This is the second part of the shortest history of Japanese philosophy. You can find the first part here: Part 1: The Buddhist Phase.
In the early Kamakura Period (1185–1333), there had been extensive exchange between China and Japan: the shōgunate wanted to furnish cultural and intellectual life in Kamakura with Chinese culture so that it could rival the imperial court in Kyoto. However, relations between the two nations soured when the Mongols defeated the Song Dynasty (960–1279) in the late thirteenth century, replacing it with the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). The Japanese were ‘invited’ to become an independent satellite nation as part of the Chinese Middle Kingdom. They would trade freely with China, receive gifts from them, and their ruler would be recognized as a Chinese king, but they would have to pay an annual tribute, accept the Chinese dynastic calendar, and assume a subordinate status to China. When the Japanese refused, the Mongols tried to invade them – twice. Both times their fleets, far superior in military might to the Japanese armies, were obliterated by typhoons that the Japanese would in turn call ‘divine winds’ or kami kaze. Unsurprisingly, there were no relations between China and Japan thereafter.
That was, until the early Muromachi Period (1336–1573). Largely the same conditions were imposed upon Japan by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), only this time the shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, leapt at the offer. Having spent an enormous amount of money on political manoeuvring, he was completely skint. Realizing that trade with China would bring cash and thereby stabilize his fragile military government, a little tribute and some grovelling looked insignificant.
As well as economic and cultural benefits, what trade with China brought to Japan was Neo-Confucianism. This was a response to the dominance of Taoism and Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and represented a revival of classical Confucianism updated to align with newer social values. They were dissatisfied with Buddhist idealism and wanted a far more secular, realistic, and commonsensical approach to the social and philosophic problems of the day. However, Neo-Confucians in China, Korea and Japan didn’t see themselves as advancing a novel philosophy and instead thought that they were simply returning to the original teachings of Confucius, who himself also claimed to be propounding nothing new, only what the ancient sage kings taught in the Zhou (1046–256 BCE), Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE), Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE) and even earlier.
As well as economic and cultural benefits, what trade with China brought to Japan was Neo-Confucianism.
Despite this, Neo-Confucianism was novel, which is why it is called ‘neo’ Confucianism: even the Chinese referred to it as ‘later Confucianism’ and ‘Song-Ming Confucianism’. They began to eschew the old Confucian curriculum of the Five Classics: the Book of Changes, Book of Documents, Book of Poetry, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Neo-Confucians emphasized the Four Books instead: the Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius. In many respects, this simplified Confucian literature: the Four Books were a lot shorter than the Five Classics, making them much more accessible for most students. In fact, the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning were little more than chapters taken from the Book of Rites, though they were now designated by Song Neo-Confucians as books each in their own right. Neo-Confucian scholarship consisted of commentaries on these books, commentaries on the commentaries and, in Japan, translations of them into classical Japanese called bungo or punctuating the Chinese for Japanese reading with diacritical marks called kanbun.
In this series of posts, BVE Hyde presents a short but complete history of Japanese thought. This first part focuses on Japanese Buddhism.
Language was very important for Neo-Confucians, and they put a lot of philosophic effort into reasserting its integrity after Buddhists had spent centuries insisting that ordinary language is inherently empty and incapable of expressing ultimate reality – an idea which can be traced back to the late second and early third century Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. Neo-Confucians thought that language is quite important for it was the vehicle for meaning, and the correct usage of language is absolutely essential to self-understanding, self-cultivation, and even to the governance of the realm. Through language, they thought, peace and prosperity could be brought to the world. That’s because, whilst learning the correct names of moral and philosophic concepts, individuals gain insight into the nature of these concepts and how they should be embodied in their own behaviour. Confucius called this the ‘rectification of names’.
What underwrote the rectification of names was a cosmological doctrine in which the world is in a perpetual state of flux between femininity, passivity and negativity – that is, yin – and masculinity, activity and positivity – namely, yang. The fluctuation between the two is not arbitrary, however; it has an ideal form called li in Chinese and ri in Japanese, usually translated as ‘principle’ or ‘pattern’. This form is the rational and ethical structure of reality and is responsible for deciding something’s nature and the way it should behave. This also extends to social roles and relationships, where each role has its own form that defines the duties and responsibilities associated with it. Every individual thing has a form and, by understanding the form of something, it is possible to grasp the form of everything informing reality and its processes of becoming.
There cannot be only form: there must be something that takes form.
The form of reality is intangible, immaterial. There cannot be only form: there must be something that takes form; just as it cannot be said that a lump of bronze is in the form of a statue if there were not the bronze in the first place. What takes form is matter, which the Neo-Confucians called qi in Chinese and ki in Japanese and tends to be translated as ‘generative force’ or ‘material force’. This is what constitutes the substantial nature of things.
The rectification of names involves ensuring that the name or title of a role accurately reflects the form of that role, and that the person in that role is acting in accordance with its form. For instance, a ruler must truly understand and follow the form associated with ruling – that is, what it really means to rule. Matter might be understood as the individual characteristics and specific circumstances that affect how a role or relationship is played out in practice. While the form defines the ideal pattern or moral principle for a role, the matter represents the concrete reality in which this role is enacted.
Buddhism is widely admired in the West for its commitments to progressive social activism. But is this really in the spirit of true Buddhism?
A thing might not function as its form suggests it should. That’s because matter gets in the way and doesn’t always conform to form. When it functions as it should, then it is good. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this ‘proper functioning’ and thought that it was the key to the good life (which he called eudaimonia). Neo-Confucians thought much the same thing, arguing that everybody must fulfil their proper roles in society for it to flourish. To live as a Neo-Confucian was to make sure that everything does act as it should according to its form.
This metaphysical model was not exactly in keeping with the original view of the world espoused in classical Confucianism. In fact, it drew in large part on Taoist and Buddhist metaphysics. By expanding Confucianism to incorporate Buddhist and Taoist cosmological and metaphysical doctrines, Neo-Confucianism became the most comprehensive and inclusive philosophic system in the Far East. That it would be so syncretic is a little odd, though, because, whilst borrowing Buddhist metaphysics, Neo-Confucians denounced Buddhism, making Neo-Confucianism both a rejection of Buddhism and a synthesis of it with classical Confucianism.
One of the chief reasons why Neo-Confucians disliked Buddhism was that they saw it as encouraging withdrawal from society and worldly engagement.
One of the chief reasons why Neo-Confucians disliked Buddhism was that they saw it as encouraging withdrawal from society and worldly engagement. Confucianism, on the other hand, always emphasized social responsibility and encouraged active participation in family life, politics and community affairs. The family unit is at the heart of moral development, viewing relationships between parents and children, husband and wife, and elder and younger siblings as the most fundamental. This familial ethic is then projected onto wider social and cosmic structures, portraying the ruler as the people’s parent and heaven and earth as parents to all things in the universe. Neo-Confucians held a largely negative view of Buddhism’s attitude towards family. Shakyamuni Buddha had abandoned his family in his pursuit of enlightenment and, moreover, subsequent Buddhist traditions often used renouncing family ties, both metaphorically and literally, as a way of professing one’s commitment to Buddhism.
Not only did the Buddhist rejection of the family turn Confucians away from it, but the denial that there was even so much as a self was totally incompatible with Confucianism. For them, human existence is the most fundamental reality and, whilst they differ about whether human nature is good or evil, none characterized it as an illusion, blamed it as the source of suffering, or argued that it needed to be transcended. It was not the pessimistic view of the world as full of suffering that Confucians especially disliked, but the Buddhist solution to it: whereas Confucianism sought to improve society and the self, Buddhists aimed to abandon both. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist life was enlightenment and escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, whereas Neo-Confucians wanted to return the focus to one’s present life and their duties to others as part of society. For them, Buddhism was just too preoccupied with the next life at the expense of this one.
Neo-Confucians were mostly unanimous in their rejection of Buddhism and many basically competed to express the greatest hatred of it. However, Neo-Confucianism was not a monolithic, uniform set of doctrines and dogmas. In fact, there were three significant divisions amongst Neo-Confucians: the first was the Zhu Xi School, known in Japanese as shushigaku or rigaku; the Wang Yangming School, called yōmeigaku or kigaku in Japanese, was its antithesis; and the School of Ancient Learning, or kogaku, rejected both of them.
The first proper Neo-Confucians were the eleventh century Chinese philosophers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, who tend to be called the ‘two Chengs’ or the ‘Cheng brothers’; but it was the twelfth century philosopher Zhu Xi who is generally recognized as the founder of Neo-Confucianism. He synthesized and systematized the ideas advanced by his forerunners, including the two Chengs, and the Zhu Xi School – also known as the School of Principe, or lixue in Chinese – became the orthodoxy, even being included in the Chinese civil service examination. In the same century, Lu Jiuyuan established the Neo-Confucian School of Heart (called xinxue in Chinese) which took umbrage with Zhu Xi’s interpretation of Confucianism, but it would not flourish until the fourteenth century when Wang Yangming contributed to it: while it is sometimes referred to as the Lu-Wang School, it is normally just called the Wang Yangming School or Yangmingism. In reaction to both schools, however, a third School of Ancient Learning emerged – also called Han Learning, or hanxue in Chinese, because it sought to return to Confucian texts from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 AD). It grew out of the Qian–Jia School of ‘evidential scholarship’ (or kaozheng in Chinese) which focussed on textual criticism and rose to prominence in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). These scholars believed that Neo-Confucianism represented a corruption of Confucius' original teachings – which is ironic, because what the Neo-Confucians thought they were doing was returning to classical Confucianism. But according to the Ancient Learning School, they weren’t.
Developments in Japanese Neo-Confucianism largely tracked those in China. It was through Zen monks that Neo-Confucian philosophy arrived in Japan when Ashikaga Yoshimitsu reopened trade relations with China. For them, these texts and ideas just formed part of a wider syncretic education in Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintō. Neo-Confucian ideas were not really advanced outside Zen temples until after Toyotomi Hideyoshi – the second ‘Great Unifier’ of Japan after Oda Nobunaga – attempted to conquer Korea at the end of the sixteenth century, bringing new texts to Japan along with Korean scholars taken as prisoners of war. Under their tutelage, a few Japanese students began to affirm that Neo-Confucian teachings were actually opposed to Buddhism and, in short order, the new Chinese philosophic system was established along secular lines.
Neo-Confucianism began as an independent philosophy in Japan with the sixteenth century Zen Buddhist Fujiwara Seika.
Neo-Confucianism began as an independent philosophy in Japan with the sixteenth century Zen Buddhist Fujiwara Seika. Primarily attracted to the ethical and moral dimensions of Neo-Confucianism, he found in it a moral framework for organizing society and guiding human conduct that was less metaphysical and more pragmatic than Buddhism. It was Zhu Xi’s thought that he came across first and, thus, it was the Zhu Xi School that first made it onto Japanese soil.
However, Seika’s interpretation of Neo-Confucianism was relatively straightforward and didn’t fully integrate the complex metaphysical aspects of Neo-Confucian thought. This oversight was remedied by his student, Hayashi Razan, who made the Japanese Zhu Xi School of Neo-Confucianism a whole lot more metaphysical than it had been under Seika and much more alike its Chinese counterpart. Razan was also responsible for establishing Neo-Confucianism as the dominant philosophy of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. He established the Shōheikō which was a Neo-Confucian academy for the training of shōgunal bureaucrats and, after the Kansei Reforms established Neo-Confucianism as Japan’s official ideology at the end of the eighteenth century, the Shōheikō became the premier authority on Neo-Confucian orthodoxy.
Though the Zhu Xi School represented orthodox Neo-Confucianism in both China and Japan, in Japan, like in China, it faced opposition from the Wang Yangming School. The early seventeenth century scholar Nakae Tōju – popularly known as the ‘Sage of Ōmi’ – disagreed with Razan’s idealistic emphasis on form and instead focussed on a more experiential interpretation of Neo-Confucianism based on matter. While the Zhu Xi School emphasized the rational understanding of form, Nakae and the Wang Yangming School focussed on intuitive moral knowledge and the unity of knowledge and action.
Nakae’s student, Kumazawa Banzan, and his student, Kinoshita Jun’an, carried on his legacy throughout the seventeenth century, arguing for a more practical interpretation of Confucian teachings and direct engagement with social issues. Banzan, a scholar and government official, was initially a follower of the Zhu Xi School, but he grew dissatisfied with the school’s focus on theory over practice. Finding Wang Yangming’s emphasis on intuitive knowledge and the unity of knowledge and action more appealing, he combined an emphasis on moral intuition with an activist attitude towards social and political issues.
Like Banzan, Jun’an was initially a follower of the Zhu Xi School but found Wang Yangming’s philosophy more relevant to practical moral life. However, unlike Banzan, Jun’an did not seek to actively reform society. Instead, he focused on the individual’s moral self-cultivation, sincerity, and the unity of knowledge and action.
In response to the increasing opposition to the Zhu Xi School, several scholars began to make an active effort to defend it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thinkers like Muro Kyūsō, Miyake Sekian and Matsumiya Kanzan argued that, contrary to the belief of the Yangmingists, Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism was not too abstract or detached from the practicalities of life. They argued that deep, principled understanding of form was the necessary foundation for correct action, and that the Wang Yangming School was wrong to think that form could be neglected to focus on everyday practicalities: without an understanding of form, they argued, there could be no correct focus on practical matter. They emphasized coming to an understanding of form through the ‘investigation of things’ (geju in Chinese and kakubutsu in Japanese) and maintained that it was a practical method for moral self-improvement, not merely abstract speculation.
In short fashion, whilst the two schools continued to argue amongst themselves, both of them came under attack by a third school in the seventeenth century. When the Chinese Qian–Jia School of ‘evidential scholarship’ arrived in Japan, where it was called kōshōgaku, it prompted the development of the Japanese Ancient Learning School, just as it had done in China. These scholars thought that Neo-Confucianism was far too metaphysical, especially the Zhu Xi School, and thought that the Wang Yangming School’s emphasis on innate knowledge undermined the importance of learning and studying the classics. Instead, they combined textual criticism and empiricism in an effort to find the ancient, ‘original’ meanings of Confucian texts.
Rites, for Sorai, were the external expressions of internal virtues and were critical for maintaining social order and harmony.
The Ancient Learning scholar Ogyū Sorai thought that this original meaning was to be found in the ritual and historical aspects of the Confucian classics and advanced the ‘study of ancient words and phrases’ called kobunjigaku. Rites, for Sorai, were the external expressions of internal virtues and were critical for maintaining social order and harmony. The Confucian classics, especially the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals, provided a wealth of information about ancient rituals and historical precedents. By studying these texts and understanding their ritual and historical context, Sorai believed that scholars could grasp the practical wisdom that Confucius intended to convey.
What is especially intriguing for students of eremitism is the intimate interplay of personal motives and philosophical commitments behind Nanavira’s decision to live alone.
Itō Jinsai and his son Itō Tōgai, on the other hand, focussed on the virtues of humaneness and righteousness which they took to be the main thrust of the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. They thought that dualistic metaphysical speculations about matter and form detracted from the moral and political philosophy that Confucius taught. It’s only through cultivation of these virtues that a harmonious society can be realized, not through educating oneself about either matter or form.
The objections of the Ancient Learning School did not defeat Neo-Confucianism as it was advanced by the Zhu Xi and the Wang Yangming Schools; it only increased the philosophic debate amongst these Confucian thinkers. Despite their differences, where Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming and Ancient Learning Neo-Confucians were all in agreement was in their hatred of Buddhism and, after its arrival in Japan in the middle of the sixteenth century, Christianity.
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B.V.E. Hyde is a researcher with polymathic interests in philosophy, history, sociology and Japanology. He is currently employed as a philosopher of science and an ethicist, but has an enduring interest in Far Eastern philosophy. Some of his books on the topic (for which he is currently looking for a publisher) include The Tale of the Japanese Mind, a whistlestop tour of the history of Japanese philosophy, Lectures on Japanese Philosophy, an introduction to and overview of the subject, and a Commentary on the Shōtoku Constitution, which is a reference book much more academic than the other two. You can follow him on Twitter (@bvehyde) to stay up to date with his publications.