Wang Yangming
1472-1529

 
The Unity of Knowledge & Action
Wang Yangming’s Response to Zhu Xi
 
I (Hsu Ai) did not understand the Teacher’s doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action and debated it back and forth with Huang Tsung-hsien and Ku Wei-hsien without coming to any conclusion. Therefore I took the matter to the Teacher (i.e. Wang Yangming). The Teacher said, “Give an example and let me see.” I said, “For example, there are people who know that parents should be served with filial piety and elder brothers with respect but cannot put these things into practice. This shows that knowledge and action are clearly two different things.”
 
 
“Knowledge” & “Action”
Zhu Xi’s Position
The efforts of both knowledge and action must be exerted to the utmost. As one knows more clearly, he acts more earnestly, and as he acts more earnestly, he knows more clearly. Neither of the two should be unbalanced or discarded. It is like a person’s two legs. If they take turn to walk, one will be able gradually to arrive at the destination. If one leg is weak and soft, then not even one forward step can be taken. However, we must first know before we can act. This is why the Great Learning first talks about the extension of knowledge, the Doctrine of the Mean puts wisdom ahead of humanity and courage, and Confucius first of all spoke of knowledge being sufficient to attain its objective. But none of extensive study, accurate inquiry, careful thinking, clear sifting, and vigorous practice can be omitted. [A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 609]
 
The Teacher said, “The knowledge and action you refer to are already separated by selfish desires and are no longer knowledge and action in their original substance. There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know. ...
 
Suppose we say that so-and-so knows filial piety and so-and-so knows brotherly respect. They must have actually practiced filial piety and brotherly respect before they can be said to know them. It will not do to say that they know filial piety and brotherly respect simply because they show them in words. Or take one’s knowledge of pain. Only after one has experienced pain can one know pain. The same is true of cold or hunger. How can knowledge and action be separated? This is the original substance of knowledge and action, which have not been separated by selfish desires.”
 
I said, “In saying that knowledge and action are two different things, the ancients intended to have people distinguish and understand them, so that on the one hand they make an effort to know and, on the other, make an effort to act, and only then can the effort find any solution.”
       The Teacher said, “This is to lose sight of the basic purpose of the ancients.
 
I have said that knowledge is the direction for action and action the effort of knowledge, and that knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge.
 
If this is understood, then when only knowledge is mentioned, action is included, and when only action is mentioned, knowledge is included. The reason why the ancients talked about knowledge and action separately is that there are people in the world who are confused and act on impulse without any sense of deliberation or self-examination, and who thus only behave blindly and erroneously. Therefore it is necessary to talk about knowledge to them before their action becomes correct. There are also those who are intellectually vague and undisciplined and think in a vacuum. They are not at all willing to make the effort of concrete practice. They only pursue shadows and echoes, as it were. It is therefore necessary to talk about action to them before their knowledge becomes true. The ancient teachers could not help talking this way in order to restore balance and avoid any defect.  If we understand this motive, then a single word [either knowledge or action] will do.
       “But people today distinguish between knowledge and action and pursue them separately, believing that one must know before he can act. They will discuss and learn the business of knowledge first, they say, and wait till they truly know before they put their knowledge into practice. Consequently, to the last day of life, they will never act and also will never know. This doctrine of knowledge first and action later is not a minor disease and it did not come about only yesterday. My present advocacy of the unity of knowledge and action is precisely the medicine for that disease. The doctrine is not baseless imagination, for it is the original substance of knowledge and action that they are one. Now that we know this basic purpose, it will do no harm to talk about them separately, for they are only one. If the basic purpose is not understood, however, even if we say they are one, what is the use? It is just idle talk.” [Instructions for Practical Living, 9-12]
 
 
 

[The Teacher] further said, “Knowledge is the original substance of the mind. The mind is naturally able to know. When it perceives the parents, it naturally knows that one should be filial. When it perceives the elder brother, it naturally knows that one should be respectful. And when it perceives a child fall into a well, it naturally knows that one should be commiserative. This is innate knowledge of good (liang-chih) [cf. Mencius 7A15] and need not be sought outside.
 
If what emanates from innate knowledge is not obstructed by selfish ideas, the result will be like the saying ‘If a man gives full development to his feeling of commiseration, his humanity will be more than he can ever put into practice.’ However, the ordinary man is not free from the obstruction of selfish ideas. He therefore requires the effort of the extension of knowledge and the investigation of things in order to overcome selfish ideas and restore principle.
 
Then the mind’s faculty of innate knowledge will no longer be obstructed but will be able to penetrate and operate everywhere. One’s knowledge will then be extended. With knowledge extended, one’s will becomes sincere.” [Instructions for Practical Living, 15]
 
Recall the words of the Great Learning “Things being investigated, knowing can be extended; knowing being extended, the intentions can be made sincere; the intentions being made sincere, the mind can be rectified; the mind rectified, the person can be cultivated [self disciplined]; with the self disciplined, the family can be regulated; the family regulated, the state can be governed; the state governed, all-under-Heaven can be at peace.” [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 727]
 
 
 
The Human Mind
& the Mind of the Way

[Hsu Ai] said, “‘The moral mind (a.k.a. the Mind of the Way) is always the master of the person, and the human mind always obeys the moral mind.’
 
Recall Zhu Xi’s Introduction to the Doctrine of the MeanIf one applies oneself to this without any interruption, making sure that the mind of the Way is master of one’s self and that the human mind always listens to its commands, then the precariousness and insecurity will yield to peace and security, and what is subtle and barely perceptible will become clearly manifest. Then, whether in action or repose, in whatever one says or does, one will not err by going too far or not far enough. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 733]
 
When examined in the light of your teaching of refinement and singleness of mind, these words seem to be wrong.”
 
The Teacher said, “Right. There is only one mind.  Before it is mixed with selfish human desires, it is called the moral mind [i.e. the mind of the Way], and after it is mixed with human desires contrary to its natural state, it is called the human mind. When the human mind is rectified it is called the moral mind and when the moral mind loses its correctness it is called the human mind. There were not two minds to start with.
 
 
When Master Ch’eng I said that the human mind is due to selfish desires while the moral mind is due to the Principle of Nature, it sounds like dividing the mind into two, but his idea is really correct. But to say that the moral mind is the master and the human mind obeys it is to say that there are two minds. The Principle of Nature and selfish human desires cannot coexist. How can there be the Principle of Nature as the master and at the same time selfish human desires to obey it?” [Instructions for Practical Living, 16-7]
 
 
天理之道
The Flow of Principle


Principle of Heaven/Nature


Original Substance of the Heart/Mind
(Human Nature/Mind of the Way)



Original Substance of the Will
(Sincerity of the Will/Innate Knowledge of the Good)



Introduction of Selfish Desire

(the “Human Mind” with its “Insincere” Will)



Human Action