Wang Yangming by Shouren

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(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

At the time that Wang developed his ideas, Confucianism had been a major religion in China for more than 1,700 years, from the time when the ideas of Confucius were gathered, along with commentaries, during the Han dynasty (256 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). Confucianism was a secular religion emphasizing proper conduct and relationships learned by observation of exemplary individuals. The eclectic writings of Confucianism were codified in the twelfth century c.e. by Zhu Xi, who clarified the notion of principle (li, somewhat like the Platonic “idea”), which acted through the mind and material things to create the world, physical and moral, that people perceive. Wang regarded this as an unacceptable dualism, insisting that principle and mind are one, that knowledge and action are inseparable and are related to principle and mind, and that the way to understand these things is not through study of canonic writings, as Zhu Xi taught, but by direct investigation of one’s own mind to find the knowledge of the good that resides there. These ideas led to the practice of a Zen-like form of meditation. Wang’s ideas were influential in Chinese Confucianism well into the eighteenth century, and even later in Japan.