sage.

[Zhu's comment:] If one is "by nature like this, at ease like this,"(65) then one is essential and clear, responsive and mysterious, and has the means to see into the obscure and subtle.

Spirit is associated here with the penetrating and responsive qualities of mind and qi that, when developed in a human being to the highest degree, produce the seemingly miraculous or numinous phenomena that are commonly associated with gods and spirits. In a conversation between Zhu and his students about Zhou's use of the term shen there is the following exchange:

Question: Does "spirit" refer to the mysterious? Reply: Yes. There is also the line, "That which 'penetrates when stimulated' is spirit." Hengqu [Zhang Zai] explained spirit in another way, referring to that which is in two places [at once] and therefore cannot be fathomed, indicating [the processes of] creative transformation. He said, "Suddenly here, suddenly there: it is spirit." Question: How do you speak of it within human beings? Reply: Consciousness (zhijue) is certainly spirit. If you cut your hand then your hand perceives pain. If you cut your foot then your foot perceives pain. This is certainly spirit. "Spirit is responsive, and therefore mysterious."

And in reference to his own written commentary on the middle paragraph of Tongshu 4 (above), Zhu says:

"A will like that of a spirit" is precisely the Way of perfect authenticity (cheng), the idea that one can have foreknowledge (qian zhi).(66)

This is an allusion to Zhongyong 24, which says:

It is characteristic of absolute authenticity to be able to foreknow.... Therefore one who has absolute authenticity is like a spirit.(67)

Shen is thus a cosmological-psychological category that describes the infinite mutability, sensitivity, and responsiveness of qi in general, especially in processes that seem to defy the laws of cause and effect. Shen also applies to such mysterious epistemological phenomena as divination and precognition. Again, the Xici says:

The virtue of the milfoil [stalks used in Yijing divination] is round and spiritual; the virtue of the hexagrams is square and wise; the meanings of the six lines change in order to inform. With these the Sage purifies his mind and retires into secrecy. He suffers good fortune and misfortune in common with the people. Being spiritual, he knows the future. Being wise, he stores up the past. Who is comparable to this? [It was] the ancients, with broad intelligence and astute wisdom; those who were spiritually martial and yet non-violent.

Zhu Xi comments:

"Round and spiritual" means the unboundedness of transformation. "Square and wise" means that things have definite principles.... The Sage concretely embodies the virtues of the three [milfoil, hexagrams, and lines], without the slightest worldly tie. When there is nothing happening, then his mind is silent, and no one can see it. When there is something happening, then the operation of his spiritual understanding responds when stimulated. This means he knows good fortune and misfortune without divination. "Spiritually martial and yet non-violent" means he apprehends principle without recourse to things.(68)

The Sage, by virtue of his spirituality, can spontaneously respond to the incipient signs of good fortune and misfortune, or the subtle tendencies of events, and can thus know their direction of change without using divination. This understanding is non-empirical in that it does not depend on prior exposure to things. He has the ability to transcend the usual limitations of cause and effect, e.g. "To hurry without haste, to arrive without going" (A.10.6), and to know the future. In this way he is "like a spirit" -- or a god (both shen).

The belief that any person is at least theoretically capable of becoming a Sage dates to Mencius (2A.2, 6A.7). How to become a Sage is the basic problematic of Neo-Confucianism. In the Cheng-Zhu school it was often stated in terms of the relationship of the "moral mind" (daoxin) -- the clear understanding of the natural/moral order that is inherent in every person -- and the "human mind" (renxin) -- the actual functioning of the embodied mind, normally clouded by human desires. Let us look more closely now at that relationship, as Zhu Xi discussed it in the preface to his commentary on the Zhongyong ("Centrality and Commonality"):

Why was the Zhongyong written? It was written because of Master Tzu-ssu's concern that the propagation of the learning of the Way might be lost. The propagation of the succession of the Way (daotong) began with the Sage-spirits of high antiquity, who "succeeded Heaven" and established the Ultimate.... "The human mind is precarious; the moral mind is subtle. Be refined, be singleminded, and sincerely hold fast to the Mean" is how Shun passed it [the Way] on to Yu....(69)

The mind's pure consciousness (xuling zhijue) is simply one. Yet there is a difference between the human mind and the moral mind: the one arises from the selfishness of tangible qi, and the other originates in the correctness of human nature's endowment...(70) No person lacks this tangible form, so no matter how wise they are, no one can be without the human mind. And no person lacks this human nature, so no matter how dull they are, no one can be without the moral mind. As the two are mixed in the square inch [of the heart], if we do not know how to govern them, then ... the impartiality of the natural order [or Heavenly principle] will have no way of overcoming the selfishness of human desire.

"Refinement" means to reflect on the difference between the two and not to confuse them. "Singlemindedness" means to protect the correctness of the original mind and not to depart from it. If one manages one's affairs like this, without the briefest interruption, this will certainly cause the moral mind always to be the master of the self, and the human mind always to hear the decree from it [i.e. to do what is right].(71)

Careful distinction must first be made between the two aspects of the mind, but eventually the distinction is transcended. No fundamental dualism is implied by the "mastery" exerted by the moral mind over the human mind, for it is "an all-pervading control and command existing in the mind itself,"(72) i.e. it is an inherent quality or capacity of the mind. Furthermore:

When one takes the moral mind as master, then the human mind will be transformed into the moral mind.(73)

When the individual mind is rectified,it will be none other than the mind of the Sage and Heaven-and-earth.(74)

By first distinguishing the moral mind from the human mind one learns to recognize in oneself that which is identical with the ultimate reality, and one finds that it is nothing other than the principle of the mind, or human nature. Fundamentally there is only one mind-stuff, which can manifest its principle in varying degrees:

Mind is unitary. When it is held and preserved, then moral principle is illuminated and we call it the moral mind. When it is let go and lost, then material desires are indulged and we call it the human mind. To be "lost" is not to be non-existent; it is just to go out [uncontrollably] after external things. When the human mind is recovered it is the moral mind. When the the moral mind is abandoned it is the human mind.(75)

Thus, a characteristic of the mind of the Sage is its ability not to allow external stimuli to deflect it from its inherent nature. Its responses to stimuli are always perfectly appropriate to the situation and morally correct. For example, emotions like anger or joy are not to be avoided, rather:

When one becomes angry at the right time, he will be acting in the proper degree. When the matter is over, anger disappears, and none of it will be retained.(76)

The Sage neither injects private dispositions into a situation, nor retains any residue of the situation in his mind once it is past; thus things are perceived as they are, without prejudice. In this respect the mind of the Sage, being a fully-realized expression of the moral principle of human nature, is equivalent to the "mind of Heaven-and-earth," i.e. the same moral order inherent in the natural world. As Cheng Hao said in his well-known "Letter on Stabilizing Human Nature" to his uncle, Zhang Zai:

The constant principle of Heaven-and-earth is that its mind pervades innumerable things, and yet it has no mind of its own. The constant principle of the Sage is that his dispositions (qing) follow the innumerable phenomena, and yet he has no dispositions of his own. Therefore, in the education of the superior person (junzi) there is nothing like being completely broad and impartial, and responding in accordance with things as they come.(77)

Zhu Xi comments on this:

"Pervading innumerable things" and "following innumerable phenomena" mean that the Sage is "completely impartial" toward things. "Having no mind and no dispositions" means that the Sage is able "to respond in accordance with things as they come."(78)

Correlating Cheng Hao's terminology with that of the Yijing (Xici A.10.4), Zhu says:

"Extremely broad and impartial" means "completely silent and inactive." "Responding in accordance with things as they come" means "stimulated and then penetrating".(79)

By using the terminology of the Yijing and Zhou Dunyi's Tongshu to explain Cheng Hao's description of the Sage, Zhu Xi is drawing attention to the notion that the characteristics of the human mind are also characteristics of the spiritual aspects of qi itself. This is, of course, a way of legitimizing the Confucian understanding of human values. But it also provides a philosophical basis for the Confucian belief that the human mind, simply by perfecting its natural, ordinary mode of functioning, can achieve a spiritual interpenetration with all-under-Heaven.

Spirit or spirituality, then, is the quality that enables the mind of the Sage to penetrate even the most mysterious things, to detect even the most subtle principles and incipient changes, and to comprehend the totality of the natural/moral order (tianli/daoli). While most people will never actually become Sages, they can, by cultivating the "spiritual clarity" (shenming) of their minds, transform themselves and those around them, thereby manifesting the creative principle of the cosmos and helping to actualize its moral potential.


We have located Neo-Confucian spirituality on a number of levels. First, there are certain continuities between Neo-Confucian thought and popular ideas of ghosts and spirits and practices related to them. The most significant of these from the perspective of the basic Neo-Confucian project is ancestor worship. But underlying both ancestor worship and the acceptance by Neo-Confucians of the existence of ghosts, demons, and other occult (yin) phenomena is a systematic theory of mind and qi that provides for what we might call "emergent spirituality." By this I mean that "spirit" is an inherent characteristic of qi that is expressed or manifested only at the highest level of purity. It is found both in nature and in human beings. In nature it is observable only in the most subtle processes, where it accounts for continuity and responsiveness where no empirical mechanism is observable:

The unfathomability of yin and yang is called spirit.(80)

Qi has [the two modes] yin and yang. When it proceeds slowly, it is transformation (hua). When it is unified and unfathomable, it is spirit.(81)

Spirit is responsive, and therefore mysterious.(82)

In human beings, spirit is a quality of mind -- specifically mind-qi in its finest, most free-flowing state -- which accounts for the capacity of the human mind to penetrate, respond, and conform itself to the most subtle aspects of the natural/moral order. To embody this epistemological potential -- so that the "human mind" embodies the "moral mind" -- is to actualize the principle (shi li) of being human, which is to be a fully authentic (cheng) human being, a Sage.(83) Although all people have the moral mind inherent in them, and therefore have the potential to become Sages, very few actually do. Only Sages have minds that can penetrate and comprehend the totality of the natural/moral order. This ability also gives them "talents," such as precognition, that make them appear "like spirits" to ordinary people.

Nevertheless, the chief significance of spirit and spirituality in Neo-Confucianism is not a transcendence of the natural order but a continuity with it. The epistemological function of spirit is what gives it its "soteriological" function.(84) Spirit, or spirituality, is the perfection of human understanding -- ordinary human understanding. That is, the natural capacities of the human mind, when perfected, give one the spiritual characteristics of a Sage. Thus every person is a potential Sage; self-transformation is self-realization; the capacity to transcend one's given condition or endowment is immanent. By "knowing one's mind" and "knowing one's nature," any human being can come to "serve Heaven" (Mencius 7A.1). By actualizing the principle of being human -- i.e. being "authentic" (cheng) and "real" (shi) -- one can "assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth" and "form a trinity with Heaven and earth" (Zhongyong 22).

Frederick Streng's definition of religion as "a means to ultimate transformation" has been used by many scholars East Asian religions, as it focuses on an aspect of religion that is particularly prominent there. "Ultimate transformation" implies (1) a given human condition that is in some way flawed, unsatisfactory, or caught in a dilemma; (2) a goal that posits a resolution of that problem or dilemma; and (3) a process leading toward the achievement of the goal. The qualifier "ultimate" means that the starting point, process, and goal are defined in relation to whatever the tradition in question believes to be absolute or unconditioned.

Confucianism clearly fits this definition of religion. The unsatisfactory human condition is that the Way "does not prevail" (Analects 18:6): individuals fail to realize their true natures, leaders fail to set moral examples, and societies fail to provide nourishing environments in which people can cultivate their moral potentials. The goal is Sagehood for the individual, humane government, and peace throughout the world. The process is self-cultivation, education, public work, and responsibility for the larger social and natural environment.(85)

Every religious tradition, it would seem, has a central problem or dilemma analogous to this. The ultimate referents differ, the formulations of the initial problem differ, and so on. But ultimate transformation of some sort seems to be universal.

Still, not all religious behavior fits clearly into this model. Ordinary popular worship at a local shrine or temple, for example, may only indirectly be understood -- by the worshipper or by an observer -- as involving an ultimate transformation. What it does clearly involve, however, is orientation to the ultimate. Devotional religion -- which is often expressed in petitions for rather mundane goods -- is a way of locating oneself in a meaningful cosmos, orienting oneself to an absolute frame of reference, and participating in a life that is felt to be real.(86) These are all ways in which human beings define themselves and construct their worlds.

The Confucian worldview, despite its intellectual and social distance from Chinese popular religion, concerns ultimate orientation just as much as ultimate transformation. Its axis mundi, the central connection between the human realm and the absolute realm that provides a point of orientation and an anchorage to something deemed to be ultimately real, is the relationship between Heaven and human beings, expressed in many different ways: "Heaven and humanity are one,"(87) "Heaven produced the virtue in me" (Analects 7:22), "What is given by Heaven is human nature" (Zhongyong 1), and so on.

By focusing on the various levels of "spirit" in Neo-Confucian discourse, particularly its epistemological function and its role in self-cultivation, we have drawn attention to some of the ways in which the human realm (mind, moral values, etc.) and the Heavenly realm (in this context both the natural world and the metaphysical principle by which it is ordered) are intimately connected in this tradition. Indeed, the function of spirituality as a human faculty here is precisely to illuminate and to facilitate those connections. By illuminating the immanent order of Heaven, earth, and humanity, the "spiritual clarity" of the human mind orients humanity in relation to the unconditioned reality of Heaven. And the very process of illuminating, responding to, and nourishing the linkages among the natural world, the human world, and their metaphysical basis is what constitutes ultimate transformation in the Neo-Confucian tradition.

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1. See the discussion by Benjamin I. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 179-184.

2. See Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 181-182.

3. See Stephen Teiser's brief discussion in his "Introduction" to Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Religions of China in Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 32-36.

4. See Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), chs.1-2.

5. See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950). Some have used "numen" (the root of "numinous") to translate shen, since the numen in ancient Rome was a local spirit very much like a local god in China or a kami in Japan, both of which are denoted by the word shen. See, for example, Harold D. Roth, "The Early Taoist Concept of Shen: A Ghost in the Machine?" in Kidder Smith, Jr., ed., Sagehood and Systematizing Thought in Warring States and Han China (Brunswick, Maine: Asian Studies Program, Bowdoin College, 1990), pp. 11-32; and idem., "The Inner Cultivation Tradition of Early Daoism," in Lopez, op. cit., pp. 123-148. I find that using "the Numen" in reference to a general quality of qi in the human body and mind -- as shen is used in Neo-Confucian discourse -- does not convey enough meaning in English to be worthwhile. It also misleadingly suggests an elemental substance instead of a mode or quality of qi.

6. "Means to ultimate transformation" is Frederick J. Streng's definition of religion, in Understanding Religious Life, 3rd ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1985), p. 2. I believe that this definition becomes more inclusive, and in the present case illuminates another significant feature of Neo-Confucian spirituality, if we add to it "ultimate orientation," a point that will be developed in the concluding section of this essay. Nevertheless, I do not believe that we must have a single, all-inclusive "definition" of such a complex set of phenomena as that which we associate with the concept of religion. "Open," rather than exclusive, definitions, are appropriate to the subject. See W. Richard Comstock, "Toward Open Definitions of Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, v. 52 (1984), no. 3, pp. 499-517. Note also that Ninian Smart, in Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), would eschew definitions of religion altogether because of the danger of essentialism (p. ).

7. Citations will be to the Taiwan reprint of the Siku quanshu edition (Taibei: Commercial Press, 1986), volume 710.

8. Xingli daquan shu, 28:13a, p. 614; also Zhuzi yulei (Master Zhu's Classified Conversations), comp. Li Jingde (1270; rpt Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986), 3:37.

9. G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 143-162.

10. See Joseph A. Adler, "Zhou Dunyi: The Metaphysics and Practice of Sagehood," in Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), ch. 20.

11. He is one of the heroes of the much-loved historical novel Sanguo yanyi (Tale of the Three Kingdoms), and is worshipped as Guangong or Guandi.

12. Zheng-meng (Correcting Youthful Ignorance), in Zhangzi quanshu (Zhang Zai's Complete Writings) (Sibu beiyao ed.), section 10; cf. Wing-tsit Chan, trans. and comp., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 505; quoted frequently, e.g. by Chen Chun in Xingli daquan shu, 28:6a, p. 611. Chen explains liang-neng as "the spontaneous ability of the two [modes of] qi to expand and contract, or go and come" (ibid.) -- i.e. the inherent dynamism of qi. See also Ch'en Ch'un, Neo-Confucian Terms Explained: The Pei-hsi tzu-i, trans. Wing-tsit Chan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 143.

13. Yichuan Yijuan (Cheng Yi's Commentary on the Yijing) (Congshu jicheng ed.), 2, p. 82); and Er Cheng quanshu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 1:7b. Cheng had also referred to gui and shen as "functions of Heaven and earth" (quoted by Zhu Xi, Zhongyong zhangju in Sishu jizhu [Sibu beiyao ed.], p.8b), and "products of the creative process" (Xingli daquan shu, 28:1a, p. 608).

14. Zhu Xi, Zhouyi benyi (The Original Meaning of the Yijing) (1177; rpt. Taibei: Hualian, 1978), 1:9a, comment on Wenyan, hexagram 1.

15. Xingli daquan shu, 28:6a, p. 611; cf. Neo-Confucian Terms Explained, p. 143. Daniel K. Gardner has thoroughly documented Zhu Xi's beliefs on gui-shen in "Ghosts and Spirits in the Sung Neo-Confucian World: Chu Hsi on Kuei-shen," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 115.4 (1995), pp. 598-611, where he places them under three categories: (1) contractive and expansive forces, (2) ghosts, monsters, and spirits, and (3) ancestral spirits. See also Gardner's "Zhu Xi on Spirit Beings," in Lopez, Chinese Religions in Practice, pp. 106-119.

16. See, e.g., Wang Chong, Lun Heng (Balanced Essays) (Sibu beiyao ed.), 20:9b, and Zhu Xi, Zhouyi benyi, 3:4b.

17. Xingli daquan shu, 28:2a, p. 609, and Zhuzi quanshu (Zhu Xi's 'Complete Writings'), comp. Li Guangdi (1713; rpt. Taibei: Guangxue, 1977), 51.2b.

18. Xingli daquan shu, 28:2b, p. 609.

19. Xingli daquan shu, 28:2a, p. 609.

20. Zhuzi quanshu, 51:2a, trans. Chan, Source Book, p.644.

21. Zhuzi quanshu, 51:5a.

22. Zhu's comment on Analects 7:20, in Sishu jizhu, 4:5a.

23. Zhuzi yulei, 3:37, trans. Gardner, "Ghosts and Spirits in the Sung Neo-Confucian World," p. 605-606 (slightly modified).

24. See, for example, David K. Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 31-33.

25. Xingli daquan shu, 28:13a, p. 614; also Zhuzi yulei, 3:37.

26. Paraphrasing Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu shuo.

27. Xingli daquan shu, 28:24a, p. 620.

28. Xici A.4.2. Zhouyi benyi, 3:4b. See next section for the passage in which this line occurs and Zhu Xi's commentary on it.

29. Xingli daquan shu, 28:25a, p. 620. Although xu is more literally translated as "empty," I use "pure" here, in the sense of "pure consciousness" (i.e. consciousness without an object), which conveys a clearer and more appropriate meaning in this context.

30. See Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Livia Kohn, ed., Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 199 ); Harold D. Roth, "Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought," in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 51:2 (1991), pp. 599-650.

31. See, e.g., Xingli daquan shu, 28:15b, p. 615.

32. Zhouyi benyi, 3:4a-4b. Although these are simply folk etymologies based on homonyms for gui and shen, note the similarity to the French word for ghost, revenant (returner).

33. Xingli daquan shu, 28:12b, p. 614.

34. See Zhou's Taijitu shuo and Tongshu, ch. 16.

35. See Kidder Smith, Jr., Peter K. Bol, Joseph A. Adler, and Don J. Wyatt, Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), chs. 6-7. The Xici was originally a separate text dating probably to the early Han, with close affinities to the last few chapters of the Zhuangzi. See Gerald Swanson, "The Concept of Change in the Great Treatise," in Henry Rosemont, Jr., Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology (Chico: Scholars Press, 1984); and Willard Peterson, "Making Connections: 'Commentary on the Attached Verbalizations' of the Book of Change," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 42 (1982), 67-116.

36. Adler, "Zhou Dunyi: The Metaphysics and Practice of Sagehood," in Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd. ed., ch. 20.

37. Cf. Analects 15:28: "Humans can broaden the Way; it is not the Way that broadens humans."

38. Zhang Zai, Zhengmeng, ch.6, in Zhangzi quanshu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 2:18b-19a. Cf. Chan, Source Book, p. 511.

39. See Wing-tsit Chan, "The Neo-Confucian Solution to the Problem of Evil," in Studies Presented to Hu Shih on his Sixty-fifth Birthday (The Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 28 (1957), pp.773-791. Reprinted in Charles K.H. Chen, comp., Neo-Confucianism, Etc.: Essays by Wing-tsit Chan (Hanover, N.H.: Oriental Society, 1969), pp.88-116; and T'ang Chün-i, "Chang Tsai's Theory of Mind and its Metaphysical Basis," Philosophy East & West, 6 (1956), pp. 113-136.

40. Zhang Zai, Yulu, in Zhangzo quanshu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 12:3a. Trans. Chan, Source Book, p. 516.

41. The World of Thought in Ancient China, p. 181.

42. See Zhuzi quanshu, 44:4a; Kim Yung Sik, The World-View of Chu Hsi (1130-1200): Knowledge About Natural World in Chu Tzu Ch'üan-shu (Ph.D. diss. Princeton University, 1980); and Hidemi Ishida, "Body and Mind: The Chinese Perspective," in Livia Kohn, ed., Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, 1989), pp. 41-72.

43. Zhuzi quanshu, 15:6b.

44. This is the meaning of "investigating things" (gewu), according to Zhu Xi (Daxue zhangju, [in Sishu jizhu]., p.2a).

45. Zhu Wengong wenji (Sibu beiyao edition, entitled Zhuzi daquan), 67:19b ("Treatise on the Examination of the Mind"). Cf. Chan, Source Book, p. 604.

46. See Zhu Xi, "Notes on the rebuilding of Master [Zhou] Lianxi's library in Jiangzhou," Zhu Wengong wenji (Sibu beiyao ed.), 78:12a-13a, where he makes this claim in regard to Zhou Dunyi (p. 12b).

47. Zhang Zai, Zhengmeng, ch. 7, loc. cit., 2:21a. Trans. Chan, Source Book, p. 515, substituting "interaction" for "contact" in the last sentence.

48. Ibid., 2:21b. Cf. Chan, ibid., p.629; Zhuzi quanshu, 28:13a-b (Zhu Xi's comments on Yijing, Wenyan, Qian/1: "The superior person embodies humanity"); and ibid., 44:11b-12b. See also Tu Wei-ming, "'Inner Experience': The Basis of Creativity in Neo-Confucian Thinking," in Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979), pp. 103-104, for a discussion of various uses of the word ti in the sense "to embody."

49. Kim Yung Sik, The World-View of Chu Hsi, pp. 318-319.

50. Comment on Mencius 7A:1 (in Sishu jizhu), 7:1a.

51. For a discussion of "total substance and great functioning," see Okada Takehiko, "Practical Learning in the Zhu Xi School: Yamazaki Ansai and Kaibara Ekken," in Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, eds., Principle and Practicality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p.281.

52. Daxue zhangju (in Sishu jizhu), p.5a. For a full discussion of Zhu Xi's use of the "Great Learning," 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).

53. Zhu wengong wenji, 15:14b.

54. Jinsi lu jizhu (Collected Comments on Reflections on Things at Hand) (Sibu beiyao ed.), 3:13a.

55. Zhu Wengong wenji, 67:19a; Chan, Source Book, p.604.

56. Zhuzi quanshu, 6:17a.

57. In this respect it differs from Chan/Zen Buddhist enlightenment (wu, or satori).

58. Jinsi lu jizhu, p.3:3a.

59. The possibility of such unification is based on the premise that li and qi, although ontologically distinct, are never separate in their actual existence; there has never existed li without qi, and vice versa; li is the order of qi, and qi is the "container" or substrate in which li becomes manifest. See Xingli daquan shu, ch. 26 , and Zhuzi yulei, ch. 1.

60. Xici A.10.4 (Zhouyi benyi 3:12b).

61. Zhouyi benyi 3:13a.

62. Zhou Lianxi xiansheng quanji (Zhou Dunyi's Collected Works), comp. Zhang Boxing (1708; rpt. in Zhengyi tang quanshu [Baibu congshu jicheng ed.]), 5:17b-18a. Hereafter cited as Zhou Lianxi ji. For further discussion of this section, see Joseph A. Adler, "Response and Responsibility: Zhou Dunyi and Confucian Resources for Environmental Ethics," in Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Berthrong, eds., Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth, and Humans (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998), pp. 123-149.

63. For a discussion of "incipience" in Zhu Xi's thought, see Smith, Bol, Adler, and Wyatt, Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching, pp. 190-199.

64. Xici A.10.6 (Zhouyi benyi 3:13a).

65. Quoting the previous section of the Tongshu.

66. Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:19a.

67. Zhongyong zhangju (in Sishu jizhu), 17a-b.

68. Xici A.11.2, Zhouyi benyi, 3:13b.

69. See Shujing, trans. Legge, The Chinese Classics, v. 3, pp. 61-62. Shun and Yu are two of the Sage-kings who, in Confucian myth, established the tradition of benevolent rulership.

70. Alluding to the first line of the Zhongyong, "What is endowed [or 'given'] (ming) by Heaven is human nature."

71. Zhongyong zhangju xu (in Sishu jizhu), p.1a-b.

72. Zhuzi quanshu, 45:4b, trans. Chan, Source Book, p. 631.

73. Zhu Wengong wenji, 51, quoted by Qian Mu, Zhuzi xin xue'an (A New Scholarly Record of Zhu Xi) (Taibei: San Min Book Co., 1971), v.2, p.114.

74. Zhu Wengong wenji, 42, quoted by Qian Mu, Zhuzi xin xue'an, v.2, p.104.

75. Zhu Wengong wenji, 40, quoted by Qian Mu, Zhuzi xin xue'an, v.2, p.115. The idea of "recovering" and "abandoning" the mind comes from Mencius 6A:11: "The Way of learning is none other that seeking for the abandoned mind."

76. Zhuzi quanshu, 45:15a, trans. Chan, Source Book, p. 632. See also Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), v. 2, pp. 525-526.

77. Mingdao wenji, in Er Cheng quanshu (Sibu beiyao ed.), 3:1a-b. Cf. Chan, Source Book, pp. 525-526.

78. Zhuzi quanshu 45:13b, trans. David C. Yü, "Chu Hsi's Approach to Knowledge," Chinese Culture, 10, no.4 (1969), pp. 11-12 (slightly modified).

79. Zhuzi quanshu 45:13a. (Cf. above, where the same terms from Xici A.10.4 are used by Zhou Dunyi.)

80. Xici A.5.9 (Zhouyi benyi 3:6a).

81. Zhu Xi, quoting Zhang Zai, commenting on Xici B.5.4 (Zhouyi benyi, 3:21a). See also Zhu Wengong wenji, 67:2a, "Discussion of [the terms] Essence, Fluctuation, and Spirit in the Yi".

82. Zhou Dunyi, Tongshu, sec. 4 (quoted above).

83. Cheng, or authenticity, is the defining characteristic of the Sage, according to Zhou Dunyi (Tongshu 1-2). Zhu Xi defines cheng as "actualized principle" (shi li), i.e. the condition in which the original human nature (benxing), or the principle of being human, is fully actualized or put into effect in practice. One is cheng when one is truly being or actively manifesting what one truly is by nature; when one is a morally-actualized agent. The translation "authenticity" expresses this interpretation much better than the commonly-used "sincerity," as "authenticity" connotes the reality and genuineness of one's moral subjectivity, agency or "authorship." For Zhu's definition see Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:2b, 9a, 10b.

84. "Soteriology" in this context is not intended literally to mean "salvation," because the religious goal in Confucianism is more a fulfillment of the given conditions of human life than a release from them.

85. On this last point see Joseph A. Adler, "Response and Responsibility: Zhou Dunyi and Confucian Resources for Environmental Ethics," in Tucker and Berthrong, eds., Confucianism and Ecology.

86. Mircea Eliade's theories of sacred space and sacred time are relevant in this respect. See, e.g. The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959).

87. See Julia Ching, Mysticism and Kingship in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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